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.

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.

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  1. I'd like to mention that the reason BJ Britt is not a Series Regular is because he also has the show Being Mary Jane on BET. I'm sure he would've been if he wasn't on the other show.

    1. Two points. Number #1: The fact that BJ Britt has another acting job in addition to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has no bearing on the sexist writing that was used to introduce the character of Lance Hunter. Number #2: BJ Britt has appeared in only half of the episodes of "Being Mary Jane" that have aired to date. That's not exactly Series Regular territory. So that's bullshit. But thanks for playing, though.

    2. Sorry, I just wanted to follow-up on this since I've had more than one comment of this nature at my other blog as well. So here goes...

      Okay, so, it may be true that Britt's position on another show prevents his being contracted as a regular for AoS (I don't know anything about how television contracts work, so I won't speak to that issue). However, as far as I can tell, no one working on the show has straight out said, "We would have had Britt for the main cast, but his contract with another show prevented that," although they have hinted at that possibility. (They also cite budgeting concerns being a factor.) But you know what? Forget the contract and the main cast status. Because THAT. IS. NOT. THE. POINT.

      The existence of a contract with BET might prevent Britt from joining the main cast roster of AoS, but it doesn't prevent the showrunners from writing Agent Trip into the show's hero role. That's not how that works. They could easily have transitioned Trip into the role vacated by Ward. They didn't do that, though. Instead they introduced an entirely new (white) character to take that role and immediately added the actor who plays him as series regular. Those are deliberate actions on the part of the creators to put a black man in the role of sidekick and a white man in the role of hero. And frankly, if the assumptions about BJ Britt's contract are true, the fact that the creators didn't hire an actor who was free to join the main cast in the first place demonstrates that they never had any intention of having Agent Trip be anything more than a sidekick character.

      Fixating on the question of contracts ignores the bigger picture. It's basically saying that "because Britt has a contract for this other show, the showrunners have no choice but to engage in shitty writing," and that's bullshit. These people are not at the mercy of contracts. This is not a situation where BJ Britt's contract on Being Mary Jane forced the writers to use lazy stereotypes and sexist tropes in their stories. Suggesting that it is such a situation constitutes an incredibly lazy attempt to evade the issues that this essay is attempting to speak to.