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Marvel Does TV: The Big Challenge Ahead for 'Agents of SHIELD' (Opinion)

Marvel Entertainment may have conquered comic books and movies, but is it strong enough to break network television's apathy toward superheroes?

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD
"Marvel's Agents of SHIELD"

It's tempting, based on historical evidence, just to assume that Marvel Entertainment can conquer everything it turns its corporate hand to. In the 1960s, the company managed to revolutionize the comic book industry -- and, arguably, the medium -- when it introduced characters wrestling with self-doubt and self-loathing in Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man and many, many others, and in more recent years, Marvel Studios has become the dominant force in superhero movies, a genre that pretty much dominates the summer blockbuster market. This fall, the Disney subsidiary turns its attention to network television. Could this be the medium move that breaks the Marvel spell?

When Marvel's Agents of SHIELD debuts on ABC this fall, it'll be a big deal for Marvel: The first primetime live action series on a major network for Marvel Studios, and the first network primetime series based on a Marvel character in thirty-one years (The Incredible Hulk ended its CBS run on June 2, 1982).

Agents of SHIELD is a series with a lot of expectations around it, not least because it's a spin-off from Marvel's The Avengers. It's also a spin-off that can literally claim to be "from the makers of Avengers," with Joss Whedon co-writing and directing the pilot episode and acting as executive producer for the series as a whole, bringing with him a different credibility, that of the Buffy, Angel and -- to a lesser extent -- Firefly franchises.

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Why, then, should we be concerned about Agents of SHIELD's success? A couple of reasons. Firstly, unlike either comic books or movies, it's unlikely that Marvel will be able to bring anything particularly new to the table with this offering, and secondly, superheroes and television have proven to be a difficult, uncomfortable combination over the past few years. Barring something genuinely revolutionary, Agents of SHIELD may prove to be a victim of familiarity breeding viewer apathy.

Let's look at those two potential problems in reverse order. Over the last ten years or so, network television has made multiple attempts to jump onboard the superhero bandwagon, with little success -- consider the sad fates of Bird of Prey, No Ordinary Family or The Cape, for example. Of the three shows that could call themselves successes, two of those -- Smallville and Arrow -- air on the CW, a network where the metrics are on a significantly different scale than their three-lettered brethren.

To put that in context, Arrow -- a hit by the CW standards -- draws in fewer viewers on a weekly basis than The Cape did on NBC before it was canceled. Smallville survived with fewer viewers than the least-viewed episode of ABC's No Ordinary Family for its final two seasons.

NBC's Heroes, of course, is the series that can claim to have been a true success; its first season regularly saw ratings in the double-digit millions and could lay claim to being a genuine television phenomenon… for about a year, and then everything went into freefall. There are plenty of arguments to be made for why that happened. The lack of direction in the second season or lack of credible way to up the stakes after the end of that first year being two obvious ones. But it's just as possible that television audiences realized that, you know, maybe they don't like watching superheroes on the small screen.

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And, really, why should they? Television offers far less potential for spectacle or spectacular visual effects, thanks to budgets that are almost literally microscopic in comparison to their movie counterparts. It's almost impossible for a television series to shock and awe the viewer in the same way that a movie does, and when shows attempt it on a regular basis, the results are unconvincing and occasionally embarrassing (I'm looking at you, Once Upon A Time). Small screen super-heroics are, therefore, robbed of a large part of their cinematic appeal. You won't believe a man can fly.

(Worth noting, perhaps, that both Smallville and Arrow were/are relatively spectacle-free, at least in the former's early -- and more successful -- years. Heroes, again, is an exception… but, again, was a show that found itself at a narrative dead end in its second year as a result.)

This is where Whedon comes in, of course.

Agents of SHIELD may not be able to offer the spectacle of Avengers, the thinking goes, but at least it can offer its characterization, right…? Well, yes and no. While Whedon is involved with the show, he isn't solely responsible -- and the actual showrunners, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, have a history with the Avengers director that includes Dollhouse, Whedon's last attempt at a network show that was canceled after two seasons. In fact, the second year of Dollhouse drew an audience even smaller than Smallville's last year, or roughly half the size of the audience that was watching ABC's No Ordinary Family when it was canceled.

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For that matter, here's a fun fact: The highest-rated episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Whedon's most successful series had 8.2 million viewers, with average ratings for the series overall coming in around the 4.6 million mark… Or alternatively, "ABC's cancellation level for No Ordinary Family."

None of this is to say that Marvel's Agents of SHIELD will be a bad show; with the Whedon/Whedon/Tancharoen team driving, it'll likely be a very good show that'll appeal to the target demographic. But without either the sparkle and shine of Avengers' special effects or the easy hook of "All your favorite super-heroes in one place, saving the world," it's hard to imagine what the appeal of the show to mainstream audiences will be in the long-term.

Historically, Marvel has managed to find a foothold in markets by offering an alternative to the norm; in comic books, it was imperfect heroes, and in movies, it was the shared universe setting and super-heroes who didn't take themselves too seriously (The comedy of Iron Man and Avengers, I feel, shouldn't be underestimated). The problem is, these days, Marvel is the norm when it comes to superheroes for the mainstream audience; how can Marvel manage to offer a credible alternative to itself that will manage to replace the missing elements from the movies without breaking with a brand that's been very carefully crafted up until this point? Or, perhaps it should be, how will Marvel make people interested in an Avengers story without any Avengers in it?