Monday, December 15, 2014

Representation Matters: The Legacy of Antoine Triplett in Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.



This essay contains multiple spoilers for the midseason finale of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. If you have yet to watch episode 10 of season two, please proceed with caution.

Well, it appears that Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and I have come to a parting of the ways. After weeks of relentlessly taunting the audience with the death of a black supporting character (first with the potentially mortal wounding of Antoine Triplett in episode 8, and then with the uncertain fate of Alfonso Mackenzie in episode 9), the showrunners of AoS went whole hog with the death of the fan-favorite character Trip in its episode 10 midseason finale—sacrificing him to the cause of creating an even more tragic origin story for the already quite thoroughly tragic Skye.

I was not surprised. In fact, I’ve been waiting for Agent Trip to die almost from the moment he was introduced (1). When he first debuted, I expected him to be the stereotypical bad black guy who dies (2). When he was ultimately revealed to be on the side of righteousness, I expected him to be the stereotypical good black guy who dies. I predicted (on the basis of rumors that actor B.J. Britt might have been spotted on the set of Age of Ultron (3)) that Trip would be killed in that film. So in that respect I was actually overly optimistic about the length of time the producers of the show intended to keep his character alive. Perhaps I should have suspected that his death would come sooner rather than later when Lance Hunter was introduced and the show’s dramatic tension began to focus almost solely on him, but somehow I didn’t.

The death of Agent Triplett is part of a disturbing trend in primetime television that has been ongoing for quite some time and shows no signs of abating (4). Just two weeks prior to the death of Trip on AoS, the showrunners of Sleepy Hollow killed off a black supporting character of its own, the universally adored Captain Frank Irving—much to fans’ dismay. When these characters are killed the excuses are almost always the same: the producers wanted the show to have weight, wanted the characters’ actions to have consequences, and wanted the struggles to have stakes (5). Anyone familiar with the patterns of dramatic motion picture storytelling—whether for the small screen or the big screen—and with the justifications put forward by content creators when they make these types of decisions, will not be shocked by any of this. But for a show touted for its diversity, the death of a major and beloved black character feels like a particular betrayal.

The indifferent treatment of black characters on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is particularly ironic given that it is one of the most diverse shows currently airing on primetime (6), but if I've learned anything from my time watching this show it is that a basically diverse cast is not enough—you have to deploy that diverse cast in a thoughtful manner, and, let's be real here: AoS has never done that. As I have noted in previous recaps of the series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a major problem with its treatment of its minority characters, and especially its black characters. It has had this problem since the beginning of Season 1 when they introduced Mike Petersen—a black character whose story arc saw him disfigured, abducted, subjected to extreme body modification against his will, and forced to perform horrific acts on behalf of a clandestine military organization in order to preserve the life of his son (who was also abducted), and who has since disappeared from the narrative entirely while the showrunners pursue other storylines. For those of us who went into the show expecting to see the unfolding of a superhero narrative for Mike Petersen, this handling of his character was extremely disturbing.

Other prominent black characters, like Akela Amador and Alfonso “Mack” Mackenzie, have been handled indifferently as well. Akela, like Mike Petersen, was a victim of abduction, subjected to body modification, and forced to work as a criminal, and she too has since disappeared from the narrative—having served her purpose as a tool to explore Phil Coulson’s evolving personality in the aftermath of the Battle of New York. Mack was possessed by an alien intelligence, robbed of his bodily autonomy, and left for dead by his teammates. He escaped death via as deus-ex-machina, presumably because he is set to become a key element in the struggle for trust between two white characters on the show—Lance Hunter and Bobbi Morse (7).

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has received a lot of praise for its prominent inclusion of minority characters, particularly Asian characters Melinda May and Skye—and the fact that the show puts an emphasis on these two women of color is indeed a wonderful thing to see (8). But given that practically no other minorities are privileged in this way, their inclusion only serves to reinforce the notion that you cannot simply fill your roster with a bunch of token characters and call it a day. You have to use them in ways that do not demean them. Having a couple of “strong (Asian) female characters” is not enough—not when you wantonly torture and kill your black characters (not to mention a significant number of your other female characters and your queer characters); not when everything is still about a bunch of cis-straight white dudes. Phil Coulson went to the ends of the earth to save Skye when she was mortally wounded in season one, but when Mack fell to his presumed death a mere two episodes ago, Coulson seemed immediately ready to sacrifice him to a higher ideal. The difference in those two attitudes is striking, and while such a contrast may seem trivial: it is not. This callous treatment of black characters on television is a direct reflection of (and subtle justification for) the callous treatment of black people every day.

Now I’m not saying that you should be as mad about this as you are about the actual killing of black men and women in the US. What I’m saying, though, is that representation matters, and this is the flip side of Whoopi Goldberg seeing Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek and being able to image herself in the future for the first time (9). This is young black men and women seeing themselves depicted as cannon fodder—as disposable to their society. And they aren’t the only ones who see that, either. The young men and women who will grow up to be the police who brutalize those black men and women, who will grow up to be the prosecutors and judges who don't see the need to provide those victims with justice, who will grow up to be the you and me who ignore the suffering of our brethren in favor of the comfortable story we like to tell ourselves about how far beyond racism we’ve come in the last fifty years? They see it, too.

Representation matters. And I’m not going to support creators who don't understand that.

Notes:
1) If you go to my tumblr and do a search of posts tagged “don’t-you-fucking-dare,” you will find that every single one pertains to Agent Antoine Triplett, my love for him, and my fear that Marvel was ultimately going to kill him off to further the character development of someone else in their Cinematic Universe.
2) This expectation was not unfounded. According to a recent interview with BJ Britt, Trip was intended to die with Bill Paxton’s villainous John Garrett at the end of season one. See Terri Schwartz, “‘Agents of SHIELD’:B.J. Britt’s Agent Triplett Was Supposed to Die in Season 1, zap2it (December 10, 2014).
6) Prior to the death of Agent Trip, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was the fourth most diverse show on television, with POC characters comprising 39% of the main cast, and 40% of the recurring cast. For more information on AoS and how it stacks up to other shows, see this post on diversity in television.
7) The show’s handling of Raina, another black character, has also been decidedly mixed. Though she has sometimes been shown to be a highly intelligent and complex villain, she has also been subject to gross bodily harm and deprived of her bodily autonomy by both the heroes and the villains of the show. Our last glimpse of her indicated that, in contrast to Skye—who transformed into an Inhuman who still looks basically human—she will become a physically monstrous figure in the forthcoming half of the season.
8) I could get into the stereotypical handling of May as a distant, macho, and almost masculine character type who is so often mistaken for a “strong female character,” but that’s a whole other essay entirely.
9) Dave Nemetz, “Whoopi Goldberg Explains Why She Wanted to Be on ‘StarTrek,’ Yahoo TV (June 24, 2014).

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

AoS, Season Two, Eps. 4-8, Pros and Cons

(This post contains spoilers.)

I'm almost up-to-date on AoS again, so it's time for some more pros and cons—this time for episodes 4-8. (Click here to see my pros and cons for episodes 1-3...) There are more pros than cons, and one of the cons is mainly nitpicking on my part, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is still rocking a lot of sexist tropes and idolizing the cis-white-dude. I had a lot to say this time, so let's jump in, shall we?

Pros
  The writers have finally figured out how to make Ward an effective character.
     I've said before that a show like AoS (which is a live action comic book) needs a compelling and complicated villain against which to pit its heroes, and Ward is growing into that villain. With the twists and turns the writers have given his back story in the past couple episodes, Ward has come to far outstrip both Daniel Whitehall and Skye's father in terms of believable menace. Whitehall is the two-dimensional evil man that you love to hate, and Skye's father is beautifully over-the-top, but Ward's ambiguity makes him threatening in a way that neither of the others are or, I suspect, ever will be. At this point, there's really no way to tell whether his past was truly tortured or if the tragedy of his childhood is just a story he told himself to justify a life of terrible deeds. And honestly it doesn't matter at this point; in fact the uncertainty adds to the drama in a fantastic way.

Through it all, none of the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., from Coulson straight on down the roster, have been willing to give Ward an ounce of sympathy.
     And that's exactly as it should be at this point. Skye's consistent refusal to give Ward the time of day is particularly gratifying. Whatever happens with his character in the future, he and Skye should never, ever be together. Ever.

Contrary to my fears, the writers have continued to handle Fitz's storyline very well.
     The writers have avoided giving Fitz's aphasia a quick fix, they have steered clear of magical negro tropes in developing his friendship with Mack, and they have even included some in-narrative corrections of ableist treatment of Fitz by Simmons. I really love that AoS now has a disabled team member character who is valued, respected, and cared for by the other characters, and I love that the writers are taking a nuanced approach to a topic that needs a lot more exploration and media representation. I'd be delighted to see other disabled characters, like Akela Amador, make an appearance as well.

The will-May-have-to-kill-Coulson-because-alien-DNA-is-making-him-erratic storyline got wrapped up quickly and without a lot of angsty fuss.
     I wasn't a fan of the way the writers rushed to explain the mystery of Coulson last season. It was somewhat understandable given the need to introduce Kree elements to the story for the purposes of developing an Inhumans narrative, but at the end of the day, I felt that the revelation fell flat. (To be fair, the implications are having more of an impact now that they can breathe than they could when the series really needed to get to a jumping off point for The Winter Soldier and then deal with fallout from the same.) Needless to say, I didn't particularly want to see the writers drag out a Coulson-centric subplot that, in many ways, was a rehash of a story that they had already told. However, the story of Coulson's increasing need to carve, and understand, a strange and inexplicable pattern, and what it meant for his long-term stability, was actually very well paced. The writers used it efficiently to advance interesting plot elements without dominating the main story lines and then retired it, and that was a smart move.

Cons
It's great to see Bobbi Morse, but I really wish we were seeing her as something other than yet another female character whose function is to make Lance Hunter look good.
     Bobbi's debut was really promising. She entered the story with a bang; she was cool and capable, and she didn't appear to be fazed by the fact that Hunter was still holding a grudge against her. For a minute, it looked like Lance Hunter was going to be a Matt-Fraction-esque Hawkeye type—a loveable fuckup with a string of exes who still care about him but can't take him seriously. Since the MCU has gone a somewhat different direction with their actual Hawkeye, the characterization makes sense. But the writers almost immediately started undermining it. At first it was just the constant bickering. Then Bobbi was used to make Hunter look like a better operative during the hunt for Ward.
     (As a side note: Trip was also used this way during the same sequence, and this bothers me for a couple of reasons. First because it aggrandizes the cis-white-dude at the expense of his minority partners, and second because it's just shoddy writing. A few lines of dialogue could have easily made the sequence look more like the team effort that it probably would have been in a real-life covert operation of this nature. Ward knows Agent Triplett by sight; he presumably knows Agent Bobbi Morse [or knows of her] as well. He has no reason to know Hunter the freelance merc. If the writers had staged the manhunt scene as a coordinated effort to drive Ward to a specific pursuer and a specific destination, it would have felt more believable and less lazy. More on that sort of thing below.)
     There are other examples of Bobbi's role as the designated woman who makes Lance Hunter look good—during her meeting with the Japanese demolitions expert when she needed to be saved by him and after her failed interrogation of Bakshi led to an argument-followed-by-a-romantic-interlude between the two—and I can tell you: I am not here for Bobbi Morse playing a lovesick second fiddle to Lance Hunter. Not here for it at all.

S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to stop being depicted as a happy family and start being shown to function like an espionage agency.
     This is a problem that has carried over from the first season. At times, I feel like the people who work for S.H.I.E.L.D. have no idea what that means. Skye's constant questioning of Coulson's orders and insistence on knowing every bit of intel is a relationship that looks more like a teenage daughter rebelling against her dad than a serious operative working with a superior, and his indulgence of her is even weirder. This is just one example of the way S.H.I.E.L.D. often doesn't seem to be written like a realistic organization. The manhunt for Ward sequence that I mentioned above is another example, as is the way several characters criticized Simmons for "abandoning" Fitz as if she had not in fact been directly ordered by her superior to run a dangerous and invaluable covert mission that payed huge dividends for the agency. The misfits on a bus vibe needs to be tabled; it occasionally makes the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. look incompetent. I'm not saying you can't have a show where a group of professional agents develop family-like ties (NCIS is a great example of a show that has done this trope beautifully), but the agents need to be professionals first and family second.

The repeated, graphic torture and/or murder-death-kill of women (of color) needs to stop.
     I am not kidding around here, writers. I want you to stop. Just. Stop.
     In episodes 4 through 8 alone, we've had a girl-on-girl fight that ended in death by disfigurement for the loser, an unnamed character who was known only by the codename Agent 33 and who was written in for the sole purpose of being depicted in scenes of torture, being deployed as a double for Agent May, and then a being written out again with a violent and meaningless death (1). (And let me tell you, if there's one thing I love it's expendable female characters. Bonus points when they're women of color.) We've also had the torture, degradation, and defanging of Raina—previously one of the most powerful and compelling characters on the show. We've had the graphic torture, experimentation on, and dismemberment of Skye's mother, who also has not yet been given a name. And we've had the brutal murder of a woman in a classically sexist "Mr. Goodbar" scenario (2). (So remember not to have one-night stands, ladies, because you will totally get murdered and then the story will focus on a married-with-children, middle-aged white dude who is put in peril by the same murderer but totally survives, natch!)
     Please just stop, writers; I'm asking you seriously and properly. Stop.
     There are other ways to show us that Daniel Whitehall is an awful, irredeemable villain than by showing him to be a senseless torturer and killer of women. And, frankly, when you've got your heroes acting in a similar way (Melinda May has no qualms whatsoever about the fact that she just killed a brainwashed woman who worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. before being kidnapped? Coulson is fine with tagging Raina like a dog because she's a bad guy and anyway payback's a bitch?)—when you've got your heroes acting in a similar way as the villains do, it doesn't tell the story you think you're telling. If the point is that the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are still as ethically compromised as the forces they are battling, that's one thing—although in that case you need to have a come-to-Jesus moment soon—but if you want your heroes to be above the forces they're fighting, then they need to be above them. Or, at the very least, they need to be having hard conversations with themselves (and therefore with the viewers) about what price freedom and how to fight a battle of this nature without becoming what you behold.

Notes:
1) EDIT: It has come to my attention that Agent 33 was recently revealed to be alive after all. I will address this development in a future "pros and cons" post.
2) Looking for Mr. Goodbar is a 1977 erotic thriller that stars Diane Keaton and Tom Berenger. The film focuses on the sexual exploits of Keaton's Theresa, who at the end of the film is beaten, raped, and stabbed to death by a man she picked up in a bar for a one-night stand.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Fridging, Manpain, and the Cis-White-Dude Hero: Lazy Storytelling in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.



Poor Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

When the show debuted last year, they had the so-called perfect team setup: the world-weary, yet secretly soft-touch upperclassmen, Coulson and May; the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and brilliant (and British!) scientists, Simmons and Fitz; the idealistic, be the change you want to see in the world newcomer, Skye; and the hyper-masculine, stoic yet tragic, cis-white-dude hero, Ward.

You just can’t lose with that many character boxes checked, right?

But something happened on the way to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. becoming a network hit. The cis-white-dude hero fell flat. Oh, sure, he had his defenders in fandom—many of whom continued to support him even after the writers switched gears and made him the villain his character was far more suited to be (Captain America: The Winter Soldier says “you’re welcome,” by the way)—but for a lot of people he never completely clicked.

By contrast, Agent Antoine Triplett (affectionately referred to as Trip), who was brought in mid-season as an affable foil to Ward’s taciturn loner, was an almost immediate hit whose popularity only increased as the season progressed and plot twists revealed the true natures of Ward, his mentor Garrett, and Agent Victoria Hand (may she rest in peace). Initially treated with suspicion by some members of the team, including Coulson, Trip repeatedly proved himself to be loyal, dependable, and a complete and total badass. He turned out to be so popular, in fact, that Marvel is rumored to have given him a role of as-yet-undetermined significance in their upcoming film Age of Ultron (1).

You’d think that B.J. Britt, the actor who portrays Agent Trip, would have been a shoe-in to join the regular cast of the show in season two. (During a Q&A hosted by Comic Book Resources before the season two premiere, in fact, more than one person asked about the possibility of Britt joining the show as a regular cast member (2).) But it wasn’t him. Instead, the new member of the regular cast was an English actor named Nick Blood who had been brought in to portray Lance Hunter.

It’s not necessarily curious that the writers of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would bring in Hunter—he’s an established character in the 616 universe with ties to S.H.I.E.L.D.—but it is curious that they would bring him in as a regular, and obviously with every intention of sliding him into the hero role that was vacated by Ward, when they already have someone—an awesome someone, a someone who is adored by the fans—waiting to take that role.

Think about it.

Agent Trip is, as has been noted, loyal, dependable, and a badass. He’s witty, he’s warm, he’s an adorable tech geek, and he’s a freaking legacy. His grandfather was a Howling Commando, for Stan Lee’s sake. He should be the guy. But he’s not the guy. Lance Hunter is.

There’s an elephant in the room, people: Antoine Triplett is an African-American character.

Lance Hunter is a British mercenary with a heart of gold; he’s a man with a checkered past who just needs someone to believe in him. He’s a cis-white-dude, and he’s ready to be a hero. And, more importantly, the cis-white-dudes who traditionally run everything in the entertainment industry are ready for him to be the hero. They aren’t ready, in any way, shape, or form, for Antoine Triplett to be the hero.

There’s so much wrong with this that it’s hard to believe it gets worse.

But it does.

The casting news about the introduction of Lance Hunter was made during the Marvel Television panel at this year’s San Diego Comic Con. At the same time, another piece of casting news was made: legendary fantasy icon Lucy Lawless would play the role of Isabelle Hartley—another, albeit extremely minor, character taken from the pages of the comics (3). This news was very well received by just about everyone, and Marvel quite quickly set about the task of fanning the flames of viewer excitement—releasing a first look at Lawless as Hartley in late August (4) and a spate of interviews with her teasing her character in the week leading up to the season premiere (5).

Imagine everyone’s surprise, then, when Isabelle Hartley debuted in episode one and promptly died a rather horrible death (6).

At first, I wasn’t sure what had happened. “So is Lucy Lawless going to come back to life with superpowers?” I asked my roommate, who was watching the premiere with me. “Are we going to have, like, a zombie Lucy Lawless who’s kind of like zombie John Cho on Sleepy Hollow?”

The way Lawless’ character had died made such a scenario barely possible, “But still,” I thought to myself. “Stranger things have happened. This is a comic book, after all.”

In that moment, even such a flimsy origin story was preferable to the alternative: that Isabelle Hartley had been fridged (7) in order to advance the storyline of her male counterpart, Lance Hunter—the cis-white-dude ready to be a hero and in desperate need of a sympathetic backstory to grease the wheels of fan acceptance.

As episode two premiered, however, and Hunter went on his crusade to ensure a proper burial for “Izzy” and do the right thing by her and her surviving relatives, the grim reality of what the writers of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had done began to sink in.

They fridged a female character, played by a prominent and beloved actress (whose death was therefore guaranteed to elicit an emotional response on the part of the viewers), for the sole purpose of providing their new cis-white-dude hero with a conveniently tragic backstory (8).

Lance Hunter might be a mercenary son-of-a-bitch, but deep down all he really cares about is doing the right thing—because deep down he’s got a heart of gold and he was deeply, deeply hurt by the death of his friend. And Coulson can see it. Coulson—the everyman stand-in for the Marvel fandom—is ready to give Hunter the deep and meaningful speech about joining the team and making a difference. And Hunter is ready to hear it, because he’s the hero we’ve been waiting for. He’s the guy that made regular cast, the generic cis-white-dude hero that every show supposedly needs if it wants to succeed.

Don’t you just love him?

There’s a blatant calculation at work in these narrative (and casting) choices that reveal a profound lack of respect for the audience’s intelligence. It’s very clear that the writers are essentially trying to get a Ward-type character right. Viewers seem to like British people so let’s make him British (9), and the straight-man archetype didn’t play well so let’s shoot for funny-man this time, and clearly he needs to be someone people can empathize with right out of the gate, so let’s show him being devastated by the sudden death of a character who is played by a beloved actress. Because even though the viewers know nothing of the Isabelle Hartley character, their love for the actress will transfer to her and, consequently, to her friend, and we’ll finally have our perfect team-up courtesy of some well-placed manpain (10).

And meanwhile, Antoine Triplett—the guy who by all rights should be the guy but isn’t—is left to badass his way around the show’s background scenery, being the dude you can always count on, a member of the recurring cast, probably waiting to make his Age of Ultron sacrifice play.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Lance Hunter will grow to be a character of real depth. Maybe Antoine Triplett will become a fixture of the show for seasons to come and make the regular cast roster in season three or four (if the show gets that far). Maybe the writers have plans that I can’t yet appreciate and will heartily approve when they finally do come to pass.

But the fact that Antoine Triplett has been passed over now is a problem. And the fact that Isabelle Hartley has been fridged in order to legitimize the character who has taken his place is also a problem.

And those problems will stay with the show until someone in charge steps up and works to solve them. Ball's in your court, Marvel. Let's see if you've got what it takes.

Notes:
5) A Google search of the terms “Lucy Lawless” or “Lucy Lawless Agents of Shield” will return a large selection of these articles, which were posted mainly in the third week of September 2014.
8) The use of Isabelle Hartley as a mere plot point, and not as a full-fledged character, becomes even more problematic when you consider that the Hartley character is thought to have been modeled on a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Isabelle from the original comics, who was the girlfriend of canonically-LGBTQ character Victoria Hand—herself fridged near the end of AoS season one. This, combined with the casting of Lawless, who is most famous for her portrayal of lesbian character Xena in Xena: Warrior Princess, suggests that the creators have undercurrents of queerphobia running through their writing as well.
9) As an attempt to forestall any potential but-Lance-Hunter-IS-British-in-the-comics rebuttals, let me make it clear that when I say “let’s make him British,” the “him” I am referring to is “the Ward-type character” and not the character of Lance Hunter specifically.
10) As of right now, the perfect team-up is somewhat compromised by plot developments from the end of season one and the beginning of season two. (I would argue that it has been compromised in a potentially good way.) However, for the purposes of this essay I have omitted discussion of those developments because they are not directly relevant.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

AoS, Season Two, Eps. 1-3, Pros and Cons

(Note: This post contains spoilers.)

I finally had a chance to sit down and catch up on the first three episodes of AoS season two. At this point, there have been a number of good things and a number of troubling things. For me, they add up in the following manner:

Pros
So far Season Two features tighter writing in general than Season One had.
     This includes:
     1) stronger, more believable relationships between characters (especially between May, Skye, and Trip)
     2) better episode plotting and pacing (the first two episodes held me pretty engrossed, in spite of a couple of serious content problems)
     and 3) the development of potentially solid story arcs for Simmons and Fitz (I think it was a good idea to split them up, and I did NOT see that figment of the imagination twist coming at all; that was extremely well executed) (additionally, the inclusion of a character who is struggling with a disability but who is shown to be a capable and respected member of a team could be a very good thing provided the writers handle it appropriately; that is to say, provided they don’t decide to retcon Fitz’s condition with… I don’t know… some alien serum bullshit or something like that)

No one, most notably Skye, is buying into Ward’s bullshit at this point, although that is probably destined to change.

KYLE MACLACHLAN (‘nuff said)

Cons
The continued depiction of body horror that focuses almost exclusively on women and PoC characters.
     (How about we not?)

It’s cool to see a racebent Al Mackenzie and all, but the creators need to be extremely careful about how they frame his interactions with Fitz because that dynamic could go from touching friendship to “magical Negro” in the time it takes to say “Aphasia,” and no one wants that.
     (Seriously, let me say this now: if you brought his character in for the purposes of playing the Fitz Whisperer, just stop.)

The fridging of Isabelle Hartley in episode one.
     I have A LOT to say about this, but I’m putting it into a separate post. Suffice it to say that I was not impressed with the use to which the Hartley character was put by the AoS creative team—I see what you did there, AoS peeps: I SEE WHAT YOU DID. I’m not stupid, and I see exactly what you did. And I’m not happy about it, on any level.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Fighting to Read

In his essay on the difficulties of reading in an age of constant connectivity (and how contemporary fiction may adapt itself to this environment), Tim Parks asserts that "every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for" (1). I've found that especially true for myself this week, as I've joined a book club and embarked upon a reading of John Knowles' A Separate Peace—a book that I haven't read since high school (or junior high?)—an activity that quickly left me struggling to stay focused.

Parks highlights a couple examples of pre-1980s literary prose (by Faulkner and Dickens, respectively) to illustrate his point that such texts were written in eras when readers were free from the demands of smartphone and laptop, ringtone and notification, to fully immerse themselves in richly detailed prose that does not lend itself kindly to the habitual pauses that pepper a modern person's daily life. Much as I hate to admit it, Parks' argument resonates with my own experience of changing personal reading trends. Well do I remember the days before laptop and smartphone when I often lost myself in the pages of book after book, reading such pre-modern classics as Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness, Frankenstein, and Lorna Doone not because they were on the curriculum, but because I simply wanted to and I had plenty of unfettered time. I also distinctly remember a time post-laptop, but pre-smartphone, when I finally managed to finish Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities during an unexpected eight-hour delay at the Mexico City airport. That may well be the last time I read a classic until now (2), and I feel quite certain that I would never have finished without the benefit of that "inconvenient" delay.
In his conclusion, Parks speculates that the writing style of contemporary fiction will adapt itself to a reader whose consciousness is much more divided than that of the person reading "fifty or even thirty years ago." While this may be true, I am hopeful that my new reading endeavor will engender in me both a more disciplined reading practice and a willingness to let go of the lesser demands of daily life. After all, there was a time when I got by perfectly well without the pings and prods of up-to-date information. Surely, I can do so for the evening hour or so it takes me to keep up with my book club.

Notes:
1) Tim Parks, "Reading: The Struggle," The New York Review of Books (June 10, 2014)
2) Actually, the amount of fiction I read in general has dropped quite shamefully since I began my graduate student program. I keep hoping to reverse that trend, but there always seems to be another article to read first. This is an issue the Parks doesn't really address in his article. His suggestion that pre-1980s prose is not calibrated toward a life that is constantly checking-in with the cloud is quite persuasive, but he has little say about how that constant checking-in has fast become a responsibility of modern life. We are not merely short-attention-spanned wastrels; we are actively expected (by family, friends, and colleagues) to put ourselves on hold to ensure near-constant availability, and that's a whole other problem entirely.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Redemption in the Marvel Universe: Grant Ward and Bucky Barnes

The following essay was originally posted to my tumblr blog.

Warning: Here Be Spoilers.

In a recent interview, Jeph Loeb—the executive producer of the show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Head of Television for Marvel Entertainment—spoke about the possibility of a redemption arc for the AoS character Grant Ward.

One quote of Loeb's, in particular, caused something of a furor on tumblr:
The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) has done things that are far more heinous than anything Grant Ward has ever done as far as we know, and yet, at the end of the movie, you’re rooting for him to come back on the side of the angels. (1)
While not outraged by this statement, I am genuinely conflicted about it.

On the one hand, Grant Ward is a horrible person, who has chosen to do horrible things and who—as of the season 1 AoS finale—has demonstrated no sense of remorse for his actions. Thus, in my opinion, there is no redemption for Grant Ward as he currently exists.

On the other hand, however, redemption arcs are the bread-and-butter of comic book stories. Many, many people who are superheroes in comics today started off as supervillains or have gone through supervillain phases: Rogue, Emma Frost, Natasha Romanoff, Clint Barton, Magneto, Scarlett Witch. Alternatively, many superheroes have fallen into supervillainy and subsequently recovered (or not): Charles Xavier, Jean Grey, Bishop, Tony Stark (subject to dispute, I know, but in my opinion everyone on the side of the Superhuman Registration Act in Civil War counts as having a supervillain phase, and I particularly dislike 616 Tony Stark—deal with it).

What’s troubling to me about Loeb’s statement is not that it implies a possible redemption arc for Grant Ward, but that it seems to do so without an awareness of what makes a redemption arc plausible. People are rooting for Bucky Barnes not because they are capable of looking past the crimes he committed as the Winter Soldier but because they understand him to have been nearly as victimized by those actions as the people he killed were. His experience of years of torture and mindcontrol at the hands of HYDRA (in the MCU) constitutes a viable excuse for his actions. Simply put, he was not in control of himself when he committed those crimes—i.e. he is not culpable for those crimes.

However, while Bucky Barnes is clearly a victim, Grant Ward is clearly not (2). There are explanations for why he did the things he did, yes, but there are no excuses. (Recognizing the difference between an explanation and an excuse is, I feel, absolutely crucial to understanding a character like Grant Ward.) As a result of this, a majority of people are not rooting for Ward. They understand that he, unlike Bucky Barnes, is fully culpable for his actions. Now, I’m not saying that Ward cannot be redeemed, but redemption is an uphill battle. Even for someone like Bucky Barnes, who wasn’t in control of himself during his time as the Winter Soldier, it is a task that takes time and dedication. (And this is another major reason why people root so hard for Bucky; in the comics—and no doubt in the films—he took [will take] full responsibility for his actions as the Winter Soldier and actively, tirelessly worked to make things right.)

In all honesty, I could see a redemption arc for Grant Ward that played out over the course of several (later) seasons, but not one that happened immediately within the second season. But if he did go on to have a redemption arc, his culpability for his crimes would mean that he would not be starting in the same place that Bucky Barnes did/will.

There’s a lot of room to explore interesting themes with the character of Grant Ward and the characters who knew him and were betrayed by him. I think he has the potential to make a great ongoing villain—the sort of character audiences love to hate. The kind of villain whose past relationship with our heroes makes for a lot of high drama and emotional resonance and whose continued presence provides room for the exploration of themes of guilt, mistrust, and grief in the wake of betrayal (and attempted, or hoped-for, redemption) that comic books do so well.

But this quote by Jeph Loeb definitely makes me nervous. As it stands right now, Deathlok has more remorse for his actions than Grant Ward does, so if they’re thinking redemption arc for Ward then they’re going to have to be extremely careful about how they handle it. And rushing is absolutely not the way to go.

Notes:
1) Vanessa Frith, "'Agents of Shield' Season 2 Spoilers: How Much Will Ward Feature [POLL]? Execs Discuss Skye & Ward's Relationship [VIDEO]," Enstars (July 18, 2014).
2) I realize that this is a potentially inflammatory statement. However, I stand by my assertion that Grant Ward is not a victim. He was at one time a victim of child abuse, but having suffered abuse does not absolve him of responsibility for his crimes. The stereotypical character who does bad things because bad things happened to them is an exceedingly sloppy narrative device that, in my opinion, perpetuates extremely damaging stereotypes about people who have been abused. Abuse cannot be framed as an excuse for acts of violence; to do so is to insinuate that anyone who has suffered abuse cannot help but enact a vicious circle of abuse. There must be a point where an abused person who goes on to abuse others ceases to be considered a victim and comes to be seen as a victimizer. You may still feel a sense of sympathy for them—an understanding of the context in which they do the things they do—but you cannot absolve them of their actions.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Whose Girl Is She? The Intensely Problematic Depiction of Mystique in 'X-Men: Days of Future Past'

Warning: Here Be Spoilers.

About a month before X-Men: Days of Future Past opened, I saw a gifset taken from this scene of the film, and I got very, very nervous. The clip appeared to show a Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnscherr (Magneto) who were at odds over a girl—Raven Darkholme (a.k.a. Mystique), retconned to be Xavier's foster sister as of X-Men: First Class—rather than at odds over an ideological difference of opinion. The philosophical difference of opinion that Xavier and Magneto have over how to achieve mutant prosperity is the cornerstone of the X-Men universe, and it is what has enabled the story of the X-Men and their foes to remain consistently compelling since their debut in the 1960s. The crux of the struggle between Xavier and Magneto (and the X-Men and their various foes) is that they essentially want to achieve the same goal, but they have radically different notions about how to do that. Where Xavier and his X-Men favor pacifism and outreach, Magneto and "villains" like Mystique and her Brotherhood of (Evil) Mutants favor vigilantism and revolution.

This distinction between the two factions was admirably maintained in X-Men and X2: X-Men United, but it began to erode in X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: First Class. I was naturally extremely worried by the possibility that the exploration of ideological contention between the main characters might have been abandoned in favor of a two-dimensional spat over a female character—a trope that is both sexist and boring. I began to fear that Days of Future Past was not going to be the triumphant return to the beloved X-Men films of the early 2000s that I was hoping for.

As it turned out, I was somewhat misled by the gifset I saw. Days of Future Past did not simply distill a complex debate down to a fight about a woman, and it would be a gross oversimplification to say so. In fact, Days of Future Past did something far, far worse. For in this film Mystique was not merely the thing that Xavier and Magneto fought over; she was the battleground on which they fought—a blank slate devoid of agency or identity, picked up and used and tossed aside when their need for her was gone. Mystique's entire character arc, if you can call it that, hinged on a struggle between identification with one or the other of two men, and at no point was there ever any indication that she might conceivably have been her own person, capable of making her own, well-informed decisions.

Mystique as she exists in the comic books, and in the first two X-Men films, is an extremely powerful character. She is grounded in deeply-held beliefs about her mission to secure mutant prosperity. She is comfortable in who she is as a person and a mutant. She rejects other people's labels about who she should be and how she should act. She is an unqualified badass.

We see this Mystique in X2, when she disagrees with Nightcrawler's suggestion that she use her powers to hide: "Why not stay in disguise all the time? Look like everyone else?" he asks. "Because we shouldn't have to," she replies. And we see this Mystique again in X-Men: The Last Stand, when she continues to help the cause of mutant prosperity even after she has been depowered—illustrating just how strongly her sense of self is grounded in the belief that her cause is just. In X-Men: First Class, however, this Mystique was erased in favor of a depiction of her as a sheltered, naive girl-next-door, whose acceptance of self hinges entirely on being sexually desired by a man. This marks the beginning of the transformation (completed in Days of Future Past) of Mystique from an autonomous character to subordinate tool.

In X-Men: Days of Future Past, the horrible dystopic future of a world ruled by Sentinels is precipitated by an assassination carried out by Mystique. So far, so good. (This is what caused the dystopic future in the original Claremont/Byrne story arc.) However, unlike in the original comic book, where Mystique's actions were part of a larger vigilante project that was underlined by a specific ideological belief, in the film Mystique is motivated primarily by a surplus of feminine emotion (read: hysteria) over the deaths of her friends. These paper-thin and stereotypical motivations are emblematic of the way in which the writing team of the prequels have pulled Mystique's fangs. She is no longer a powerful force in her own right; instead, she is an erratic, overly-emotive will-o-the-wisp, desperately in need of guidance because she cannot stay grounded without a force greater than herself upon which to orient herself. In other words, she has no real autonomy.

This lack of autonomy makes her the perfect tool for the primary male characters to fight over, and her representation in this manner is part and parcel of a larger problem of representation in superhero films in general. As Monika Bartyzel has noted:

"The female superhero problem isn't just one of reluctance and indifference — it's one of seriously skewed attitudes. The creative teams behind superhero franchises (and much of the media that report on them) simply don't treat female superheroes as superheroes. Instead, they're viewed as objects and used for male support." (1)

The objectification of Mystique in this film could not be more clear. It is the sole basis on which the dramatic tension is built, and it is visually and narrativistically reinforced throughout the course of the film. Mystique is manipulated, physically and mentally by both of the primary male characters at various points. Magneto moves her body (by means of a bullet embedded in her leg) with his power; Xavier freezes her body by seizing control of her mind. Both men do this to her, without her consent, for her own good, and in defiance of her stated desires. Yet even her stated desires are characterized in terms of her alliance to one or the other of these men. Her decision to assassinate or to not assassinate is framed purely in terms of whose girl she is. Is she Charles' girl? Or is she Erik's girl? After all, she certainly is not her own girl.

In the end, Mystique does not actually make a decision. She merely functions as a blank slate onto which the philosophies of the main male characters are projected.

And allow me to repeat that, so that it is clear. In X-Men: Days of Future Past, the desires and worldviews of the two main male characters are literally projected onto the blank-slate body of a woman who spends the majority of the film in a state of virtual nakedness. She is not a character in this film. She is an object to be used by her male counterparts, an object whose meaning and function are defined by them.

This is, in no uncertain terms, horrible. It is indicative of the deeply ingrained misogyny and male entitlement that characterize our society.

And it needs to be challenged in a major way.

Notes:
1) Monika Bartyzel, "Girls on Film: The Superhero Genre's 'Giant Green Porn Star' Problem," The Week Magazine (May 23, 2014).

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.