Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. commits to a diverse cast but unequal screen time for women mars its record on overall inclusiveness.”
Title: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-5
Creators: Joss Whedon 👨🏼🇺🇸, Jed Whedon 👨🏼🇺🇸, and Maurissa Tancharoen 👩🏻🇺🇸
Writers: Jed Whedon 👨🏼🇺🇸, Maurissa Tancharoen 👩🏻🇺🇸, Jeffrey Bell 👨🏼🇺🇸, Paul Zbyszewski 👨🏼🇺🇸, Monica Owusu-Breen 👩🏽🇬🇧, Brent Fletcher👨🏼🇺🇸, Lauren LeFranc 👩🏼🇺🇸, DJ Doyle 👨🏼🇺🇸, Drew Greenberg 👨🏼🇺🇸, Craig Titley 👨🏼🇺🇸, and various
Review by Xochilt Williams 👩🏽🇺🇸
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC offers solid quality that doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel of the superhero genre. Every week, viewers are treated to the exploits of a shadow team, led by Marvel Cinematic Universe darling Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Made up of both powered and non-powered members, the team gets put through more than its share of harrowing trials. From taking on Inhumans—an alien species with the ability to manifest unique abilities—to journeying through space and time, S.H.I.E.L.D. forges onward invoking Coulson’s renowned optimism each step of the way.
The inaugural season stumbles a bit with pacing and special effects (sadly, not all green screens are created equal), but there have been significant improvements since, both technically and narratively. The inclusion of Inhumans in Season 2 makes for engaging storytelling, while Season 4’s Ghost Rider arc sees some of the best CGI on the show to date through Gabriel Luna’s seamless transformations to the Rider.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
For a show like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. where every member must contribute vitally or risk jeopardizing the mission, it’s nice to see women in strong, thoughtful roles like Elizabeth Henstridge’s Jemma Simmons, the biochemist who can perform life-saving surgery and run analytics on a bio-weapon at the same time. Elena “Yo-Yo” Rodriguez (Natalia Cordova-Buckley), who began as a Colombian political activist helping the oppressed in her country with her newfound Inhuman abilities, has also been a noteworthy addition to the team.
Behind the scenes, co-creator Maurissa Tancharoen and her colleagues appear to relish the making of powerful and intelligent women, who are the show’s true heavy lifters, both physically and cerebrally. Chloe Bennet’s Daisy “Quake” Johnson regularly overpowers her male opponents in combat. Daisy’s narrative, especially, receives ample time devoted to her origin story as she becomes essential to the introduction of Inhumans to the world of S.H.I.E.L.D. She starts as a maverick hacker unfit for the bureaucracy that S.H.I.E.L.D. embodies, but over time, and in part thanks to her Inhuman DNA, we see her become the team’s biggest gun.
Ming-Na Wen’s Agent May is written the same way as Daisy: May regularly bests her opponents. Much of her screen time has been a progression from aloof and guarded to caring about her teammates like family. Her role as Coulson’s most trusted confidant and perpetual “will-they-won’t-they” partner makes her a kind of den mother to the team. In addition, May heads up most of the tactical missions which makes her the team’s second-biggest gun.
Unfortunately, despite such positive representation, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. still suffers from gender imbalance in places like share of dialogue, where female characters speak for just one-third of the time that men do.* Unintentional or not, this makes it seem like the powerful women of the team are meant to stay quiet and only perform when it comes time to save the day.
One of the show's major highlights include the diversity of its core team as well as some masterful performances from non-teammates. In fact, the later additions of Mack (Henry Simmons) in Season 2 and Yo-Yo in Season 3 achieve a significant milestone: Members of color currently outnumber white members on the team.
In key roles, both Daisy and May are played by Chinese American women and have been afforded ample backstory as essential S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Daisy’s Chloe Bennet, who is biracial, often decries prejudicial casting practices in Hollywood while Ming-Na Wen, who was born in Macau and moved to the States at an early age, boasts a long and impressive body of work advancing Asian American representation.
Outside of the team, the show offers striking portrayals of individuals living in a world that looks very much like the real one, except with superheroes. Straight out of the gate in Season 1, Mike Peterson (J. August Richardson), through a tie-in to the MCU’s Avengers, becomes the cyborg Deathlok. Richardson’s nuanced performance in the pilot tugs on the heartstrings and draws parallels to some of the struggles Black men face in America.
Also noteworthy are the portrayals of Jiaying, deftly played by half-Nepalese actress Dichen Lachman, and Gabriel Luna as Mexican-American Robbie Reyes, a mechanic cursed with the spirit of Ghost Rider.
While the diversity on the show is worth celebrating, some narratives could still use work. Mack and Yo-Yo’s stories lag far behind those of Daisy and May, with writers quick to pair them off as a romantic couple. We get brief references to their lives before S.H.I.E.L.D., but in a season where Yo-Yo travels to space, loses her limbs, and speaks to her future self, it still wasn’t enough to balance the drawn-out melodrama that is her relationship with Mack.
At the end of the day, however, it’s nice to see the diverse S.H.I.E.L.D team exist within the same Marvel universe as the Avengers, the latter of whom rely heavily on white superheroes.
LGBTQ representation barely exists in this world. Over the course of five seasons, just two characters exist—Joey Gutierrez (Juan Pablo Raba), introduced in Season 3 as the first gay Inhuman, and Enoch (Joel Stoffer), a sentient inorganic being from a distant planet without sexual organs.
During Joey’s small plotline, introduced as Inhuman lives were being threatened, he becomes a symbol for anyone who needs to hide a part of themselves from the world to survive. Thankfully, he avoids stereotypes, including the Bury Your Gays trope despite a tenuous situation towards the end of Season 3 that could have ended differently. In fact, considering the major sacrifices most team members have had to make, Joey walks away with a rare happy ending.
Season 5’s addition of the alien species Chronicoms includes Enoch. Mostly minor for now, Enoch poses an opportunity for writers to build on his character in future seasons. While having non-binary representation is welcome, Marvel continues to lag behind on LGBTQ representation by casting Enoch with a cisgender male actor. This hardly feels out of character for the larger franchise; the first canonically gay character in the entire MCU appeared just months ago, in a blink-and-you-miss-it glimpse of a grieving survivor in Avengers: Endgame (2019).
Bonus for Disability: +0.25
In Season 2, the team’s engineering whiz Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) recovers from brain trauma and must learn to navigate life without relying solely on his intellect. Audiences watch as Fitz finds new ways to problem-solve and communicate, while thankfully avoiding the trope of “inspiration porn”.
Mediaversity Grade: B- 3.69/5
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. commits to a diverse cast in its telling of a shadow organization and the people who work for it, but unequal screen time for women mars the first five seasons of the show. It doesn’t help that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is co-created by Joss Whedon, someone who once sparked joy in the hearts of geeks everywhere (thanks to iconic works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Firefly) but whose reputation with women has since landed him out of favor with those concerned about harassment in Hollywood.
Even at its most benign, writer Emily Todd VanDerWerff reminds us that “[Joss] Whedon's work trends toward feminism, but his true great cause is storytelling, and he always prioritizes the latter if it makes for a better story.” The Whedon name has not been a death knell for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but gone are the days when its Season 1 showrunner was synonymous with female empowerment.
Like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Try these other comic book shows.
* Speaking time was tracked using the website arementalkingtoomuch.com. Gender share of dialogue averaged out to 32% female vs. 68% male across 25 episodes, randomly sampled across the 5 seasons covered in this review.