TV RECAP: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Season 3 – Episode 2: "The Purpose in The Machine"

First things first: “Purpose in The Machine” introduces Agent May’s father. As he turns out to be (played by) the legendary James Hong – one of our all-time greatest character actors – it is now automatically the most important episode of AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D that has ever aired or likely will ever air.

Anyway…

By now I’ve come to terms with the fact that a lot of the reasons I’ve come to genuinely enjoy AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D are probably the same things that both the series’ creators and other audiences find the most frustrating – in particular its tendency to change-up tone, direction, story-arcs, character roles and general narrative flow on a whim. Yes, I’m aware it’s more a function of Marvel TV and Marvel Film not really being on the same page a lot of the time, but what works works. Case in point: “Purpose” opting to (seemingly) resolve what easily could’ve been a season-long plot thread (Agent Simmons, believed dead by everyone but Fitz, is stranded on an alien planet) in the season’s second episode. Did not expect that.

The “let’s get Jemma!” storyline takes up the bulk of the episode and (happily) serves as opportunity to reintroduce Peter MacNicol’s Professor Randolph, the standout one-off character from the early-half of Season 1. A blue-collar Asgardian commoner who’s been anonymously chilling on Earth for a few thousand years (random stone-worker in his own world but a super-strong near-immortal here,) Randolph was for a long time AGENTS best example of its then-unrealized potential to do interesting things with the Marvel arcana; and it’s both fun to see him back (MacNicol has been relieved of his supporting role on CSI: CYBER, so here’s hoping he picks up a regular spot here) and intriguing to see hints of deeper intrigue to him: He clearly knows more than he’s telling about The Monolith, is strangely insistent that “any” portals be destroyed and has an… “odd” reaction to learning that The Inhumans still exist or that Daisy (formerly Skye) is one of them.

That last part is especially interesting from a future-storyline perspective: We’ve already seen both Kree and Asgardian visitors react with fear to the presence of Inhumans and/or Inhuman-adjacent technology on Earth, which could make things very complicated with the series already plunging into the expected Inhumans-as-X-Men-replacements stuff re: government/military crackdowns. Historically, the middle is not the safe place to be in Marvel narratives. In any case, by the time things wrapped up The Monolith was atomized and Fitz/Simmons were reunited, though with her suffering some clearly heavy PTSD from… whatever she went through on the other side; with the only new information gleaned being that The Monolith was at one point in the possession of a pseudo-Masonic group of 19th Century Brits – wonder if that’s going anywhere?

Elsewhere, the secondary-business re-introduced Agent Ward, continuing in his quest to rebuild a leaner, meaner new HYRDRA in his own image. I’m still not really feeling this storyline (unless we’re going to get something more like the COBRA-esque HYDRA of the comics, HYDRA has been done at this point) but I enjoyed the misdirection of this step, as we’re led to think Ward is kidnapping a rich young brat to torture for his money but instead learn the “kid” is Baron Von Strucker’s heir and Ward was looking to test his resolve and recruit him. I’m still not “invested” enough to care about the eventual setup that comes from this (Strucker Junior enrolls in the College psych course of May’s ex, who’s also S.H.I.E.L.D’s on-call therapist) but it’s something.

I also found myself feeling a little impatient with how slow the build to Daisy/Coulson’s “Secret Warriors” team is turning out, though it’s at least more interesting than Nu-HYDRA or (at least so far) Hunter and May teaming up to go kill Ward (though that one did lead to some highly-agreeable quiet-drama scenes with Ming-Na Wen and the aforementioned Mr. Hong.) I’m more and more getting the sense that the anti-aliens/Inhumans/etc sentiment stuff is part of the build to either the mid-season break (for another AGENT CARTER miniseries – hooray!) or for the innevitable CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR tie-in, but I hope it doesn’t continue to sit there inert until then, with Dr. Buzzkill showing up every few episodes to say “Nope, not yet.”

Bullet Points:

  • Where was Simmons? Still no idea, but given her reaction after leaving (waking up clutching a shiv in defense) it’s pretty clear she wasn’t alone there. Also, we know other people have been there before –  wonder what’s become of them?
  • Randolph refers to the activities of the 1830s Monolith-dabblers as “half-baked Satanism.” Something to note: The Inhumans are showing up instead of Mutants here for purposes of MCU-worldbuilding because Mutants can’t be used outside of Fox movies, but the same rules don’t actually (entirely) apply to television; which (unless I’ve got it twisted) means that, if Marvel wants these guys to be an incarnation of The Hellfire Club, they could be.
  • Also: Randolph describes attending a very EYES WIDE SHUT-ish party at the castle where the Monolith-machine was hidden, guided by “a man dressed as an owl.” Wouldn’t it be funny if he was any relation to a certain Daredevil nemesis?
  • Coulson threatening to turn Randolph over to the alien-hunters was a nice nudge toward getting him back to the morally-ambiguous space he occupied before we found out his motivation was being a Captain America fanboy. The Secret Warriors are going to be the off-brand X-Men, fine, but that doesn’t mean Coulson needs to be Professor X.
  • Unanswered question from Season 2: Where is General Talbot in all of this? (I’m crossing my fingers he turns up alongside the returning “Thunderbolt” Ross in CIVIL WAR.
  • It just occured to me that Randolph could easily turn up on AGENT CARTER. That would be pretty great to see.
  • We still never found out what made the Monolith liquefy apart from when Daisy and/or The Machine were making it happen, but it seems like it only ever did so in the presence of Inhumans, Randolph (and Asgardian) …and Simmons. I still don’t think she’s Inhuman, but maybe an alien of some kind?

NEXT WEEK:
“A Wanted (Inhu)Man” promises to pull Lincoln back into the storyline. I have no particularly strong feelings for this character, but apparently a lot of fans hate him. I bring this up because I now learn that his derisive nickname is “Pikachu” in some circles, so now even though I know they’re eventually going to call him Spark Plug I really want that to come up somewhere.

Review: THE MARTIAN

Note: Video review is in-production alongside several other projects, but I know people have gotten tired of waiting so for now here is a text version – as ever, content like this is possible in part through The MovieBob Patreon.

THE MARTIAN (2015)

HOLY FUCKING SHIT does it feel good to love a Ridley Scott movie again!

Alright, alright, look. I know people have been asking me about dialing back the profanity on these things, but, I’m sorry – it’s been a long time since one of our undisputed greatest filmmakers actually MADE a great film, and I’m excited about it! This hasn’t happened since the Director’s Cut of KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, and that was in 2005… and since he’s already announced that he’s going to follow this one up with another FUCKING “Prometheus” movie, it probably isn’t gonna happen again for awhile. So how about you get off my ass and enjoy a rare unabashedly positive review, huh?

THE MARTIAN is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year – and since it’s now October, pronouncements like that start to actually mean something. After a solid decade producing movies that looked great but often broke down on the narrative level, Sir Ridley has once again landed on solid base-material and turned in the kind of filmmaking that’s so good you want to call it a miracle… except that’d actually be doing it a disservice: There’s nothing mystical or ephemeral about why THE MARTIAN is great, the answers are all right up there onscreen. The cast is great, the acting is great, the script is tight as hell, the direction is nigh-flawless, the FX work is gorgeous – hell, even the song choices are good.

Everyone is on the same damn page and everyone is doing their damn job. THAT’S why it’s good… which is amusing, considering that that’s also a fairly concise breakdown of the film’s plot, theme and overarching ideals – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The basic premise here is that in the near future NASA has finally managed to launch a manned mission to Mars. But there’s a storm on the planet’s surface bad enough that the crew has to abort the mission and take off early, and amid the chaos one of them – specifically Matt Damon as team botanist Mark Watney – gets swept up in the storm and thrown to certain death. BUT! By sheer random chance, Watney is NOT actually dead: He’s just stranded, alone, on the Red Planet.

Fortunately for him, Watney happens to not only be a brilliant and capable enough scientist to literally life-hack his way into creating a sustainable longer-term existence on Mars; he’s also one of those Movie Scientists whose ALSO kind of a “bro” and loves to quip sardonically about everything he’s doing for the audience. We’ve had a TON of these “It’s okay for me to be this smug all the time because my confidence comes from my admirable intelligence” heroes lately, and to be honest Watney would probably be insufferable if we had to spend the whole fucking movie with him – but we don’t.

And that’s where THE MARTIAN goes from being merely a solid film to a genuinely excellent one, transcending it’s starting point as a rock-solid genre exercise to become something like a masterwork.

See, while it’d be all well and good to just stick around on the red planet following Watney – especially since this is absolutely the finest “Movie Star” turn of Damon’s entire career to this point – the film instead cuts back down to Earth where NASA soon discovers what’s happening and mobilizes what soon becomes a global effort to bring him home; an effort through which THE MARTIAN slyly reveals it’s true colors: this isn’t some hackneyed cautionary tale about the dangers of exploring the unknown – it’s a high-stakes procedural about the AWESOME power of knowledge, which has placed Mark Watney in one of the most impossible situations imaginable MAINLY so that it can thrill us with detailed depictions of smart, dedicated people figuring out how to get him out of it.

This is, in effect, a love-letter to science, space-exploration and NASA in particular – both in terms of it’s history and also it’s ideals: There’s no “villain” in THE MARTIAN other than shitty luck and Mars itself – none of the human characters turns out to be an asshole or cartoonishly unreasonable in order to generate false drama, there’s no bullshit love-triangles or personal pettiness employed to make us like or dislike certain characters, none of the sappy tacked-on “personal growth” narrative that kept pulling me out of GRAVITY and (thank GAWD!) none of the pseudo-spiritual bullshit that ruined INTERSTELLAR.

Hell, the movie doesn’t even try to impose a “character arc” on Mark – and he’s the MAIN character! He doesn’t “change” or “grow” or “learn” anything through his ordeal, he and everyone else just face down the problems they’re presented with and solve them one after the other. That’s easier said than done – the whole reason cheap drama and forced-arcs exist in drama is because procedural storytelling isn’t always the most riveting thing in the world – that’s why you fill your cast up with people like Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Donald Glover… AND why you hire a director like Ridley Scott. And that’s why, if everyone shows up and does their job, you’ll get a great film out of it.

Now folks… I’ll admit I’m the easiest lay in the world for stuff like this. I’m “that guy” who never stopped being in love with outer space. I’m “that guy” who thinks we oughta be dumping as much funding as we POSSIBLY can into NASA come hell or high water because I do NOT want to die without at least seeing humanity be on it’s way to something like Starfleet in my lifetime – and I’m that guy who if you hear this and come at me with some short-sighted “but people are still… and we need money for… but it’s not as important as…” my response is always going to be SPACESHIP. FUCK YOU. That’s why it’s been hard for me to write this review, because I wanted to be sure I loved this movie MAINLY as a movie, and not just because it’s a fellow “let’s get our asses back to space!” booster – but yeah, this one is REALLY that fucking good!

I cannot think of a single thing I dislike about this movie. I love Scott’s direction, I love the cast, I love watching Matt Damon remind us how GOOD he can be when he’s not making an idiot of himself of that fucking reality show, I love how tight Drew Goddard’s screenplay is, I love how well-executed the denser scientific stuff is handled so that it’s still 100% compelling even though I understood MAYBE 20% of what they were actually talking about, I love seeing Sir Ridley bust out a couple of those music-montage sequences he ALWAYS kills at but doesn’t do enough of, I love the way it celebrates and lionizes the idea of science and mathematics skills as essential tools of survival WITHOUT any shitty STEMLord “Nyah! We run the world now!” pandering “Revenge of The Nerds” bullshit, I love the way it celebrates a GLOBAL future of cooperation via a key subplot involving the CHINESE Space Agency without feeling like it’s unnecessarily getting into OR avoiding politics.

There just isn’t a SINGLE place where THE MARTIAN goes wrong – it is, quite simply, an absolutely perfect realization of exactly what it wants to be. And I haven’t enjoyed a single movie more this year. Don’t miss it.

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Lost Age

Colin Hanks, following in his dad’s footsteps as a friendly chronicler of history/pop-Americana:

This is gonna kick my ass, I can already tell.

I was a video-store guy, so my physical media retail experience lacks the direct rock n’ roll connection of my record-store brethren (musicians, even burnouts, make everything “cooler” by presence, even if they’re just working the checkout between dive gigs) but I’m desperately nostalgic for that “scene” all the same. Yes, streaming is a lovely modern convenience. Yes, lack of physical overhead levels the field for films/distributors of diverse backgrounds. 
But the end of the video/music/game/etc store as community hub for enthusiasts and dilettantes alike is a genuine cultural loss, there’s no question about that. People ask all the time how so much of film/TV/etc fandom has become toxic and narrow lately, and I can’t think of single bigger culprit than removing the idea of physical, real-world interaction with the media itself, with other consumers, with salespeople and so forth. We’ve very much lost the concept of growing by sharing spaces/interest, and this looks very much like a eulogy for that.