FitzSimmons, Science, and Scientists in the MCU

Estimated Reading Time: 13 minutes

(This essay is #6 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD. The final four essays in this series can best be summarized as “Blubbering and Screams Interspersed With Big Words.”)

LET’S TALK ABOUT SCIENCE AND SCIENTISTS IN THE MCU, AKA MY LITERAL ACTUAL FAVORITE THING. Let me take you on a journey through the cultural historical traditions of scientists’ representations in the media, the necessity of carefully constructed science to the MCU, and how all this context helps me explain why Fitz and Simmons make me weak at the knees.

Please consider this more of an exuberant outline. I have so much research on this topic that I could literally fill a book with it and technically it covers the entire MCU.

spoiler warning

Continue Reading

Agents of SHIELD’s New Kids

Estimated Reading Time: 13 minutes

(This essay is #5 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD.)

With all the griping at the beginning of Agents of SHIELD about the underdeveloped original characters, the series learned its lesson and introduced three agents adapted from the comic book canon for season 2. All three are presented so effectively that I adored them instantly. This in contrast to the disaster of a first season where I still didn’t care for some of the characters by the end. Two things are in play here: the first is that Hunter, Mack, and Bobbi are fully developed when initially presented to us and even have their own history and business together separate from the main narrative. The second is that all three are introduced by treating our old friends kindly, helping, or saving them.

This is less an essay and more a collection of brief character analyses, but I love the new kids so much that they definitely qualify as one of the reasons I adore Agents of SHIELD on the whole. Trying to articulate just what I love about their personalities results in some nebulous commentary, so bear with me.

spoiler warning

Continue Reading

Grant Ward Don’t Need Your Bullshit, He’s Got Plenty of His Own

Estimated Reading Time: 17 minutes

(This essay is #4 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD.)

Most of you have probably made it here because you know me for my very public Agents of SHIELD meltdowns which are 95% 97% 99.9% over Fitz and Simmons. So I know how strange it sounds when I say: this one is about Grant Ward and it is by far the most personal of this series.

Ward’s character development is a complicated, ambitious undertaking that ultimately Agents of SHIELD just doesn’t care about dealing with. Let me take you on my armchair psychology tour of messed up childhoods and identity crises.

Warning: if you bring the word “woobify” at me I will knock you in the teeth. Character analysis does not automatically mean woobification. Additionally see this please and stop demonizing abuse victims, thanks.

xoxo
-Tumblr Refugee

Continue Reading

Nobody’s Nobody (Except When They Are): Agents of SHIELD and the Problem of Coulson (v. 2)

Estimated Reading Time: 12 minutes

(This essay is #3 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD.)

It’s time to talk about our fearless leader: Phil Coulson. Agents of SHIELD was conceived entirely as a vehicle for Coulson, a minor character from the film continuity with a large fan following. Coulson was Jossed (aka “killed for plot reasons”) in 2012’s The Avengers and the outcry was so enormous that an entire series was built around resurrecting him. Agents of SHIELD‘s genesis is more complicated than that (experimenting with different media formats to optimize all available revenue streams has a lot to do with it too), but without Coulson there is no Agents of SHIELD.

Which is why it’s too bad that Coulson was never really a character at all. It’s doubly too bad that it took nearly an entire season of Agents of SHIELD for them to fix that problem. (I wrote a much shorter piece about this before season 2.) Advance warning that almost all of the links in this piece are to TV Tropes.

spoiler warning

Continue Reading

Coca-Cola’s Not-Cool Attempt to Be Cool Because Marvel Explosions Are Cool, Right?

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

I pretty much hate American football, but being from North Carolina I felt some weird obligation to tune in this year. There was always the chance I’d get a Captain America: Civil War trailer (I did, #TeamCap!), and there are those (in)famous commercials people talk about. I spent the majority of the first-half snarking about American masculinity, gay panic, and misogynistic commercials. And then Coca-Cola decided to try to sell me their unhealthy product with Ant-Man and the Hulk. Not just, like, cartoon characters or wink-wink nudge-nudge selling. They made a full-on action sequence involving stealing soda, destroying buildings, and questionable MCU physics. It literally took all the sassy fun out of this entire endeavor because no, no, there was so much wrong with this entire sequence.

First, the MCU is unusually strident about policing its narrative boundaries. It has to be because it does some fascinating world-building work—particularly in Iron Man films where it deliberately positions Tony as existing in a universe so similar to ours that he hangs out with Elon Musk and is on the cover of Rolling Stone. The way each installment references and crosses over with the others constructs a very tight, consistent world. Rather than a really cool opportunity to advance that illusion, this advertisement was least-effort blatant commercial exploitation of recognizable pop culture. Which, whatever, that happens all the time. I’m not pissed that it’s finally happened with Marvel. Disappointed, yes. There is a big difference between intercutting clips of a car with clips from a movie and making an entire heist scene “set” in a fictional universe. But if you’re going to actually appear to set something in the MCU it needs to make sense in the MCU. This does not. The truly disappointing thing is that this was a phenomenal chance to further the conceit that the MCU is a coherent reality. Instead it shatters that illusion about as thoroughly as Age of Ultron. There’s no reason Ant-Man is stealing Coke from Bruce Banner’s lab (since when does Bruce Banner even have a lab?) There’s no reason he Hulks out to the point of destroying a building because the Coke is missing except haha cool action bro. I’m not sure it’s a good idea for tiny Ant-Man to drink normal-sized Coke—that’s some sketchy quantum physics there.

Now, this could have been hella cool. Rather than a weird forced usage of characters in an implausible scenario, Coke could have actually used the way the MCU deliberately plays with media. It’s absolutely within the realm of possibility that the Avengers have product endorsements in their own world. They’re media stars. There are Avengers action figures and kiddy costumes. The MCU is only separated from our reality by a paper thin barrier. They could have framed this ad as an artifact that escaped through a fissure between our worlds. If you want Bruce Banner to endorse Coke, make an ad where Bruce Banner legit endorses Coke. Ant-Man, as a complete unknown in that universe, should not be in any form of mainstream media. Tony Stark would be both most and least likely to endorse something: most because he’s a ham, least because he doesn’t need the money. Logistically, I know that the advertisement was the way that it was because with green Hulk and tiny Ant-Man all you need is CGI and you don’t have to pay Ruffalo, Downey Jr., etc. But, come on guys! Think for five seconds beyond the cool factor! This is how Age of Ultron was so awful.

Basically, this was pointless garbage that fits nowhere, even though its framed as an actual incident. The layers of metafiction here are inconsistent. It’s seriously lax policing of the universe boundary. Even if you do try to view it as an in-universe advertisement, Banner would never Hulk out for commercial purposes (it’s too dangerous) and no one even knows who Ant-Man is. I know how ridiculous it is to get bent out of shape about a Coke commercial, but there’s so much here that’s out-of-character and inconsistent that it’s offensive to my emotional over-investment.

Bad. Shame. I’m swatting your nose with a newspaper, MCU. This universe is not just for serving up “awesome” visuals—it’s doing some really cool stuff with media, metafiction, etc. I already had hints that they didn’t respect their own creation but this just seals the deal.

Anyway, I already think Coke is disgusting, so whatever.

Continue Reading

Agents of SHIELD as Accountable Cult TV

Estimated Reading Time: 18 minutes

(This essay is #2 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD.)

Agents of SHIELD is the glue that holds the Marvel Cinematic Universe together. Not exclusively, and sometimes not entirely successfully, but there’s no denying that the work the series does is deeply enriching to the MCU as a whole. Through its utilization of cult TV conventions, the pioneering transmedia interconnectivity in the MCU, and its own nerdy sensibility, Agents of SHIELD is a (nearly) ideal example of cult television and the storytelling potential of modern media. I love cult TV, meta, intertextuality, and transmedia storytelling so much that a lot of times I just start squealing like people can understand what high-pitched piggy noises mean. So, here I’ll unpack it in human English with as little jargon as possible.

Additional spoiler warnings for: The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica (2003), Lost

spoiler warning

Continue Reading

Post-9/11 Rhetoric and Pop Cultural Dissent Through Billionaire Superheroes

Estimated Reading Time: 48 minutes

A friend convinced me to take my “fake PhD” and actually apply to a Media Studies PhD program. I discovered that I had a woeful lack of suitable material for a writing sample. My brilliant idea? To write a new article completely from scratch. The following is my 9000+ word piece written in one month with only public library database access and an actual mental breakdown thrown in there for kicks. For future purposes, consider this a draft version of any subsequently published material. First completed December 1, 2015.

Spoilers for: Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and basically the entire MCU. Additional warning that this is in serious academic-speak.

spoiler warning

Introduction

The official Bush Administration rhetoric contextualized the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as a large-scale battle between the forces of good and evil, and freedom and oppression. The American public was content accepting that narrative for a time, but as doubts began to form it increasingly processed the national trauma of 9/11 through fantasy and popular culture. During the 2000s, the superhero film genre flourished, breaking box office records and providing a platform for both complicity in the official good vs. evil narrative and dissent from such a simplistic worldview. Two of the most popular and complex characters to launch into the public consciousness were DC’s famous tycoon Batman in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy and Marvel Studio’s answering billionaire arms dealer: Iron Man. Nolan’s Batman films religiously adhere to the heroic traditions of moral simplicity and a battle between good and evil while rigidly maintaining the comic book conventions of lone men, hyper-masculinity, and secret identities. The Iron Man films intentionally toy with and discard all of these conventions, preferring a more nuanced narrative that exposes the underlying imperialistic intentions of the American capitalist and questioning the demonization of foreign peoples. Both film series are in dialogue with the prevailing political narrative, offering audiences the chance to process the 9/11 attacks while also providing an avenue of dissent in a cultural climate that had silenced all objection to nationalistic war.

Continue Reading

The Line Between the World and the Much Weirder World: The Two Faces of Agents of SHIELD

Estimated Reading Time: 13 minutes

(This essay is #1 of 9 in a series about Agents of SHIELD.)

I have a deep and abiding love for the Marvel Cinematic Universe that has veered wildly into obsessive territory. So much so that I have what I refer to as my “fake PhD”—a meticulously outlined media studies research thesis related to media franchises, cult television, cultural history, science fiction, and a multitude of other nerdy things. Consider this series of posts the colloquial, abridged, and topically focused version of my fake PhD.

My favorite thing to talk about, if not possibly my actual favorite thing, is Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD—the first of Marvel Studio’s television endeavors which began airing in fall of 2013. Now, there are two separate but simultaneous love affairs going on here: my love for Agents of SHIELD itself and what it does with transmedia storytelling and cultish convention; and my love for the characters Fitz and Simmons which is another beast entirely. I’ll get to it all, but it’ll take a lot of words.

Agents of SHIELD was originally backed by Joss Whedon, geek royalty extraordinaire. While the show was developed in response to fandom outcry at the death of fan favorite Phil Coulson in The Avengers, Whedon’s premise was that Agents of SHIELD be a series-length version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Zeppo”—an episode which follows a peripheral character through an apocalyptic event. If Agents of SHIELD was intended to be about the people behind the scenes of the superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, what they first served up was an emotionally lifeless series of low-stakes jaunts around the globe that couldn’t decide if it was a children’s adventure show or a more serious exploration of what being powerless in a world with superpowered individuals would actually mean. Trust me: they fixed it later.

Because Agents of SHIELD objectively sucks for the first fifteen episodes of the series, I’ll start there. This isn’t quite as intellectually rigorous as the topics to come, but it needs to be addressed before we can go on. (I wrote a similar article before Season 2.)

spoiler warning

Continue Reading

Spoilsports: a conversation on spoilers between friends

Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes

I loathe spoilers with every fiber of my being, but my best friend Rachael adores them and actively seeks spoilers for everything. I figured the best way to get a balanced view on spoilers was for me and her to have a conversation, featured below.

Spoiler warning for: Stars Wars EU: Fate of the Jedi, Agents of SHIELD, Battlestar Galactica, Continuum, A Song of Ice and Fire.

spoiler warning

Continue Reading

Black Mirror’s Virgins and Whores: Science Fiction and the Woman Problem

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

Yesterday, at a loose end and with a few hours to kill, I decided to give Black Mirror a go. All I knew about it was that it was “weird” and one of the episodes had Hayley Atwell. Cool.

Black Mirror is a sci-fi anthology series with a new story every episode. The most accessible comparison is that it’s like Twilight Zone. Every story in Black Mirror is a fascinating exploration or deconstruction of modern technology and society’s reliance on it. The basic premises are intriguing and the stories are quite good. I enjoyed it. But the thing that kept me from adoring it is the same thing that keeps me intellectually detached from a lot of classic science fiction. Women in these stories are archetypes who exist almost solely as plot points for men.

Women are more than just love objects and baby incubators. Yes, miraculously, women have their own internal lives. No, they aren’t wandering wombs desperate for insemination. And no, they’re not constantly out to screw you in every capacity.

spoiler warning

Continue Reading