‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ (Season 4): Visual Issues

The Framework is proving every bit as depressing and unpleasant as we could’ve expected during the hiatus, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is making the most of it. After only two episodes, the show is proving that it’s not afraid to take its characters to some particularly dark places, with the mind-addled Fitz a torturer and a killer, Mack a broken man, and Aida exploring a twisted take on what it means to be human. It’s a grim set-up for the show to be dealing with, but it’s hard to argue how well the writer and cast are handling the material.

However, as strong as this darker material is, there’s one place where the darkness has gotten a bit exhausting: the lighting. Yes, with all the big plot considerations on the table, I’m instead going to take this time to discuss the show’s lighting and general color palette! For those of you not immediately clicking away to another page, let me explain why I’m even on this topic. Also, bear in mind I’m no technical expert, so pardon my lack of such terminology.

Generally, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has never operated on the most exciting visual level as far as its lighting and color are concerned. It’s a show about superspies, so the use of shadows, as well as a lot of black and grays in uniforms, is to be expected. Even when the show has introduced superhero characters like Deathlok, Quake, and Mockingbird, their costumes and powers have worked within the show’s more muted aesthetic.

However, there’s a difference between a muted palette and a muddled one, and that’s a line the show has stepped over more often as of late. It’s fine to work with a darker palette, but the colors should still be allowed to pop. It’s something the show did a better job of in the first few seasons especially, back when they really strove for as filmic a look as possible. Now, whether for budgetary constraints or a desire to “go darker” in the 10 PM timeslot, the show has a washed-out look that does none of the visuals a favor.

This has particularly jumped out in the Framework because, in an attempt to make it clear how oppressive the environment, things are even grayer and cooler than ever. It’s not necessarily the wrong choice, but it goes a bit too far, making for very visually uninteresting scenes. This past week’s episode in particularly managed to make even brightly lit daytime scenes and island locales seem lifeless.

Again, this wouldn’t be a terrible creative choice if the rest of the season hadn’t followed a similar trend, with a lot of the color and light in scenes being muted out of existence. Even Ghost Rider, a man with a flaming skull for a head, could come across as dulled out.

Yes, plenty of other superhero shows utilize darker palettes, such as Arrow or Daredevil, but they’re able to use the darkness to their advantage, keeping their characters visually distinct against the backgrounds or integrating alternative light sources – both mentioned shows have done a lot with neon in the past. Again, it’s the difference between a well-balanced dark palette and a muddled one.

Really, I’m happy that in terms of narrative and performance, Agents is doing well enough that my biggest complaint comes down to the lighting and visual style of the show. Still, it’s a weakness all the same, one that can make the show far less exciting to actually look at than it could be. Should it get a fifth season, the show would do well to reconsider and expand its visual variety a bit.