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Dull and Amazingly Racist: Joss Whedon’s Agents of SHIELD

Last week on Agents of SHIELD: An angry Black man threatens to blow up a train station full of innocent people. This week: A mysterious explosive device is found inside an oddly young ‘Incan pyramid’ (it’s described as ‘almost 500 years old,’ ignoring the fact that, er, the Incan Empire was crushed by the Spanish about 500 years ago). Is it mysterious woo-woo Incan technology and an opportunity for a meeting with a Wise Native? No! It’s a secret Nazi plot! Or something. I confess, I started losing track over the course of the second episode of this outstandingly dull and amazingly racist series.

While I have not come to expect the best from Joss Whedon, this appears to be setting a new bar. Keep in mind that the concept behind SHIELD is that it’s a highly secretive agency designed to protect people ‘for their own good’ from things of a supernatural nature that they are not ready to handle, which is already a shaky premise. Given that we live in an era where people have made it abundantly clear that they don’t favour being lied to by their governments, and in an era where the consequences of coverups have become painfully clear, SHIELD feels painfully out of step with reality.

In the pilot episode, the antagonist was a Black man who’d accepted some highly specialized body modifications, giving himself superhero strength…with a catch, namely that the modifications would eventually kill him by effectively turning him into a human bomb. Before that happened, though, we needed to be treated to a series of scenes in which he literally burned with rage until he finally had to be brought down by heroic (white) agents of SHIELD who could take him somewhere to be contained, or managed, or whatever it is one does; the show is a bit unclear on this.

Thus, I was already set to view the show with a rather jaundiced eye, as this was a dramatic showcasing of stereotypes, especially when contrasted with the mostly white SHIELD team, which appears to have jumped straight from bickering to cozy nights tucked in together with hot chocolate. Character building? Team building? Pffft, there’s no time.

This week’s episode had our Great White Saviours flying off to Peru to pick up a mysterious object which it was apparently necessary for them to personally extricate because no Peruvian agency could handle it. Their authority, granted by SHIELD, allowed them to do whatever they wanted, including, apparently, shooting a large number of Peruvian rebels protesting their presence in the area (remember, white=right!) in collusion with Peruvian police supposedly sent to guard the site.

Except, PSYCH!, the police were actually bad guys too, and thus needed to be thrown out the SHIELD plane at high altitude/sent to grim-sounding ‘detention camps’ to be dealt with. What did we learn in this episode? Never trust a brown person, evidently. Oh, and that it’s fine to push over the personal boundaries of women of colour; Melinda May’s desires to not be in combat and not be referred to as ‘The Cavalry,’ respectively, are both flagrantly ignored by her colleagues, who don’t seem to see any problem with treating her like someone who doesn’t deserve autonomy.

Who will it be next week? Scheming Jews? Arab terrorists? Evil North Koreans? Chinese with takeover plans? Corrupt African dictators? I can hardly wait to see what comes up next on the ethnic smorgasboard of racist caricatures!

Politically, Agents of SHIELD is an utter pile of rot, relying on racist stereotypes, Great White Saviourism, unquestioning faith in government agencies (apparently), and a thin rehash of the old idea that agencies work ‘for the good of the people,’ much like any other run of the mill cop show.

Aesthetically, it’s also an utter pile of rot. It’s just not good, and is in fact outstandingly not good for a Whedon production. The show lacks much of the spark found in Whedon dialogue, the characters have no depth and complexity, and nothing about the show is engaging enough to make me want to stay and see what happens next. While there’s a great deal of potential for developing interesting interpersonal relationships and working with the lush backstory of the characters, there doesn’t seem to be any sign that this is the plan; in some ways, Agents of SHIELD almost seems like an attempt to pick up where Firefly left off, with different characters and a totally different settings, expecting viewers to immediately connect with a brand-new team.

What made Firefly work, though, was that the team was born, not made. And that hasn’t happened with this show. Perhaps Whedon expects viewers to approach it with The Avengers in mind, or thinks that skipping over formative moments in the early episodes will allow him to cut to the chase, keeping viewers engaged long enough to suck them into the universe, but he appears to be wrong on both counts.

The show took a sharp ratings hit from 4.7 to 3.1 (adults 18-49) from last week, indicating that people didn’t find much to tune in for. On Twitter and other social networks, viewers, including Whedon fans, are not speaking of the show in favorable terms, and it seems to be losing some of its buzz. While ratings tend to shift between openers and the second episode, the fact that so many people seem so disappointed is not a good sign.

Buffy started out slowly, with the first season containing few standout episodes, but this isn’t the era of Buffy. Networks want shows that perform well right out of the gate, and so do viewers, which means that creators need to adjust their expectations and their strategy to make their work function in a new, and very harsh, television environment. How much of a chance will ABC, and viewers, be willing to give here?

Photo by archer 10 (Dennis), licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

15 thoughts on “Dull and Amazingly Racist: Joss Whedon’s Agents of SHIELD

  1. As peruvian i felt pretty much offended, not as much for the ususal misconceptions about Perú (like that aztec pyramid similar to the one in Indiana Jones 4 that seems to be the mother of all misconceptions about Perú in Hollywood), but for the extremely stupid comentary that the Skye character does: “rebels are good because they oppose the govern politic about minery”. Well, Shining Path aren’t rebels, they are terrorist who killed thousands of people in the 80’s because their polpotian, maoist ideology and now they are a small group that provide protection to the narcos. This series gets to millions of people and send the wrong message to them.

  2. Excellent critique. I’m really glad someone wrote this. In the first episode, a black character who we expected to play a major role in the series turned out to be an insignificant and stereotypical “angry black man.” In the second episode, we see a Peruvian policewoman who, at first, saves the SHIELD agents, but then tries to seduce Coulson before she betrays him. Like you said, the lesson here seems to be, don’t trust brown people, especially women of color. We’ve seen these stereotypes (the “angry black man,” the “manipulative and seductive woman of color,” the “token woman/man of color”) countless times and it’s utterly nauseating. I don’t think I’m interested in watching more episodes.

  3. You ignore the fact that their boss is a black man played by Samuel L Jackson.

    You complained that the team suddenly seems to be working well together without showing any team building. You seem to have ignored all of the bickering that goes on throughout the episode. This team clearly is not working well together yet.

  4. this reads like you aren’t familiar with marvel at all. the “human bomb” thing was first done in iron man 3, to gwyneth paltrow among others. (assuming we’re talking about extremis, which was already bastardized for the movie.) this show is a direct spin-off of “the avengers” and really all related storylines. the nazi thing started with captain america and they keep coming back.

  5. Still better than 99.999% of the crap thats being turned out on Tv lately. Stick with the soaps, xfactor clones and reality tv shows thats about all most people with no imagination can handle.

  6. This has got to be the most racist blog I’ve had the displeasure of reading this week. It saddens me to see that yet again, someone with yet another agenda to push. How dare any other nationality get depicted as ‘Evil’! Only White people are, everyone else is full of light and sunshine who only want peace!

    Well, ‘sunshine’,as a Black European Bond villain, once we finish our killer satellite, your city will be the first to…

    *Turns to one side frowning, whispering is heard.*

    What? Too early? What am I paying you people for?

    *More whispering*

    Well, it’s too late now, get to work.

    *Turns to camera.*

    Oh well… Ta-ta!

  7. ROTFLMAO WOW!!!! Somebody forgot to mention the fact that in the 2nd episode That the Director of SHIELD Nick Fury(Who’s Black…..reprised by Samuel Jackson) made a cameo. Or does he have to make more appearances to “satisfy the masses?”

  8. Even a casual review of Whedon’s work reveals a man afraid to place a non-white male in charge. In Whedon’s universe Blacks and other men of color are isolated and never powerful. They must be commanded or rescued by the White Savior. If the Avengers had been an orginal Whedno project Sam Jackson would not have been at the helm of SHIELD. AS it was, there were no other Black men in the agency. Whedon represents the reactionary fanboy in all its tragic racial nerdity.

  9. Even a casual review of Whedon’s work reveals a man afraid to place a non-white male in charge. In Whedon’s universe Blacks and other men of color are isolated and never powerful. They must be commanded or rescued by the White Savior. If the Avengers had been an orginal Whedon project Sam Jackson would not have been at the helm of SHIELD. AS it was, there were no other Black men in the agency. Whedon represents the reactionary fanboy in all its tragic racial nerdity.

  10. Ethnic slurs and politically charged brainwashing are abound. In Episode 7 of Season 1 entitled “The Hub” had a couple of glaring Neo-con political moments portraying the Ossetians as ruthless and murderous terrorists who want to break away from the Republic of Georgia. If you recall, the US was supporting genocide against the South Ossetians a few years back, something that failed miserably, causing for much embarassment.

    There was as well a racial slur directed at Armenians. Colson is talking to another senior agent (“Agent Hand”) against the backdrop of a large digital map, and at one point Coulson adds that “a fourth one standing by in Armenia?” in reference to some operative. A slight pause by Agent Hand and then she comments: “Great minds” with a cold sarcasm, which gets a chuckle from Coulson, and they then move on.

    Fantastically racist. They lost many audience members. This is spreading like wildfire.

  11. You are so right!!! I watched the first episode and just in the first seconds I thought, “Meet a Black Man, he’s unemployed, no job, no money…” And soon, he started getting angry, violent, destructive… And the WHite Saviours had to take him down….

    I skipped to the next episode after 20 minutes. Yeah, next episode, “Meet the Latinos….”

    I decided to forget about that episode and the rest of the show.

    It always amazes me how very racist Science Fiction Shows are. Look at the Black Male Characters in Heroes, Stargate Universe, Stargate Atlantis (Ford, the first inter-galacti junkie…) I cant believe that these nerdy White Boys are such huge racists. Oh well, why should they be different from the rest of WHite American/Canadian society. I guess the moment the nerdy writers and producers think of a Black or Brown person, only racist cliches and stereotypes come to mind. White Supremacy, based on ignorance, lies and delusions of superiority and grandeur.

  12. I don’t think it’s completely fair to pin this on Joss Whedon when his brother, Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tauncheron (an Asian woman) appear to have much more say in what happens on the show. Joss’ involvement seems minimal at best. Although, I do agree with the points about Firefly.

  13. Yknow, you should do more research before slamming a person like this. Joss is the creator, but he only gets a ‘creator’ credit for a reason. The writers are Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon.

    And as for Mike Peterson (Dethlok) they took a cool character, gave him a deep story, redeemed him, and now he fights for all of humanity as a super-hero alongside Shield. He even recently rescued Coulson and the rest.

    The show has a lot of prominent women and poc’s as people of power. Hell, their iconic leaders, Fury and Maria Hill are a black man that’s a genius and an amazingly tactical leader that’s female.

    Show’s not perfect. I’d like to see more poc’s for sure, but it’s not nearly as bad as you try to make it seem.

  14. So, let’s see–the ever-changing ensemble of good guys includes a bald white guy, a white woman, another white guy, an asian woman, a half-asian woman, another white guy, two black guys, and a white woman. So, that’s three white guys, two white women, two asian women, two black guys, and a eunuch (Patton Oswald). The angry black guy turns out to be a good guy who has probably taken the best “heroic journey” arc of all the secondary characters and, interestingly enough, the majority of the villains have been white guys–just like in real life. I’m conveniently leaving out bonus points for Sam Jackson cameos–not to mention Lucy Lawless passing through: she counts as three awesome women.

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