Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has returned, and to no one’s surprise, Skye’s new plot expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe while simultaneously transforming her into a superhero. After Buffy, Willow, Anya, Cordelia, Illyria, River, Echo, Kitty Pryde and Black Widow, Whedon’s fans are beginning to expect the girl power action heroine complete with unearthly gifts. Now trained and able to defend herself, before revealing her secret Inhuman power, Skye is ready to go.
But how “Whedon” is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Joss hasn’t been involved much since the first episode, instead concentrating on Avengers 2. His brother and sister-in-law are showrunning, but he seems less involved than he was on Dollhouse. So is this noticeably a Whedon product? Or closer to the MCU?
In fact, Whedon’s many tropes and themes come through startlingly clearly. First there’s his lineup. A woman warrior as team mom (the Zoe trope) and a caring father figure (Coulson plays a similar role on Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, and in his love for Skye, he’s a close parallel for Giles from Buffy). Captain Mal too has some parallels here with the automatic protection and support he offers to his team, between wisecracks.
Then there are the kids: Fitz and Simmons are as naïve as Willow and Xander or Simon and River. Simmons, the “good girl,” is repressed enough she may be preparing for a Dark Willow type of fall or transformation into someone as inverted as Illyria, the savage god of Angel. Fitz is the geeky Joss stand-in, like Dr. Horrible, Xander, Wash, or Mr. Universe, though viewers must watch him fall apart in a manner as heartbreaking as Topher’s madness on Dollhouse. As the Xander character, Fitz must choose between his lifelong friend Jemma and the young superheroine Skye, much as Xander does over and over. Like Xander, Fitz helps the despairing heroine with a hug and by keeping her secrets, all thanks to his deep understanding and perception.
Ward is Angel/Angelus, suddenly revealed as the murderous inversion of all he once stood for, preying on the heroine’s innocence and attempting to kill her weakest friends. Even Agent Hand parallels the cold, controlling matriarchs from Buffy (Gwendolyn Price and Maggie Walsh) or Dollhouse (Adelle DeWitt) who tutor the untried heroines. The show’s two Asian women also echo the pair of Asian women Whedon welcomed to Dollhouse (Sierra and Ivy) and introduced into the X-Men (Armor and Blindfold) after admitting in Doctor Horrible’s Commentary: The Musical that Asian women were rarely seen onscreen.
There have obviously been actor cameos from the Whedonverse: Deathlok (J. August Richards), Skye’s mother (Dichen Lachman), Coulson’s girlfriend (Amy Acker), Daniel Whitehall (Reed Diamond) along with Avengers’ characters Maria Hill, and Nick Fury. Patton Oswalt, who plays all the Koenig brothers, guest-starred on Dollhouse as a similar character.
By this point, fans suspect that “anyone can die.” The mid-season finale and then the mid-season premiere have numerous fake outs as [spoiler to follow] Mack, Skye, Raina, and Ward all nearly die, while Trip actually does. In the premiere, a truck slams into Coulson and May’s car faster than thought and Coulson and May fake their own deaths quite realistically. In another surprise, a frightened Fitz backs off threatening Skye and protects her secret.
“He’s the ideal age – old enough to understand, young enough to adapt,” Skye’s mother Jiayang says of a new inhuman recruit (“Aftershocks,” 2.11). Skye isn’t an adolescent like Buffy but a young adult like Whedon’s vampires – Angel and Spike. Skye’s transformation and Raina’s resemble theirs in other ways as the men gain a superhero side…and a monstrous one. Vampirelike, Raina may even need to kill humans to survive – it’s not clear. Both men are confused and frightened to die and transform, but when they do, they find they’re far more powerful. As such, Skye and Raina resemble the light and dark sides of a person. In all these cases, there’s an emphasis on mentorship, in guiding the new initiate through the frightening new world of supernatural abilities.
The plots and tropes also echo older Whedon stories. “We lost. We failed,” Skye says (2.11). Whedon’s characters have begun several episodes in such a hopeless place as Glory takes Dawn or the First kills several potentials. Traitors spread through the ranks, but as with the Initiative and Watchers, to say nothing of Serenity’s Operative, they make valid points about who should have the authority to kill the monsters and defend the world. As Gonzales protests:
This is not a decision that we arrived at lightly. I know Coulson, he was a good agent. At least he was before Fury injected him with alien DNA. Ever since, his behavior has grown increasingly more troubling. Can you honestly tell me that you don’t share any of these concerns? (“Love in the Time of Hydra,” 2.14)
Chosen family is emphasized as Coulson the good father fights Cal the bad father in “What they Become” (2.10). Like Buffy, Dawn, or Fred, Skye picks her chosen family over the biological one. In the following episode, each team member takes time to visit Skye and reassure her. “I shouldn’t have to ask any of you to save one of our own,” Coulson insists (2.11). As her friends all argue over her, Skye has a panic attack, like a child being fought over by squabbling parents.
A few episodes later, however, Cal tells Skye that S.H.I.E.L.D. is capable of killing her because they fear her powers. In the same episode, Skye sees Coulson slam a heavy bag into the face of a man begging for mercy and panics (“One of Us,” 2.13). As Skye finds herself progressively locked away and isolated, she comes to believe the truth of Cal’s warning. May counsels Skye to direct her powers inward, but as with Dark Willow, suppressing her powers causes deeper trauma. Clearly, Skye’s human friends are sympathetic but ill-equipped to handle this. By contrast, Cal himself bounces with glee on hearing Kye has been transformed. Like Drusilla and Darla, he will prove the guide and tempter for the newly transformed character to create a new identity as far more than human.
Like Giles on Buffy, Phil takes his charge to the wilderness and leaves her there to train. (Coulson feels he mishandled something important with Skye by abandoning her at a safehouse, and this will likely prove true.) When Giles did this in “Intervention” (5.18), Buffy learned, but in her absence, an inverted substitute appeared, as the perky Buffybot spent time with Buffy’s friends. It symbolized her shadow as bright, perky heroine as Buffy dealt with the death of her mother. Skye too is replaced, as Agent 33 (formerly May’s evil twin) transforms into Skye’s image. Agent 33 tries to seduce Ward because she’s so lost and helpless – something the opposite of the newly powerful Skye. Nonetheless, her vulnerable sadness reflects what Skye has buried, but must be feeling on some level.
Finally, Jemma Simmons has a meltdown about alien tech and turns from its greatest experimenter to its greatest critic. Fitz, who, as the Xander character, is becoming the nonsuperpowered member who nonetheless can see everything clearly, finally tells her she’s gone through the scariest change. Simmons in some ways echoes Willow on Buffy, who goes from using more and more magic to rejecting it cold turkey as evil and destructive. In fact, she is wrong both times, and, like Simmons, needs to find a balance. Dollhouse characters who remove their emotions to use doll skills or reject the tech in every way echo this split as well. It’s Echo who biologically is the tech, who can lead them into a higher plane of being.
A few plot threads seem likely as Ward will need to quest for redemption and most likely be accepted once more, like Angel or Spike. Raina will claim power for herself and become a dark heroine, possibly Skye’s shadow and deepest threat, like Glory or Drusilla. Jemma will need to battle through her dark place, while Fitz battles his own body. The MCU Civil War is coming, and with Whedon’s great anti-authoritarian streak, it’s likely S.H.I.E.L.D. will continue as a ragtag team like those on Buffy, Angel, or Firefly, rather than the evil institution of Cabin in the Woods. Gonzales and his “real S.H.I.E.L.D.” team have a different agenda of course, and their conflict is approaching. Meanwhile all the new mercenaries, like secondary team Anya, Tara, and Dawn are finding (and betraying) their place among the S.H.I.E.L.D. team, as together they rebuild the future.