“It’s Like Magic”: Science, Superpowers, and Narrative Utility in Cult TV

11 minutes

Estimated Reading Time: 11 minutes

(This essay is #7 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD)

Genre cult television tends to have two character types: action heroes and brainy exposition characters. Oftentimes, the brainy characters develop some kind of physical or metaphysical power of their own because generating ways to keep them narratively relevant over time becomes difficult. In the MCU in particular, science is used by the majority of scientist heroes to level themselves up and give themselves superpowers. Yet Fitz and Simmons don’t use science as a personal enhancement, their intelligence is something like a superpower, keeping them relevant while still allowing them to remain mundane.

Additional Spoiler Warnings for: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly/Serenity, Supernatural, Angel

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Mr. Exposition

I first encountered the idea of characters-as-exposition from J.K. Rowling. She once said she loved the characters of Dumbledore and Hermione because if you needed to give the reader information Dumbledore would know it and Hermione could have read it in a book. When I was a kid and first read that I thought it was a terribly reductionist way to look at a character. My beloved Hermione is nothing but an infodump? It took a few years for me to realize that exposition characters are almost always my favorite largely because they are the exposition characters.

Every show has at least one character who exists for exposition. Even procedurals have a lab rat or a tech who explains to the dumb cops and the sexy interns what manner of crime scene or disease they’re dealing with. I am a creature of genre which means largely what I watch are science fiction and fantasy television series. Exposition characters are crucial to these types of shows because they provide the world-building that allows for suspension of disbelief. If the sci-fi scientist or the occult archivist explains the weird phenomenon satisfactorily, you stop thinking about the logistics of the story and start thinking about the story. Nothing kills a sci-fi story for me faster than implausible logistics.

Speculative fiction series have the added wrinkle of also largely crossing over with the action/adventure genre. You need the brainiacs and nerds to direct the action heroes, but then the nerds are benched in favor of big explosions and martial arts. This conundrum is why most exposition characters develop some kind of additional power in sci-fi or fantasy series to keep them relevant. Find a brainiac in any show where there are magical forces or superpowers and that brainiac will eventually not only have a genius-level intellect, but also god-like control of the supernatural.

Fitz and Simmons on Agents of SHIELD completely avert this trope. Even in places where it would be narratively easier to power them up, the two remain steadfastly unpowered. Their lack of superpowers or physical prowess leaves them as the only two characters in the show who still cleave to the series’ original “Zeppo” premise. It is their intellects and knowledge of science itself that functions as their “superpower” and keeps them relevant both to the overall narrative in their expository function and during action/adventure sequences where they are physically weak but far from helpless.

Brains Beget Powers (Or: How To Get Willow Off the Bench)

When I first discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer I sensed that the character I should, by all rights, be obsessed with was Willow Rosenberg. She was very similar to me. And yet it was Giles who was my favorite beyond all others and I felt apathetic about Willow. Eventually, it became clear why.

Willow is the ideal example of a brainy character gaining some kind of additional power in order to keep them relevant. Not only does Willow have an interest in magic, Willow’s magic becomes literally the most powerful force in the Buffyverse. The relationship between brains and powered prowess is symbiotic, as Willow’s power grows because of her intelligence and study. Intelligent characters in paranomal/supernatural cult TV shows tend to gain powers as a physical manifestation of their intelligence that the narrative can use to its advantage. It’s common that characters who start as smart support staff gain these types of powers so that they can tag into the action. The longer a series airs, the more likely it is that they will bleed out of the adviser role and into a role as fighter themselves. The thing is, these specialties compound. Willow is not only the most powerful witch in the universe, she also continues to be a genius-level hacker.

A few border cases include Supernatural, Angel, and FireflySupernatural has brainy Sam Winchester possessed with god-like demon capabilities resulting in an internal battle between his intelligence and his powers that engulfs the entire story. Angel sees Fred literally consumed by an all-powerful being, transforming the demure geek into an equally expository character but who could then teleport and punch through walls. While multiple characters fulfilled the exposition role on Firefly depending on the plot topic, River and Simon Tam tended to grease the universe mechanics when science was needed. Serenity reveals that River, though damaged, is in fact a mind-reading killing machine who can take out hundreds of Reavers on her own. In almost every case, powers are something added on top of the role that the character already filled, unbalancing the cast dynamics and leaving one character with bloated capabilities and out-sized importance.

Agents of SHIELD itself falls into this power-loading trap, giving Skye not only heightened cheerful empathy and “natural” world-class hacker capability but also a thick dollop of extremely strong superpowers. Skye’s power at this point borders on omniscience and problems are solved not on a character level but with brute force. Superpowers and magical ability are a trap that begets laziness in storytelling. (Sidenote: “S.O.S Part 2” requiring not Skye’s earthquake powers but her hacking abilities gave me hope that the story could remain character-focused, though that hope currently seems to be misplaced. The use of Skye’s earthquake powers to open the portal in “Purpose In the Machine” is a huge part of why I consider that episode the best in the series. Using superpowers in mundane or particular ways is fabulous and requires attention and specificity. Using them to blast things because things are there to blast is lazy.)

When a character placed in the narrative for intelligence becomes capable of applying the solution on their own, that skews the entire dynamic and makes it too easy to resolve conflict. That’s how Willow’s power became the ultimate conflict of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s sixth season. That’s why Castiel could never permanently join the Winchesters on their hunting trips in season eight of Supernatural. At some point, being the genius and being the action hero leads to omniscience.

No matter how much I love these characters, I tend to find them ultimately annoying. The fixes they offer are too easy, and they solve tricky narrative problems with such little effort that the resolutions are unsatisfactory.

“It’s like magic. But it’s… it’s science.”

My love for Fitz and Simmons is expansive and multi-faceted. When Simmons got sucked into the stone at the end of season two, there were two things I desperately did not want to happen: for Simmons to get superpowers, and for Simmons to have some far-flung lover who knocked her up. I can’t actually decide which one would have upset me more, though I know how upset I was about the lover thing. Both plotlines, to my mind, would undermine the core of what makes Fitz and Simmons so special. Both are also lazy. It’s been awhile since Agents of SHIELD was that lazy.

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We are very serious. Take us seriously. (1×04)

When we first meet Fitz and Simmons they have two functions: comic relief and exposition. They are the show’s Black Box—give them a problem and they will deliver some technological doohickey that will solve it. Usually in about thirty minutes. Because, yes, they are that good. As the exposition/black box, they were deeply important to the series’ original case-of-the-week narratives, yet they were underdeveloped, had little screentime, and were generally burdensome to the other characters because of their physical ineptitude.

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Literally solving Extremis in like an hour. Something Extremis’ inventor Maya Hansen couldn’t do in twelve years. (1×01)

Even in the MCU at large, you have Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Whitney Frost—nearly every other scientist being transformed and powered-up by their science prowess, either intentionally or by accident through hubris. Fitz and Simmons are the idealistic, morally sound, humble versions of Stark and Banner respectively. They channel inherently neutral science as a purely positive force.

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Trickyyyyyyy. (2×15)

Their superpowerlessness is remarkable, but it’s not their lack of powers alone that makes Fitz and Simmons so astoundingly fresh. It’s that they use their skills and intelligence to remain relevant during action sequences. While they are initially a burden to the likes of Ward and May who are charged with protecting them in the field, Fitz and Simmons both develop a field savviness that serves them just as well in combat as martial arts or earthquake powers. They use their cunning and their technology to extricate themselves from dangerous situations and, basically, wait for the bruisers to bring backup. There are even occasions where Fitz and Simmons save the day on their own, though they usually don’t come out of those situations unscathed.

Through a combination of intelligence, guile, and their messed up love affair they even prove to be the best spies on the entire show. They steal Fury’s toolbox out from under Bobbi Morse who is a skilled interrogator and human bullshit meter. It’s one thing to fool your enemies, another entirely to fool your friends.

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I have never in my life loved someone as much as I loved Leo Fitz in this entire scene. You don’t understand. (2×22)

The opportunities to power them up have been many. They stand out to me because I keep dreading it. Fitz’s brain damage could have led to weird experiments that gave him powers. Simmons sucked into that stone was ground zero for superpowered shenanigans. The moment Fitz and Simmons (or the show at all) were first interesting is when Simmons is basically ill with superpowers. The actual “superpower” in “FZZT” is a deadly threat and the triumph is not in gaining power but that they cure it under duress through collaboration. Their lack of powers leaves them peculiarly vulnerable in the action-packed narrative of Agents of SHIELD, yet framing their intelligence as literally enough for survival is revolutionary. Particularly in an action series, intelligence is often presented as necessary but inadequate when the world is out to get you. Fitz and Simmons don’t need powers or martial arts skills because their scientific expertise is presented as, not just their main attribute, but the very thing that makes them valuable in a conflict.

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Take us seriously now, bitches. (1×06)

The idea that Agents of SHIELD explores how non-powered people deal with living in a world where superpowers exist was always one of its most compelling features for me. It’s one thing to have grand moral battles on the big screen, but Agents of SHIELD was the first thing in the MCU to show how those events affected normal people. AoS is in a liminal space between Avengers and something like Daredevil precisely because it was the MCU’s first experiment with non-filmic storytelling and as such is necessarily more closely yoked to the film events. SHIELD agents aren’t exactly “everyday” people, as they have direct ties to aliens and super-powered individuals, but they are generally non-powered people. Agents of SHIELD needed to ease the audience into the idea that the world expanded beyond the confines of the movies. That said, the only characters on the series who would still qualify as “mundane” are Fitz and Simmons precisely because they don’t have Inhuman powers, world-class martial arts skills, or robot hands. They stay relevant by both fulfilling their expository function and holding their own through cunning and technology. Functionally, science is their superpower. But in staying particularly powerless, they keep the series grounded.

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“I’m always the gadget guy. Maybe sometimes I want to do things with my bare hands.”
“You make the gadgets with your bare hands.” (1×13)

What I would love is for Fitz and Simmons to never gain superpowers. For science, logic, and guile to remain their primary defenses. I’d love for them to return to their role of exposition and problem solvers rather than providing overplayed and unnecessarily trite romantic drama. The weird thing is, I can’t even fix it with fan fiction if they don’t. Their role in the narrative at large, possessing their own side-story without being consumed by it, is what always made them enjoyable. Let’s get back to that.

I’ll just leave you with Clark Gregg’s assessment of this situation:

I’ll allow it.