James Poniewozik sat down with Joss Whedon in Los Angeles last month, and, like a bureaucracy nerd after my own heart, asked Whedon about one of the interesting challenges in Agents of SHIELD: how the show will handle one of its core conflicts, between a young hacker named Skye (Chloe Bennet), whose campaign against government secrecy around superheroes has echoes of Edward Snowden, and the agents of superhero management organization SHIELD who end up as her unlikely allies. Whedon sounded, to say the least, somewhat conflicted about the sudden resonance of his show:
It’s definitely gotten way more topical. It’s complicated. I would say it’s delicate. You want to tap into it without being cheesy about it, without necessarily coming to a conclusion. We knew before any of the [NSA] stuff that we were basically dealing with [upbeat tone] a young individualistic ragtag group of [drops voice to sound menacing] faceless bureaucrats who know everything about you! And that was going to be part of the tension. And Skye was brought in to just like land a haymaker in the face. Boom, guess what guys, this is what’s going on; this is what you are. And then we can rebut it, but it’s not an argument you ever want to finish. Personally, the NSA collecting data on me freaks me out. It totally freaks me out. And yet I’m from the generation that wants to put a GPS in their kids so I always know where they are. So I understand both sides of what that is. So, you know, it’s one of the things, one of the pebbles we’ll turn over in our hands to examine over and over
I’m a fan of the idea behind Agents of SHIELD, that it’s worth looking at the people who work at the bottom of the superhero pyramid, and who have to clean up the messes left behind by maurading gods and playboy heroes after they wreck great American cities in defense of the humanity as a whole. But the dynamic between Skye and the rest of the SHIELD team actually illustrates one of Agents of SHIELD‘s biggest problems: the show starts before the Marvel universe has laid enough groundwork to explain how ordinary people feel about the arrival of demigods in their midst, and why.
As a result, Skye, who’s supposed to be one of the show’s main characters, is a straw girl. The writing for her is, by a significant margin, one of the worst parts of Agents of SHIELD, though the difficulties Brett Dalton, who plays Agent Grant Ward, has getting his mouth around Whedon’s signature dialogue is a close second. All of Skye’s rhetoric about the evils of government secrecy about superheros is profoundly generic, pronouncements like “We can’t explain everything we see, but our eyes are open. So what now? There are no more shadows for you to hide in. something impossible just happened. What are you going to do about it?” that make Bane’s deliberately phony monologues about inequality in Gothm in The Dark Knight Rises sound inspiring and intellectually coherent. If Skye’s meant to be a critique of a transparency-for-transparency’s sake, that might be an interesting trajectory for her character, whose current obsessive focus on a new superhero’s nom-de-guerre and insistence that she’s living in the van she hacks and podcasts from by choice come across as adolescent contrarianism. But if not, the show needs to do much more to ground the transparency movement in real concerns, and to make Skye a more eloquent and specific advocate for them.
But it’s not as if the show does very much to make the case for secrecy, either. When Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Skye finally face off with each other, their positions in the debate literally boil down to “the truth” on Skye’s side and “world peace” on Coulson’s. It wouldn’t be hard to outline those positions in somewhat more detail. Skye could argue that there has to be accountability for people whose tactics, even if they’re effective against unprecedented threats, cause enormous damage and run the risk of incurring huge numbers of civilian casualties. She could advocate that there need to be public debates about deploying superheroes offensively, not unlike the current conversation about Congressional authorization for a strike on Syria, or a government insurance program that can make whole people who are injured in the aftermath of a defensive superhero action. Coulson, on the other hand, could argue that superheroes need to be treated like covert operatives, that they’re most effective when they’re deployed secretly and expeditiously. None of which is to mention the fact, implied heavily in The Avengers, but never discussed again, that SHIELD is apparently an international organization, which could cause as many problems for deploying superheroes as the United Nations does for purely human forces.
I don’t mean to say that Agents of SHIELD has to do all of its world-building in a single pilot episode. But what disappointed me most about the pilot, which I saw at the Television Critics Association press tour, was how generic it felt, how uninterested in its truly fascinating premise. Joss Whedon’s been a master of making us see our own world as strange and threatening, at putting flesh on our emotions and our fears, or of summoning entirely new worlds into richly detailed being. Agents of SHIELD needs to do more than cast CW-pretty faces. It needs to give them ideas and positions, too, and build out the world in which those convictions can be applied, challenged, and change.