Analyzing Martial Arts on Network TV: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Black Belt's resident film critic examines the popular ABC series — and explains why it and other shows often feature fewer fights as the seasons go by.

Since Keanu Reeves hit theaters in The Matrix in 1999, producers of American TV shows that feature martial arts-influenced fight scenes have tried to make their fisticuffs a bit more … stylized. A perhaps equally important influence has come from Matt Damon’s The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). This begs the question, Are audiences mesmerized by these stylized fights, or do they still prefer and appreciate action with superior choreography, directing and editing? The jury is still out. These days, the norm is for action-based TV shows to feature amazing martial arts in the beginning but to allow that boldness to dwindle as time goes by. Often, by the fourth or fifth season, the action becomes less important, and the focus moves to story development. Example: When Person of Interest hit the airwaves on CBS, it featured powerful close-quarters combat. But starting with the Spring 2014 season, the action was cut way back. However, the storyline of the series is still gripping. Similarly, when Arrow debuted on The CW, it had decent group fights and weapons choreography, and that quickly got audiences hooked. Nowadays, however, the mano a mano battles in Arrow are watered down. Sadly, that trend seems to be continuing. (More on these shows later this year.) One show that picked up martial arts steam in 2014 was Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. In fact, there was a lot of Hollywood chatter about one specific fight in the episode titled “Face My Enemy”: the womano a womano showdown between Agent May (Ming-Na Wen) and her doppelgänger. It became the season's most-talked-about battle. When I honed my fight-choreography skills in Taiwan in 1980, it was doing 47-minute-long kung fu soap operas. Using mostly actors who didn’t practice the martial arts, we created 10 to 17 minutes of action every two to three days — for weeks on end. Although this is never done in American TV production, I was still excited about the two-minute fight scene in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Unfortunately, I missed the episode when it aired, but I did get lots of details from behind the scenes. I learned that the fight was planned over a two-week period and that each move was carefully crafted with long discussions involving the writers and producers. As the fight choreographer built the movements, they were refined, altered and adapted by the action-unit director. The actors underwent extensive rehearsals, often practicing on their own on weekends and whenever there was a free moment on the set. When I finally saw the scene, however, I noticed a lack of creative camera use (angles, lens, etc.), which weakened the fight's look and didn't enhance the choreography. The long shots revealed nothing spectacular, and the close-ups hid the action rather than intensifying it. The actors were fist/foot flailing, which meant that if a person missed a block, it didn't really matter. The pauses between techniques were prolonged, and the telegraphed windups before many of the attacks detracted from the power and reduced the energy. Furthermore, filming one or two techniques per edited shot removed any sense of buildup. Why practice a fight if you shoot only one skill at a time? Maybe it was poor shot selection and editing, I figured. Adding a few crashes into furniture or having an actor smash through a trellis might have added to the tension and increased the sense of danger, I mused.

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The pièce de résistance was the final scene. Without giving it away, I can say that such resolutions were all the rage — in 1980s Hong Kong films. (Book of Heroes from 1986 comes to mind.) Even worse, the climax suffered from insipid dialogue and a lame "electro zap." Note to Hollywood: When you craft a fight scene and want to see if it really rocks, watch the finished product without sound. Does it still connect with you? If not, it needs more work. As harsh as this may sound, I haven’t given up hope on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. In fact, I plan to revisit the series in the near future. Stay tuned to blackbeltmag.com for the report. (Photos and Artwork Courtesy of ABC)Go here to order Dr. Craig D. Reid’s book The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors.
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