'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' Serves as a Metaphor for Our Time
Like Star Trek, this looks back as it looks forward, situating our present in an alternative world that reflects our story today.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.Airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm ET
Cast: Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge, Nick Blood
Creators: Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen
Subtitle: Season Two Premiere
Air date: 2014-09-23
After a few episodes of Star Trek aired back in the '60s, it was obvious that the United Federation of Planets was the United States, and the Klingon Empire was the Soviet Union. Star Trek portrayed the Cold War mentality and practice, in particular those battles fought to standoffs by submarines rather than by flashy, fast-fire fighter jets.
However nostalgic we might feel for those very different worlds, whether the Cold War or Star Trek, we still have television to craft stories that confront our fears and fuel our hopes. Like Star Trek, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. looks back as it looks forward, situating our present in an alternative world that reflects our story today, the story of regular people in extraordinary circumstances. The people in the show have “gifted” individuals, deadly alien technologies, and time-defying Nazis. We have Islamic extremists, domestic terrorists, and ebola.
In its first season, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. didn't quite find its legs, especially against the sensational backdrop of Disney/Marvel’s The Avengers movie. This year, another movie provided the pivotal plot twist for Disney’s experiment in crossover storytelling. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, S.H.I.E.L.D. falls to a resurgent World War II era, proto-terrorist group called Hydra. That fall and its consequences have granted S.H.I.E.L.D. a new gravitas, and also helped the TV series find its center.
That center has to do with Hydra, a metaphor for all terrorists. As I write this, Islamic extremists called the Islamic State. As the Islamic State kills American, French, and British citizens on camera, the executioners keep their own faces covered. In this, the terrorists we see today on television are like so many fictional villains, including Marvel's Red Skull and his storm troopers, not to mention their Star Wars counterparts. Masks offer cover and also create fear.
Further, the Hydra mantra, “Cut off one head and two will grow in its place,” offers a connection between the fictional terror network with the real world one. Like Hydra, the Islamic extremists seem to multiply when defeated, the latest incarnations spreading across national borders and leading to debates concerning President Obama’s authority to attack the Islamic State in Syria under cover of the 2001 authorization to attack al-Qaeda. The demise of Osama Bin Laden and “core Al-Qaeda” has brought new names into the spotlight, names like Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, Al-Nusra Front, Ansar al-Sharia as well as older groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. Men who were teenagers on 9/11 in 2001 now run some of those groups. Cut off one head, and two will grow in its place.
The tactics of current extremists, themselves so aware of the effects of symbolism, also find symbolic representation in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Carl Creel, a.k.a. the Crusher (Brian Patrick Wade), acts here as a kind of science fictiony improvised explosive device (IED). Creel absorbs (yes, comics readers, he is the equivalent of the Absorbing Man) the physical properties of whatever he touches, including pure minerals, compounds like asphalt and homogeneous mixtures, like glass. And like all bad guys, he gets off on his power. Creel absorbs bullets, blends with concrete walls and escapes captivity by becoming transparent. (Really, glass is the new rebar?)
The Crusher’s IED moment came as a shocker at the end of last week's season premiere, as he absorbed asphalt and upended a speeding Chevy Silverado. The truck thrust into the air much like one would imagine a military vehicle after encountering an explosive device beneath it. One seeming survivor was suggested by Izzy's (Lucy Lawless) arm, which flew from the car, “obelisk” still in tow. But then The Crusher retrieved the 0-8-4, and it seemed that, despite the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s best efforts, the dark mostly won the opening round.
This loss is of a piece with the end of Winter Soldier: S.H.I.E.L.D. has fallen. What remains is a ragtag collection of operatives lead by Agent, now Director, Coulson (Clark Gregg). The good guys act like insurgents, even if they are driven by a moral imperative, in a world of distrust and easy delusion. They want to save people who don’t necessarily want their help.
In part, the loss is one of appearances, as the US military and the American people equate S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra, with the help of “Kill’m all” propagandist Brigadier General Glenn Talbot (Adrian Pasdar). But it isn’t all propaganda, as the end of Season One revealed that the Clairvoyant was only clairvoyant because he was highly placed S.H.I.E.L.D. operative, John Garrett (Bill Paxton).
The problem of moles, of course, leads to another similarity with the current fear of Islamic extremism, as Western media warn of trusted citizens with passports going abroad, turned already or being turned, and then returning to their home countries to carry out espionage or violence. In Marvel's parallel world, even trusted S.H.I.E.L.D agents have abandoned their loyalty, willing to sell secrets to the highest bidder.
S.H.I.E.L.D. has gone dark in more ways than one. Coulson has developed a less likeable leaderish personality and poor, brain-damaged Fitz (Ian De Caestecker) is imagining the love of his life, Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), who left him. And then there is Ward (Brett Dalton), turning quickly into a Marvel equivalent of The Blacklist’s Red Reddington. Ward seems to have come through his dark place, with bumps and scars to prove it, but still, he’s now kept "in the dark" about everything, while being held in the actual dark. These are the seeds of the story arcs that will drive Season Two.
These arcs have other seeds, in assorted other beginnings. Beginning One uses Nazis as a safe metaphor for Islamic extremists. ABC isn’t cable, which in the case of Homeland, pulls directly from today’s headlines and from our immediate fears, without a lot of repackaging. The fictional Nazis of Marveland used to see Hydra as their worst nightmare.
In the Season Two opener we revisited a nearly defeated Hydra in flashback, complete with Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) and some members of Captain America’s freed brigades, taking out the last of Hydra’s hideouts. Flash-forward to discover Hydra was kept alive and infiltrating, not for any loyalty to “Red Skull” but through one of his lieutenants, a timeless Daniel Whitehall (Reed Diamond). Whitehall now reigns as the titular head of Hydra; like the Islamic State, he reminds us that for some, the long game can be very long indeed.
That long game is framed by the original of 0-8-4, the designation for alien artifacts of overwhelming (or unknown) power. We saw charred remains of those who first attempted to retrieve the “obelisk” as the World War II era Hydra team vacated their compound. They didn't make it, and the “obelisk” was placed in a sealed metal box by Agent Carter on behalf of the Strategic Scientific Reserve, a precursor of S.H.I.E.L.D. We saw the box being stenciled with “0-8-4”, as Carter documented the proceedings on film. Whitehall, in full Third Reich garb, was hauled away with the rest of the finds.
Moles, improvised weapons, organizations that sprout other organizations, and a host of other characteristics make Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a product of its day. Star Trek took liberties with the US-Soviet relationship, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will take its science fiction and comics roots to cultivate stories outside of the metaphor, but when it exposes our own darkness, when glints of insight suggest good is ambiguous and much of the world ambivalent, when shards reflect new enemies arising from the broken pieces of their predecessors, as well as a forever war, we may look back in the future to see ourselves, now, watching a classic in the making.
Finally, there is the television turn, the appearance of Agent Carter presaging her own 2015 HD gig in an Atwell-stared mid-season addition. Captain America: The Winter Soldier saved Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and a short featuring Atwell created enough interest in her that Disney bankrolled Marvel’s Agent Carter. We know Carter as minor kick ass, Captain America’s object of desire and coach, and “mom” to the bright but sometimes slovenly and sexist inventors of the (fictional) modern era, including Tony Stark’s father Howard.
Perhaps as the interplay between the World War II setting and other Marvelverses continues, we'll see that the creative team learned from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,’s early stumbles, so the new show is more mature, and ready to hit the ground with its Enfield No. 4s blazing.