Who Needs a Female Superhero Movie When There’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’?

By  · Published on October 22nd, 2014

Marvel/ABC

Everyone’s talking about a sudden reason to tune in to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but they’ve all got it wrong. Yes, next week’s episode promises the attachment of the first trailer or Avengers: Age of Ultron, but who cares? It’ll be online immediately after anyway. You should be watching the show anyway, especially if you care that much about the Avengers movies, because Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is totally awesome so far this season. And it’s not just a matter of the trivial procedural format being long gone from what was initially an inconsequential series. It’s not just that it’s found its purpose in the wake of Captain America: The Winter Soldier without being any more or any less significant to the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe than any of its big-screen counterparts. Right now it’s because the show is all about kick-ass women.

We could have guessed things would be getting good and empowering when the warrior princess herself, Lucy Lawless, showed up at the very start of season 2. But while she was definitely a strong addition, her Isabelle Hartley didn’t even last to the end of the first episode, “Shadows” (of course, this very show, not to mention comic book stories in general, is known for resurrecting dead characters). Actually, the first hero we really saw at the beginning of the episode and season was another female badass: Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Last week’s installment, “Face My Enemy,” ramped things up with not just one but two Ming-Na Wens, as her Agent Melinda May fought hand-to-hand against a turned S.H.I.E.L.D. agent working for HYDRA who wore an Agent Melinda May mask.

That scene didn’t seem capable of being topped, but this week’s “A Hen in the Wolf House” gave us Adrianne Palicki as undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Barbara “Bobbi” Morse, better known in the Marvel Comics world as Mockingbird. Palicki, who has previously played Supergirl and an Aquaman supervillain on the small screen and G.I. Joe’s Lady Jaye in theaters, is perfect for the role of another comic book character. It’s great timing that she was introduced this week, too, as moviegoers can also catch her this weekend in an intense fight scene against Keanu Reeves in John Wick (watch a tease of that here). In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. she arrives seeming to be a HYDRA security head while wearing a jacket making her look like Street Fighter’s Cammy in her M. Bison-modeled outfit. Then she’s revealed to be Morse as she whips out her battle staves and takes out a number of HYDRA agents.

Rounding out the cast of ladies in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are the two brains. Elizabeth Henstridge doesn’t participate in physical activity too often in the role of Agent Jemma Simmons, but that’s fine when she has Palicki saving her (especially instead of a guy) and given that she fights evil with her two PhDs and inquisitive approach as both a scientist and a member of Coulson’s team. She also was, until last night, doing valuable and dangerous work undercover at HYDRA. As the more-integrated now-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Skye, Chloe Bennet has just sort of blended in this season so far, and she continues to be defined too much by her crush on the traitor Ward (Brett Dalton) and her desire to meet her daddy, but her training under May will have to get her more action down the line. Until then, she’s still an important asset for her hacking and, sometimes, her rebellious and independent-natured knack for running off on her own.

Okay, so what of the men on this show? There are still a bunch of them, but excluding those playing villains, they’re definitely taking the back seat this season. Newly minted S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Coulson (Clark Gregg) is now too much in charge to get his hands too dirty, though he’s still kind of the lead of the show and his presence and personality continue to dominate everyone else. The others consist of the incapacitated Ward, the mentally and socially stunted Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and a few other dudes who mostly just sit around talking about their exes. Lance Hunter (Nick Blood), who in the comics was the UK equivalent of Nick Fury, is all swagger. And he’s a wounded animal whose existence is always in relation to women, first his dominant mercenary colleague Isabelle and now his ex-wife, Morse, who really puts him in his place in more ways than one at the end of “A Hen in the Wolf House.”

That episode title is interesting, because it should make us aware that the women of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are hens in not only the “wolf house” of HYDRA or S.H.I.E.L.D. but also the superhero genre. And they’re holding their own pretty well in that animal-swapped/gender-swapped infiltration. My one complaint might be that none of the characters or their actresses have particularly interesting personalities outside of their physical and/or mental kick-ass responsibilities, but then that’s not a problem specific to gender with this show. Still, it does make me wonder about at least Palicki’s potential in the big leagues, in the movies, where it’s plausible she’s headed given her character’s prominence in the Marvel Universe and the fact that she ought to, for continuity sake (not because this is what women are all about), eventually marry Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). The question is: could she even carry a series on her own without merely being a piece of an action-heroine ensemble?

Yes, we still want to see a theatrical release with a solo female superhero at its center. There is something of a political goal there, but we can also still use a woman lead who is not just given the same kind of action we see from Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, etc., but also permitted to be a fully fleshed out and interesting and charming and memorable human being. So far, none of the women in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have the other, non-kick-ass appeals of Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth in the movies. Fortunately, this is just the beginning of our getting to know Palicki and Mockingbird. And for the future, we can also see at least the attention to female action heroes here as promise for the Agent Carter series, which of course features a woman front and center and in name.

I’d like to note that “A Hen in the Wolf House” was also directed by a woman: Holly Dale (her name sounds like that of a comic book alter ego, right?). And while the episode wasn’t written by a woman, many installments of the show are, some on their own and some as part of a collaboration. I have a soft spot for Dale anyway since she got her start (with her partner, Janis Cole) in feminist documentaries about tough females, namely prostitutes, runaways, the criminally insane, women in prison and a person who was known as “the most dangerous woman in Canada.” With Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., if not before, she’s shown she can handle dangerous fictional women in action, too, so she’d possibly be a good director to consider for some superhero movies, not necessarily just ones about female heroes, either.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.