Monday, October 21, 2013

S.H.I.E.L.D: Good Guys or Bad Guys? It Depends on When You Ask

Promo Photo from Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

This will probably be evolved and continued over time and may turn into a real, "researched" paper, but for now, I want to get my thoughts down and see where they go.  Further input is encouraged in the comments!

I blame Clark Gregg.

Okay, maybe it's not entirely his fault, but the actor who has done such an incredible job filling what was originally a minor role in Marvel's movie series has definitely made an impact on the way many people perceive the shady organization known as S.H.I.E.L.D. Named originally Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division, the organization's title changed in 1991 to Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate, and then it was altered again for the Marvel movie release to Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (there's plenty to culturally analyze just in THAT fact).

S.H.I.E.L.D. has a long and checkered history within the Marvel universe. The organization was originally created during the heyday of international espionage in films and books, when 007 and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ruled the entertainment world. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the organization, fully-formed, in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and filled in the backstory as stories necessitated.

S.H.I.E.L.D. has always been problematic, in spite of the fact that their main antagonist (HYDRA) is very obviously evil. In the classic response to the question, "is the enemy of my enemy my friend?," S.H.I.E.L.D. often works at odds with superheroes, sometimes claiming they exist to keep heroes in check, but acting in questionable ways and sometimes diametrically opposed to the interests of the people they claim to protect. They almost certainly will lean toward restricting the civil rights of the superheroes themselves in many cases.

I really need citations. They're all in my brain and I promise I'll intersperse them as I spend time researching this idea, because I know these paragraphs aren't the only thing I'm going to write about this.

Promo image for Civil War via Marvel and the magic of the Interwebs.
My first inclination is to suggest that the post-9/11 world created a need for S.H.I.E.L.D to be heroic since our heroes proved they couldn't save us, but I'm not sure this is the correct response. Civil War, which was a response to the fallout from the culture developed in the wake 9/11 in spite of the fact that it was authored years later, established pretty conclusively the fact that even though heroes were dangerous, the government (and, by extension, S.H.I.E.L.D.) was worse. Two years after Civil War, we see Joss Whedon's Dollhouse float the same idea. Greater power inevitably equals greater corruption, which pretty much means that no one is safe. Ever.

(And yes, on an only quasi-related subject, I'm fairly certain that our Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Coulson is an LMD. But time will tell. How would that cloud the agency's current "good name?")

By the way, Civil War is what really made me love Captain America...if you haven't read it, you'll gain some serious respect for the guy in those pages. Oh, and the story also made me seriously despise Spider-Man. Like to the point of indignation. The side stories vary in their quality, but the core story is a serious page-turner that asks some serious questions about the nature of freedom and how we defend the freedoms of even those we fear shows the true quality of character. But it also shows the deep, almost subconscious, need to relinquish control to authority as a security blanket in the aftermath of horror. And the true horror that can rise in the aftermath of letting go of our most basic civil rights. So, in spite of the sides that are chosen, power is still something to fear, because those in power have no more idea how to handle the aftermath of catastrophe than the average person.

Even the animated series Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes depicts S.H.I.E.L.D. as autocratic and potentially dangerous, to the point that the Avengers actually form outside of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s commission and, while they lend a hand to the agency from time to time, they also actively resist actually falling under its umbrella (by the way, the difference in depiction of Tony Stark between this series and Civil War is fascinating, considering what side he ends up landing on in that series...even more fascinating is the fact that both depictions are believable within the scope of each storyline).

But then, almost suddenly, we get to a point culturally where we want to feel "safe" with the idea of government agencies. When did this happen? Did we forget that these people aren't heroes but people, with foibles and, potentially worse, the spark of corruption in every soul? Did we suddenly miss Mulder and Scully? I don't know. I don't have answers. I'm still trying to formulate all the questions.

Any thoughts out there in Internet-world? Is this all Coulson's fault? Is this what happens when you start to give faces to the people in power, even if they're not perfect?

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