A Few Thoughts on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Nice to see that Ruth Negga who played Curtis’ doomed girlfriend Nicki in Misfits is not just still dealing with superpowers but has even been promoted to super-villainess in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Actually, I’m wondering if she is supposed to be either Viper/Madame Hydra or an updated stand-in for the character. I half expected the final explosion to scar half of her face.

But can anybody tell me why every person of colour we see in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D who’s not Agent May or Nick Fury or Ron Glass is either an out-of-control superbeing or a villain or both. Once or twice is acceptable, but four out of five episodes so far had villains of colour and/or out-of-control superbeings of colour and that’s a definite pattern, made even more notable by the fact that five of the six main characters are white. A pattern that’s highly problematic. And while I would have expected that sort of thing from the likes of NCIS or NCIS LA (ever notice how every Asian to appear in either show is inevitably a villain?), I would have expected better from a Joss Whedon show, even though Whedon has had his share of race and gender fails in the past.

What is more, having just watched the pilot of the latest season (should be season 18, unless I got mixed up) of the long-running German action series Alarm für Cobra 11 – The Highway Cops I can’t help but notice how cheap US action shows like NCIS or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D look by comparison. Indeed, the truck/car chase on a deserted highway in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode with the gravity negating element immediately elicited the reaction “Well, Cobra 11 it’s not” from me, because on Alarm für Cobra 11 the highway would have been full, the truck and/or the escort cars would have caused a mass crash involving a fuel truck, a truck transporting crates of bottles, bricks or something else to spray messily all over the highway, a schoolbus full of singing nuns and about twenty-five cars plus at least one helicopter and a luxury car (Mercedes, BMW or rarely Porsche) to destroy. This is of course ironic, because Alarm für Cobra 11 was originally created as a replacement for US action shows like Knight Rider or The A-Team or Airwolf on which the TV station RTL had built its reputation and which the US suddenly stopped producing in the early 1990s. And here we are, almost twenty years later, and Alarm für Cobra 11 suddenly looks so much better than the sort of show it once was supposed to copy*. You can watch the show online here BTW. Only in German, but it’s not as if the dialogue is all that important anyway.

It’s also telling that more than twenty years after Nick Fury, back when he was still a white guy and not yet Samuel L. Jackson, told Wolverine that no, Sabretooth was not his Dad, regardless of what Sabretooth himself claimed, cause Nick Fury just had his people do a gene test (and no, I don’t care what subsequent comics said, to me Sabretooth will always be Logan’s biological father and Nick Fury is a bloody liar), S.H.I.E.L.D. is still lying about people’s families. Some things never change.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D also reminds me why I never particularly trusted or liked S.H.I.E.L.D in the comics. Because let’s face it, in the end S.H.I.E.L.D. are men in black types and no one ever likes or trusts men in black types (unless one of them is Will Smith) whether they are called S.H.I.E.L.D or S.T.R.I.K.E or W.H.O. or Black Air or UNIT or Torchwood or the Fringe Division or whatever the bad guys from The X-Files were called**. Because those super-secret anagram-happy organisations represent those parts of the government/transnational organisations that we suspect/know are hiding the truth from us, in this fictional case the truth about aliens, superbeings, magic and all sorts of weird and wonderful things. Sure, they may say that they only have the world’s best interests at heart, that they want to protect the world from harm. And we may like them for a while, particularly if they have a likable character as a front like Agent Phil Coulson or Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart or Captain Jack Harkness. And we may think that we, too, could be inducted into their secrets like Skye or Gwen Cooper or Jo Grant or Sarah Jane Smith or Olivia from Fringe (and isn’t it telling that it’s always a young woman). But in the end, the organisation usually reveals its true colours. And very few of those smart young female recruits have happy lives afterwards.

And of course it’s no accident that those organisations are always British or American or – when supposed to be international like S.H.I.E.L.D or UNIT – nonetheless dominated by Americans or Brits. They’re fictional stand-ins for the NSA or MI6 (I think one incarnation was actually called MI13) and no one likes or trusts those guys and with very good reason, too. I mean, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. basically gives us an NSA stand-in versus the Rising Tide, an Anonymous/Wikileaks stand-in and we’re supposed to sympathize with the former.

Again, this sharply brings home my main issue with the Avengersverse, a problem that transcends the (mostly rather good) movies and goes right back to the original comics, namely that S.H.I.E.L.D is the establishment and the Avengers are the establishment’s superteam. We have the representative of the military industrial complex (Iron Man), the symbol of American nationalism (Captain America), the hammer of cultural appropriation (Thor), the personification of everything that’s wrong with nuclear power (Hulk), the cliché objectified East European temptress who has slept with most of the Marvel Universe (Black Widow)*** and an NSA/CIA stand-in as their handler. Don’t get me wrong, the movies are enjoyable, the actors are great in their roles, the worst bits of Cold War racism have been purged and these are probably the best incarnations of the Avengers/Iron Man/Thor/S.H.I.E.L.D/Captain America we will ever see. But it doesn’t change what these characters originally stood for and still stand for and that’s not very pretty.

Though I’ll still watch Thor: The Dark World, if only because of this (“You just decapitated your grandfather” – brilliant), and probably Avengers 2.

*The writing still isn’t all that good, though. Alarm für Cobra 11 is formulaic brainless fun with lots of car crashes and explosions and a highly messy sense of continuity. Never mind that for all it’s fine stuntwork the most recent episode also committed character assassination on both André Fuchs and Andrea Gerkhan. And while I don’t much care about André 14 years after he left the show, I do care about Semir and Andrea.

**Actually, W.H.O is UNIT and both S.T.R.I.K.E. and Black Air are Torchwood by other names, while the bad guys from the X-Files are the Fringe Division.

***In fact, it’s a toss-up between Mystique and Black Widow for the dubious honour of “Has slept with the most Marvel characters of the opposite sex”. They both slept with Wolverine BTW, who is the undisputed winner of that title for the male Marvel characters.

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14 Responses to A Few Thoughts on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

  1. Daniela says:

    I always find it very obvious that a lot of American tv shows get their props at IKEA, which somehow cracks me up when we are supposed to believe that this is the office of some superrich/powerful lawyer/CEO/whatever. Yup, I’m sure he gets his desk at IKEA and then spends an afternoon putting it together ;-).

    Interesting take on Agents of SHIELD. I’m a bit behind right now but the first three eps already killed a lot of my initial excitement. There’s also the problem of the really obvious errors that are a sign of extremely sloppy writing that bothered me (500 year old temple is pre-Inkan!!! Really???!!!). And the problem with the POCs. Hell, the most likeable, most present, and most interesting character in the pilot was the supposed “villain”. All the agents were rather blah. Coulson is supposed to be blah, but not the rest. I also find the two science-kids extremely annoying, they might be cute occassionally but in the long-term…?

    That’s what I love about fanfic there the writers often have Tony openly opposing SHIELD and dragging the rest of the Avengers with him. Continuing in a way the suspicions from the first Avengers movie.

    Have you watched the Captain America trailer yet? They have him saying a few interesting things like “This isn’t freedom, this is fear.” It will be interesting to see where they go with this because at his core MCU Captain America is a rule-breaker who follows his own path and his own believes.

    I can’t wait for Thor, mostly for the interaction between Thor and Loki. The clip you linked to is hilarious. I hope we’ll get it in the OV and not only the German dubbing :-(.

    • Cora says:

      Maybe “Assemble your own desk” is a hot trend among hotshot American CEOs? Or, more likely, the American public is not as familiar with common IKEA products as the German public. BTW, I particularly love it when IKEA products show up in outer space and on alien planets, e.g. “It’s wonderfully inclusive that IKEA is selling religious supplies for Minbari now, but that’s not a wine glass but a candleholder.”

      Episodes 4 and 5 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are not necessarily any more encouraging. Again you get really stupid errors such as the SHIELD team landing in Belarus – because a nasty dictatorship and close ally of Putin’s Russia would totally allow a US group to run amok on their territory. Oh yes, and Belarus looks just like your typical Hollywood backlot town. There is also a scene set in Stockholm, helpfully indicated not by IKEA props but by people walking around with Swedish flags. And while I applaud racial diversity in the background, a Stockholm subway train is unlikely to have appprox. 70 percent of black, asian and hispanic passengers. Again, you get two POC villains who are a lot more interesting than the main characters.

      I also agree on the characters. I like Coulson and he is supposed to be bland (though he is inconsistent as hell from episode to episode). I really want to like Agent May, but she has no character beyond “no-nonsense kung-fu arsekicker”. I quite like Skye, but then she is the audience identification character, the plucky young woman inducted into Spook wonderland, which is pretty much the standard formula for this type of show. I have also warmed to Agent Ward, but that’s mainly because he has the attitude and emotional maturity of a 10-year-old who thinks pulling the pigtails of his object of affection is a brilliant courting strategy. He reminds me of my fifth and sixth graders and I can’t decide whether that’s a brilliant or horrible bit of characterisation. I agree that the science kids, Fitz and Simmons, are annoying, which is a pity because the male half of the duo was really good in a similar part (insecure babbling teenaged geek) in the short-lived British horror series The Fades. But as techie whizz kid duos go, Nell and Eric from NCIS LA or Abby and McGee from NCIS or Charlie and Amita from Numbers or Garcia from Criminal Minds are so much better variations on the same type.

      And really, the main sin apart from really problematic stereotyping is that the characters are so bland and that from a writer like Joss Whedon who is known for his vivid characters. If you compare Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D with Torchwood season 1 or Fringe season 1, both of which were very similar in concept, Torchwood and Fringe were so much better with regard to characterisation. And I didn’t even like Fringe.

      BTW, someone finally got to have sex on the most recent episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. And the sex scene was fade to black for reasons of family friendliness, whereas it’s apparently no problem showing human beings burned to a crisp on screen.

      I also wonder why the Avengers tolerate S.H.I.E.L.D. at this point, since none of them are people who would go along with shady methods, especially not the way they have been portrayed in the various movies. S.H.I.E.L.D was needed originally to bring them all together, but that’s no longer the case.

      The Winter Soldier trailer looked surprisingly intriguing and I don’t even like Captain America. It would be interesting if we saw him disagree with the methods of SHIELD, plus it would fit in with the comics, where Captain America rechristned himself Nomad – Man without a country in the early 1970s because of his disgust with the Watergate scandal. Okay, I would have preferred it if he would have been disgusted with the Vietnam war instead, but still… Though I hope they don’t go down the romance route with Cap and Black Widow, because that would be freaky considering that Black Widow had a relationship with the Winter Soldier in the comics. Not that there isn’t a precedent. In the Arrow TV show, Oliver Queen has slept with two of three Birds of Prey.

      The big multiplexes in town usually offer subtitled versions of big Hollywood movies. Though they might go for something else over Thor 2. But in that case, there always is the DVD.

  2. Sherwood Smith says:

    Thanks for the link to Cobra.

    Agents of SHIELD is pretty mindless fun, but I tend to forget the content of the eps within seconds after they are over. Good to exercise to, tho!

    • Cora says:

      Mindless fun is a good description for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. And while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with mindless fun (Hey, I watch Alarm für Cobra 11, which is pretty much the epitome of mindless fun), this particular bit of mindless fun also has the tendency to have some really problematic undertones regarding race and ethics. Of course, plenty of other mindless fun shows like NCIS or NCIS LA have problematic undertones as well, but then I expected a bit better from a Joss Whedon show. Never mind that both NCIS and NCIS LA have better characters.

      Enjoy Cobra 11. As I said before, it’s pretty much the quintessential mindless fun show with snappy banter, great stuntwork and lots of car crashes and explosions. The most recent pilot episode is actually quite unusual in that regard, since it was more emotionally harrowing than Cobra 11 normally gets. But then the André Fuchs plot doesn’t mean much if one hasn’t seen the episodes where he was Semir’s partner and hasn’t watched him fall to his (apparent) death off a cliff on Mallorca (and André was actually one of the less memorable of Semir’s partners). And the marriage in trouble plot wouldn’t mean much either, if we hadn’t followed the lives of this couple for 18 years now. Never mind that Andrea’s sudden “I can’t take this anymore” doesn’t ring true, considering that she knew only too well whom she was marrying, cause Semir’s life has never been different. Semir has always been surrounded by flying bullets and exploding cars. This is the guy who had five partners die before his eyes (one twice), who trashed pretty much the entire BMW model line and who nearly died more times than I can remember. Andrea herself has been kidnapped, threatened, taken hostage, almost blown up, she was poisoned on her wedding day and nearly drowned in a sewer filling rapidly with water while desperately trying to hold her baby over her head. And after 18 years of all that, she suddenly decides, “Oh hell, I’ve had enough.” Doesn’t ring true at all.

      Another really enjoyable “mindless fun” show made by the same team as Alarm für Cobra 11 was Lasko – Die Faust Gottes (Lasko – Fist of God). This show was the unholy love child of an Asian martial arts movie and The Da Vinci Code and told the story of Lasko, the handsome member of a Catholic martial arts order, and his pudgy best friend Brother Gladius and their attempts to thwart a conspiracy in the Vatican orchestrated by a secret organisation called Ares. Of course, the Catholic church does not have martial arts monks and Catholic conspiracies are unlikely to name themselves after Greco-Roman gods, but who cares, when the result is this much fun. Unfortunately, Lasko isn’t available to view for free at RTL Now, but if you can find it somewhere (e.g. on Netflix), it’s well worth watching.

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  4. Dara says:

    Similarly, I have a lot of issues with the politics of Agents of SHIELD, most notably that the show’s writers really, really seem to expect us to be on SHIELD’s side of all this stuff. No; more particularly, in that there can be no principled opposition in this show; both our “hacktivists” have been turned into/revealed as frauds, as of the latest episode. Even the sellout’s only real crime wasn’t selling out – it was selling out to the wrong people.

    I am, as they say, disappoint.

    • Cora says:

      That’s a very good article, Dara. Needless to say I agree with most of it. I was already worried during the first episode when they hinted that the main conflict was going to be “clandestine government agency versus Anonymous like hacktivist organisation” and it was clear we were supposed to be sympathizing with the clandestine government agency. Uh, so not happening, particularly given the current climate.

      Now the first episode defused those worries for a while, when SHIELD treated Skye quite well and the real opponent was revealed to be the Centipede organisation. But of course everything came back with a vengeance in episode 5, when both Skye and her hacker boyfriend Miles were revealed as frauds and SHIELD treated them both abominably. Whatever one may think of Miles, there was no reason to dump him in Hongkong with neither money nor a way home and as for Skye, her motivation is completely understandable. I’m also really disappointed that after an encouraging first episode which ended with not killing or arresting J. August Richards’ character, the last two episodes have featured SHIELD arresting a woman for crimes she was clearly blackmailed into committing (and whose problems were SHIELD’s fault in the first place for abandoning her) and then executing the Scorch character for not keeping his powers properly secret, not to mention the abominable treatment of Skye and Miles. I guess Tony Stark can count himself lucky not to be executed for revealing his secret identity to the world.

      I sometimes suspect that Joss Whedon isn’t really clear on who his fans are, considering he can be extremely tone-deaf at times. I already noticed that in those Buffy episodes with the evil nerd trio who would geek out about comics and Doctor Who and so on. When I watched those episodes back in the day, I remember thinking “Wait a minute, you just insulted most of your audience by making fun of nerdy pursuits.” As for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it is reasonable to assume that most of the viewers will agree with the Rising Tide and what they stand for rather than with S.H.I.E.L.D and what they stand for. Besides, there is quite a bit of overlap between Anonymous and comic fans. So once again Whedon is insulting his very fanbase.

      In fact, the most recent episode made me wonder whether Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D wasn’t sponsored/financed by the NSA, since it seemed pretty blatant propaganda.

      • Dara says:

        You don’t need NSA support to get this point of view on the air; not at all. The American political and upper-level business class has been pretty solidly on board with this agenda throughout. And, for that matter, in my experience, most Americans pretty much seem to love their surveillance and police state. Oh, they’ll use protests against it when they’re out of power, rebrand around them and use them to their advantage, but as soon as the Oval Office is in their hands? Shut the hell up, you ungrateful traitor, this is Keeping You Safe.

        Personally, I never felt insulted by the Trio’s handling of/enjoyment of geek topics myself, and I’m a pretty damned big geek. XD But that’s me. I think it’s relevant that Josh’s only writing contribution has been to the pilot, and all of the rest have been other people; it’s also relevant that Josh is an executive producer, not a producer, and that Executive Producer layer has a history of being kind of hands-off the daily/weekly production. Show creators who aren’t running the show anymore tend to be Execs, and the only episode to have any degree of ethical sophistication here does seem to have been, well, the pilot that Joss actually co-wrote. So.

        Tony Stark being left alone highlights the mimetics of both the show and of American political society currently: Have enough money or power, and everything you do is fine. The law is not for you. Don’t have these things, and we will crush you if and whenever we want. I mean, money and class have always mattered, but since the Bush administration it’s become a genuine – and often just outright stated – rule, at the Federal level. (Really, it started in Clinton’s second term, but didn’t get brutal until Mr. Bush.) It’s why banks are ‘too big to fail’ and why criminal charges simply aren’t pressed in all these clear and obvious cases of fraud and conspiracy; it’s why anything the president does is treated as legal, regardless of law.

        Mr. Stark, with his billions, fits right in.

        • Cora says:

          Germans are generally surprisingly unconcerned about the surveillance state as well. Right now, there is some anger that the NSA bugged Angela Merkel’s mobile and that the US embassy in Berlin has what looks like surveillance equipment installed openly on its roof. But mostly the reaction you get is, “Well, what do I care if someone reads my e-mails or bugs my phone? It’s not as if I have something to hide and besides, there are terrorists plotting nefarious plots somewhere.”

          For me the nerd trio was the last straw, but then I was already pretty much fed up with Buffy by that point. I was one of the fairly rare geeks who never much cared for Buffy in the first place. Nonetheless, I didn’t expect such lazy writing and characterisation as we get in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. from Joss Whedon. But then you’re right that he isn’t as involved with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as he was with Buffy or Angel or Firefly.

          Tony Stark was likely saved from execution by his wealth and privilege, though S.H.I.E.L.D. did control him for a while via the antidote/cure to the stuff in his chest that was poisoning him. And people who are less privileged than Tony have been treated a lot worse by S.H.I.E.L.D., e.g. Bruce Banner being disappeared or Captain America ending up in S.H.I.E.L.D. custody (to be fair, Hulk is dangerous and letting Cap run around on his own with no idea of what happened to him probably wouldn’t have been the best of ideas) or Jane Foster having her equipment and research results confiscated. In fact, I suspect the only reason that S.H.I.E.l.D. is leaving Jane alone for now is because no one wants to upset Thor, who is the Asgardian equivalent of Tony Stark, wealthy and privileged.

          • Dara says:

            Lazy writing really does get to it, doesn’t it? For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s actually lazy; I’ve seen people sweat bullets to churn out some of the most awful dreck. I think it’s… skill level at the moment, honestly.

            And yes, it’s pretty clear that Thor is the only reason Jane still has her work – I mean, that was explicit in the Thor movie, and I’m sure that’s why it’s continued while he’s back in Asgard because who wants to fuck with the God of Thunder? Oh right, nobody, not even SHIELD.

            Separately, I’ve been told that since I actually knew and talked to people down there, Executive Producer has also been a title thrown to showrunners on a pretty regular basis, but in this case I was right anyway; Joss doesn’t have much to do with it. It’s his brother Jed and Maurissa Tancharoen, who co-wrote Dr. Horrible, with which I had substantial gender issues.

            Honestly, I think what’s making it worse is that, for me, Joss had a pretty good history of blowing up and inverting tropes. The crew doing most of the work here… doesn’t seem to have that. And without subverting these things, this kind of show just gets kind of … bleah, at best. And asking us to root for the demonstratedly-new-normal authoritarian approach to government and so-called law just pushes that further, to the point of unacceptable.

            Funny thing is, remember the MiB animated series? My politics aren’t a lot different to then, but in an animated comedy – one with less racefail in a lot of ways, thinking on it – I was totally fine with that. I wonder if I’d deal better with this as a comedy. But given most of their attempts at humour… I think we’re best not seeing that. XD

            Thank the gods the last few episodes of Legend of Korra have been improving, that’s all I can say. \m/

            • Cora says:

              Well, there is a difference between professional screenwriters and a teenager sweating bullets over a derivative Jurassic Park/Poseidon Adventure mash-up (A 13-year-old student of mine wrote that. He was very proud of it, too. And yes, he got praise along with some tips for improvement). And I expect a bit more from professional screenwriters than from 13-year-old kids. Though looking at the scripts of some films and TV shows I suspect my students could come up with something better.

              As for Joss Whedon, he was never the most original of writers and usually borrowed trops and plots from elsewhere, but he was always really good at inverting or subverting even the hoariest of old tropes. Just look at what Buffy did with ancient clichés like the malicious ventriloquist’s dummy. As for Dr. Horrible, I did enjoy the supervillain POV (and Black Horse being – well – a horse was a stroke of genius), but the plot was predictable as hell and poor Felicia Day never got to be more than generic fridge girl and prize for Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer to tussle over, which was disappointing, particularly given Joss Whedon’s generally good track record with female characters (pregnant demon Cordelia in Angel notwithstanding). If the same writers are involved with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it explains a lot.

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