I’ve had an up and down relationship with Agents of SHIELD over its last 3 seasons. The show has had its rocky moments, especially in the first half of the first season (though it gets a lot better in re-watch when you know Agent Ward’s trajectory), and there have been times when the Russian doll nature of Hydra always having a deeper mission has been frustrating. But overall it has become one of my favorite superhero shows, and one that has provided a lot for this blog to chew on. As I get ready for the premiere of season 4 this week, I wanted to go over some of the ethical questions the show has raised and the ones I’m hoping to see further explored in the coming season.*
- What is the role of government oversight in a world where people have superpowers?
This question has been at the heart of a number of stories recently, including Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad, every X-Men movie, and Captain America: Civil War. While some of these stories have done a better job of others in framing the issues, the central questions of how much we can or should trust people with powers to use them wisely and fairly, and how we can protect civil liberties of powered people while doing so, are important ones that have been at the heart of Agents of SHIELD since the first episode. As we see a new version of the agency emerge in the wake of Civil War and the Sokovia Accords, I’ll be curious to see how the show deals with these issues, especially given the questions we wrestle with today in our own world about the powers we give to those who are supposed to keep us safe, and what is or isn’t done when those powers are abused.
- What is the danger of fear as a motivating factor when dealing with powered people, or any ‘other’?
Fear is a major theme in all of the stories I mention above. Fear of Superman and what someone with his powers might do, fear of aliens with greater technology than our own, fear that people with great powers might do terrible harm while trying to do good and no one can hold them accountable. Many characters in these movies and TV shows are afraid, and with good reason. I can’t begin to imagine how fearful I would be to wake up and learn that aliens were real, potentially malevolent, and had powers beyond our comprehension, let alone ability to fight. Or that the person next to me on the elevator could be reading my mind, or messing with my technology or something else I can’t even think of yet. That fear is deeply understandable. But that fear is also the problem. SHIELD has done a great job highlighting the ways fear can blind us and lead us to do terrible things, be it fear of aliens from across the galaxy or across the ocean, fear of Inhumans or people we don’t see as fully human. I’m looking forward to how the show continue to explore this question, as the SHIELD agency takes on a new role in the post-Civil War world.
- Will Quake/Skye/Daisy go back to questioning SHIELD and its methods?
I spent the non-football involved parts of my viewing time last week watching episodes from Season 1, reminding myself of where the agency, and Skye, started. Her character has gone through so many changes that it’s hard to remember she started as a self-proclaimed hacktivist, part of an organization called the Rising Tide which sought to shine a light on all the things SHIELD was trying to keep quiet. The organization was discredited fairly quickly- the one member we met seemed more interested in selling information than using it for the public good. Skye’s own defense of the group and its methods were portrayed as naïve and misguided, and faded quickly as she found a ‘family’ in SHIELD. By the middle of Season 1, the group had, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist on the show.
How ironic then that I took a break from my SHIELD re-watch to go see Snowden, the movie about the man who did all that Rising Tide ever wanted to – found and made public information that documented secret government plans to spy on their own people, circumvent civil liberties, and do it all in the name of the public good. Pair that with the work of activists like Anonymous and the importance and relevance of hacktavists becomes all the clearer. I hope this season brings those questions back to the forefront of the Marvel world, as I would love to see Skye/Daisy return to her anarchist roots and pose real challenges to SHIELD and the Sokovia Accords.
- Which bad guy will kill another bad guy in a satisfying way for the audience?
In our last two podcasts, co-host Paul and I have talked about the issues surrounding our heroes killing others, especially when it is a ‘bad guy**’ who the audience has come to believe is getting a most justified death. SHIELD has, for the most part, sidestepped this issue by having a number of the more gruesome deaths suffered by those bad guys come at the hands of other villains, or characters who exist in a morally grayer space than our heroes. When Reina leaves the sadistic scientist Debbie to die horribly at the hands of Scorch, or Lash tears apart HYDRA aligned Inhumans in particularly horrible ways, the show gives those villains their ‘deserved’ ends without our heroes getting their hands dirty. It also makes the few moments when it is our heroes who do the killing themselves, such as Coulson killing Ward, all the more powerful. One of my favorite parts of last season was Coulson’s wrestling with the implications of his decision to kill Ward and its consequences, both literally and morally, and I look forward to seeing where they go with those questions. In an MCU where the heroes are split over the Sokovia Accords, Quake has gone rogue, and SHIELD is under new leadership, I imagine the lines between ‘heroes’ and ‘bad guys’ are going to get murkier.
Those are just a few of the questions I’m thinking about as Season 4 of Agents of SHIELD kicks off. What about you? What are the ethical issues from the earlier seasons you’re still thinking about, or ones you are hoping to see explored in the season to come? I’d love to hear your thoughts here, or on Facebook or Twitter!