Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is making fun of Trump, but satirizing political controversies is nothing new for Marvel Comics, even if it’s rarely been this on-the-nose.
The current storyline has the protagonists thrust into a virtual world where reality has gone pear-shaped and evil has inexplicably won. Hydra won the war against SHIELD (reversing the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier). May saved a little Inhuman girl, only to see her cause a greater tragedy in America (reversing the events of AoS episode “Melinda”). Mack, who long ago lost his daughter, is united with her again (rectifying events reference in AoS episode “Deals with Our Devils”). Jeff “Patriot” Mace regretted being a fake hero, but here he is the real thing (fixing the situation revealed in AoS episode “Patriot”). And most significantly, Fitz – who never had a good relationship with his father – now has an amazing relationship with his father. Unfortunately, his father is evil, so in this world, Fitz is evil.
And therein lies the satire. May’s mistake and Fitz’s heel-turn enabled, against all logic, evil took over America. And now Fitz is spouting disturbingly familiar phrases.
UPDATED May 10 to include quotes from each of the “Agents of Hydra” episodes.
“Fact from Innuendo” and “The Resistance”
In the first part of the “Agents of Hydra” arc, the episode “What If?,” teacher Mr. Coulson explains how important it is to separate “fact from innuendo.” A quick Google search shows the top several hits for this phrase tie to an Op-Ed blasting those who leaked White House information. Similarly, Coulson is quick to defend Hydra and shut down anyone who questions the established narrative. Subtle.
More importantly, the remnants of SHIELD fighting against the Hydra-controlled government are called “The Resistance,” a title that has taken on new meaning in recent months.
“Make our society great again”
Upon learning “subversives” (i.e. the surviving SHIELD agents) are trying to destabilize their government in episode “Identity and Change,” Fitz (as second-in-command at Hydra), orders his top agents to track and neutralize the threat. It should go without saying that this allusion is a little on the nose. Or at least on the red cap.
“Beaten to within an inch of her life. Nevertheless, she persisted”
In “No Regrets,” Fitz tortured Daisy – whom he once had a severe crush on in the real world – disturbed by her claims that he’s “one of the good guys” in the “real world.” Her story never changes, despite the torture, and he utters words that have become the rallying cry for women’s empowerment ever since Sen. Mitch McConnell unironically used as a polemic against Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
So, wow. Marvel is actively satirizing the current political climate, albeit in a show that has ever-decreasing viewership and one that has been moved to a deadly timeslot. And yet, this is probably the best season of the show, not just because the creators are willing to take these satirical risks, but for the development of the characters, the incorporation of the comic book source material, and the creative risks the show has taken, dividing the season up into three distinct arcs (“Ghost Rider,” “LMD,” and now “Agents of Hydra”).
In “All the Madame’s Men” (a title referencing the story of the Nixon fall called All the President’s Men), Hydra faithful Bakshi (who died in AoS season 2) is now a cable news star with a cult of personality espousing Hydra rhetoric. After Bakshi makes uncomfortable advances on his female employees, Coulson’s team take over the studio and broadcast their own message. Coulson quickly establishes the ground rules: “Hydra doesn’t think we’re smart enough while we’re being fed alternative facts,” clearly referencing the now infamous defense from Kellyanne Conway.
In the last full “Agents of Hydra” episode, “Farewell, Cruel World!,” Agent May finally realizes she’s been working for the wrong team, and declares everything Hydra has been feeding them is “fake news.” Not so subtle.
How it ties to Hydra-Cap
Should Marvel even be satirizing the government? In the comic book storyline kicking off this week with the release of Secret Empire #0, Steve Rogers has had his own reality-altering heel-turn, and just as Fitz is in the show, Cap is now leading a Hydra overthrow of the government in the comics. Once again, reality is being altered, brains are being washed, and – perhaps not-completely unintentionally – the real world is being made fun of.
Is satire okay here?
But why not? Saturday Night Live has been skewing the powers that be since its inception, and fiction has been used to lambast world leaders for centuries. Gulliver’s Travels, seen incorrectly by many as a children’s story, tears apart the establishment and completely eviscerates people and institutions most at the time saw as untouchable.
Satire in Comic Books
Leaving aside obvious works of comedic satire like Mad Magazine or Cracked, and subversive works of underground comics like the misanthropic works of R. Crumb, mainstream superhero comics have been making fun of the real world since Superman.
Early Superman comics – which inspired Grant Morrison’s New 52 revisionist origin story – had the archetypal hero fighting fictional corrupt politicians and business men. These were the very same people who caused the Great Depression that Superman’s earliest readers grew up in.
Captain America famously punched Hitler, and while this doesn’t seem like a big deal from today’s point of view, that was a controversial political statement in 1941. Not everyone was willing to admit that Hitler might be a bad guy (and some still struggle with that), and Marvel received death threats because of it. That came from a conscious decision by publisher Martin Goodman (Stan Lee’s relative, and the guy who gave him his first writing gig in Captain America Comics #3). Goodman said that if these heroes were meant to stand up for what was right in the world, they had to pick a side in Europe’s war. In the end, they were proven right.
Other comics, including other Marvel comics at the time, participated in the fight in subtler ways, with fictional countries standing in for Germany, or representing Hitler’s political allies, but the results were the same. Hitler and his clones were popping up everywhere.
Sometimes, comic creators paid the price for their stances. EC Comics, today best known for Tales from the Crypt, scoffed at the way mainstream publishers ignored or minimized segregation, and actually sanctioned a story satirizing the stupidity of stratifying society based on skin color. The result? Censors told them to change the main character’s race or face the consequences. They chose the latter, and ceased publication for decades.
In the ‘70s, Captain America was forced to deal with the changing views of patriotism following the traumatic events of the past two decades. With several high profile assassinations and the admission that President Nixon was directly involved in illicit activities, many Americans had lost faith in, or at least respect for, the nation and the government. Cap, as a symbol of the nation, could not lose faith, but when he learned the villainous Secret Empire group (for whom the current storyline is named) was led by the president himself, he finally gave up the uniform. Although the comics couldn’t say it at the time, everyone knew it was Nixon.
Fastforwarding to today, Marvel has every right to poke fun at those in power, regardless of which side of the divide you fall.
It’s the American thing to do.