Nobody’s Nobody: The Moral Core of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

After three viewings of the pilot, I can honestly say that I’m maybe most excited about the show’s moral core, because I feel like so few shows bother to think of having one. “Don’t ever tell me there’s no way,” Coulson chides FitzSimmons. “It’s on you. Get it done.” He makes the reason for this bluntly clear to Ward: “Nobody’s nobody.”

As I wrote in my response to the bizarre Jim Steranko rant about the pilot (more kneecapping than recapping), where he expressed his befuddled inability to understand who to root for, it’s obvious from Coulson’s statement to Ward: we root for everyone. We root for Mike to find his way back from the brink, for Ward to come to understand something other than bombs, for FitzSimmons to find another way, for Skye to become part of something greater, and for Coulson to be right in his fierce and unassailable belief that all of these things can happen if you insist that nobody’s nobody and it’s all on us.

There’s been some dislike of Mike’s airing of grievances in his confrontation with Coulson at the end, and I’m still uncertain whether it’s because people didn’t understand it or because people simply didn’t agree with the sentiment. Life is tough as it is, he’s saying, and you always told us we could step up, be men, and pull it off, but now on top of everything there are supermen, and how are we supposed to matter now? Coulson, again, gets to the point: It does matter who you are. It’s exactly what he’s telling his own team, in other words or by other means.

Coulson, now that Whedon et al have their hands on him for real, is positioned to be Joss’ (and Jed’s, and Maurissa’s) most overtly humanist character yet. He’s not telling people to look to billionaires, super-soldiers, monsters, or gods for inspiration. He’s telling them to look to themselves and to each other, because it isn’t about being a billionaire inventor, a super-solider, a monster, or a god. None of those things are who Iron Man, Captain American, Hulk, or Thor are, those things are simply what they can do.

Back in May, there was a weird dispute over the sincerity and optimism of The Avengers and whether or not it somehow was unrealistic escapism in a world of irony and cynicism. The hopefulness of The Avengers is the same hopefulness of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

In his epic Entertainment Weekly interview by James Hibberd, Joss is direct: “But I can’t believe anybody thinks we’re actually going to make it before we destroy the planet. I honestly think it’s inevitable. I have no hope.” But he doesn’t leave it there.

My stories do have hope because that is one of the things that is part of the solution—if there can be one. We use stories to connect, to care about people, to care about a situation. To turn the mundane heroic, to make people really think about who they are. They’re useful. And they’re also useful to me. Because if I wrote what I really think, I would be so sad all the time. We create to fill a gap—not just to avoid the idea of dying, it’s to fill some particular gap in ourselves. So yeah, I write things where people will lay down their lives for each other. And on a personal level, I know many wonderful people who are spending their lives trying to help others, or who are just decent and kind. I have friends who are extraordinary, I love my family. But on a macro level, I don’t see that in the world. So I have a need to create it. Hopefully, that need gets translated into somebody relating to it and feeling hope. Because if we take that away, then I’m definitely right. I want to be wrong, more than anything.

I’ve seen some complaints that the pilot seemed a bit light for Whedon, but I wonder if this is a reaction to the fact that this show is (forgive me) the Whedonesque sensibilities as seen through the filter of family programming, something none of Joss’ other shows have been. His last series, Dollhouse, was about as dark as he (and Jed, and Maurissa) has ever gotten. Jed and Maurissa wrote for Spartacus, about as far from family programming as you can get. I’m not sure why people are expecting here the kinds of storytelling we’ve seen from these people before, when this is a different audience. What I am sure of is that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was my nephew’s first primetime show, and the next day he dressed up as an agent and started calling his bike Lola. I call that a mission accomplished and an opportunity indeed for Joss’ storytelling need to get “translated into somebody relating to it and feeling hope”.

Once upon a time, Joss called his Goners film (lost to development hell at Universal Pictures) an “antidote to … the horror movie with the expendable human beings in it”, because he doesn’t believe any human beings are. Look at Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as an antidote to the television show with the expendable human beings in it, an antidote to the television show without a moral core. Whedonesque family programming (see what I did there?) about hope.

Sincerity and optimism shouldn’t be dismissed as unrealistic escapism. What matters is who we are. Nobody’s nobody. It’s all on us.

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    Oh! Now I get it: Agents of SHIELD is the shadowy government version of Flashpoint! …Though, I mean, Flashpoint is a...
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    My all time favourite moment of the entire second episode was Skye pointing out that one person doesn’t solve a problem...
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    I liked this so much I wrote a post about Coulson and Cap inspired by it.
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