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Contribution

Cette contribution est issue de l’ouvrage collectif : Sylvie Allouche & Théo Touret-Dengreville (éd.), Sécurité et politique dans les séries de superhéros

“We’re Agents of the Status Quo” : What is Being Shielded in the MCU TV Series of the 2010s ?

Over the past decade, the transmedia Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has become the most financially successful franchise in history, generating revenue of “$2 billion per year at the box office, but also billions more in merchandising”1.

In the present paper, we will attempt to delve deeper into what it means for the Marvel super-heroes to shield the status quo. The emphasis will lie on class relations and the subterranean class-subtext of discourses which organizes the psychic make-up of populations living in our modern world. We will argue that superhero(ine)s, as products of the mass entertainment industry that has accompanied the formation of advanced capitalism, fulfill an important ideological function – that of Jamesonian “ideological containment”. Just as the industrial age brought a need to radically alter American culture while preserving the Puritan and Jeffersonian small craftsman work ethic (Rodgers), so, in the 2010s, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (AoS) and the Netflix Marvel series are a means for the US to navigate the deterioration in the quality of life experienced by Americans while reaffirming a reified work ethic and warning against the siren songs of populism, disaffection and victimhood.

In sections 1-4, we will suggest that in the MCU the American working class, like the multiracial superhero(ine)s in which it is embodied, is called upon to adopt the (neo)liberal gaze and learn to self-regulate the vast productive powers at its disposal or fall prey to what Jameson2 refers to as ressentiment and take on the destructive, hate-filled and self-defeating likeness of supervillains. In sections 5-8, we will move from self-government to political governance, the two being intimately linked (Foucault) in the “order of things” that characterizes neo-liberal capitalism. On the level of political governance, the message is the traditional “there is no alternative” but to rely on crisis management by global experts and the “deep state” because of the exigencies of constant changes which are beyond the “cognitive mapping”3 abilities of populations.

1. Working class superhero(ine)

Many commentators have seen superhero(ine)s as personifications of the US audience, who identify with them4. They fulfill “individual and collective fantasies of empowerment on the global stage”5 to sustain the beleaguered sense of US exceptionalism. To these, and other outstanding studies (in particular Hassler-Forest‘s work), the present paper seeks to add a Marxian twist, namely that given the fact that the overwhelming majority of the audience are wage earners, the superhero(ine) is therefore an embodiment of the power of social labor, both past and present. Multiracial superpowered individuals possess, on an individual level, the socialized potential of the working class – the potential to alter the world. Joey Gutierrez, the Hispanic construction worker turned “Inhuman” (and one of the very few gay characters in the MCU), expresses this connection : “Now I feel empowered. […] Honestly, as a construction guy, the idea that I could build in a day something that would normally take months… it’s unreal.” (AoS 3.7).

This view is strengthened when we look back, in genealogical fashion, at the very first masked crusaders to appear in comic books. In depression-era America, Superman, in between propping up (or taking apart) steel bridges, would prevent banks from repossessing small businesses. Showing the potential might of the working class and proletarianized middle classes, Superman bodily “hefts a bank vault over his head saying ‘Nice bank you’ve got here… it would be a pity if anything happened to it’”6. At the same time, in a move that defines the ideological role of superhero(ine)s in mass entertainment, Superman remained in the centrist position of helping out against egregious social injustices while avoiding any suggestion of leading a proletarian revolution. Hassler-Forest also remarked on the superhero(ine)s’ ability to navigate, instantaneously and seemingly at will, the bewildering maze of the modern city7, an ability that makes them incarnations of a collective might. The potential to alter the physical world (and therefore Lukascian “second nature” and its attendant social organization, although this would be supervillainy and always a bad idea in superhero(ine) narratives) is a reflection of the collective labor power, technical know-how and energy at the disposal of modern society to transform its environment and conditions of existence – only in this instance, but here the potential is individualized and thus becomes the ethical responsibility of a particular individual’s free will. In Hegelian terms, the collective might of society is transferred onto one individual, while a single individual conscience acts as a universal.

A constant reminder of the link between the productive forces of modern society and the diegetic abilities of the characters is the visual deployment of cutting-edge technology, especially in connection with military and intelligence matters. Examples of the superhero(ine) genre’s signature esthetics, such as Coulson’s airborne command stations, a Stark Industries CXD 23215 (“The Bus”) in the first two seasons of AoS, followed by the futuristic Zephyr series, subtly combine science fiction and fantasy elements (VTOL8, space-faring capabilities, ray guns) with the imagery of the Pentagon-approved action film. Reflecting the importance of post-war ‘military Keynesianism’in fueling America’s economic growth, the origin of most of the funding and know-how responsible for the unleashing of superpowers can be traced back, directly or indirectly, to military-industrial complexes and to technocratic efforts to produce super-beings. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are the results of lab experiments. The superpowers of Inhumans, such as Daisy Johnson or Andrew Garner, derive from prehistoric gene-editing by the Kree, intent on creating an unstoppable army. Military research on super-soldier-inducing cocktails is carried out in laboratories run with murky intertwinings of state and parastatal assets and personnel. Daredevil, Elektra and the Iron Fist are exceptions, in that their powers are not the product of modern science – although they are the product of disciplined military outfits (“the Hand” and “the Chaste”) that invest considerable resources, strategic thinking and expertise into outmanœuvring their adversaries in arcane realms. What is clear in all these instances is that, in a Foucauldian sense, war is the matrix from which biopower emerges. The need to continually optimize the way individuals and resources are combined to increase firepower is behind the basic Marvel origin story, reflecting the power-multiplying dynamic of modernity.

2. Crime and Ressentiment

The supervillain makes the first move in the MCU by violating the natural order of things. This initial disruption has been seen as one of the most recognizable traits of American mass entertainment, since at least Jewett and Lawrence’s The American Monomyth. It is in the face of this initial rupture of the status quo that the superhero(ine) intervenes, thereby demonstrating their intrinsically reactive nature. Apart from Agent Carter, the MCU TV series take place following the diegetic Battle of New York when the world has learned of the existence of superhero(ine)s and galactic conspiracies. In the words of Maria Hill : “Everything’s changing. A little while ago people went to bed thinking the craziest thing in the world was a billionaire in a flying metal suit, then aliens invaded New York and were beaten back by, among others, a giant green monster, a costumed hero from the 1940s and a God” (AoS 1.01). Henceforward, the purpose of superhero(ine)s is to protect the American way of life. As the last antibodies maintaining social homeostasis, their existence is dialectically linked to that of supervillains. As Ward explains, “we’re the line between the world and the much weirder world. We protect people from news they aren’t ready to hear. And when we can’t do that, we keep them safe”.

From the beginnings of bourgeois literature, from Mary Shelley’s monster and Balzac’s Vautrin onwards, supervillains have had an axe to grind. In 1933, writer Siegel and illustrator Shuster, the duo that created Superman, introduced telepath Bill Dunn, a supervillain bent on world domination who, “having ‘received too many hard knocks’ in his life, seethes with resentment for the upper classes. His hatred, however, does not stem from righteous indignation and empathy for the plight of the downtrodden in general, but rather from […] his own desire for power”9. The MCU supervillain still exemplifies ressentiment, which Jameson, in his study of 19th century novels, sees as the key “ideologeme” at the core of the ideological strategies of capitalism10. Nietzschean ressentiment describes the envy and resentment felt by those lower down the social hierarchy towards the elite. Faced with their own weakness and failure, they seek to occupy the higher moral ground and denounce the corruption of those above them. Yet this ressentiment is hypocritical since what the accusers really desire is simply to become masters themselves and lord it over others. Attempts to change the status quo can thus be safely dismissed by the system in place as prima facie evidence of ressentiment, mere demagogic rabble-rousing by bitter individuals. This “ideological containment” strategy is effective in that it preemptively excludes any counter-discourse from subalterns, and, concomitantly, any notion of class struggle.

Jameson’s conceptualization can be built on to analyze the superhero(ine) genre as a manifestation of the uniquely American version of the ideologeme of ressentiment. This worldview, encapsulated in the term “work ethic”, insists on the rejection of any victim mentality and on an individual’s responsibility for their life outcomes.

As a constitutive flaw of the supervillain, ressentiment must out. The storylines often include a “gloating scene” in which the supervillain reveals their diabolical plot and expresses their desire for revenge on society. In the fourth season of AoS, Eli Morrow is prepared to destroy half of Los Angeles when he turns on the Momentum’s Lab machine to acquire unparalleled superpowers and defends his actions to his disbelieving nephew, Robbie Reyes,

Eli : Those gueros at Momentum thought they were doing me a favor. They looked at me like they were better, like they were smarter ! The condescension in their eyes… They got what they deserved. You had to get vengeance. Not vengeance… respect ! You have no idea how hard I worked every day of my life. To claw my way, just to get in that damn door. […] They thought I wasn’t capable ! Shut me out. Well, guess what… guess what I’m capable of now. I can create a city out of nothing, or I can cover it in volcanic rock. Robbie… I am becoming a god. (AoS 4.8)

However, revenge and the desire for retribution, per se, do not make a character villainous in the MCU, provided. Robbie Reyes himself, as well as Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, are examples of characters whose blood-thirstiness lacks the element of ressentiment that would make them into true villains, since vengefulness is directed at people who deserve their comeuppance.

The rankling of childhood traumatisms often adds to the villain’s grudge against an unfair world. In the same season of AoS, Russian industrialist, Anton Ivanov, explains to superhero wannabe Jeffrey Mace :

My father worked an oil drill. He was a son of a bitch, but he worked hard for not much, so I admired him. The richest man in my town, on the other hand, inherited his money from his father who built airplanes. He wore furs, was entitled. When I saw my father with this man, complimenting him, licking his boots… my admiration for my father evaporated. You see, there is something lower than scum. That which strives to be it. Like you. You allow S.H.I.E.L.D. to fill your veins with poison and parade you around as an example. Of what ? S.H.I.E.L.D. claims to be a beacon for humanity. What it really is is a safe haven for Inhumanity. (AoS 4.14)

Ivanov’s accusation also illustrates another feature of the supervillain’s ressentiment, i.e. its projection onto the hero. The bad guys need to defeat the superhero(ine) who is a threat to their villainous plans but also, and often even more importantly, they want to force their adversary to recognize that under the guise of upholders of justice they too have been bitten by Nietzsche’s “black tarantula” of ressentiment11 and that they are actually all too human. The supervillain will therefore contrive a diabolical scenario in which the superhero(ine) has no alternative but to symbolically share in the evil crimes and be dragged down to the nasty brutishness of the rest of humankind, which the criminal sees as the normal state of a fallen world. Thus, in the second season of The Punisher, Russo’s diabolical plan hinges on getting Castle to take responsibility for the accidental killing of three innocent women during the shoutout at “Valhalla”. Devastated by these deaths, Castle comes to believe that his moral compass is a farce and can no longer find it within him to hunt down bad guys.

Ressentiment incites the supervillain to challenge the status quo, but the levelling logic at work, while appearing laudable to their own eyes, is quickly shown to be a social cancer that will not stop spreading envy, hatred and a jaundiced view of humankind. Russo and his angry rag-tag band of disaffected ex-US soldiers claim to punish the haughty power of the mighty and express the anger of the downtrodden, Nietzsche’s “herd”12. But the supervillain, turned spokesperson for the little guy and avenging wrongs in the name of a poisoned “slave morality”, transmutes into a bloodthirsty despot ready to sacrifice his followers. His hatred will feed on all those that are near to him. The MCU thereby conveys the conservative political logic, which holds that bitterness against the world leads to disaffection and, then, to revolutionary terror and totalitarianism13, an argumentative strategy familiar to all counter-revolutionary writers from Burke onwards. Davos usurps the Iron Fist out of jealousy, convinced that he can be a better superhero(ine) than his boyhood friend. He trains a gang of local kids to remove crime from New York City, but ends up killing ordinary shop owners for the offense of paying protection money to racketeers (IF 2.8). In AoS, when General Talbot, resentful of S.H.I.E.L.D., uses “gravitonium” to acquire the power to manipulate matter at will, his megalomania (based perhaps on Trump) becomes more destructive than the alien army threatening Earth (AoS 5.21).

3. Self-regulation

Once the seed of supervillainy has been diagnosed as ressentiment, there is a simple answer to the ubiquitous question “what makes a superhero(ine) ? ” – they are not supervillains. “I’m nothing like you ! ” is the typical retort when the superhero(ine)’s righteousness is questioned by the supervillain. And indeed, contrary to his nemesis, the superhero(ine) is above all reactive. Their superpowers are never used outside the purpose they have set themselves of reacting against any intrusion of ressentiment. This imperative holds good, even if they themselves suffer personally from the current economic system. In the best tradition of the US work ethic, Luke Cage, an escaped black convict accused of a crime he did not commit, is satisfied with sweeping up at “Pop” Hunter’s barbershop, and washing dishes at the Harlem’s Paradise nightclub. Another “Marvel Knight”, ex-marine Frank Castle, breaks walls on a construction site (TP 1.1), while Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson’s law firm is forever on the brink of bankruptcy. Even the immortal Iron Fist and billionaire, Danny Rand, prefers to work with his hands and live with his sweetheart in a low-key converted warehouse unit in Chinatown.

It is when they actively seek to make real and drastic changes to the principles underpinning existing social relations that the superhero(ine) risks morphing into a supervillain. By the same logic, it is by recognizing that there are limits to how far the established order should be tampered with that supervillains can return to the fold and become allies of the forces of good. An example of crossing these lines is Jessica Jones’ sister, Trish. In the first two seasons, she is an agent of good until the day when, consumed by her jealousy of Jessica (“if I had your powers”) and convinced that she could be the one “generating change in the world, being effective” (JJ 3.12), she succumbs to temptation. She decides to change the order of things by asking Dr. Karl Malus to give her the same powers as her sister (JJ 2.11). From then on, the fall is inevitable. Her hubris increases throughout season 3, when she ends up dispatching the murderous psychopath who killed her mother only to become the great supervillain to be defeated by Jessica – an unexpected twist in the usual convention of the final duel at the end of the American “action-image” form. Seeing her sister irreparably damaged by ressentiment – Erik ranks her a 5 out of 10 (and rising) on his “evilness” scale – Jessica Jones hands her over to the authorities knowing that she will be relegated to the sinister “raft”, the special prison for super-powered individuals. Unlike Frank Castle, she has become a supervillain because of the role played by envy in her origin story – and thus, in the eyes of the MCU, has committed the unforgivable sin of endangering the liberal status quo.

Superhero(ine)s are permanently tempted and tested. They are prone to doubt the ultimate righteousness of their cause, as they are buffeted by the violent movements and incessant reversals that rock the narrative arcs and prevent a point of equilibrium. Daisy, the main character in AoS, who the audience is meant to identify with, switches allegiances at least seven times, voluntarily or under compulsion, in the course of seven seasons. Her first betrayal is that of the hacktivist collective she belongs to in the first episodes, “quickly sacrificing her commitment to radical social and economic justice as she learns that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s totalitarian interventions are well-meaning and necessary in the face of the omnicrisis posed by alien and superhuman threats14.

Temptation constitutes the political thrust of the genre. The external combat against the supervillain is accompanied by an inner struggle against the snare of succumbing to ressentiment – the two struggles must be waged and won concomitantly. It is by an internal effort, a continual refusal to turn into a supervillain that superhero(in)es are what they are, encapsulating the work ethic ideologeme of American capitalism.

It is often hard for the superhero(in)es to discern whether their chosen allies are really the “good guys”. Their adversary often appears as a mirror image of their own camp, and realignments are commonplace with characters often forced by circumstances to betray former comrades, or change their own beliefs. The Agents of HYDRA story arc in particular highlights the ambiguous nature of individual allegiances to groups, which can lead to the blunting of one’s instincts.

For, despite the voicing of lofty ethical ideals such as compassion or loyalty, no external moral imperative can really play a leading role in the MCU. The S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who is the most open about her Christian faith (“God gave me my powers”), Elena Rodriguez, has no qualms about slicing young Ruby’s throat to prevent her from becoming the “Destroyer of Worlds” (AoS 5.18). It is up to the hero to self-limit any interventions. This founding principle of modern liberalism is identified by Foucault, in his series of lectures on biopolitics, as self-regulation, which contrasts with traditional adherence to externally-given limits to sovereign agency15.

Self-limitation appears as the only guiding imperative in a complex and deeply ambiguous moral universe, where the heroes must choose between the bad and the worse. In doing so, they align themselves with the self-regulating axiomatic of capitalism, the “liberal gaze”, until they identify completely with it. This means that any outward compulsion is eschewed and the heroes must rely on internal intuition and gut-feeling. The aim of “administrative liberal governance” is to self-control within self-defined means and ends – the problem being that these means and ends are immanent to the unquestioned, naturalized framework furnished by the laws of motion of capitalist accumulation. Self-regulation can be viewed as a structuring principle of modernity, correlated with the emergence of new forms of power, rationality and discourse, which find their best expression in political economy from the mid-18th century onwards16. When a character ascribes the rationale behind a decision to the fact that it felt like the right thing to do, this simply means that the hero has thoroughly internalized the existing social reality, as global capitalism is the force field within which the heroes exist. Significantly, it is in the final season of AoS that the characters become increasingly frustrated when they are forced to confront the fact that self-limitation effectively means refraining from touching anything in the social order, for fear of the unforeseen consequences.

— Elena : Still pretty sexist and racist.

— Deke : It always gets better, just never fast enough. And some things never change.

— Elena : Can’t hurt to try, though.

— Deke : Well, it could… if we lose control […] and it goes skidding off the road.

— Elena : So, that’s not the mission now, right ?

— Deke : Yep.

— Elena : We’re the Agents of Status Quo. (AoS 7.4)

4. Keep calm and carry on

In the final episode of the third season of Daredevil, Karen expresses the MCU’s political message as she thematizes the question “What is it, to be a hero ?” :

Look in the mirror and you’ll know. Look into your own eyes and tell me you are not heroic, that you have not endured, or suffered or lost the things you care about most. […] A hero isn’t someone who lives above us, keeping us safe. A hero is not a god or an idea. A hero lives here on the street, among us, with us. Always here but rarely recognized. Look in the mirror and see yourself for what you truly are. You’re a New Yorker. You’re a hero.

The equating of the average Jane and Joe with ressentiment-free superhero(in)es took on more insistent forms in the 2010s, strongly emphasizing the fact that Americans remain adherents – or “prisoners” (Davis) – of the American Dream. A Pew report (2012) showed that the work ethic was still part-and-parcel of American identity, with 77% of Americans still believing that “people can succeed if they are willing to work hard” – versus 46% of French respondents. And this, despite studies that alarmed the likes of former World Bank Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz, showing that America has become the nation with the least upward social mobility in the Western world. “As the reality sinks in”, Stiglitz warned, “as most Americans finally grasp that the economic game is stacked against them, all […] is at risk”17.

And indeed, a certain feeling of Götterdammerung pervades the MCU – and the franchise’s renewal of interest in Asgard, Odin’s death and funeral pyres is a sign of the Zeitgeist. The series register the increasingly strained social tensions due to the well-documented collapse of the working class in the USA which, in the 2010s, experienced the first fall in absolute life expectancy in recorded history18. Many commentators have equated the diegetic Battle of New York with 9/1119, the role of this fictional stand-in being evidenced by the symbolically significant absence of any on-screen mention of the collapse of the Twin Towers20. But it is also apparent that in the context of the 2010s, the Battle of New York and, even more clearly, the “Blip”, are placeholders for all the trauma endured by the American psyche in the neo-liberal age.

In AoS, which partakes in The Avengers series “trauma narratives” and “aesthetics of destruction”21 on a heightened mode, this is transposed to the small screen by repeated destructions of the world (as in the fourth and fifth seasons). It is increasingly difficult to find any semblance of normality on the ominous sounding Earth-199999, and increasingly difficult to resist the temptation of destructive ressentiment.

From a Marcusian perspective, the violent releases of pent-up energy as superpowers clash, so vividly displayed through CGI, reveal the increasing tension between the internalized imperative to maintain the status quo at all cost and the growing technological and scientific power at humanity’s disposal to radically alter “second nature”, i.e. the fact that the capitalist mode of production is turning into a fetter on the advancement of humankind. For Marcuse22, as the perspective of a post-scarcity world becomes a distinct possibility, individual and collective “surplus-repression” intensifies proportionally, in the guise of a “reality principle” that seeks to counter the libidinal push to go beyond the world of necessity. If superhero(in)es themselves find it hard to cope with the strain, the outlook remains pessimistic for mere mortals, no matter how stoic.

5. Zero accountability

Wallerstein, in his classic Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, thus summarized the history of the “core capitalist nations” since the American and French revolutions :

The distinction between the liberal state and democracy was, in Max Belok’s words, “the most important distinction in 19th century politics.” Democracy, in 19th century usage, meant taking popular sovereignty seriously. The notables were not, and have never been, ready to do that. It was the realization of this new reality that would give birth to that extraordinary invention of the 19th century—the political ideology23.

Managing the masses once they had the vote was the historic task of liberalism, the construction by the bourgeoisie of “a world after its own image”24. And the MCU gives ample support to the suspicion that contemporary American liberalism, under the banner of bemoaning growing income disparities, is not so different from the liberalism of the 19th century. With changing economic circumstances, the means used are also changing, in subtle and especially not so subtle ways with the increasing diegetic presence of the “deep state”, the “nexus of transnational power interests […] which represses and conceals political conflict and which sustains the bourgeois illusion of a rational business civilization” but that in the post-9/11 era is “finally revealed for what it is : the crimogenic dimension of liberal order”25.

A distrust of working class ressentiment and their capacity to self-control, leads to the need for management by experts to preserve the “world as we know it”. This in turn leads to the great historical liberal dilemma of avoiding both the horn of social chaos and rule by supervillains on the one hand, and the horn of a supposedly benevolent totalitarian system whose collectivism means the end of liberalism. The principle of internal self-regulation entails pragmatically changing the rules as necessary on a daily if not hourly basis. Rule by experts, those that can see beyond the blinders of ressentiment, is the – admittedly undemocratic but alas necessary – order of the day.

The first element to take into consideration is that in the MCU, unaccountability to democratic institutions is often acknowledged as an absolute necessity26. This goes far beyond the traditional American disparagement of Big Government. Contrary to the Western, where the Sheriff still represented some embattled semblance of legality, or even the Cold War spy narratives where secrecy was mandated by considerations of Realpolitik, in the superhero(ine) genre, governments, like the constituencies they represent, are too fickle, corrupt and short-sighted to be trusted to do the right thing. The audience is forced into adopting the viewpoint of those who “understand the larger goal” (AoS 2.20). Only ad hoc groups of superhero(in)es possess the effective power and true knowledge to administer. They alone have the techno-scientific means to produce and control unconventional and otherworldly weaponry. They alone have the essential contacts and alliances, the access to funding, the training, the mindset and the up-to-date intelligence to shield the world.

Of course, the MCU also sometimes references the post-Patriot Act environment by showing the moral qualms of the characters, dwelling on the old Spiderman trope that “with great power comes great responsibility”. Accountability is therefore still a “talking point”, but US audiences are also given to understand that it is not something to be taken seriously. The fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to operate despite being officially disbanded shows how democratic accountability is impossible as populism spreads. Self-examination of the purity of one’s motives and lengthy conversations with one’s peers about the dilemmas involved are still de rigueur, a necessary aspect of the moral imperatives that preside over the use of incredible superpowers. More importantly however, the superhero narrative illustrates the core idea of the “metastrategy of liberalism”27 – extreme change is dangerous and must be guarded against by all means necessary. The small coterie of superpowered guardians are only accountable to themselves, can only be guided by the need to maintain balance against destabilizing forces, both internal and external.

From the “necessary vigilantism”28 of the Netflix series – because some villains “really are above the law” as Matt Murdock explains (DD 3.11), to the brazen unaccountability of Coulson’s team, to the glorification of the divine right of kings in Inhumans, the MCU deliberately grates on democratic sensibilities. Superhero(ine) texts, where masked crusaders take on the role of providential external saviours, have regularly been accused of encouraging political “passivity among Americans”29. And indeed, more than two-thirds of “working-class Americans believed that elections are controlled by the rich and by big corporations, so that it does not matter if they vote”30. But the fact of the matter is, as Gilens31 conclusively demonstrated, this class perception of a state apparatus that works mainly to the advantage of the richest is correct in its essentials.

6. Trans-national rule by experts

Globalized neoliberal capitalism seeks to commodify ever more spheres of social existence while dissolving legal constraints on surveillance32. Corporate globalization needs nation states to “negotiate with international financial institutions, to privatize national assets and to suppress political resistance”. At the same time, it “bypasses centralized state management through the ruthless logic of ‘new public management’ – a system of autonomization and decentralization where policymaking is divorced from democratic scrutiny, where private NGOs exert disproportional influence on policy development, and where individual government departments must compete against one another for central funding”33.

In this “managerialist context”, S.H.I.E.L.D. is a case in point. It is supposed to be under UN jurisdiction but contains the word “Homeland” in its title, and appears to have been set up mainly by US and UK intelligence services in the immediate aftermath of WWII with headquarters in New York. The lines are blurred between state and trans-national, public and private interests.

S.H.I.E.L.D. has characteristics of a domestic intelligence agency, but also of an international organization (even, at times, a sovereign state in its own right), of a corporation, an NGO, a clandestine network of militant cells and a messianic religion. We never get a firm grasp on what S.H.I.E.L.D. is exactly. The only certainty is that it is a prime mobile, an invisible hand that is a force for good.

The extraterritorial view, which is that of globalized capital, is espoused when, in AoS, we watch events unfold from within the flying “command station” that constantly hovers in the stratosphere. Like the financial circuits of global accumulation, the giant plane seems to need to stay aloft, circulating ceaselessly from country to country34. It touches down only to restore order at flash points that could imperil the continual flows that make up the modern world-system, or covertly retrieve necessary human and material assets (see in this respect AoS 1.2).

S.H.I.E.L.D. is infiltrated by factions such as HYDRA (itself riven by rivalries) that want to establish a world dictatorship run by technocrats. As a manifestation of the parastatal and para-political nature of the global corporate regime, the murkiness that surrounds S.H.I.E.L.D. entails leadership which is both hierarchical and fragmented. The founder, Nick Fury, disappears but this is to better keep an eye on things. Charismatic “strong men” vie for power and resources within the organization, to equip their cliques and expand their influence. While ostensibly an example of Weberian instrumental rationality and bureaucracy, S.H.I.E.L.D. in fact contains elements of what Weber described as patrimonialism – i.e. public authority as the private property of a group of individuals – an interesting commentary on world governance in an age when the Space Robber Barons, the likes of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, have control over the data and everyday public interactions of billions.

7. The Great Fear of Populism

A unique constellation of “revolutionary” films came out in the immediate aftermath of the Occupy Wall Street movement, such as Elysium (2013), Snowpiercer (2013) and The Hunger Games trilogy (2012-2015). These Occupy-era films were novel forms of dystopian texts, in which the class struggle between the majority of humanity and a small privileged elite, between the 1% and the 99%, is depicted as an ineluctable global struggle waged until the destruction of the system of exploitation and oppression. In many ways, superhero(ine) narratives take the opposite view, preferring functionalist views of society as composed of diverse interdependent interest groups over depictions of open class war. Whedon’s first Avengers (2012) thus cannot be included in the same category as The Hunger Games.

The danger of populism has always been one of the great political themes of the superhero(ine) genre, as in the original X-Men trilogy (2000-2007). However, the closing of the Overton window for Occupy-style class war narratives was illustrated, from 2014 onwards, by on-screen alarm at anti-establishment movements, with civil chaos and authoritarian demagogues taking on new resonance. Both AoS and the Netflix series participated in this shift. As the Long Depression set in, anger with the capitalist elite was palpable in the Greek sovereign debt crisis, Brexit, the French Yellow Vests and Trumpism. Trump was the archetypal demagogue, a billionaire claiming to speak up for white working-class Americans, promising to bring jobs back to the Rust Belt and blaming foreigners, Chinese and Mexicans, for America’s predicaments.

In the MCU, when a public figure calls for limits on the self-regulating logic of superhero(in)es, which is the logic of liberalism, disaster is almost certain to ensue. The superhero(ine) genre clearly favours laissez-faire. Be it Wilson Fisk (DD 3.12), Mariah Dillard (LC 1.13) or Ellen Nadeer (AoS 4.5), self-serving demagogues are quick to identify a potential nexus of ressentiment in the population and nurture it, until it overtakes a significant portion of the confused masses. Their efforts are aimed at preventing the self-regulating heroes from doing their job, which is precisely to counteract ressentiment and concomitant disruptions to the American way of life – supervillainy plays on anti-elite sentiment to grab power.

Following the battle of New York and the destruction of Sokovia, as crisis follows crisis, the governed display their herd mentality and are distressingly ready to play into the supervillains’ hands by turning against superhero(in)es, as they are too befuddled to understand the importance of this last line of defense against the eruption of chaos and totalitarianism. Season 3 and 4 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D include right-wing extremists, the Watchdogs, preying on people with superpowers, calling for their extermination. These are, of course, manipulated by demagogic politicians (Sen. Ellen Nadeer), themselves manipulated by supervillains (Ivanov and Aida).

Yet, it should be noted that the MCU depictions of the general public turning against enhanced individuals appear to blithely mix up two critiques, that of xenophobic hatred of the other, and that of exasperation against the establishment and management by experts. This obfuscation of the underlying social tensions serves to portray any kind of mass movement as an example of the ugly mob.

In this way, capital creates its own opposition by using a dual ideological approach that steers clear of references to global class antagonisms. On the one hand, it promotes narratives of state power that enshrine a feeling of national identity that de facto excludes “foreign” elements, and on the other hand, in its centrist incarnation, it extols the virtues of an open market society and warns against extremism.

8. Assembled or assemblage ?

In the Golden Age of Comics, superheroes served as a vehicle for the integration of new immigrants, mostly Jewish and living in urban areas, into mainstream US society35. As they espoused the cause of centrist liberalism over socialism, and kept superheroes from engaging in class struggle, Siegel and Shuster, or Kirby and Lee could play their part in the ideological dynamics of mass entertainment.

Despite extremely different historical circumstances, the MCU’s current brand of liberalism is trumpeting the fact that it is counting on new blood. In the USA, racial and gender minorities are taking the torch from the tired hands of Captain America and the MCU has seen an unprecedented openness to representation of minorities. Of course, as has often been noted36, the white saviour complex is still part of the genre’s core. Despite appearing as traumatized and self-doubting in the post 9/11 era37, muscular white male bodies are still very much in evidence in the MCU, with their accompanying imperialist and patriarchal narratives.

It should be noted that, in this respect, the small screen has seen greater overall diversity. The Netflix series in particular have focused on everyday concerns of gender and race. Apart from AoS’ Agent Gutierrez, the only openly gay MCU protagonist is Jeri Hogarth. Jessica Jones is more down-to-earth and less ethereal (and DoD-glamorous) than Captain Marvel. Luke Cage squarely addresses issues such as gentrification and the policing of black communities.

However, one is still faced with the fact that these are products of corporate capitalism. In the immanent ideological forcefield of neoliberal capitalism, which shapes individuals, their aspirations and their relationships, diversity is often mediated by the market. As Indian-American theorist Vivek Chibber notes in Post-colonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital, the affirmation of difference must be dialectically linked to the notion of a global class struggle if it is not to become an adjunct of the atomizing logic of advanced capitalism, co-opted by neoliberalism to reproduce the existing order. Jameson warns that :

the need to grasp [class, race and gender] as a triangulation […] imposes a requirement to make a complete circuit on the occasion of any local analysis, and to make sure that none of these categories is omitted, of which it can safely be said that when you forget any one of them, it does not fail to remember you. But in the United States it is the category of class that is the most likely to be neglected : so that […] the various new social movements have all in their different fashions run into trouble on the invisible and subterranean realities of class conflict38.

Jameson is equally wary of the dangers of “disneyfication”39, which he sees as the extension of the state of affairs found in theme parks, in which very different cultures coexist within one great corporate space. In fact, Jameson’s 2005 concerns about disneyfication sound prescient, given how the studio has become the largest global purveyor of entertainment following its purchase of the Marvel (2009) and Star Wars (2011) franchises.

In this context, Smith-Walter and Pannell40, in a review of the 2016 comic book version of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., succinctly express the problem arising from the fundamental “metastrategy of liberalism” espoused by Marvel, which seeks to use the hazy notion of a “center” to stigmatize “excess” – i.e. any real and significant change.

Despite the increased diversity of S.H.I.E.L.D. staff, the representation of minorities remains passive […]. In addition, while S.H.I.E.L.D. focuses its resources on fighting off violent threats to the existing order, it never examines the motivation behind these attacks nor uses its funding to improve the social ills fueling the general discontent. Diverse or not, S.H.I.E.L.D. can only defend the status quo.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

BROWN J. A., The Modern superhero in Film and Television : Popular Genre and American Culture, London, Routledge, 2016.

CASE A., DEATON A., Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Princeton, Princeton UP, 2021.

CHAMBLISS J. C. et al., Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe : Essays on the Social, Cultural and Geopolitical Domains, Jefferson, McFarland, 2018.

CHIBBER V., Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, London, Verso, 2014.

DAVIS M., Prisoners of the American Dream : Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class, London, Verso, 2018.

FOUCAULT M., Security, Territory, Population : Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-78, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

FOUCAULT M., The Birth of Biopolitics : Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

GILENS M., Affluence and Influence : Economic Inequality and Political Power in America, Princeton, Princeton UP, 2014.

HASSLER-FOREST D., Capitalist superheroes : Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age, Winchester, John Hunt, 2012.

JAMESON F., Archaeologies of the Future : The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, London, Verso, 2005.

JAMESON F., The Political Unconscious : Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Ithaca, Cornell UP, 1982.

JAMESON F., Valences of the Dialectic, London, Verso, 2010.

JEWETT R., LAWRENCE J. S., The American Monomyth, Garden City, Anchor Press, 1977.

MARCUSE H., Eros and Civilization : A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, Boston, Beacon Press, 1974.

MARX K., ENGELS F., Marx/Engels Complete Works, vol. 6, London, Lawrence & Wishart, 2010.

MCSWEENEY T., Avengers Assemble ! Critical Perspectives on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, New York, Wallflower Press, 2018.

NIETZSCHE F. W., Thus Spoke Zarathustra : A Book for All and None [1883], Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2006.

REGALADO A. J., Bending Steel : Modernity and the American superhero, Jackson, UP of Mississippi, 2017.

RODGERS D., The Work Ethic in Industrial America 1850-1920, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2014.

SMITH-WALTER A., PANNELL R., “S.H.I.E.L.D. – The Complete Collection & Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, Public Integrity, vol. 23, n°3, May 2021, p. 328-335.

STIGLITZ J. E., The Price of Inequality : How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, New York, W.W. Norton, 2012.

WALLERSTEIN I. M., Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789-1914, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2011.

WOODLEY D., Globalization and Capitalist Geopolitics : Sovereignty and State Power in a Multipolar World, London, Routledge, 2015.

ZUBOFF S., The Age of Surveillance Capitalism : The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, London, Profile Books, 2019.

Notes

1. T. McSweeney, Avengers Assemble ! Critical Perspectives on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, New York, Wallflower Press, 2018, p. 4.

2. F. Jameson, The Political Unconscious : Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Ithaca, Cornell UP, 1982, p. 117.

3. F. Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future : The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, London, Verso, 2005, p. 55.

4. J. A. Brown, The Modern superhero in Film and Television : Popular Genre and American Culture, London, Routledge, 2016, p. 34.

5. T. McSweeney, Avengers Assemble ! Critical Perspectives on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, New York, Wallflower Press, 2018, p. 19.

6. A. J. Regalado, Bending Steel : Modernity and the American superhero, Jackson, UP of Mississippi, 2017, p. 124.

7. D. Hassler-Forest, Capitalist superheroes : Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age, Winchester, John Hunt, p. 134.

8. Vertical Take-Off and Landing

9. A. J. Regalado, Bending Steel : Modernity and the American superhero, Jackson, UP of Mississippi, 2017, p. 107.

10. F. Jameson, The Political Unconscious : Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Ithaca, Cornell UP, 1982, p. 88.

11. F. W. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra : A Book for All and None [1883], Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2006, p. 77.

12. F. W. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra : A Book for All and None [1883], Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2006, p. 14.

13. F. Jameson, The Political Unconscious : Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Ithaca, Cornell UP, 1982.

14. Higgins, quoted in T. McSweeney, Avengers Assemble ! Critical Perspectives on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, p. 212.

15. M. Foucault, Security, Territory, Population : Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-78, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, p. 93.

16. M. Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics : Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p. 3-20.

17. J. E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality : How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, New York, W.W. Norton, 2012, p. 25.

18. A. Case, A. Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Princeton, Princeton UP, 2021.

19. D. Hassler-Forest, Capitalist superheroes : Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age, Winchester, John Hunt, p. 211 ; J. A. Brown, The Modern superhero in Film and Television : Popular Genre and American Culture, London, Routledge, 2016, p. 93.

20. J. A. Brown, The Modern superhero in Film and Television : Popular Genre and American Culture, London, Routledge, 2016, p. 94.

21. T. McSweeney, Avengers Assemble ! Critical Perspectives on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, New York, Wallflower Press, 2018, p. 109.

22. H. Marcuse, Eros and Civilization : A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, Boston, Beacon Press, 1974.

23. I. M. Wallerstein, Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789-1914, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2011, p. 22.

24. K. Marx, F. Engels, Marx/Engels Complete Works, vol. 6, London, Lawrence & Wishart, 2010, p. 488.

25. D. Woodley, Globalization and Capitalist Geopolitics : Sovereignty and State Power in a Multipolar World, London, Routledge, 2015, p. 4.

26. T. McSweeney, Avengers Assemble ! Critical Perspectives on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, New York, Wallflower Press, 2018, p. 62 ; J. C. Chambliss et al., Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe : Essays on the Social, Cultural and Geopolitical Domains, Jefferson, McFarland, 2018m p. 310.

27. I. M. Wallerstein, Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789-1914, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2011, p. 6.

28. T. McSweeney, Avengers Assemble ! Critical Perspectives on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, New York, Wallflower Press, 2018, p. 223.

29. T. McSweeney, Avengers Assemble ! Critical Perspectives on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, New York, Wallflower Press, 2018, p. 10.

30. A. Case, A. Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Princeton, Princeton UP, 2021, p. 21.

31. M. Gilens, Affluence and Influence : Economic Inequality and Political Power in America, Princeton, Princeton UP, 2014.

32. S. Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism : The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, London, Profile Books, 2019.

33. D. Woodley, Globalization and Capitalist Geopolitics : Sovereignty and State Power in a Multipolar World, London, Routledge, 2015, p. 71.

34. T. McSweeney, Avengers Assemble ! Critical Perspectives on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, New York, Wallflower Press, 2018, p. 214.

35. A. J. Regalado, Bending Steel : Modernity and the American superhero, Jackson, UP of Mississippi, 2017, p. 19.

36. J. A. Brown, The Modern superhero in Film and Television : Popular Genre and American Culture, London, Routledge, 2016, p. 220 ; D. Hassler-Forest, Capitalist superheroes : Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age, Winchester, John Hunt, p. 19.

37. J. A. Brown, The Modern superhero in Film and Television : Popular Genre and American Culture, London, Routledge, 2016, p. 116.

38. F. Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic, London, Verso, 2010, p. 396.

39. F. Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future : The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, London, Verso, 2005, p. 215.

40. A. Smith-Walter, R. Pannell, “S.H.I.E.L.D. – The Complete Collection & Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, Public Integrity vol. 23, n°3, May 2021, p. 328-335.

Citation

Daniel Koechlin, « “We’re Agents of the Status Quo” : What is Being Shielded in the MCU TV Series of the 2010s ? », dans Sylvie Allouche & Théo Touret-Dengreville (éd.), Sécurité et politique dans les séries de superhéros Archive ouverte J. Vrin, visité le 24 juillet 2024, https://archive-ouverte.vrin.fr/item/koechlin_we_re_agents_of_the_status_quo_what_is_being_shielded_in_the_mcu_tv_series_of_the_2010s_2023

Auteur

Daniel Koechlin est enseignant à Le Mans Université-ENSIM et doctorant au sein de l'unité de recherche HDEA (EA 4086), Sorbonne Université.

daniel.koechlinuniv-lemans.fr

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