Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and the Darker Side of the MCU

marvel agents of shield phil coulson clark gregg dark side series 3 grant war

Over the past couple of years, Marvel has been exploring it’s darker side, and to quite a lot of success; their Netflix shows, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, have been wildly popular, and dealt with far more serious themes than the average MCU movie.

But they’re not the only TV show which has been delving into the darkness – of late, Agents of SHIELD has also been flirting with darker storylines, and debating just what the place of these sorts of concepts is within Marvel.

Of course, there’s a difference between what the Netflix shows have been depicting – serious and more mature, “adult” themes – and what SHIELD has recently invoked.

What SHIELD has been delving into recently is what’s typically referred to as “grimdark” – an almost gratuitously grim tone, with a retreat into darkness simply for the sake of darkness. It’s the sort of thing I would usually dismiss as an attempt to be edgy, but it’s enjoyed a bit of a resurgence lately in the superhero genre. Batman vs Superman is a fairly good example of this really; like Man of Steel before it, the world being depicted is one that’s a lot more “serious” and violent than the way it is usually depicted.

Certainly, you can consider Batman vs Superman to be a response to Marvel; in an attempt to differentiate their cinematic universe from the popular MCU, Warner Bros have really leaned into a tradition which can only be described as grimdark. In turn, then, I would consider the recent plotline on Agents of SHIELD to have been a response to this, and a consideration of the place of the grimdark within Marvel.

marvel agents of shield rosalind price constance zimmer dead fridging phil coulson clark gregg hydra grant ward

Take, for instance, the fridging of Rosalind. In case you don’t know the term, “fridging” is when a female character is killed off, and their death is used to further the angst of the nearby male characters. It’s typically emblematic of pretty lazy writing – casting aside one character, reducing them only to their death, and then not letting this moment mean something for that character, but rather turning it into fuel for the same, tired angsty tropes being applied to another male character. (The death of Sara Lance in Arrow Seaon 3 is an example of something like this.)

Over the course of the first 9 episodes of the season, we’d seen Coulson and Rosalind grow closer to one another; Rosalind was on her way to become a nuanced character, and their relationship was demonstrating new depths to Coulson’s character – an impressive achievement, given that he’s been part of the MCU for almost ten years now.

This is cut short, though, by one of the most brutal moments we’ve seen on Agents of SHIELD; certainly, as you can see from the above picture, it’s the one of the bloodiest. Rosalind is shot, in the neck, with nary a final word to see her off, and Coulson is left to cradle her body while the blood seeps out of her – the whole thing then devolves into a revenge story between Coulson and Ward.

It’s an interesting position for this story to take, I think. When you consider how Coulson began – a mild mannered government agent – to take him to this point, where he’s a revenge seeking action man, is very much the antithesis of how he began. This is the grimdark reinvention of Agent Coulson, Captain American fanboy, who instructed his team that “killing is not an option” back in the very first episode of Agents of SHIELD.

marvel agents of shield phil coulson grant ward death killed blue planet

It escalates further, of course, with Coulson killing Ward. And not just killing him – crushing him, squeezing in his chest cavity until it snaps. It’s another brutal death in a series of casualties.

Following this, Coulson still isn’t satisfied; he then attempts to find Gideon Malick, the man who was working with Ward, and current Head of Hydra. To do so, Coulson uses a special machine to root through the memories of the near-dead Werner von Strucker; it’s a machine that was once used on Coulson himself, and he vowed never to put anyone else through.

And yet here he does. Von Strucker’s experience with the machine is written to deliberately parallel Coulson’s – he lies there, catatonic, begging to be killed, just as Coulson once did. It’s a deeply disconcerting and uncomfortable scene; the supporting cast all clearly want to disconnect von Strucker from the machine, and yet Coulson waits until he gets the information he wants to further his quest for vengeance. The scene is, essentially, torture, and our hero sanctions it.

The current storyline on Agents of SHIELD is still dealing with the fallout of these actions; I am, I suppose, jumping the gun a little bit by writing this article so soon. We’re yet to see a definitive answer to the question posited by this storyline, but were I to guess, we’ll likely see it rejected – we’ve got a rather nice villain in Hive, who represents an eldritch evil, and is presumably symbolic of this darkness. The manner in which the show deals with Hive will, in turn, tell us about how it is treating the grimdark themes that are so prevalent in superhero media at present.

I suppose it is quite likely that many of the people reading this will have dismissed what I’ve said, thinking that I’m reaching too far, and reading too far into things – and, to be fair, I could well be. Nonetheless, though, I think it’s fascinating that this interpretation is there, and that Agents of SHIELD is reaching higher, and trying to ask these questions.

And I can’t wait to find out what the answer is.

See the first post, “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and the Problem of Priorities”, here.

Related:

Agent Carter Season One Retrospective

Was Arrow Season 3 really that bad?

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Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and the problem of Hydra

marvel agents of shield hydra background coulson may fitzsimmons abc

So, in yesterday’s post, I outlined what I thought was, for a long time, one of the most significant problems with Agents of SHIELD – a lack of balance, and lost focus, in terms of its approach to its key strength, the characters. Ultimately, of course, the issue was resolved; across the course of the most recent season; I’ve been really impressed with SHIELD as of late.

Now, in today’s post, I want to discuss something which has been a long-standing bother of mine. As you can no doubt tell from the title, that’s Hydra; another interesting facet of SHIELD’s development, given the manner in which it helped reinvent the show, before eventually becoming stale and needing a reinvention of its own.

Let’s take a moment to look back on the early days of Agents of SHIELD, back before Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released. The show was, essentially, competent and entertaining but also largely underwhelming – high expectations had been placed upon it, leading to a pretty unforgiving audience. I know that I myself was pretty unfair on the show; I almost gave up on it a few times, but having rewatched the episodes since, there wasn’t exactly much wrong with it.

Generally accepted consensus, though, is that SHIELD picked up massively after the episode Turn, Turn, Turn; the episode that tied directly into The Winter Soldier, typically considered to be amongst the best of the Marvel films. It was a fraught, tense ending to the series, with a run of six episodes which are still amongst the best set of consecutive episodes that the show has ever produced.

The second season, however, did little to follow up on the promise of Hydra as it was previously established. Part of what was so compelling about Hydra was that it was SHIELD – this insidious infiltration had run so deep, ever since the beginning, that the two agencies where one and the same. Hydra were no longer the pulp fiction Nazis that they had been in The First Avenger, but something rather more interesting – they were us. Hydra represented every questionable decision ever made by an authority “for the greater good”. The Winter Soldier built in deliberate parallels between the Operation Insight surveillance plot and various real world events – and that was what made the Hydra we saw in The Winter Soldier such interesting and compelling adversaries.

Following that, though, we never really saw this again. In season two, we’d returned to the pulp-y Nazism stories – quite literally, with a long lived contemporary of Red Skull being the initial villain – and things took on a far more James Bond veneer. Hydra became a very generic organisation of evil spies, showing almost Austin Powers levels of incompetency, albeit very good branding skills. (One does question why, exactly, a clandestine organisation openly uses the name Hydra and places their big Octopus Skull logo on the walls, but hey, that’s probably what evil spies do, right?)

I’m being a little overly critical, of course; Hydra was reasonably entertaining, the majority of the time, but it was a real shame to see the potential for a more nuanced adversary be quashed, leaving us with rather one dimensional villains, almost as though out of a cartoon.  SHIELD fought Hydra, simply because they were super spies and super spies need to have an equal and opposite number – like GI Joe and the Cobras, I suppose.

marvel agents of shield grant ward brett dalton hydra abc

You can see it most clearly epitomised in the character of Grant Ward, though, and the changing approach to his character that we’ve seen across the show. Ward was revealed to be Hydra at the end of Turn, Turn, Turn; it was a twist that, admittedly, felt a little “well, he’s the only one who’s spare”, but I’m just being cynical. It was an interesting addition to a character who, up to that point, had been defined primarily by his apparent status as a model agent. There was something interesting about that, really; the one character who could be described as the perfect SHIELD agent was, of course, aligned to Hydra all along.

Initially, he was shown to be quite conflicted over his actions – despite a greater loyalty to Garrett, his mentor within Hydra, Ward demonstrably still considered the other characters to be his friends. There was clear anguish as he sent FitzSimmons to their potential death, and the narrative used flashbacks to deliberately imply that he was trying to leave them with the potential to survive.

Further, he described Hydra as “a means to an ends”, and always viewed himself as “a spy, just doing his job”, rather than a Nazi, as he was accused of being. Realistically speaking, in season one there’s little that Ward does differently as a Hydra agent that as a SHIELD agent – it’d be naïve to think he had never killed before when working as a SHIELD agent, and the same is true of both Coulson and May. The source of the tension was merely that Coulson and the others couldn’t get past what they saw as Ward’s betrayal, never acknowledging the ways in which he was similar to them; something which could have been interesting to examine with the “real SHIELD” arc that came into play during the latter half of season two.

Of course, that’s not the Ward we see now. Despite toying with an abuse backstory for a while, Ward eventually devolved into a more or less straight psychopathic character; torturing people and revelling in it, we’ve come a long way since the last time Ward was depicted as sympathetic.

In fact, we’ve now actually reached the point where Ward is the zombie host body of an alien eldritch abomination – which rather neatly brings me back around to the most recent reinvention of Hydra. Across the first nine episodes of Agents of SHIELD season 3, it was slowly revealed that Hydra, rather than being an offshoot of the Nazis, were in fact the modern day remnants of an ancient cult who worshipped a powerful, evil alien. Which is… certainly quite the twist, obviously.

It was a necessary reinvention, I think, and a good way to ensure that Hydra remained relevant to their current ongoing storylines. Certainly, it’s more interesting than the Nazis of season two – though I still wish that we’d stuck with the nuanced adversaries of The Winter Soldier.

Alongside the introduction of this ancient evil, however, we’ve also seen the very narrative of Agents of SHIELD invoking such themes, and examining what the place of that sort of content is in the MCU…

 …which is where we’ll pick up tomorrow!

Check back tomorrow for the concluding part of this triptych of Agents of SHIELD posts, entitled “Agents of SHIELD and the Darker Side of Marvel”.

Related: 

Agent Carter Season One Retrospective

Was Arrow Season 3 really that bad?

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