First, I’ll start off this article by stating a simple fact: I saw Black Panther on opening night, and since then, I’ve wanted to write this post. I walked out of that film with so many ideas to talk about, I was nigh bursting. However, I waited this long to post anything about Black Panther for a simple reason – there are other voices than mine which should take precedent in a conversation about a film so strongly impacting people of color right now. There are so many writers of color putting out thoughtful, insightful articles about Black Panther that I felt it was important for me, as a white woman, to sit back and listen without stepping in and having my say.

Then, I saw this image pop up online asking why more white women weren’t speaking up about the feminism in Black Panther when so many are touting Wonder Woman as such a feminist film. So I figured it was time to write this then, to do my speaking up.

Because folks, I’m going to agree: Black Panther is a more feminist film than Wonder Woman. And I’m going to show you how.

[[Note: Major spoilers for Black Panther below.]]


DoraMilajeWonderWomanFeminism As An Integrated Force

Previously, I’ve written extensively about the incredible job the creators of the recent Wonder Woman film did translate Themyscira and the Amazons onto film. Sure there were some issues along the way, but overall I believe director Patty Jenkins did a phenomenal job telling Diana’s story on the big screen. However, there has always been a part of the Wonder Woman story that rubbed me the wrong way.

As a little girl, when I saw misogyny growing up in the world around me, I longed for a place where I could escape, a society of women who were not only strong but intelligent, thoughtful, creative, and loving. Themyscira truly was Paradise Island, where a woman could be everything she ever imagined, without the influence of patriarchy on her growth.

Yet now, as a grown woman, I can see a fundamental flaw in this idea. Though the thought of a world without men is seductive when faced with the dangers of toxic masculinity on all society, I’ve come to believe removing one’s self from “man’s world” to only focus on a woman-based culture devoid of men is to ignore a larger part of society. Toxic masculinity, in fact, effects men in a “man’s world” just as bad as it does women, if only in other ways. I believe that to ignore those effects and abandon the rest of the world to its own devices is to truly ignore the promise of feminism’s positive impact on the world. By separating themselves away from men, the Amazon’s evolved into a utopian society to the detriment of the rest of the world. Their influence could have changed the world if only they’d emerged from their hiding sooner.

pantherBy contrast, we have Wakanda. Though Wakanda is an isolationist society much like Themyscira in regards to the rest of the world (a subject for much debate elsewhere and addressed directly in the Black Panther film), it is also a well-balanced, nearly utopian society, growing technologically and societally with every passing generation while still holding onto its ancient traditions. Yet unlike other societies, Wakanda does not focus on patriarchal ideology, despite its male-dominated leadership (Wakanda has a history of only kings on the throne until, spoiler alert, Shuri becomes the first woman leader in the comics). Instead, Wakanda has fully integrated the idea of women as equals, creating a society where women are not only respected but accepted without surprise when in positions of power.

black-panther-marvelThere are powerful examples of this integration all across the film. Shuri is the princess of Wakanda and yet, as a super genius serves as the driving force behind Wakanda’s technological evolution. Okoye is the leader of the Dora Milaje, a fighting force of women drawn from every tribe of Wakanda to be its most dangerous protectors. As the bodyguards of the royal family, the Dora Milaje are never questioned as warriors but instead accepted not only as equals but as superiors in combat. Even King T’Challa knows he is meant to be deferential in many ways to Okoye, who has more experience as a warrior and general than he does. Let me say that a little louder: never once does the king of the sovereign, advanced nation of Wakanda speak down to or diminish the power of the women warriors and creators all around him. He humbly recognizes women as equals, worthy of respect as a matter of commonplace course.

[A brief note: The film makes an interesting adjustment to the story of the Dora Milaje that sets it apart from the comic book version. In the comics, the Dora Milaje are indeed chosen to become elite warriors to protect T’Challa and the royal family. However, they are also meant to be taken from every tribe so eventually T’Challa will choose a bride from one of their ranks. This idea was stripped from the film, a choice that mirrors a more progressive ideology being embraced by the film’s creators. The Dora Milaje were always badasses, but they’ve now become more than just badass prospective consorts as they were originally written.]

103334Never is T’Challa’s acceptance of the influence of women more apparent than in his relationship with his ultimate spy, Nakia. Nakia left Wakanda to embed herself in other societies for the purpose of saving people (especially women) endangered in the turbulent outside world, flying directly in the face of Wakandan tradition and T’Challa’s own interests. T’Challa sought out Nakia as a love interest and yet respected her choice to leave, even when he disagreed. When he finds her once again at the beginning of the film, he is struck nearly dumb at the sight of her, a king lost for a moment in the sight of the woman he obviously still cares about, much to Okoye’s snarky delight. Yet with every interaction between Nakia and T’Challa, we see a man not only besotted with the spymistress, but a man who does not treat her as a sexual or romantic object. Instead, he values her experience, her opinion, and her power, accepting her choices without real complaint and listening to her advice so much she influences his entire foreign policy.

10145959_web1_film-black-panther-women_3747697
Queen Ramonda (played by Angela Bassett)

From Queen Ramonda (played by the unbelievable Angela Bassett) to every one of the Dora Milaje, from Okoye and Nakia and Shuri and the councilwomen who serve as representatives of their tribes, the powerful leading women of the Black Panther film are not presented to the audience as exceptions to the rule in Wakanda. Instead, they stand as examples of how Wakanda has evolved as a society which allows women to flourish to their full potential equal to men in all ways, with no question or compromise. In Wakanda, women and men live lives of nearly unvarying potential with no need to withdraw or hide.But beyond their own integration and acceptance in society, the women of Wakanda seem to have brought a very important influence as well on the men around them.

The Divestiture of Toxic Masculinity In Black Panther

When watching Wonder Woman, the message of Diana’s journey into “man’s world” is hammered home over and over. As representative and in fact the idealization of all the Amazon’s believes, Diana is acting as an ambassador from her world of women’s idyllic perfection to the patriarchal outside world. She is, as she states, becoming “a bridge to the world of men” so as to bring the Amazon’s message of peace and understanding to a world ripped apart by strife. She wants to present the idea of feminine equality to the rest of the world, where it has been so long repressed, suppressed or destroyed in so many cultures. She is the exceptional woman, out to influence the men around her with her clarion call of justice, truth, and love. And while this is a beautiful idea, a truly feminist ideology in many ways, it rings a little hollow when you look at Diana as the exceptional outsider.

wonder-woman-gal-gadot-ultimate-edition-1024x681Diana enters the world outside an innocent, ready to bring her ideas to someone else’s culture without any idea of their real history, their issues, or the ingrained ideas she’ll be facing. She believes she can change men’s minds just by bringing them a better way from the outside of their society, from a clearly “superior” place. In a strange way, she is a cultural tourist, if a well-meaning one, presenting her feminism into a world which is in many ways unprepared for a radical cultural shift and unwilling to change so quickly just because they’re told about “superior” feminist ideology from an outsider. It’s for that reason Diana struggles so hard to influence “man’s world” – she is not a part of it, but an alien influence presenting a new form of thinking to a world with thousands of years of ingrained thinking to undo.

WONDER WOMANIt’s no wonder then that the men around Diana remain, in large part, still entrenched in their toxic masculine ideas. Though Wonder Woman earns the respect of many of her male colleagues both in the comics and in the recent film, her ideas are still considered foreign to most men around her. In fact, most do not divest themselves of their ideology to embrace a way of living outside the influence of toxic masculinity. They instead bend to Diana’s ideas only when they are the most needed, flexing back to their ingrained patriarchal thinking often right after she’s not around. Steve Trevor is an example, as in the film he spends the entire time attempting to influence Diana to his way of thinking instead of the other way around, using his patriarchal thinking to drag her halfway across Europe and blocking her action with what is clearly his male privilege. A male privilege which is obviously lacking in Wakanda.

From the very beginning of the Black Panther film, I felt something odd when watching Chadwick Boseman in his portrayal of King T’Challa. While T’Challa is the royal leader of his country and therefore, presumably, the representation of the pinnacle of its masculine representation in the narrative, he doesn’t exude many of the typical traits you’d see of a film’s leading male character. T’Challa is both powerful and sensitive, thoughtful and respectful. He is from the beginning willing to not only express his emotions in front of others but especially to and in front of women, who surround him as his closest family and advisors. T’Challa never disrespects or tries to strong-arm the women around him, even when he disagrees with their choices, but praises and welcomes their input, agreeing to disagree and offering support where he can.

TChallaMournsTChakaT’Challa also has powerful emotional connections to the men around him, including Zuri the priest and especially his father, the late King T’Chaka. When he is put into the trance during his test to assume the throne, he speaks to his father and falls crying against his side, showing a level of emotion often considered anathema to a male protagonist. He doesn’t brood but instead shows his inner conflicts over his right to be king with quiet consideration and a willingness to take criticism and advice without anger or retaliation. He, to be plain, showcases all the hallmarks of a male protagonist stripped of the signposts of toxic masculinity influence, as do the other male characters in Wakanda.

With T’Challa as the pinnacle example of Wakanda and the other male characters expressing similar emotional signs during the film, we can then surmise T’Challa is not the exception to the rule but instead a typical example of how Wakanda has evolved as a more emotionally open society, stripped of toxic masculine influences. And that, matched with the equal treatment of women, leads me to surmise the cultural acceptance of those women have helped Wakanda evolve as a place where patriarchal influences did not rise up to quash men’s emotional expression and their chances to grow outside of what we’d see as “normal” masculine archetypes.

Wakandan men are not bound by the western idea of what it is to be a “man” but have grown instead with the comfortable acceptance of what western culture might see as “feminine” behavior. It is the influence of Wakandan women as equals that have brought a truly feminist idea forward: the defeat of toxic masculinity not only for the damage it does to women but the damage it brings to men as well.

Black-Panther-Killmonger-Costume-Concept-Art

Never is the Wakandan ideal of the sensitive, more “feminized” man so contrasted as when looking at the villain Killmonger. Left out in the outside world to grow up in a dangerous life, Killmonger does not have the influence of Wakanda’s more sensitive society to smooth down his rough edges. He does not live in a place where his rage over his father’s death might have been cooled or at least channeled in a different way. Instead, Killmonger represents the harsh, toxic masculinity of the outside world, where his somewhat thoughtful (and even partially correct) ideas about the unfairness of Wakanda’s isolationist policies are twisted into hateful, angry actions.

david-s-lee-limbani.w710.h473.2xKillmonger shows all the brash hallmarks of a man trapping his pain away in rage, using violence to solve his problems rather than embracing his emotions to give way to catharsis and resolution. His disconnection to women is also apparent in the film, as he is followed by a woman of color who barely has any speaking lines or so much as a name (I had to look it up, it’s Linda). In every scene, this woman is treated as the token girlfriend/henchwoman, and then killed by Killmonger when Ulysses Klaw uses her as a hostage. She is the ultimate expression of Killmonger’s embroilment in the toxic masculine culture. Even Killmonger’s influence on others brings patriarchal influence and damage to Wakandan culture, as he twists Okoye’s beloved W’Kabi away from his loyalty to T’Challa and turns his entire tribe against the throne with promises of revenge and violence.

Killmonger-and-TChalla-Black-Panther-e1519141115492Yet even in Killmonger’s scenes, we see a spark of that Wakandan emotional connection, when he goes into the trance and speaks once more to his father. Killmonger’s father clearly expresses the same emotional complexity and sensitivity showcased by other Wakandan men when he tries to connect to his son, but despairs at the rage and closed off pain he sees in the man his son has become. It’s only through T’Challa’s attempts to reconcile with Killmonger that we see a little of the emotional sensitivity of Wakanda rubbing off on the furious villain. But still, the outside world has trapped Killmonger so badly into the patriarchal cycle that, even in his end when T’Challa offers him peace and solace in his final moments, he is unable to be anything but angry in his own sorrow.

If we step away from speaking about men again for a minute, we can look at the women of Wakanda in the Black Panther film for what they are: exceptional without being exceptional at all.

The Non-Exceptional Exceptional Woman

593ff1b91d00002900cc2ac9As stated above, Wonder Woman is the exceptional woman in a world of men, the ambassador and outsider who shirks her own society’s xenophobic tendencies to save the outside world from itself. She is the one in a thousand, one in a million, the beautiful and infinitely powerful immortal goddess on earth who brings her special brand of love and ass-kicking to both the battlefield and her personal relationships. When you read her comics and watch the film, the narrative makes one thing clear: there is no one truly like Diana, and she is the ultimate of her kind. And when we look at her sister Amazons, they all are expressed with similar, if less powerful, expressions of the same archetype of idealized feminism and utopian female ideology. Together, they are an often uniform face of the Exceptional Feminist, set apart and ready to impress with their evolved ideas.

Black PantherBy contrast, the powerful women of Wakanda are not only exceptional in their power but nuanced in their presentation in the narrative. Their equality and power are not packed into a single package of ass-kicking and peace and love, but instead, each woman is her own nuanced expression of a fully realized woman.

Where Shuri is brash and feisty and in many ways a typical teenager, her mother is regal and loving, the complicated mother figure transitioning from a queen into the queen mother she has become. And though Okoye and Nakia are both ass-kicking women who take to the streets at T’Challa’s side, both are very different women with their own thoughts, ideals, skill sets, and struggles. Okoye spends the film trying to decide where her loyalties lie, to the throne or to what is right, while Nakia follows her heart no matter the danger to her position in Wakandan society. Each lives their own stories as complex as any male protagonist, weaving their narratives around that of T’Challa and his conflict with Killmonger.

black-panther-shuri2

In Black Panther, the women of Wakanda are complicated and different from one another, telling the story of the different archetypes women can represent, while in fact evolving those archetypes beyond to represent the complexity of real women. They are not the tropes we so usually accept from the Girlfriend, the Woman Warrior, the Mother, or the Sister. They are women all their own, and they are brilliant.

In Conclusion

MOTHERLAND_EW_Spread.40.fin.JPG

I could continue to break down the narrative even further by speaking about the power of all these women and their representation as women of color, but as I said there are POC out there far better equipped to handling that conversation. In the matter of that topic, I step back and want to speak less and listen more. But in contrasting Wonder Woman and its feminist ideology alongside that of Black Panther, I can only conclude that while Wonder Woman brings us a kind of exceptionalist feminism, Black Panther brings us a vision of what a truly gender-equal society can accomplish, breaking down the barriers of gender stereotypes to present opportunity for anyone to be anything they wish in their full complexity and freedom of choice.

Thankfully, the world of comics and films has room for both kinds of feminist representation. In fact, it’d be amazing to see multiple complex versions of feminist representation flood media so we can have more women-empowering films and television and books so we can have countless conversations and essays to foster more discussion.

Yet in the meanwhile, when contrasting these two films as our present examples, I conclude Black Panther presents us with a more hopeful vision of feminism, a world where men and women can embrace what they wish without persecution or protestation. And maybe we could use a little more of that kind of feminist representation in our lives.

[[Spoilers ahead for Captain America: Steve Rogers #1]]

569e646046152So apparently, Captain America is a HYDRA agent now. And everyone seems intent on telling me how I should or shouldn’t feel about it.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, let me fill you in. Captain America, the star-spangled hero that’s graced the comics since the 1940’s, has had a rough time of it in recent years. First, Cap got aged to an older man thanks to some shenanigans, and had to retire from being Cap. Steve Rogers handed the shield to his friend Sam Wilson aka Falcon. For a time he became the head of SHIELD and even went on to still try to be cap, even in his elder years. But events in the comics recently gave him back his vitality and youth, and he took the name Captain America again to kick some Hydra ass.

Except it turns out, thanks to the new comic Captain America: Steve Rogers, that Cap isn’t the Hydra ass kicker we thought. You see, according to the first issue written by Nick Spencer, Captain America is apparently a Hydra agent.

captain-america-steve-rogers-1-marvel
“There’s also no Santa Claus.”

Now, I know what you’re going to say. “But it’s a comic book! There’s clearly some mind control going on, or reality changing, or whatever nonsense is going on. This is a gimmick, a ploy to sell first issues!” And yes, all these things may be true. Cap’s youth was returned by an incarnated cosmic cube named Kubiq, and that may account for the odd changes to Cap. But it isn’t just the modern Cap that’s apparently jumped on the squid-faced bandwagon. No, Captain America #1 has a flashback sequence through the book that shows little Steve Rogers with his mother when she’s rescued from her drunk, abusive husband by a woman who radicalizes her into Hydra. The indication then is that not only is Cap a Hydra agent, but he has been for a very, very long time.

The first issue of this Spencer run landed on shelves with a proverbial bang in a week when Marvel needed to score serious press attention. DC was launching the rebrand of their entire company through their event Rebirth and might have otherwise dominated the news cycle. But thanks to this huge heel turn, Marvel drowned out DC’s launch in a big way. And of course they did. Because the hero of America has become the vehicle of a fascist organization, a tool of everything he ever fought against. So, the internet went nuts.

The fan response has been, to my eyes, almost completely negative. A great example of the responses I’ve seen comes from TC Curly, a friend of mine, who said:

I wouldn’t mind a marvel character heel turn, but having cap join hydra is like having aqua man join the Aryan nation. It’s bizarre, It’s drastic, and it just feels really dirty.

Even Chris Evans, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Captain America himself, got in on the concern about the recent reversal, stating on Twitter:

tumblr_o7rtgp53I11r8eobwo1_500

hail-hydra-shot-my-parents-chimichangas-hahah😂-if-you-2586866There’s been quite a lot of articles about how this is a desecration of everything that Captain America stands for. Plenty more are talking about how this is a gimmick that will just be reversed, although Time magazine’s interview with Cap’s creative team basically says it’s not. Still others point out, rightly so, that having Cap turn into an agent of an organization that were associated heavily and born in the comics from the Nazis is spitting in the face of the origins of the character. Specifically, Captain America was written by two Jewish men, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. And now, he’s being retroactively written as being a tool of the regime that supported Hitler’s Nazi regime.

And this is where the conversation online has taken an interesting turn. Because while there are thoughtful articles pointing out the problem with associating Cap with Nazis, other articles have taken the time to distance Hydra as an organization from the Nazis and their activities. Specifically, they point to the origins of Hydra in fascism across the globe rather than in the Nazis in specific. And it’s this attempt to bend over backwards to save face for the Spencer storyline that’s got me frustrated and a little angry.

Like this new storyline or not, the Spencer storyline has given people a chance to discuss a really difficult situation: the use of Nazis in a major plot arch through Marvel comics. Like it or not, Hydra was introduced as a major fascist bad guy faction that had its start associated heavily with the Nazis. One only needs to think hard about the very first major HYDRA bad guys and the first one that probably pops to mind would be The Red Skull. Who, in the comics, looked early on a lot like this:

red-skull-returns

Yup, that’s pretty blatant there. Swastika and all. Nazi.

3750327-img_8254
That armband ain’t just a fashion accessory.

Then there’s Baron Von Strucker, a major Aryan ‘purity of races’ kind of guy who was a major part of HYDRA for years. While comics tried to back-track away from Von Strucker’s Nazi associations too over the years and dropped a bunch of his white-power motivations, the guy still sported the ol’ red armband for a long while.

Over the years, Hydra did branch out to back other fascist regimes worldwide in the comics, but a huge part of their past remains with the Nazis. Red Skull remained that swastika wearing presence in the comics, a constant reminder of the genocidal birthplace of the group in comics. Later writers tried to back Hydra away from the Nazis too, but the presence of them in Hydra’s past remains. And while the Marvel Cinematic Universe worked hard follow that distancing tactic, going as far as having Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull give a diatribe about how Hydra was only using the Nazis in Captain America: The First Avenger, that cannot divorce the history of the Nazi’s fictionalized presence in the comic book organization.

[[On another note, the MCU doesn’t always separate the Nazis from HYDRA so much. Agents of SHIELD bad guy Daniel Whitehall actually was a Nazi scientist named Rinehart who experimented and dissected people on the show. All while looking like this.

Daniel_Whitehall_Marvel
“I just got this Iron Cross from a re-enactment event weekend. Really!”

Still questioning whether Hydra is associated with Nazis? No? Me neither.]]

Apparently people can try. Because articles are taking their time now to do so, making it very clear that Hydra is more than just Nazis. But why now? Why have this in-depth discussion about how these genocidal, world-dominating, fascist-supporting aren’t really Nazis now? Because Captain America is now being associated with Nazis. And if they can’t deny the storyline is happening, then at least they’ll deny that the organization is that bad.

It’s this hair-splitting that is leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Guys, Hydra were Nazis. Red Skull was this guy for years. This guy. Right here.

redskullnazi

And instead of just accepting that Marvel is associating our star-spangled hero with the Nazis, people are bending over backwards to explain how its not that bad and mincing whether or not Hydra itself is Nazis. That might be even more insulting to me than what’s going on with Cap. People are having legitimate emotional responses to seeing their beloved hero becoming a Hydra agent. Some of those reactions have to do with the horror of seeing Captain America be associated with the Nazis. For Jews especially, it smacks of an emotional ignorance about the hero Cap was to those who look back at WWII and see the specter of the Nazi holocaust overshadowing their families.

Plenty of folks are having legitimate emotional reactions and saying no, it’s not okay. Instead of acknowledging that emotional response and how it might be insensitive to Jewish readers, people are in a rush to say “They aren’t Nazis! You’re over-conflating it!” It’s comic-splaining at its best and bordering on gaslighting. “You’re seeing Nazis where they aren’t!”

images-1

 

Ahem. Really? So that swastika is just a tibetan good luck symbol on Red Skull there, huh?

This response smacks of so many cases of people white-washing and ignoring the legitimate concerns of Jews over representation and insensitive treatment that it infuriates me. While I don’t necessarily think the situation is anti-semetic exactly, it feels careless in its consideration of how this plotline might impact those for whom Nazis have a more personal hatred.

I remember showing my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, Captain America in the comics when I was younger. I told her in the comics that he first showed up punching Hitler in the face. I remember her laughing and shaking her head at it, in this kind of bitter way. I wonder if she thought how funny wish fulfillment art is, though I never asked her how it made her feel. I wonder now how this comic would make her feel, seeing Cap turned to the dark side. Mostly, I wonder how all these “well, actually…” articles about Hydra would make her feel. “Well, actually they’re not Nazis. They just wore swastikas and supported Hitler’s actions in World War II before moving on to be fascists elsewhere. But they’re totally not Nazis themselves. Really!”

822279-dark_future003
Yup. No Nazis here.

 

 

My grandmother passed away when I was sixteen, so she’s not here to ask how she feels. But I know how I feel about the Captain America thing. I’m going to keep reading so I can see where Nick Spencer and the Cap team is going with this plot. But mainly, I know how I feel about these articles trying to drive away any feelings of discomfort by Jewish readers by comic-splaining away the Nazis. As opposed to listening to those fans’ feelings with compassion and understanding, people would rather we shut up and stop associating Cap with one of the most genocidal groups of all time.

Funny, I would like to stop associating him with them too. Only now, thanks to the comics, I can’t. So let me have my feelings, thanks, without explaining to me why I should sit down and be quiet about it. My comic nerd rage is valid too, especially when it’s fueled by personal history and real-world religious bigotries.

Unknown

So it had to happen. You knew I had to say something about it, being the little Marvel-head that I am. Yet I have waited on making comment about Agents of SHIELD for a couple of weeks now. There’s been plenty of internet column inches being devoted to discussions about the show since it went on the air three weeks ago. I tuned in with lots of other Marvel fans to get a look at the Agent Coulson-fueled goodness. And yet, like some, I came away feeling a little let down. The first episode was fun but left me looking for a little something more. “But wait,” I told myself, “it’s the first episode! Pilots always suffer from some problems. Let’s give it a couple of weeks and see how it goes.”

Third episode in, and I’m ready to make a few comments. This is going to be a bit of a breakdown, so here’s the short version in case you suffer from tl;dr syndrome:

Agents of SHIELD isn’t bad. It’s just bland as hell.

The Breakdown: Agents of SHIELD is trying to do something that few TV shows can do properly, which is capture film lightning in a television bottle. The creators were hoping to cash in on the success and excitement of The Avengers by giving fans a weekly tiny dose of what the blockbuster did in two hours. The problem with that expectation is just that: it sets up expectations that fans automatically brought into their viewing of the pilot. So right off the bat, the creators had this huge hurdle to jump in providing a quality, well-placed action-adventure superhero themed weekly television series.

You see where this is a big boatload of problems waiting to happen? Expectations, folks. It’s what kills what could be good projects dead in the water.

You can almost feel the producers straining against those expectations with the choices they’ve made for the show. Agents of SHIELD feels less like a Joss Whedon run at a super-spy in superhero-land adventure than a corporate slick-job on the Marvel franchise, a hand-held airbrushing of the nuances that made The Avengers and the Marvel films interesting. Gone are the engaging characters that come together to tell epic stories. Instead, we’re given a host of brand new characters that we are asked to root for, and then provided with very little reason to do so. The cast smacks of demographic-influenced creation, aimed at drawing in every age group and audience they can. And sadly, the main casting choices for that reason fall hopelessly and awfully short.

I’m talking about our two new main characters, Agent Ward and Skye.

"Hi, I'm Agent Brooding Guy. I'm here to power through my dialogue with the force of my chiseled jaw."
“Hi, I’m Agent Brooding Guy. I’m here to power through my dialogue with the force of my chiseled jaw.”

Agent Ward: This cross between 007 and Captain America is meant to be the square-jawed eye candy that keeps the girls interested. Ward is supposed to evoke the brooding, slightly damaged almost anti-hero that has women swoon over James Bond or Wolverine, while stuffing him into a ‘serve the greater good’ SHIELD package. He’s the man who does the wrong things for the right reasons, the loner forced onto a team, finally given a chance to find a place he belongs… The cliches line up all in a row. Brett Dalton’s portrayal does just fine, honestly – I think he’s a halfway decent actor. The problem is he has nothing to grab onto. Agent Ward is a cut-out, a stand-in for all the tag-lines he’s meant to represent, and sadly brings little else to what should be a power-house action hero character. Jason Bourne or Hawkeye, this guy is not. Still, Ward isn’t the worst offender since, as a physical presence, he at least delivers the requisite butt-kicking action.

"Hi! I'm hip and trendy 2013 Eliza Duchku without being emotional in the least! Won't you love my leet hacker skillz?"
“Hi! I’m hip and trendy 2013 Eliza Duchku without being emotional in the least! Won’t you love my leet hacker skillz?”

Skye: Probably the most disappointing of all the choices on the show is the character of Skye, played by Chloe Bennett. This brand new character is a mix of so many bad stereotypes that she barely seems coherent. She’s a homeless high school drop-out who lives in her van, yet dresses like she comes out of an Abercrombie and Fitch ad. She’s a self-taught computer genius who runs a conspiracy theory website from her van, yet she is instantly respected by people like secret government agents and Fortune 500 moguls when she appears out of nowhere after cracking their security systems. She speaks the slick ‘isn’t that what kids sound like these days?’ lingo expected of a hip twenty-something as written by Hollywood writers, all hopped up on caffeine and full of buzz words, turning her into the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope in action. Except this is worse: she’s the Action Barbie version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. See Action Manic Pixie hack computers to find anything, anywhere, all the time! See her try and help on any mission, then fling herself into situations she’s completely overmatched in and survive by batting her eyes and whining some classic, chirpy dialogue before being rescued by Agent Ward!

The obvious story arch here is that the show wants us to get deeper into the plot with Skye, but it is hard to feel anything for a character that gives us so little reason to care about her. Bennett breezes through her lines (as flat and badly written as they are) with zero passion and offers little to no emotional depth in any of her scenes. I’ve seen more reaction from people who get the wrong order at Starbucks than Skye shows when she’s being held at gunpoint. At the end of every episode so far, I have yet to feel at all impacted by Skye’s participation in the storyline and find her performance, and her character as written, unbelievable and completely shallow. And if she’s supposed to be what anchors me into the show as the ‘new girl’ entry character, then we’re in trouble.

But what about the show’s real anchor? What about the reason a lot of us showed up to this shindig to begin with?

"Please let me be cooler. I can save this show. I can."
“Please let me be cooler. I can save this show. I can.”

Agent Coulson: Oh Agent Coulson. You went from working with the Avengers to effectively picking up SHIELD’s dry cleaning. I adore Clark Gregg and the character of Agent Coulson more than I ever thought I would. It was because of him that I was excited to pick up this show. And it is because of him that I stick through Skye’s awful performances and the hammy dialogue. Gregg brings his usual clippy, cheerful, nuanced performance to a show that desperately needs it and keeps me wanting more. Yet watching him play Coulson next to Ward and Skye feels like watching the character from a beloved franchise running lines with a couple of badly prepared cosplayers. (And that’s no knock at cosplayers, by the way, I know some who would blow Ward and Skye clear out of the WATER). The show gives Coulson so little room to BE Coulson and then tries to keep him only in the realm of the pithy commentary guy. When the producers decided to spin off a side character like Coulson, they had to understand that would require them to provide him with more depth. And yet the first few episodes have seemed as though they were rushing him out of scenes to give time to the new characters, or else missing key opportunities to let Gregg’s awesome performances shine. Plus the places where they tried to include more about his backstory (ahem, forcing a south american ex-love interest) feel awkward and strange. Instead of letting his character feel real, the show seems intent on turning Coulson into a marionette version of himself, yanked on the strings of plot necessity and uneven writing.

So is there anything good to the cast? How about the good possibility space that exists in three of the new characters put on the show: Melinda May, Fitz and Simmons.

"Give me more lines. I can do so much better than that Skye girl."
“Give me more lines. I can do so much better than that Skye girl.”

Melinda May starts off looking like your typical ‘strong woman’ character. She’s coded that way in her very outfits – precise hair, aviator shades, tight leather SHIELD gear. She’s the Black Widow/ Agent Romanov knock-off right? Yet there’s a nuance to Ming-Na Wen’s performance and to hints in the pilot that talk about what might make May an interesting character. (Too bad that most of that is blown to smithereens in the next two episodes due to mishandling of the dialogue, but I won’t spoil it all). May is meant to be the stoic with a haunted past, staying away from violence for perhaps a good reason. There’s so much possibility space there that is being hopelessly wasted from episode to episode leaving her as effectively the chauffeur of the team.

"We're down here! We're funny! Let us be funny!"
“We’re down here! We’re funny! Let us be funny!”

Equally wasted are Fitz and Simmons, the comedy tech duo of the team. Meant to round out the somber, often wooden cast, these two are the warm cuddly center of the show that are left to wallow in their little hole far too often. Their witty banter is far too insular and too reliant on one another and we hardly know anything about either of these bright faces after three episodes of their back and forth. These are two nerds who clearly have spent a lot of time together, but their interplay leaves little room for anyone else to get in on the jokes. Their dialogue often feels like listening to two best friends gab about stories nobody knows about, and while that can be charming for a while, it gets oblique and grating. Both are cheerful as two little fresh-faced chipmunks in a Kaylee and Simon from Firefly sort of way, but neither can reach the cardboard cut-outs of Ward or Skye and barely get air-time with Coulson or May. So in the end, their empathetic and empathic characters, meant to soften the others and give us comedy relief, are left languishing in the hold of the ship like forgotten little toys – all wound up with nowhere to go.

And what about the show itself? The adventures! The excitement! The missions to see superheroes from the perspective of the humans of the Marvel Universe?

I’ll just ask this: WHAT SUPER HEROES?

THIS. WE ARE LOOKING FOR THIS.
THIS. WE ARE LOOKING FOR THIS.

The show has shown us, in three weeks: a man made super by technology (and then quickly hurried off screen), a piece of ancient tech that everyone fights over, and then a science experiment gone horribly wrong. Each time the characters at the heart of the adventure are hopelessly wooden and the actual problems feel far removed from the actual Marvel universe. For a show that promised engagement into a super-hero setting, we sure seem to be short a few superheroes, now aren’t we? Sure, it’s only three episodes in, and the first episode delivered a man that saved lives. Yet immediately that character disappeared off the face of the planet and we’re back to a ‘problem of the week’ formula that feels hackneyed and sadly outdated. The threads that may tie the plots together (the laughable ‘Rising Tide’ website of Skye’s, the shadowy organization behind the science experiments) feels far too weak to hold together a Monster of the Week premise, and I’m left feeling a little like I’m getting hit with a bait and switch. I didn’t sign on to watch secret government agents run around the world effectively picking up the dry-cleaning. I came here to see action, adventure, and super powered craziness. I came here to see heroes and villains clash with the world at stake.

And there we go with expectations again. Because that’s the biggest problem.

I do feel like I got a little bait and switched, despite trying to keep my expectations down. Instead of a human face on the super-human world, I got white-washed twenty-something cardboard cut-out characters hitting me with campy dialogue. Instead of humans dealing with things far beyond their ken, I’ve got chirpy ads for toothpaste tossing buzz word dialogue before solving every problem neatly and without seemingly much emotion or danger.

Where is the immediate danger? Where is the tension of the threat? Where is the emotional payoff?

Where is the humbling feeling of being presented with power so much larger and grander than mankind?

Certainly not here.
Certainly not here.

I’m going to stick around and watch some more, if only for the sake of Agent Coulson and whatever little drop-ins they keep giving to keep my inner Marvel nerd heart alive. However you cannot keep audiences happy with pithy one-liners and guest-star nerd fan service. Eventually the writers will have to fish or cut bait to make these characters into actual people or they’re going to lose even more viewers than they already have. And I don’t want to see this show go down. I’m not nerd-raging or shouting from the rooftops like some beligerent Comic Book Guy. I want this show to succeed. But I’d like it if they tried a little less to be the shiny, Photoshopped, Disney version of Marvel that appeals to everyone and instead focused on telling a good story. This isn’t Once Upon A Time, ABC, this is a damn superhero show, and I want some action and adventure and tension and suspense and edge to that. Or else not even Agent Coulson can save you from yourself.