Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Problem of Mike Peterson: Thoughts on Agents of SHIELD and Race

[Note: This post is the result of thoughts that I've been having since the end of Agents of SHIELD's first season in the spring, and which I haven't seen addressed elsewhere.  I held off on writing and publishing it because I wasn't certain that I had the proper grounding to do justice to the issues it discusses, and because I wasn't sure that it was my place to discuss them at all.  Nevertheless, as the second season draws closer it seems important to me that this subject is broached.  If readers with more grounding in anti-racism want to point out errors or bad arguments, I'd be happy for their input.  Similarly, if there are discussions of this subject that I've missed, I'd be grateful for links.]

We first meet Mike Peterson in the Agents of SHIELD pilot.  As I wrote in my essay about the show, the pilot positions both Skye and Ward as its point of view characters, establishing parallel but opposite trajectories for them--Ward, the obedient company man who needs to be taught to bend the rules; Skye, the anti-authoritarian spy in the belly of the beast who secretly craves stability and order--that are overturned in the post-Winter Soldier episodes.  But from watching the pilot's first act, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Mike is an equally important character to these two.  Skye's voiceover introduces the series, and Ward's mission in Paris establishes him as an identification figure who then carries us to SHIELD headquarters and Coulson.  But bridging those two scenes is our introduction to Mike, the first of the pilot's main characters to be shown on screen.  When he saves a woman from an explosion by jumping unaided from a tall building, it's only natural for us to assume that he's our hero.

Mike's true role in the story, however, is quickly established during Ward and Coulson's first meeting.  "That's a superhero, Agent Ward," Coulson announces.  But SHIELD isn't a show about superheroes.  It's a show about people who deal with superheroes (among other things).  And so with one fell stroke, Mike Peterson is repositioned.  From a potential protagonist, he becomes a subject, someone for our actual heroes to deal with.  Someone for SHIELD to manage, hide, and control.

The modern MCU comes to life in the closing moments of the first Iron Man film, when Tony Stark rejects the cover story offered to him by SHIELD and Coulson (who, sounding almost bored, drawls that "this is not my first rodeo") and instead redefines the terms by which superpowered individuals operate by announcing to the world that "I am Iron Man."  Winter Soldier completes that upheaval by razing SHIELD to the ground, but in the episodes of Agents of SHIELD that lead up to that story it's clear that no one--least of all Coulson--has gotten the memo.  He still views himself as someone who has the right and the authority to control (and occasionally deploy) people like Iron Man, Captain America and, of course, Mike.  That's not necessarily an unreasonable stance--high-handed as Coulson's demeanor to Tony is, his experience is a valuable asset, and surely no one in their right mind would have assumed that Tony Stark should be left unsupervised with superpowers.  But it establishes that Phil Coulson's definition of "superhero" is a fairly narrow one, and perhaps includes less freedom of choice than most of us would associate with the word.

Further complicating matters is the fact that despite Coulson's chosen terminology, Mike is not a superhero.  He's a supersoldier (or rather, a stepping stone on the way to creating one). It's the tension between those two terms that drives the overwhelming majority of the MCU, especially in Phase II.  A hero--as Coulson and SHIELD are reluctant to admit--is self-directed and unique.  A soldier is, in his essentials, interchangeable with all other soldiers, and more importantly, his job is to follow orders.  The stories told in the MCU are almost always about attempts to create supersoldiers that end up producing superheroes (or villains) instead, and the powers that try to force those superheroes back into a more limited role.  Captain America was created as part of a supersoldier program, and dismissed once it became clear that the program's goal--an army of people with his strength and abilities--couldn't be achieved.  The Winter Soldier is Hydra's attempt at the same result, minus Cap's pesky free will, and Black Widow was similarly created to be a fearsome soldier who couldn't question her orders.  The Hulk came into existence following an attempt to recreate Cap's serum, and when the military tries to weaponize that result what they achieve is literally an abomination.[1]

The Iron Man films, meanwhile, ponder the gap between superhero and supersoldier by positing a superpower that is wearable and transferrable.  Tony is a weapons manufacturer who develops a distrust of the people using his weapons, but his solution to this problem is to build something that can turn anyone into a living weapon.  He seems surprised that the immediate response--by both the government and villains--is to try to appropriate, steal, or replicate this technology.  But though Tony insists that the Iron Man armor is a part of him, its actual handling in the three Iron Man films often puts the lie to that claim.  Tony can operate the armor without being in it (which effectively makes it a drone, and thus no different from Ivan Vanko's imitation suits in Iron Man 2); the armor can be overridden despite containing a pilot; Iron Man 3 suggests that the suit has a mind of its own, and at the end of the film Tony triumphs by summoning an army of suits, each with its own name and personality.  In the end, the only way Tony can remain a superhero--rather than the general of a robot army--is to destroy the suits that gave him his power to begin with. 

In that same film, the MCU introduces yet another supersoldier serum, Extremis (which is yet again tested on vulnerable, in this case disabled, soldiers), and in Agents of SHIELD it is combined with the Iron Man-like Deathlok technology to create supersoldiers whose free will is done away with through the simple expedient of putting bombs in their heads and threatening their loved ones.  By the season's end, John Garrett and Ian Quinn are offering to sell the US government an army of slaves, and no one in uniform seems to find this objectionable.[2]

One of the earliest subjects of the Cybertek/Centipede program that eventually produces Garrett's slave soldiers, Mike Peterson undeniably starts off on the supersoldier side of the divide.  What's more, his vulnerable position--he's an out-of-work factory worker and single parent struggling to make ends meet--makes his exploitation all the more obvious.  But something funny happens when Mike begins experiencing the effects of the Centipede serum--he insists on seeing himself as a superhero.  What other people might, quite reasonably, view as a traumatic, abusive experience, he reconfigures as an origin story (and not without justification, since almost all superhero origin stories are rooted in a traumatic and/or abusive event).  While everyone around him insists that Mike is simply the subject of an experiment--and an experiment that has failed to boot, of which Mike is simply a leftover--he persists in believing that the powers he's been given confer upon him the responsibility to act as a hero, and that the world will bend itself to accommodate this belief.

If this is sounding very familiar, it's because I've just described the plot of the first Captain America movie.  There is, however, one crucial difference between how the MCU treats Steve Rogers and Mike Peterson.  Steve Rogers is a failed supersoldier who insists that he is a superhero, and the narrative ultimately rewards him for this insistence.  The people around him recognize his innate heroism and flock to him, and he eventually amasses the moral authority to call out and topple the institutions that tried to deploy and control him.  Mike Peterson, on the other hand, is a failed supersoldier who insists that he is a superhero, and the narrative punishes him for it.  Throughout the SHIELD pilot, his conviction that he can be a hero is pathologized and treated as a symptom of his exploitation.  By the end of the episode, the Centipede serum has so compromised Mike's judgment and grasp of reality that his attempts to be heroic have taken an inexorable slide towards villainy (not to mention that unlike Cap's serum, his is inherently flawed and threatens to turn him into an unwitting explosive).  His heartbreaking speech to Coulson  at the pilot's end seems to suggest that he wants to be a hero not because of some powerful inner drive, but because to do so would alleviate his feelings of inadequacy as an ordinary man.

Steve Rogers is white.  Mike Peterson is black.

To be clear, there's room in the MCU for stories about people who are granted superpowers and don't know how to deal with them, and, in theory at least, a show like Agents of SHIELD is the perfect venue in which to explore such stories.  The First Avenger goes to great lengths to establish that what makes Steve a hero is not the supersoldier serum but the innate traits that he possessed even as a 90-pound weakling, and not possessing those traits--having, in fact, the same flaws as every other person in the world--is hardly a character defect.  But the choice to cast a black actor as Mike, and array against him a team made up completely of white and Asian[3] actors, has implications that the SHIELD pilot doesn't know how to deal with. There is in the pilot an undercurrent of awareness that Mike's feelings of inadequacy aren't unique to him, but are the product of a social and economic system that is implacably arrayed against men of his race and class--as stressed, for example, by his final placement against the mural "City of Dreams/River of History" in Los Angeles's Union Station. But the show is too caught up in its ideas of heroism and villainy to fully acknowledge that Mike's problem is systemic, not individual. That lack of context leads to Mike embodying the stereotype of an Angry Black Man, whose rage, though perhaps justified, is undirected and a danger to everyone around him (Mike is literally a bomb) and must be dealt with.

The episode's climax, in which Mike is shot in the head mid-sentence, after which the inspirational music swells and Coulson's team congratulate each other on a job well done, is hard to watch even when you know that the shot was from a stun gun.  It completes Mike's dehumanization, his transformation from a superhero, to a problem that needs to be dealt with, to a thing, who doesn't even merit the dignity of getting to complete a thought before being gunned down by a white man.[4]



The second time we meet Mike is in the tenth episode of the first season, "The Bridge," in which Coulson brings him in as a consultant to help take down Centipede.  In the interim, two things have become clear.  First, that the show desperately needs to get back to its central mythology, because as lukewarm as the pilot was, the standalone episodes that followed have been even worse.  And second, that the show has a serious problem with black people, whom it invariably depicts as evil, crazy, or the victims of evil and crazy people.  Mike Peterson's future as Garrett's slave has already been presaged through the character of Akela Amador (Pascale Armand), the only black SHIELD agent of any importance that we've seen in ten episodes, who has been coerced into committing murder and mayhem and ends the episode in prison.  Ruth Negga's Raina has been established as the season's first recurring villain, and the closest the show has come to a positive, self-directed black character is Ron Glass's Dr. Streiten, who had a few brief lines in the pilot.

So to begin with, Mike's return as a SHIELD agent feels like a welcome step in the right direction.  The revelation that his powers have been stabilized and that he's been recruited into SHIELD seems like a counterbalance to the profound problems of his handling in the pilot, a way of giving him the heroism he craved while allowing for his thoroughly human flaws.  But from the beginning, "The Bridge" seems to be working hard to make us feel that there is something wrong and unnatural about Mike's position, and that his newfound heroism can't last.  "Did I beat Captain America's score?" he brightly asks his training instructor when we first see him, reminding us of the parallel between the two characters; but the response is a derisive snort and a shake of the head.  No matter how badly he wants to, Mike still can't measure up.

When Mike arrives on the Bus, Coulson is quick to announce that this assignment is his second chance, and that "there won't be a third."  This is one of the scenes that cemented to me just how much I dislike Coulson in his Agents of SHIELD incarnation.[5]  It's perfectly natural for Mike to want to assure Coulson and the team that the behavior they saw in the pilot won't recur--in much the same way that someone who suffers from mental illness might want to reassure someone who has seen them at their worst that they can manage their condition.  But Coulson has no right to judge Mike, or to behave as if the events of the pilot were somehow his fault instead of something that was done to him.  The idea that Mike has squandered his first chance already has no basis in reality.

And yet "The Bridge" not only validates Coulson's attitude, it has Mike accept it almost cheerfully.  In fact, Mike's behavior is the most uncomfortable and disturbing thing about this episode.  His attitude towards Coulson and his team is discomfitingly subservient.  He's constantly flattering and talking up the white members of the team, happily telling Coulson, FitzSimmons, and Ward how they saved him back in the pilot (his relationship with Skye is more equitable and friendly, and he has no meaningful interactions with May).  He doesn't even seem to mind that he's expected to sleep on a mattress in a prison cell.  To be sure, the fact that Mike is so unnervingly happy and eager to please is meant to be uncomfortable, a deliberate choice on the part of the writers and the actor, but the purpose of those choices is to bring us back to the same conclusion reached by the pilot: that Mike's heroism is false, and unsustainable.

And indeed, as soon as Centipede grabs his son, Mike "fails" to be a hero by choosing to trade Coulson for him.  This a fairly classic dilemma that comic books like to place before their heroes--save the person you love, or do the right thing--and as always it is an unfair and inhuman choice that can only be resolved through writerly fiat.  It's notable, for example, that Captain America has never been faced with such a choice, and other superheroes usually manage to cheat their way out of it.[6]  The fact that Mike--one of only a few black superheroes in the MCU--is placed in such a position with no way of worming his way out of it except doing as his son's captors demand, says more about SHIELD's writers, and the role they want Mike to play, than it does about Mike himself.  When Mike, having rescued his son, immediately turns around and does the heroic thing by trying to rescue Coulson, his reward is to be blown up.  That ending--and the coda to the next episode, "The Magical Place," in which Mike is revealed not to have died but to have been forced into the first step towards becoming Deathlok--cements our realization that rather than counteracting the message of the pilot, the show is trying to reaffirm it: whenever Mike Peterson tries to be a hero, he is punished for it.



For very nearly all of his appearances until the end of the season, Mike Peterson recedes, and J. August Richards plays the character of Deathlok.  It's important to note that name change.  Deathlok is the name of the cybernetics project that eventually replaces a good half of Mike's body, and as we learn late in the season, Mike isn't even the first Deathlok.  And yet in "The End of the Beginning," it's Coulson's team who have begun referring to Mike by this name.  The people who know Mike better than any other SHIELD agents, who know that he is being coerced and how, and who know--assuming that Skye told them so after recovering from her shooting in "T.R.A.C.K.S," and why wouldn't she--that even within the confines of that coercion Mike is trying to fight back and to minimize the evil he does, are the very people who take away his name and give him the name of the machine that's turned him into a monster.  And because these people are our heroes and identification figures, they teach the audience how to see Mike--teach us, in other words, that Deathlok is what he is.

While the audience might feel more sympathetic towards Mike than the characters apparently do--and while the show does allow us to see, in his private moments, that Mike is suffering, as when he's forced to replace his own arm with a robotic substitute--whenever Mike interacts with SHIELD characters after "The Magical Place" he gets what can only be described as a villain edit.  Dramatic, scary music swells whenever he comes on screen, the characters react in horror when they see him ("How did you get past Deathlok?" Skye asks Coulson when he rescues her in "Nothing Personal."  "Deathlok is here?" is his fearful response), and Richards himself plays the character as if he were the Terminator.  We can assume that Mike is shutting down his emotions because he doesn't want to deal with what he's become and been made to do, but the fact remains that when he shows up on screen, the show wants us to be anxious and afraid.

What's interesting--and not a little disturbing--about the stretch of episodes in which Mike is Deathlok is how liberating that role is for him.  Gone is the loser weeping over his inability to be a hero, or the wannabe company man desperately eager for the (white) heroes' approval.  It's not just that becoming Deathlok gives Mike power (which he anyway already had before Raina and Garrett captured him).  It's that it seems to free him to talk back, to say no.  Being Deathlok puts Mike in the Hydra hierarchy, where for once, and even taking into account that he is effectively a slave, he isn't on the bottom rung.  This means that he can frustrate people like Quinn or Ward when they treat him like a tool or a robot, refusing to shoot Skye on Quinn's behalf because those aren't his orders, or belittling Ward's dismay over his tactic of stopping Ward's heart in order to coerce Skye into decrypting data that Garrett wants.  It means that he can demand answers, and a serious consideration, from Raina, rejecting her claim of solidarity with him by reminding her that she is responsible for the nightmare that his life has become.[7]

Perhaps most importantly, being Deathlok allows Mike to become the only character in the first season to throw it in the face of a member of Coulson's team that they have been enabling evil, and that they have no right to claim the moral authority of heroes.  When Skye tries to persuade Mike not to do Garrett's bidding in "Nothing Personal," he, for the first time since he met her or Coulson, rejects her right to judge him or suggest courses of action for him, reminding her that the position he's in is largely of her making: that he left his son in her care, and she blithely handed him over to Hydra.  In a season that expects us not to notice or care about the profound professional failure that Hydra represents for most of the SHIELD characters[8], Mike is the only person who gets to point out that maybe the people who failed so completely the first time around shouldn't be trusted with cleaning up the mess and starting over.

It's hard to know how to take this change in Mike's personality, the fact that he becomes indisputably cooler the moment he takes on the Deathlok moniker and role.  On the one hand, speaking uncomfortable truths to heroes and villains alike gives Mike a unique authority.  But on the other hand, our knowledge that he is himself a slave, and a murderer, undermines those truths.  Either way, every instance in which Mike acts as Deathlok and proceeds with more purpose and confidence than he ever did as a would-be hero reiterates the message of these mid-season episodes: Mike Peterson is most himself when he is being a villain.



Mike's final appearance (so far) is in the season finale, "The Beginning of the End."  His arc in this episode is clearly meant to be triumphant.  He gets to turn the tables on Garrett, who has begun to think of him as a tool rather than a person, an extension of his own will who has no views different than his own (in fairness, this is how Garrett thinks of everyone, and what, given the opportunity to mold an operative from a young age, he made Ward into).  As soon as Skye frees his son, Mike attacks an outraged, uncomprehending Garrett, stomping his face into the ground with his robotic leg.  And yet the show can't resist turning this into Coulson's moment, not Mike's.  "Mr. Peterson is free to do whatever he wants," he piously intones, as if to further underline a difference between himself and Garrett that should have been obvious, and which is anyway nothing to crow about--not enslaving people is surely the bare minimum of human decency, not something worthy of celebration.  And so instead of being a moment of triumph for Mike, his liberation becomes the story of how he was given his freedom by Coulson's team[9] (and, in fairness, Nick Fury, though the two men don't interact), neatly paralleling the season premiere (though at least he doesn't get shot this time).

Even worse is Mike's final scene, in which he refuses to reunite with his son.  Again, the fact that Mike feels guilt for his actions and wants to make amends is only natural, but just as in "The Bridge," he accepts the authority of Skye and the rest of Coulson's team to judge him.  He tells Skye that she can look through the camera that has replaced his eye to see that he will only be trying to do good, implicitly accepting that she has the right to spy on him just as Garrett did (it remains unspoken that Skye and Coulson will also have the power to detonate the bomb in Mike's head at any time).  Passing judgement on Skye, and rejecting the moral authority of SHIELD by pointing out the very obvious truth that it has been corrupt for nearly as long as it has existed, is something that Mike only gets to do when he's a villain (which obviously undermines those arguments).  To be a good guy, Mike Peterson has to accept the right of Coulson and his team to judge him.



In the Marvel comics, Deathlok (a title given to several characters, none of whom are named Mike Peterson) is alternately a victim, a villain, and a hero.  When given the freedom to choose, he usually fights alongside the Avengers.  The end of Mike Peterson's arc in the first season of Agents of SHIELD leaves open the possibility that he, too, will transition into a heroic role.  This does not absolve SHIELD of the problematic terms with which it's told Mike's story, nor of the way that it continues to treat him as subservient to Coulson and his team.  But at the end of the first season last spring, I felt at least some hope that, going forward, Mike's story would be a heroic one.

One of the reasons that this post became urgent to write, however, was a transcript I read a few weeks ago of Comic-Con interviews with Brett Dalton and J. August Richards.  Dalton talked about his hopes for a redemptive arc for Ward (he also expressed the belief that Ward did not kill his dog, which I'm hoping the show will prove him wrong about).  Richards talked about Mike's progression as a villain.  Now, I'm on record as calling Ward the only interesting character in Agents of SHIELD's main cast, and I can think of several ways in which a redemption arc for him could be interesting and successful (which is not to say that I trust the show to do so, but the thing is possible).  But even so, I find it mind-boggling that anyone could look at these two characters side by side, and call Mike the villain.  That someone involved with the show could do so is chilling.

As much as Skye is intended as Ward's parallel, Mike is too (once again, the pilot introduces all three characters in quick succession).  Part of the reason that the show is so eager to cast Mike in the Deathlok role in the post-"Bridge" episodes is that doing so makes it more ironic when Ward--who spends these episodes reacting in outrage to Mike's crimes--is revealed as the season's true villain.  And of course Ward and Mike are both Garrett's lackeys, the one acting under duress and eager to turn on his master at the first opportunity, and the other loyal to a self-abnegating degree, and past the point of reason.  But after the revelation of Ward's villainy, we'd expect the show to reposition Mike as a heroic or at least sympathetic figure.  Instead, he continues to be treated as a villain up until the moment that Coulson and Skye free him.  As the Comic-Con interviews suggest, that perception is not about to change.

Ward and Mike are both victims or abuse, whose ability to freely choose between right and wrong is compromised (albeit in very different ways; Ward is obviously deeply psychologically damaged, but no one forces him to do any of the evil things he does over the course of the first season, and he passes up many opportunities to make better choices that Mike doesn't get).  And yet we seem to be headed towards an absurd situation in which Ward is given a second chance with which to atone and turn his life around, while Mike is held responsible for his own victimization, treated like a villain for a combination of limited options, bad luck, and the crimes of others.

Grant Ward is white.  Mike Peterson is black.



[1] The first of the Marvel One Shots, "The Consultant," extends that story when it reveals that the military still believes in The Abomination's potential, insisting that he join the Avengers Initiative.

[2] Guardians of the Galaxy touches on the supersoldier theme obliquely through the characters of Rocket, Gamora, and Nebula, all of whom were remade against their will, in the latter two cases explicitly into a fearsome killers.  The Thor films don't address it at all, but when that series incurs into the world of Agents of SHIELD it's in ways that reflect on it: we learn that the Asgardians gave their soldiers weapons that could turn mild-mannered Peter MacNicol into a bloodthirsty killer; the sorceress Lorelai's power is to compel men to fight and die for her, and she mocks the supposedly free-willed Sif for obeying orders she doesn't agree with because they come from Odin--who is actually Loki in disguise.

[3] For all its problems with black characters, it's worth noting that SHIELD is unique in fielding not one but two Asian women in its main cast, and that some fans have read the show as commenting specifically on the Asian-American experience.  It seems reasonable to ascribe this to writer and producer Maurissa "Nobody's Asian in the Movies" Tancharoen, which is a valuable reminder of how much diversity and nuanced representation on-screen depend on the presence of diverse writers and producers behind the scenes.

[4] I haven't read the comic, but from the plot description it occurs to me that Mike's arc in the pilot has echoes of the limited series comic Truth: Red, White & Black, by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker, in which it's revealed that Cap's serum was originally tested, Tuskegee-like, on black servicemen, who were denied the chance to become superheroes far more definitively than Steve Rogers. The comic, however, ends with Steve acknowledging Isiah Bradley's right to the title of Captain America, and Marvel continuity routinely refers to Bradley as the first to hold it.

[5] Not helping matters is the fact that "The Bridge" is also the episode in which Coulson explains to Ward that "every woman is a mystery."  Grrr.

[6] See, for example, Tony Stark in Iron Man 3, when he sends the remote-controlled armor to save the imperiled President while jetting off himself to rescue Pepper.

[7] It's interesting to note the differences in how Mike relates to people in his Deathlok guise.  With white men like Garrett, Quinn, and Ward, he is a blank-faced automaton, following orders but refusing to engage them emotionally or to be sucked into their personal drama.  He only engages with people (women) of color, like Skye and Raina, even if it's only to accuse them and call them out for their hypocrisy.

[8] See, for example, the opening scene of "Nothing Personal," in which Cobie Smulders's Maria Hill airily complains about being made to testify before Congress about SHIELD's activities and Hydra's infiltration of it.  It's a scene that's meant to make Hill look cool, as she compares Congress to children who can't cope with the realities of the situation.  But try mentally replacing Smulders with a  middle aged male bank executive circa 2009, and then tell me if her contempt for elected officials and inability to accept that she might be called to account for her mistakes are still charming and admirable.

[9] By this point, the team has been joined by B.J. Britt's Antoine Triplett, who feels like a deliberate (and desperately needed) response to the widely publicized criticisms of the show's depiction of black characters. While it's obviously significant that Ward (with his "Hitler youth" looks) is replaced by a black man, Trip also stands in stark contrast to Mike--he is SHIELD royalty, a legacy of Captain America's original integrated team, and seems to possess the effortless heroism that Mike lacks. I'm not quite certain where the show is going with that contrast, or with the character of Trip in general.

16 comments:

Kate Nepveu said...

(One of these days I will figure out how to get comments to publish the first time. Luckily this was still in the cache and I could copy it out.)

Interesting; I've seen only bits of a couple of episodes, neither of which had Peterson in them (and neither of which made me want to watch any more), so I don't have much to say about this, but (a) I didn't want you to get just crickets and (b) I'm rather surprised to see you say that Ward was interesting, as the fannish opinion in circles I overlap with seems to be that he should die in a fire, especially if a redemptive arc is in store--though a lot of this may be mixed up with recognizing what you point out about his treatment compared to Peterson's.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

As I say in the post, I definitely see the problem with giving Ward a redemptive arc while characters like Mike are left to play villain roles. But to me that's distinct from the fact that he's an interesting character (and, more importantly, the only member of the main cast about whom you can say that). For that matter, I think the fact that Ward is interesting is distinct from the question of whether he should get a redemptive arc - that's clearly where the show is going (and was clear several episodes before the end of the first season), but I would be just as happy if he stayed an antagonist or a chaotic neutral. What I like about Ward is that he's fairly mundane, for a villain, not a man with grand ambitions or a strong sadistic streak, but just a guy failing to question his orders while also dealing with unresolved childhood issues and a crush on his workmate. As I said, I can imagine interesting redemption arcs for him (think Zuko on Avatar or Faith on Buffy), but I can also imagine him carrying on as an interesting character who just happens to be a villain.

Also, I find fandom's hate-on for Ward massively overblown. The fact is, the former assassin is a beloved character type in almost every fandom, and often these characters' redemption is little more than a sop (Angel and Spike are made good with the wave of a magic wand, though Angel the series did a little more work of exploring what that meant; on Leverage, Eliot is a former bad guy who for some unspecified reason decided to become good, and we're encouraged not to dwell too deeply on what it says about him that he used to enjoy beating and killing people). Hell, in the MCU itself, one of the best liked characters is an unrepentant mass murderer. The notion that Ward is somehow uniquely irredeemable strikes me as ludicrous. I suspect that it stems (apart from the valid objection of giving Ward and not Mike a redemption arc) from the fact that neither the writing nor the acting for Ward are terribly charismatic, but again, to me that's a plus. It reinforces his ordinariness, and thus the ordinariness of the evil he does - he's not some monster, but a guy who made very bad choices. That strikes me as a much more valuable and important character to write about then, say, Loki.

freshninja said...

I wonder if you can connect this back to how Buffy existed in this almost entirely white fantasy America.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

There's obviously a problem with race throughout all of Whedon's shows (leaving aside for the moment the question of how Whedon-ish Agents of SHIELD is; I see some hints of his favorite tropes but they're rather faint). Buffy, as you say, takes place in a southern California completely bereft of black and Latino people, Angel and Dollhouse's LA isn't much more diverse, and there's the frequently-raised complaint about the absence of Asian people of Firefly (not to mention the fact that both of that series's most memorable villains were played by black men). That's not far outside the norm for American TV, unfortunately, but for a writer who proudly proclaims himself a feminist to so consistently fail when it comes to race is disappointing and frustrating.

That said, the Whedonverse example that I'd connect to Mike Peterson isn't Buffy, but Angel's Gunn. Obviously, J. August Richards plays both characters which makes them easier to connect, but there's a similar undertone of uncomfortable racial implications to Gunn's story, which is more complex than Mike's but still problematic. Unlike Mike, he gets to call out the all-white superhero team without his criticism being undermined by acts of villainy, but he still ends up joining them and accepting their authority, and doing so creates an inferiority complex that ultimately leads him to a villainous act (on the other hand, Gunn is the one left standing at the end of Angel, while Wesley, the tortured white woobie who definitely has some parallels with Ward, dies before the end). I know that there's been some anti-racist critique of Gunn's storyline, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of the points I raised here resonate there as well.

zahrawithaz said...

Excellent post.

I actually watched the Agents of SHIELD pilot, and the treatment of Mike Peterson made me swear off the Marvel cinematic universe forever. It made me violently angry. The heroic music swelling after an Angry Black Man takes a shot to the head still makes me recoil. I think this analysis of the racist tropes at play is spot-on.

But I would argue that those same racist tropes have larger resonance in the contemporary US, where civilians and police keep gunning down and murdering unarmed black men and children (and sometimes women) whom they perceive as threats without cause.

There's a lot of research confirming that media influences subconscious decision-making, and that the Angry Black Man stereotype does real and violent damage to communities of color.

And the idea you describe here is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, racist narrative being put forth across the political spectrum in the US: that black people, especially men, may deserve pity or sympathy, but must be controlled by white authority, often with violence, for the greater good.

Much of the mainstream media coverage of recent events in Ferguson, even from supposedly liberal sources, pushed that idea almost as aggressively as Agents of SHIELD.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Oh, yes. As difficult as the pilot was to watch last year, it was infinitely more troubling to write about after weeks of reading about events in Ferguson, and learning more about the way that black men, in particular, are treated as inherently killable by law enforcement. That entire scene becomes more and more toxic the more you think about it.

baeraad said...

I'll leave the question of racism to those more inclined and in tune (but yes, it is mighty strange how every person of colour on this show is either a villain or a victim, isn't it?), but, having finally watched about half of this season... I am actually a little surprised that you say you can't make out any of Whedon's influence, because to me, it's shock full of his most odious habits. I used to be a big Whedon fan, and I still can't deny that he's got a weird sort of talent, but my estimation for him has been dropping since circa Firefly.

In this case, the habit I'm referring to is the sense of overpowering moral smugness that always seems to attach to his protagonists. Every one of his works I've seen has always contained the unspoken certainty that everyone outside of the immediate circle of friends at its center are completely useless - well-meaning idiots who don't know what's good for them at best, conceited malevolent assholes more often. That's not a bad attitude to have when producing a show about high school life, because (as I think Whedon himself has even said somewhere) that's pretty much exactly how teenagers see the world anyway, but in a show about adults it becomes very annoying very quickly.

And boy howdy, is that attitude on display here. Mike gets hit with it the hardest, but the same thing seems to apply to all side characters who start getting ideas above their station. Disagree with the protagonists, and you're an idiot who just don't get it. Work against the protagonists, and it's black betrayal on a scale that is not far from sacrilege. Think that you can be a hero, and God help you, because only protagonists are allowed to be heroes and the world is going to slap you down hard for not realising that.

I am really finding myself very annoyed with this show. Which is a shame, because I actually love the idea of non-special, non-sparkly people trying to keep order in a world of superpowered egotists... but at this point, I actually find myself wishing for that libertarian douche Tony Stark to walk in and remind this lot that there are some people they are not only unable to control but that they probably shouldn't even try to.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I wouldn't want to say that there's nothing Whedon-ish about the show - as I think I said in my previous post about it, the basic structure of the cast, and even the premise, strike me as a particularly unimaginative retelling of Firefly - the ridiculous notion of a cargo plane that can comfortably house six people, plus spacious common areas, labs, storage, interrogation rooms, offices, training areas, etc. Or the fact that, despite being introduced on the rather intriguing terms of an anti-establishment activist who is persuaded that an organization like SHIELD is necessary and must reconcile her ideals with that fact, Skye is immediately transformed into another mysterious Whedon-ish waif who will no doubt turn out to have superpowers in the near future.

But the show's attitude towards authority strikes me as more complex, and more inflected by the central ideas of the MCU than by Whedon's favorite bugbears. Yes, there's a strong dose of Whedon's reflexive (and, as you say, increasingly immature) distrust of authority, but it's filtered through a lot of other stuff. For most of the season, Skye is being indoctrinated into the SHIELD system, and while we the viewers might come to distrust it, I'm not sure the show always wants us to feel that way. At the very least, we're meant to think that some sort of system is necessary, because the season ends with Coulson about to rebuild SHIELD from the ground up. Which is kind of a problem since by that point it's no longer convincing that SHIELD can function without being corrupted, or that Coulson is the man to rebuild it into a non-predatory body. If anything, it feels as if a bit of Cabin in the Woods-style distrust of authority would be a welcome antidote to the show's implicit assumption that SHIELD is necessary and, in its essence, a good thing.

baeraad said...

I don't feel like it's distrust of authority, per se, that I see in this show, though. It's more like "distrust of everyone outside of my personal circle of friends." I mean, Mike isn't an authority figure, but they sure distrust the hell out of him.

The show makes a big production out of discussing the issues of hierarchy and loyalty, intervention and civil rights, but what I actually see on screen always seems to boil down to this: "authority is good when The Heroes get to use it to do what they think is best. Authority is bad when it is mean to The Heroes or prevent them from doing what they think is best." Which kind of prevents it from making any sort of coherent statement on the issue, because the only conclusion you can draw from it is that you and the people that you personally like should get to decide everything and then all would be well.

And considering that Coulson ends the season in charge of everything, isn't that kind of the solution that the show ultimately presents?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

There's definitely a "hooray for the in-group" vibe to the show that chimes with Whedon's other series (and is increasingly problematic because the show so completely fails to argue the in-group's exceptionalism, either morally or in terms of their skills and intelligence). But first, a fascination with the in-group is hardly unique to Whedon. Most genre shows (and a lot of non-genre stuff) are about a team who are beleaguered by uncomprehending bosses and an unappreciative public. And second, SHIELD's idea of the in-group is exceptionally wide, for a Whedon show. Where Buffy, Angel, and Firefly were about groups of vigilantes or criminals who operated outside or even against the law, on SHIELD our heroes are above it. When you've got a major recurring character - who is intended as sympathetic - scoffing at Congress and at the notion that it might curtail or pass judgment on her actions, I think you're telling a different story than in Whedon's other shows - though I will agree that the writers don't seem entirely aware of this. They want Coulson to be the underdog, which would give us an excuse to overlook his moral failings and abuses of power, but what they've actually written is The Man.

freshninja said...

Hm. Does the show's view on how SHIELD needs to control the spread of dangerous tech and science and other things man was not meant to know intersect with Mike Peterson being turned into a machine, both literally (cyborg!) and metaphorically (the bad guys except him to follow their orders unquestioningly due to their hold over him)?

It's been a few days since I read your essay, so I could be just failing to remember large chunks of it, but I don't think this is an angle you've explicitly covered. Is there a connection between the show's rather elitist paradigm of how it treats scientific research and technological advancement, and the fact that Mike is turned into a robot?

Have you seen that webcomic where one caveman chastises because the taming of fire will spell doom for society? SHIELD seems to be that doomsayer, and Mike the fire.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

The belief that certain types of technology spell doom and must be controlled or kept out of sight is hardly unique to SHIELD, or even the superhero genre. You see it all over SF, which can be strangely luddite about new, imaginary technologies while treating existing technologies as perfectly normal, for all the upheaval they may have cause when they were introduced. It's not even limited to Mike - note the panic caused by the technology used to resurrect Coulson (complete with the fear that he Came Back Wrong), without any pause to consider that in their day, blood transfusions and organ donations were treated as equally scary.

You're right that, in addition, people who are not baseline human are treated as undeserving of fundamental human rights. Mike, as you say, but also the Asian street magician with power over fire, or the supers imprisoned without trial (and experimented upon) in the Fridge. Makes you wonder what'll happen when it's revealed that Skye is an alien.

Ann Burlingham said...

thanks for writing this. i just watched the first episode and the sight of an angry black man being shot in the head to "save" him was just.... ugh. came looking, found you'd watched and written more than i have, so i don't have to. thanks again.

The Rush Blog said...

But to me that's distinct from the fact that he's an interesting character (and, more importantly, the only member of the main cast about whom you can say that)


I certainly can't. Ward was never that interesting to me. The only time he was "interesting" was during the last third of Season One . . . after he had been outed as a HYDRA spy. The funny is that I wasn't all that upset over him being revealed as a mole. When it was being hinted that Melinda May might be the mole, I can recall being very upset over the idea . . . and sighing with relief when she proved not to be the traitor. As for Ward, I realized I couldn't care less one way or the other.

I no longer feel that way about Ward. I now wish he was gone. I think he has overstayed his welcome, as far as I'm concerned. At the same time, I'm in a state of rage over Antoine Triplett's death, which struck me as badly written.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

The only time he was "interesting" was during the last third of Season One . . . after he had been outed as a HYDRA spy

Well, yes, that's what I meant. I find Ward interesting as a walking, talking indictment of SHIELD and its institutional culture, and I'm not sure I see how the show can talk about returning SHIELD to what "it was meant to be" without also dealing with him. (I wrote some more about Ward and how he feels like the first season's most successful fusion of character and theme in my first post about the show.) I never thought May might be the traitor, but I was pretty sure it would be Simmons, which cheered me because she didn't otherwise have much in the way of a personality. Alas.

LinaBoeckwurm said...

I have to say, I'm surprised that I hadn't noticed this untill I read this, because it is really clear. It's just... I never saw Mike as a villain (only as controled, but never as really bad), so I didn't saw the racism behind it.
I think he is one of my favorite characters in the show, though I never agreed with his choice to not see his child (I mean, come on, it was like his best trade that he did everything for his kid, and then he doesn't want to see him anymore because of some stupid moral thingie? It was not a moral choice I could follow. There was no real reason or feeling behind it, in my opinion at least.) He has a strong mind, and always tries to do the best for his family or just to be good in general. I never once tought he was "a black victim". Maybe because I'm white and don't know enough blacks to know how hard this kind of thing hits, or maybe because I tent to glose over this kind of thing and look for the person behind the colour of the skin. I think both.
The only thing I don't really agree on is how closed minded you think Coulson is. Because I never felt that with him. Yes, he is strict, but I never saw him that hatefull towards heroes. And the whole point of the series is to show him warming up.
Maybe the series will take note of this and add a really good black hero? It's never to late to hope....

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