Marvel’s Agents of the Status Quo

Written for WIRED, and I honestly can’t remember why this didn’t run. It’s from October last year, and events in the show have outdated this since to some extent.

For those watching ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., last week’s fifth episode of the series, “Girl in the Flower Dress,” was the one in which the show’s true enemy was revealed — and it turned out to be anyone who might suspect that secret government organizations are up to no good, or believe the information should be free. And you thought I was talking about the titular villain of the week.

To be fair, the show’s concept — its very title — suggests that this wouldn’t be a series for those who had problems with authority figures. This is a series for those who believe in the Men in Black Suits who we’re more used to seeing as untrustworthy or, at best, a necessary evil. In many ways, it’s a 180 spin on the traditional media dynamic of the solitary heroes standing up against corrupt authority figures; in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., we’re told, the authority figures are doing what they’re doing for the good of everyone and we should just back off and quit our whining.

When I write “literally told,” I mean it; in last week’s episode, reformed hacker Skye had the following conversation with her (arrested and illegally detained) ex-boyfriend Miles:

Miles: So I guess “due process” isn’t really S.H.I.E.L.D. protocol.
Skye: They don’t have time for it.
Miles: Are you defending them? These people are denying us our basic rights.
Skye: This isn’t about us. They’re trying to save someone’s life.
Miles: Listen to yourself. That’s what they always say to justify invading someone’s privacy, Skye. These people stand for everything we despise: Secrets, censorship —
Skye (interrupting): Enough with the manifesto, Miles!

Yeah, you tell him, Skye! Who cares about due process or privacy when someone’s life is in danger? That’s just some kind of manifesto and not, like, real life! In case the viewer wasn’t convinced enough that Miles doesn’t “get it,” the very next scene has S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Grant Ward tell us that Miles is “hiding behind platitudes,” and before too long, we find out that Miles has not only sold classified information — “I believe in all those things [about ‘information should be free’],” he says, “I just don’t know why they have to go hand in hand with barely scraping by” — but did so to a bad guy who “seemed harmless,” because — of course — he’s not only greedy, he’s also not as smart as our heroes at recognizing what the real dangers in the world are.

“Girl in the Flower Dress” was the most blatant attempt so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to act as propaganda for the Military Industrial Complex. Considering that the heroes to date are an arms manufacturer, a soldier and a god who hang out with them because they’re awesome — oh, and three agents working for the same secret government agency as the TV show, of course — that’s really saying something (By the end of last week’s episode, of course, Miles had come around to S.H.I.E.L.D., saying that they did seem pretty cool after all, except he’s not as hot as Skye so he didn’t get to join the team like she did following her very similar about-face).

At first, I felt some sense of disappointment for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s boosterism for, you know, scary stuff that’s happening all around us because, in some nostalgic way, I still considered Joss Whedon — whose name remains linked to the show, despite a lack of direct involvement past the pilot — someone who stands up for the little guy. Consider his previous shows — Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and even Dollhouse were all thematically about the power of the individual standing up to whatever that show’s version of The Man happened to be. Ultimately, though, that’s an unfair comparison because this isn’t really a Whedon show — it’s very much a Marvel show, and a Marvel idea.

In some way, though, that just makes it worse. There was a time, in the earliest days of Marvel Comics, when the appeal of the publisher was that it was filled with underdogs who were misunderstood and often, in the words of the X-Men‘s tagline, “feared and hated” by the authorities despite trying to do the right thing. On some level, central to Marvel’s appeal in the beginning was the idea of an outsider standing up for what’s right, even if — especially if, perhaps? — it went against the status quo (Even Captain America, the straightest man in Marvel’s library, found himself at odds with the comic book S.H.I.E.L.D. on a regular basis).

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s eager embrace of authority — and attempts to denigrate those who question it, whether by painting them as evil, greedy or just plain dumb — isn’t just offensive to those who might find themselves thinking that maybe NSA spying is something to be concerned about, then; it’s something that feels in some way out of step with the Marvel legacy in some way. Maybe there’s a swerve coming at some point in the future when Agent Coulson et al will realize that there’s a downside to their mission — certainly, the tone of the trailer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier suggests that there is some re-evaluation of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s tactics in the future — but until then, it’d be nice if the show could be a little more subtle in trying to convince viewers that anything goes as long as the men in the suits tell us it’s okay. As Skye would say, enough with the manifesto, Marvel.