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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

skye in himalayas

“Now take that frequency and see if you can amplify it,” Jiaying says.

Skye wants to obey her new mentor but is frightened of her own powers. “The last time I did something like this a lot of people got hurt.”

“You can’t hurt the mountain. And you’re not going to hurt me. Don’t be afraid.”

Skye braces herself, turns toward the snow-banked mountain range, and raises her hand in standard superhero style. Soon an orchestra of emotion-signifying strings rises from the soundtrack, and then a CGI avalanche tumbles scenically down the mountain side.

Skye gives a shocked smile. “I moved a mountain.”

“Remember that feeling. It’s not something to be afraid of.”

This is episode 2.17 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which aired April 14, eleven days before the Nepal earthquake. In Marvel Comics, Skye goes by the codename “Quake.” In the TV show, she’s just acquired her superpowers and has been whisked away to a secret mountain sanctuary to be trained by its semi-immortal leader. Jiaying never names the Himalayas, but that’s the main location of the Inhumans’ secret city in the comics, and in the show Skye was found as an infant in China. During the same episode, she discovers that Jiaying is her mother—played by Dichen Lachman, an actress of German, Australian, and Tibetan background. Lachman was born in Kathmandu, miles from the earthquake’ epicenter, which triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest, killing 19 people. The total death toll is over 7,000.

The coincidences are hard to comprehend. My wife and I watch S.H.I.E.L.D. with our son, and I remember her protesting from the other end of the couch that Skye’s avalanche could have hurt plenty of people. We’re usually a day or two behind streaming episodes, so this was still at least a week before the actual earthquake. We teach at Washington & Lee University, where a spring term roster of students was flying to Nepal for an interdisciplinary Economics and Religion course. I bumped into a wife of one of the professors in Kroger, and she said news of the quake broke just hours before their flight was to take off. She had been going too.

That’s as close as I get to the disaster.

This time last year, I was teaching my “Superheroes” course, and gave a guest lecture on colonialism and Orientalism in the superhero genre for Professor Melissa Kerin’s “Imaging Tibet” course. I showed image after racist image of European Americans visiting the magical realm, acquiring superhuman powers, and then returning home to battle evil. Batman Begins opens with Bruce Wayne scaling a Himalayan mountain side to arrive at Nanda Parbat, home of the League of Assassins, where Bruce would train with the semi-immortal Ra’s al Ghul to become Batman.

It wasn’t airing yet, but the current season of the Arrow TV show is centered around Nanda Parbat too. The TV Ra’s is played by a former Australian rugby player, and the equally European-looking actress playing his daughter speaks with what I think is supposed to be a British accent. Only the Ninja-like underlings look Asian. Nanda Parbat is a variation on Nanga Parbat, the western-most mountain of the Himalayas in Pakistan.

My wife, son and I sat on the same couch, watching Oliver Queen (“Green Arrow” in DC Comics) agree to become Ra’s al Ghul’s heir in exchange for Ra’s saving Oliver’s mortally wounded sister by dunking her in his magic fountain of semi-immortality.

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The ceremony involves a virginal white dress and antiquated pulley system of wood and rope. After vanishing under the bubbles, she catapults twelve feet through the air to land in cat-like on the fountain ledge.

“Tibet is one wacky place,” I said, and my wife laughed.

That’s episode 3.20, which aired on Wednesday April 22nd, three days before the Saturday earthquake.  In the week after, Oliver would be brainwashed into a heartless mass-murderer plotting the destruction of his own city, and Skye would use her newly controllable powers to rescue a fellow Inhuman and a cyborg S.H.E.I.L.D. agent from Hydra’s Antarctic prison laboratory.

On April 29, NPR reported on the flood of people trying to leave Kathmandu, and The Guardian described the rise of tensions over the slow pace of aid.  The same day actor Ryan Phillippe told Howard Stern that he had an upcoming meeting with Marvel, hinting that he may be cast as Iron Fist in the new Netflix superhero show about another European American traveling to the Himalayas and gaining superpowers.

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The collective origin point for all the superhero exoticism is Shangri-La, the magical Himalayan city of the 1937 film and 1933 novel Lost Horizon. It features a semi-immortal High Lama who recruits a European American to be his heir and rule the secret mountain paradise.

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Edward Said asks: “How does Orientalism transmit or reproduce itself from one epoch to another?”I answered last year in a PS: Political Science & Politics essay: “In the case of superheroes, it is through the unexamined repetition of fossilized conventions that encode the colonialist attitudes that helped to create the original character type and continue to define it in relation to imperial practices.” I continued the thought in the book manuscript of On the Origin of Superheroes I sent to my press for copyediting last month: “The 1930s is an Orientalist pit superheroes may never climb out of.”

My claims are already outdated. These TV shows aren’t just continuing superhero Orientalism—they’re digging the pit deeper. And they’ve been digging it while actual Nepalese rescue workers have been digging earthquake victims from actual pits.

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Remember when the end of summer meant the end of superheroes? If you could get past August you were free of the masked and superpowered until spring. Six months. That’s the minimum period of regenerative hibernation required before the next explosive, power-punching, evil-thwarting onslaught of hyperbolic do-goodery. This past year Captain America: The Winter Soldier opened in April,

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followed by Amazing Spider-Man 2 in May,

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before X-Men: Days of Future Past spilled into June.

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July offered only the semi-superheroic duo Lucy and Hercules, but August made up with Guardians of the Galaxy.

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I admit to seeing all but one of them, but something changed for me this year. Maybe it was the death of Gwen Stacy. It felt like Hollywood’s way of punishing an uppity girlfriend. How dare Gwen figure out how to defeat Electro when Peter couldn’t—and imagine if he had actually followed her to England. Superhero as trailng spouse? Obviously the woman had to die. The seventh installment of the X-Men franchise restored me a bit, with its mildly complex characters making occasionally unexpected choices. Sure, the cast members from the original 2000 film are looking a bit gnarled these days, but we can’t all have anti-aging mutant powers. And, hey, who didn’t have an absolute ball at Guardians? Funniest superhero movie yet. A week later I could barely recall a scene, but that’s normal. It was August. My superhero processing systems were cycling down already. Time to tuck the capes and cowls away for a well-deserved cryogenic nap.

Except, wait, why do I still hear the thumping of a bombastic soundtrack? Superheroes aren’t hibernating this year. They just shrunk down a bit. September has already brought the TV premiere of Gotham

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and season two of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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October promises Flash

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and season three of Arrow.

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 Add Constantine, Agent CarterSupergirl, Teen Titans, and the four Marvel shows in production at Netflix, and the power nap is over. We’ve seen plenty of superheroes on primetime before—Batman, Wonder Woman, Hulk, and Greatest American Hero all boasted multi-year runs in the 70s and 80s—but never so many simultaneously. I can’t resist them any more than I resisted their summer siblings, but I do worry how long the onslaught is going to last.

I requested a show like Gotham two years ago. The Fox production isn’t exactly what I described, but I won’t quibble. And I named every supervillain-in-his-youth cameo for my son and wife as we watched. Though was it really necessary to film the Wayne murder scene yet again? Imagine arriving at the crime scene with Gordon and glimpsing little Bruce for the first time. Cut three minutes from the script and that opening could have been dynamic just through a POV change. Instead we get a repeat, something closer to Nolan’s Batman Begins than Burton’s Batman.  The WB has managed to throw in some bare-chested goofiness into Green Arrow’s character, but DC is keeping its dark and dire palette for the bigger network.

S.H.I.E.L.D. had a firmer grip. Last year’s series premiere was flawed but hopeful—and then the follow-up episodes were some of the worst TV I’ve ever sat through. I don’t know how they made it to mid-season, but I’m glad they did, because the final season arc was one of the best long-term plotting coups a series ever pulled off. This year opened at a sprint, with the expanded cast and juggled originals introduced with gloriously little exposition—a huge trick given the upheavals in status quo the last Captain America film forced on the show. Though my favorite moment was a narrative sleight-of-hand employed for the new characterization of an old but radically altered returning character—one of those look back and reevaluate a half-dozen scenes when you realize brain-damaged Fitz is only hallucinating Simmons. Oh, and bad Ward grew a beard and lives in the basement now—just like the dragon in the first season of the BBC’s Smallville-inspired Merlin.

So, yes, I guess I can’t complain about the superhero’s autumnal shift to the small screen. I’m their audience. But what happens next spring? Will we have recovered enough for The Avengers 2: Age of Ulton in May? Or Ant-Man in July? Or Fantastic Four in August? Or the following year when have to go see X-Men Origins: Deadpool and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America 3 and X-Men: Apocalypse and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 and Doctor Strange and Shazam! and Sinister Six? All that after having just watched Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist combine forces on Netflix’s The Defenders? Plus the other seven planned superhero shows airing fall and winter?

It’s not quite genre domination–there are still more cops and doctors and lawyers on TV than I can list–but have two publishing companies ever generated so many simultaneous franchises? Marvel and DC are spreading their genes faster than the zombie plague. The superhero apocalypse is here. Will we survive it?

 

 

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