Nick Fury Must Die
By Caleb Woodbridge
Last week, the series – sorry, season – finale of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD aired in the UK. I enjoyed it a lot, especially after Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier hit cinema screens and the reprecussions were felt.
But I can’t help but feel that both Agents of SHIELD and The Winter Soldier have both pulled their punches because of the constraints of the wider Marvel franchise. Franchise-building trumped storytelling. Let me explain.
SPOILERS follow for Agents of SHIELD and Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier.
Firstly, Agents of SHIELD was left treading water because the writers weren’t allowed to do anything that might give the game away for The Winter Soldier, where we discovered that SHIELD has been infiltrated by Nazi splinted group HYDRA, plotting to use SHIELD’s mass surveillance drone helicarriers to bring about the end of freedom. Topical, right?
Now it makes perfect sense to save the big villain reveal for the movie, but Agents of SHIELD steered so clear of anything resembling moral ambiguity about SHIELD’s role that it may as well have been in another galaxy. Where were the hidden agendas, the sense that nobody could be trusted? For a spy show, this was deadly, trapping it in a cycle of villain-of-the-week episodes for the first half of its run.
There were a few half hearted efforts at the start of the series where hacker recruit Skye protest SHIELD’s methods when she first joined, but these were quickly forgotten. When HYDRA were revealed, Skye would have been exactly the right person to voice the opinion that maybe, just maybe, all this unfettered surveillance wasn’t a good idea in the first place.
Once HYDRA are on the scene, the show does do a credible job of introducing genuine uncertainty about which of the main cast can be trusted or not, and the mysterious figure of “the Clairvoyant” turns out not to be psychic, but a SHIELD agent with high access clearance. But the idea of the abuse of government surveillance is quickly forgotten, and the fact that the Clairvoyant turns out to be part of HYDRA has very little impact.
The agent who turns out to be the Clairvoyant, Garret, has an agenda that seems disconnected from HYDRA as portrayed in the films. He’s driven by survival, not belief in HYDRA’s goals. And while revealing Grant as a HYDRA agent was a great move in terms of making him a much more interesting character, he too isn’t driven by belief in HYDRA but by his own approval issues, getting cold feet at the idea of a coup. The show has no “true believers” in HYDRA’s cause to explore why someone would choose a fascistic surveillance state over the ambiguities and uncertainties of a free society.
In short, there was every opportunity to cue up the themes of Captain America 2 about surveillance and security versus freedom, but the show blew it. There was no need for the avoidance of film plot spoilers to prevent thematic connections. The TV series was left spinning its wheels for far too long, losing a large chunk of its audience in the process.
Captain America 2 also pulled its punches, which brings me to the title of my post. First off, all credit to Marvel for ending the film with SHIELD being torn down. It shakes up the status quo, removing a safety net for the Avengers. Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and pals will no longer have SHIELD to gather them together, back them up and force them to become a team. It’s all on them.
But did the supposed end of SHIELD really hit you in the gut? Did it really feel like a major defeat or setback?
Personally, I don’t care about SHIELD as an organisation in and of itself. I care about the characters – Steve Rogers, Romanov, Fury, Coulson. But with all the established SHIELD characters alive and well and fighting the good fight, the shutdown of SHIELD didn’t feel important. If Marvel really wanted to us to feel that we’ve lost something, then it needed to come at a cost to the characters. In other words, Nick Fury Must Die.
How better to get across that SHIELD is dead than to kill director Nick Fury? Yes, I know that Fury is trickier than a bag of weasels, even his secrets have secrets, and so on. I wasn’t the least bit surprised when he reappeared having faked his death. But it would have been a wonderful shock if having cheated death once, he then died again, properly, at the end of the film, in a Whedonesque piece of wrong-footing.
But surely Marvel would never do that, get rid of Samuel L Jackson and his awesome eyepatch. The character is too important, too central. He’s contracted for another fifty films and bazillion cameos.
But that’s exactly why Marvel should have killed Fury.
What the Marvel movies really need right now is a Ned Stark moment. The only significant death of a character we care about in the films has been Agent Coulson, and look how long that lasted. One of the compelling things about George R R Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series is that no-one is safe; no-one gets a magic shield of protection simply by being a main character. This was an opportunity for Marvel to signal that just because the films are successful, they aren’t going to stop taking risks. Just because certain characters were important in the comics doesn’t mean that they’ll be safe in these stories.
Of course, you can’t just kill off a main character just to make the point that they can die, a trap that another current movie franchise seems to have fallen into recently. A character’s death still has to have meaning and significance within the story on its own terms. But for Fury to pay the price for SHIELD’s hubris would have been satisfying and meaningful. And he could still have had a lingering presence in Agents of SHIELD and elsewhere, through dire “in case of emergency” video instructions and the like,
I love big interconnected story worlds, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe has tapped that potential on-screen very successfully with likeable characters and fun stories. There’s a real excitement to be had from teaming up different characters and heroes, from having big events with wide-reaching reprecussions. Done well, a shared universe, whether in comics, books or films and television, makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
But the danger that any successful series faces is the impulse on having found success to stick to the formula with increasing rigidity; to maintain the status quo; to limit real change and consequences to “event” stories rather than making them organically a part of each story. The warning signs are there: with Edgar Wright taken off directorial duties for Ant-Man, it seems that Marvel is shying away from the quirky and original. It looks as if the studio is seeking only to refine its blockbuster formula to be ever more audience-pleasing.
Marvel’s next film is Guardians of the Galaxy, a promisingly off-beat comedy space opera. It’s a big step for Marvel, expanding its cinematic universe to all-out space opera and introducing a new and unfamiliar (to most people) set of characters. I hope it’s brave, bold, and successful.
Marvel naturally wants to repeat its success. The irony is that simple repetition never pleases audiences for long. To stay successful, you need to keep your stories fresh and keep taking risks.