The New Hero: Brains of S.H.I.E.L.D.

This article contains SPOILERS


If you’ve seen Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., you’re probably invested in the superhero scene. If you’re into the superhero scene, you’ve probably experienced the “typical hero” of the big screen. We’ve all seen it before: a protagonist with rippling muscles vanquishes evil and gets the girl. This is the plot of innumerable movies and television shows, especially those big summer blockbusters that rake in hundreds of millions in one weekend then cease to be heard of again. Marvel is on one such movie streak which has been building momentum since the release of Spider-Man, X-Men, The Fantastic Four, and all the superhero movies we’re familiar with. They have consistently outstripped any other franchise in terms of quantity, profit, and – some would argue – quality. Since The Avengers in 2012, theaters have been bursting with Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor  films (among many others). It’s quite a marvel (pun intended).

As any discerning viewer will notice, each new film has the same basic premise – save the city/world from some impending threat. How is it that we don’t get sick of it? Movie-makers are aware of this, and they ensure that there are infinite variables between the storylines and characters so each tale is fresh and exciting. Arguably, character is everything; if you’re not rooting for the protagonist, something is wrong. Even minor characters, if written and acted well, have the potential to be the most memorable part of the movie.

Joss Whedon (Firefly, Buffy) has taken this concept and run with it. After he directed the phenomenal success that was The Avengers, ABC picked up a television series based in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Whedon co-wrote and directed the pilot episode, and the rest, as they say, is history. S.H.I.E.L.D  works in tandem with the films but contributes almost an entirely new cast of characters. Phil Coulson leads a team of agents to handle strange new cases, based out of an airplane nicknamed “The Bus.” The team includes the stoic pilot Melinda May, tough-guy Grant Ward, clever hacker Skye, engineer Leo Fitz, and biochemist Jemma Simmons.

(left to right) Skye, Simmons, Fitz, Coulson, May, and Ward
(left to right) Skye, Simmons, Fitz, Coulson, May, and Ward

Who is the hero in this series? Coulson certainly has a claim to that title as he is the main protagonist. However, Whedon and his gang of writers have a way with ensemble casts. Each character is nuanced, has flaws, and has the capacity to be good or bad. Nobody is uninteresting or one-dimensional. Take Ward, for example – the stereotypical, handsome good guy. As the season progresses, he is shaping up for a breakthrough – to become the hero we expect. We see flashbacks to traumatic childhood memories, we root for him… then suddenly we stop cheering. Surprise, he’s Hydra. We are subjected to a similar suspicion about Agent May when it is revealed that she has an encrypted phone line in the cockpit. Even Skye has us doubting for a few minutes after she protects a suspect she has history with. After those happenings, audiences probably weren’t completely trusting of anyone in the show for a little bit.

This show has no righteous, macho paragon of humanity. Instead, we get people who (mostly) are inherently good and try to do good stuff. The trend these days seems to favor the less-precedented side of heroism: the brains. You’ve got Irene Adler in the BBC’s Sherlock proclaiming that “brainy’s the new sexy.” The Big Bang Theory is steamrolling ratings. Nerd culture is becoming mainstream. Marvel’s answer: FitzSimmons. At first sight, it’s easy to write off the duo as the nerdy, over-intelligent weaklings of the bunch. I waited with bated breath for the snide bullying and social exclusion I was certain would come. I’m glad I was proved wrong. These two geniuses save the day countless times and help solve problems with sheer intelligence and resourcefulness. They graduated three years early from the academy and have multiple inventions to their names. Their D.W.A.R.Fs (Drones Wirelessly Automated to Retrieve Forensics) are used to the team’s advantage throughout the series, as are the Night-Night Guns/I.C.E.R.s and other doodads of crucial importance. Fitz gets sent on a covert operation with Ward where he proves to be surprisingly capable; he thinks on his feet and does a better job at getting them across the border than Ward does.  He expresses his desire to be respected, interjecting, “I am every bit the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent you are!” Sure, FitzSimmons don’t necessarily have the physical prowess for field missions, but they don’t need it – they more than make up for it in other areas.

"You're gonna suffer for what you've done, and I plan on being a very big part of that."
“You’re gonna suffer for what you’ve done, and I plan on being a very big part of that.” – Fitz

In addition to their intellect, FitzSimmons are courageous and intensely loyal. In fact, Fitz is loyal almost to a fault; although deeply upset after Ward’s betrayal, Fitz is adamant that his former friend can be redeemed while everyone else has given up hope.  When faced with an offer to join Hydra, he replies, “You’re gonna suffer for what you’ve done, and I plan on being a very big part of that.” But get this: he’s crying. Ergo, characters don’t have to be unflappable and aloof to be strong.  Sure, he hides under a desk during a battle, but saves May by shooting her assailant when it matters most. Also, he follows through on his tearful threat by setting off an EMP and crippling the bad guy. He follows his moral compass, despite the likelihood that he’ll probably be killed for doing so. Not to be trifled with.

simmons derp
“I have a duty to you, sir, as my commanding officer. But I also have a duty as a S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist to pursue this, to save lives!” – Simmons

Simmons, though less sure of herself, demonstrates just as much tenacity. Not to mention her unparalleled bio-chem prowess, she is an indispensable asset to the team. When Skye is shot twice in the stomach, Simmons’ quick-thinking keeps the hacker alive long enough to resuscitate her. When she walks in on her teammates being attacked in a train car, Simmons’ decision to throw herself on a grenade (later found to be Night-Night technology) takes milliseconds. She even throws herself out of the Bus mid-flight to save her teammates from an alien disease she contracted. When the Bus is stolen, she and Fitz find it and agree that despite the danger they can’t let the enemy escape without putting a tracker on the plane. This ultimately leads to the pair being ejected in a medical pod from the plane into the ocean. Upon waking 90 feet under water, Simmons finds that Fitz has broken his arm yet managed to create a distress beacon and assess the damage of the situation. Always the optimist, she figures out how to blow the window without being crushed by the water pressure. Fitz selflessly gives the last bit of oxygen to Simmons so she can make it to the surface as he detonates the glass. They may not be the main heroes of the series, as other characters are equally important, but FitzSimmons present the most compelling case for “the new hero.”

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s critical reception has been mixed, with one reviewer commenting that “the core team – two frowning special-ops soldiers, a pair of British lab geeks and a snarky hacker – rubbed a lot of potential fans up the wrong way: there was no chemistry, the banter seemed forced, they triumphed too easily.” In S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s defense, comic books have an inherent cheese factor, which Marvel did not omit from the show. Since the new second season premiered, however, these characters have been through a lot. From infection to betrayal to brain damage, the dynamic is certainly darker. We’ll just have to wait and see how the characters have evolved through these trials, and if the show maintains its dedication to developing the little guy.

Unlike many cliché “heroes,” these two characters in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. exemplify not just physical strength, but moral fiber and the makings of genius. The definition is still changing; no longer are brawny, daring men dominating the screen. Rather, audiences’ hearts are being won by unlikely heroes – men and  women – whose ingenuity, unswerving allegiance, brains, and bravery show us the best of humanity.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Erica is a graduate of The Ohio State University and holds a BA in theatre and a BA in English with a professional writing minor. She acts, writes, and enjoys waterskiing.

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  1. They do need to add someone that is an adversary that is more present. At the moment Hydra is a bit distant but the episodes definitely been much better. Fitz actor is actually really great– first saw him. In this UK show called the Fades. He was amazing and they really underused him previously. He getting a lot of great acting room now. Simmons does a great job too.

  2. Shield is off to a great start!

  3. I think it’s more interesting now that the team doesn’t have the massive organization and resources anymore, but it kind of bugs me that Hydra seems to have gained it. There doesn’t seem to be much heat on them, they apparently have office buildings with the logo on the walls.

  4. I think some crazy and unexpected stuff is going to go down this season. The original 6 core team members will go through some serious changes this year. I think at least one will leave the team and/or one will get killed off. Who will leave and who will die? There’s already a plethora of story arcs that could lead to these possible outcomes. Skye is an obvious choice due to daddy coming back into her life. Does “Father Know Best”? Ward, already an outcast, is basically off the team so he’s a candidate for being killed off. Simmons is already inside HYDRA as a plant and is a potential subject to face compliance programing and has already stated her loyalty is to science. Fitz has shown himself to be immature, insecure and is now mentally unstable, bye-bye Fitz? May has already had issues with Coulson losing faith in her and in S2, EP 4 we already know they’ll be back at it again. Coulson died once already so I don’t see him dying again, but could the GH325 cause him to leave the team because he doesn’t trust himself?

    • i don’t see Skye or Coulson leaving they are the hear and soul of this show. Everybody else is up for grabs. my money is on Fitz dying. They can’t miraculous cure him because that was just take away from the darker and more serious tone the show has taken (a good thing) and how long can he really contribute to a Shield team in his condition? Fitz emotional death is where my money is at

  5. Liz Kellam

    I am so behind on this show. I am just finishing up Season 1. It has definitely gotten better. I like the tie-ins to the Marvel films.

  6. Jemarc Axinto

    What I especially love about FitzSimmons is the direction (trying really hard to write this without spoiling anything) their relationship takes in Season 2. There’s just a new feel to it that keeps me wanting more, and more!

  7. I liked the first season, I really did, but I’ve never felt like I was watching a SHIELD’s show. Now, with this season 2 I’m finally getting that feeling of espionage, secrets, war in shadows etc etc. I’m feeling on edge in every episode, I hold my breath a lot in this series now, it’s amazing what they acomplished with this new season. Finally they got it right!

  8. Shield’s season 2 is miles away stronger than season 1. This show had the potential even then, but now I feel like it’s finally reaching it. Three episodes in a row which are just amazing. Send em coming.

  9. So Shield is great now. 😀

  10. D. Boyles

    Full disclosure: I’m older than the target age group for the show. I read comic books (primarily Marvel) back in the early to mid 80’s; however, S.H.I.E.L.D. was not in my repertoire. I am a huge fan of this show and the MCU in general. Due to my limited knowledge in comic book lore for the past 30 years and complete lack of knowledge in SHIELD lore, my comments will be solely from a viewer stand point. I know that there’s nothing I can write that won’t raise the ire of someone or some people on this board. Haters will hate, trolls will troll and, naturally, there will be people with differing opinions. That said, I’d like to address the show in general: I understand that HYDRA was the key antagonist in the comics but in this show, although once again a primary antagonist, it seems to me that they are basically (now don’t get mad)…… fluff. They’ll play an important part in the show and provide adversaries for Coulson and his team to deal with, but the main premise of the show, at least for the foreseeable future is Skye, Coulson and Garrett’s reactions to GH325 along with Skye’s relation to Raina. Skye and Raina have similar DNA. Skye has been the recipient of GH325. Coulson is also a recipient of the GH drug, but also other unknown drugs administered during his recovery procedure in TAHITI. Garrett also got him some GH325 but his was synthesized by Raina and was administered on top of the Centipede serum. So three people got GH325, but all will have different reactions due to other underlying factors. We saw what happened to Garrett. His immediate reaction was probably due to him already having Centipede serum in him along with God only knows what else since he was Deathlock patient zero. We started seeing the effects on Coulson at the end of season one and Skye should start exhibiting reactions some time this season. As she is an 084 (many people believe she and Raina are inhumans) what will her reactions be to GH325 and how will they differ from Coulson’s and Garrett’s. Will the GH drug affect how she will interact with the obelisk? Will her interaction with the obelisk be good or bad? Skye IS the story arc for the show, or at least this season, and HYDRA is the (don’t get mad) fluff that will keep the show going while the alien/Skye/evolution angle unwinds. I just hope Chloe can pull it off. Comments?

    • Erica Beimesche

      You’ve got a point there. I’m not fully caught up on this season, but I definitely understand your stance on HYDRA being “fluff”: they’re canonical comic book antagonists, and they’re going to be a long-term adversary, both in MCU movies and SHIELD. They’ll keep offering the bad guys, who will likely be defeated within a few episodes to a season. I agree that Skye and the relationships between the team are what the show is really about; they overcome obstacles and we see how it affects them. Thanks for the risky comment!

    • Well said however I would argue that HYDRA is the main antagonist for the season, however Skye’s subplot is the primary subplot.

      While it will probably get entire episodes dedicated to her subplot, we must remember that AoS Season 2 leads right to the door step of Avengers: Age of Ultron, where Baron Strueker (the HYDRA leader from the post credits of Cap: The Winter Soldier) reappears, presumably as the reason for the Avengers to assemble prior to Ultron’s arrival.

  11. Jessica M Farrugia

    Cannot wait to start watching this!

  12. Giovanni Insignares

    I’m incredibly glad the show has improved so much since its mediocre (and occasionally bad) first season. This second season so far has really started to flesh out these characters more and fulfill the potential that was there from the very beginning. Overall, these characters are getting more interesting and well-rounded by the week and I enjoy tuning in and seeing which direction the show takes them.

  13. Tyler McPherson

    This was a really interesting read. I like all superhero films and shows, so naturally I watch S.H.I.E.L.D. It really hit its stride the last half of season 1 and this season just keeps getting better and better. The characterization of FitzSimmons is really good this season, giving them a bigger chance to bond and adapt away from each other, and to have a look at how they react to Fitz’s brain damage. I am looking forward at what is to come. Great article!

  14. Bao Helton

    AOS sunk to another series low in ratings against weaker competition.

  15. Purcell

    Fitz’s character arc is really interesting. You actually feel sorry for him at point.

  16. I have to say, these first few episodes have left me cautiously optimistic about this season.

  17. Meghan Gallagher

    The nerdy tech guy is a common trope in spy series. It seems like every secret agent/crime fighter/hero needs this character to serve as a comparison and to provide comic relief. It is really wonderful to see these brainy sidekicks getting their turn in the spot light. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does an excellent job giving each character their time to shine.

  18. I already loved the show in the latter half of the first season (latter third?), but it has been on point this season so far.

  19. Brothers

    SHIELD has been on a roll lately. I’m very happy with this season. The tone is just perfect: It’s much darker but because of that it’s funnier due to the humor being less forced. The plot is moving quicker, no episode so far has felt filler or ‘case of the week’ – and the characters are both more likable and more flawed.

    I hope the ratings for this show get better. This is what the show should have been in Season 1.

  20. Things are certainly getting better although they still have some work to do. Compared to the early episodes it is a great improvement.

  21. Unlike many critics, I’ve adored FitzSimmons since the very beginning. I connected with them differently than I connected with the other characters in the show, as Fitz reminds me a lot of myself and his relationship with Simmons reminds me of my own best friend. I’ve loved how they have brought the two up from being the geeky side characters in the opinion of many to two heroes that are essential to the team.

  22. I personally don’t know why Marvel had to move in this direction. Your whole thing is THE SUPERHERO. Why deviate from that? It’s what you do. You don’t see Bruce Springsteen trying to put out a rap album, do you? So why do we have to watch this show and try to buy into the fact that what anyone on this show is doing is “super.” Let’s be honest, Marvel got greedy and wanted more. “Maybe if we make a show like everyone else, then they will watch it and take us seriously!” No. Sorry. I can’t watch this commercialized version of Law and Order and take it seriously. Their is a reason that Robin never left batman and had his own spin-off TV show. No one would watch that shit. Agents of Shield, do me a favor and sit in the shadows until Captain America needs you to get him a cup of coffee. Thank You.

    • Erica Beimesche

      I see what you mean – of course Marvel is out to make money (like with the upcoming Agent Carter). They have plenty of superhero movies, and will continue to make them. That’s their bread and butter, what they were built on. However, I believe SHIELD gives another point of view on the same superhero universe, just a bit less super. People like seeing this “how the other half lives” kind of thing because it explains more of what happens between movies and how the aftermath is dealt with. The bonus is the extra storylines and characters. I understand where you’re coming from; it may not be the best piece of art out there, and perhaps it’s above all a money-maker, but if people like it they will continue making it.

  23. This article pretty much outlined all the things I love about SHIELD. I like the transition from the first to second season when it introduced Hydra as a threat, but my issue is the further we get into the season the less I feel the threat of Hydra. I feel the threat more of people like Skye’s father and Ward, then Hydra as a whole.

  24. I haven’t watched the second season of SHIELD yet, but I’m excited – for me, the plot is definitely secondary to the characters, and FitzSimmons is definitely a favourite.

  25. Robert Gilchrist

    You definitely focus in on a side of pop culture that is definitely on the rise and analyze it well. Bringing in references to other shows beyond SHIELD helps to strengthen your argument, and convinces the reader that this isn’t just a localized phenomena to Marvel properties.

  26. I am a huge fan of Agents of Shield, and a major reason for that is the diverse group that works together every episode to achieve a common goal. Heroes are no longer exclusively big, muscular men, and Agents of Shield really highlights that fact. They show that Fitz and Simmons are an integral part of the team, and that the team can’t succeed without them. I think it is a great piece of social commentary because society is beginning to appreciate the intellectuals more, and Agents of SHIELD is just a reflection of that.

  27. Chelsea Williford

    I am one of the (seemingly) rare few who have loved Agents of SHIELD from the very beginning. From the first episode, I cannot say there has been a single one that I would consider a bad episode. Some may not be as great as others, but they are all well written and well executed episodes. I absolutely love the way that the idea of ‘hero’ has been rewritten in modern fiction, and I fully agree that Agents of SHIELD has done it very well.

    I can honestly say that Fitz is one of my favorite characters because, while there are plenty of stories of the ‘little guy’ becoming a hero, they almost always involve either a physical change in strength, super powers, athletic ability, or at the very least, some sort of training montage to show that they are now more adept at being a hero. Fitz hasn’t undergone any of these things. In fact, he’s undergone a setback (his brain injury). However, in spite of still being a ‘little guy’, he’s very brave. Unlike the ‘little guys’ who had some big change, he’s brave not because he’s more confident in his ability to survive the given ordeal, but because he has a strong moral compass and, even in his most terrified moments, he refuses to do anything but the right thing.

    It’s just refreshing to see a character where a character doesn’t have to become something more than what he or she already is to be a hero.

  28. Katie Brown

    I love this show! And FitzSimmons has always been my favorite part. Great job outlining how these two characters are demonstrating a “new hero.” Although, Whedon has always been a fan of nerdy, side-kicks and heroes (take Willow from Buffy, Wesley from Buffy & Angel, etc).

  29. shelbysf

    FitzSimmons are really my favorite in the series besides Skye. Their intellect and this sudden geek!Chic has caught on so rapidly and they have been amazing to deal with it for S.H.I.E.L.D. I think the brains really sets the television show apart from the movies of Marvel, even with everything all connected. And even then, it’s always about the intellectual side of it all to keep tabs on what’s happening, what parallels, and what’s about to happen. FitzSimmons embodies something amazing that Whedon has stumbled upon and he knows how to use it wisely. As season two continued on, they made us all love/hate Simmons while feeling so heart-warmed and sympathetic for Fitz’s plights and triumphs after what happened deep down in the sea. There may be not extensive science as everyone was really hoping for and critiquing on but there is a big chemistry between the nerd-squad and the viewers. FitzSimmons has it with their career paths, Skye has it with her hacker abilities, and even Coulson has it with his nerdy love and collections.

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