Agents of HYDRA
I’m a geek, a nerd and a tree-hugging liberal, so my relationship with shows like Agents of SHIELD is somewhat contentious. Going back a bit, I’m not the biggest comic-book geek in the world: I like a lot of the Marvel stuff and find the genre in general appealing, but I never grew up following it closely. I didn’t buy comic books, I got whatever was available at the library. I only watched a little of the X-Men 90s cartoon, and didn’t really consider myself ‘into’ comics until I saw the first Iron Man on a whim. The first serious comic book I read was Maus, of all things. I had seen the Spiderman and Superman films, of course, but those felt more like special events than really ‘comic book movies’. Those were for the masses, and they were pretty good.
With my first Marvel Cinematic Universe film, I was expecting a noisy Michael Bay production with explosions and mindless, blurry fight sequences and little in between, but what captivated me was that the filling was so much sweeter than the big bun itself. Robert Downy Jr. was spectacular as Tony Stark, and the script was crisp and fun and emotionally engaging. I cared about this smarmy alcoholic son of a bitch, and I had fun watching his larger-than-life persona before he even got into a suit. Fast forward to The Avengers, and I’m completely hooked on the MCU and its comings and goings. And that means, naturally, I was sad to see Coulson bite the dust.
Then I entered Level Seven. It felt like Agents of SHIELD had been hyped forever by the time it finally premiered, and despite the great feeling of having Coulson back the first couple of episodes didn’t get a lot of traction. Outside of the big man himself, I didn’t really like the Raggy-Doll rejects he had cobbled together for his team. In fact I didn’t think the band of misfits being managed by such a crucial asset ever made any sense: Coulson’s return from the grave was such a major and resource-intensive secret, what was the point of giving him a plane and practically exiling him with a group of maladjusted noobs? Ward was your generic stoic badass. May was your generic stoic badass with a uterus. Call them the warriors. Fitz and Simmons were the same character, uber-geeks capable of pretty much anything except shooting straight, so they’d be the wizards who would conjure a techno-babble escape most weeks. Then there was Skye, our rogue, who was smart and pretty and young and oh so witty and adorable even though she couldn’t go five seconds without insulting or betraying somebody. By about the mid-point of the season, I still thought of them as all ciphers. They had the odd piece of backstory bolted onto them, but they remained generic, except Skye who just adopted more and more Mary Sue qualities as time went on. Turns out that’s her real name, how hilariously genre-savvy. This super hot hacker managed to devour every task in front of her without breaking a sweat, including developing a physical prowess in combat that allowed her to overcome trained fighters because Ward gave her a couple of pointers. True, we can presume that off-screen her training was more intensive than the two minutes we saw in the program, but this skinny IT guru became a ninja in a few weeks.
Then she got shot. The pretty girl got shot, and that means Shit Got Serious. Coulson, who had been leaning over the line morally with some of his actions already, completely dove across it. And this is where my biggest bugbear with the show comes from. In recent episodes the story has got a lot better, the characters have started to become distinguishable (May is awesome!), and the tie-in to The Winter Soldier actually had a major impact. Things finally got into gear, but one issue has remained a constant irritant: the Agents of SHIELD are not good guys. They’re not HYDRA, but that’s really the best thing you can say about them. It started as a punch-line, with suspects being dragged in for questioning and bluntly told they get no lawyers and they get no rights. Then it got more overt, with violations of international sovereignty, violent interrogations, threats of torture and at one point opening a hole in the plane to let a suspect be sucked out if they don’t talk. True, SHIELD are dealing with serious problems that at times could impact the entire planet, and one can make the argument that they cannot afford to play around or be bound by normal rules. But there’s a mirth, almost a pleasure, to how the agents approach this sort of behavior. And the crucial problem is that there is essentially no pushback from anybody, ever. I have compared this to 24, where Jack Bauer’s actions might have been portrayed as the most effective but he at least had superiors and colleagues constantly bringing up that it wasn’t ok. There were laws about that sort of thing, and there was a duty to uphold the ideals that agencies like CTU were ultimately trying to protect, over and above just minimizing bodycounts. Jack Bauer was a renegade, not the down-to-earth good guy of the agency. Coulson, Fitz and others have made their grand speeches about what SHIELD stands for and talk about being the shield between the average citizen and the bad things out there, but they fritter away any moral authority by being just as willing to do whatever it takes to win as HYDRA.
This hypocrisy comes to the fore for Coulson when he is faced with the decision to use technology from the TAHITI project to save Skye, without knowing exactly what it would do to her. He doesn’t know what it has done to himself, but he knows he wished he had been allowed to stay dead, and is furious with May and everyone else who knew about what happened to him. To Coulson, it is the ultimate betrayal… so he does it to Skye with no qualms whatsoever. That’s the issue: the show keeps teeing up these inherent conflicts and hypocrisies, and then manages to not even notice them. It is writing that is somehow not self-aware, leading to characters who just act out the scripted events of the day rather than have any of their own thoughts or concerns about their own actions or those of the people around them.
Agent Coulson was initially the antithesis of SHIELD’s “the ends justify the means” logic, and he was caught in the crossfire in their war with the equally obstinate HYDRA. Yet rather than feel conflicted by this, Coulson simply behaves in the way of his masters, while still trying to tell the audience that he’s not an ends justify the means kind of guy. He’s the good guy, SHIELD are the good guys, and the hallmark is that they’re fundamentally different from whoever the bad guys are, except then they aren’t. SHIELD is an agency that will throw people out of planes but makes cracks about how scary the NSA is for waterboarding. The show wants to have its cake and eat it, and it can’t without frittering away its credibility and anything substantial to say about these complex moral issues.