An agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show may not have been what I would have chosen for Marvel’s foray into television in cooperation with Joss Whedon, but it is a logical move, a way to build out the Marvel universe with relatively low special effects requirements and in a procedural framework that will be familiar to audiences who aren’t used to watching superhero shows. But I’m optimistic about the character lineup that’s been announced for the show for a couple of reasons:
SKYE | This late-20s woman sounds like a dream: fun, smart, caring and confident — with an ability to get the upper hand by using her wit and charm.
AGENT GRANT WARD | Quite the physical specimen and “cool under fire,” he sometimes botches interpersonal relations. He’s a quiet one with a bit of a temper, but he’s the kind of guy that grows on you.
AGENT ALTHEA RICE | Also known as “The Calvary,” this hard-core soldier has crazy skills when it comes to weapons and being a pilot. But her experiences have left her very quiet and a little damaged.
AGENT LEO FITZ and AGENT JEMMA SIMMONS | These two came through training together and still choose to spend most of their time in each other’s company. Their sibling-like relationship is reinforced by their shared nerd tendencies — she deals with biology and chemistry, he’s a whiz at the technical side of weaponry.
First, given the huge imbalance in the Marvel universe, it’s really nice to have three female characters to two male ones. I like great male characters, and I’m always curious to see what Whedon does with men and masculinity, a rather under-discussed element of his work, but if we’re seeing this show as part of a larger whole, this is a welcome course correction.
And second, it’s nice to see that, at least from the initial descriptions, we’re going to have different kinds of women in the show, too, from a charismatic heroine, to an action hero, to a lab rat. Particularly in the high school years of Buffy, Whedon did a nice job of showing how women with different personalities and styles could click as friends, grate up against each other, hurt each other, and work together. It was fascinating to Buffy, not a day-to-day academic whiz (though a good test-taker), and Willow, who made up in smarts what she lacked in fashion sense, form an extremely effective and for the most part, emotionally balanced partnership. The “Lovers Walk” episode of Buffy’s third season, where Cordelia catches Xander cheating on her with Willow was interesting in part because it upset Cordelia’s understanding of her appeal and social standing relative to Willow. And in later seasons, Tara’s gentleness was a strong counterpoint to Buffy and Willow’s personalities: whether in magical practice or in terms of her relationship with Buffy’s younger sister Dawn, kindness can be even more effective than authority or strength.
Whedon did this kind of conflict of styles and surprising complementarities extremely well in The Avengers. Steve Rogers’ everyman values and old-fashioned perspectives on duty and teamwork clashed with Tony Stark’s ego and individualism. Tony may have goaded Bruce Banner, but in his fellow scientist, he recognized a kindred tinkerer and a man with some of the control problems that have plagued Tony in the past, if with more significant consequences. Thor sees in Bruce a man who needs a rumble sometimes. The final action sequences in the movie, though they have flaws, wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying without the friction that preceded it. These were men who could work together so effectively because they’d probed all of each other’s weak points and figured out all the places where their skills could complement each other. I’ll be excited to see Whedon use this part of his skill set again with a mixed group of men and women, and in an extended narrative on television.