Agents of Shield: An Exploration of Evil (Part 1)

One of the things I love about writer, director and show developer Joss Whedon is that his work usually has a major underlying theme. However, as Joss has been tinkering about with his superhero phase, I’ve pondered whether his usual underlying message was getting lost amid the sea of commercialism. I wondered particularly about his new drama, Agents of Shield (AoS). At first I was kind of underwhelmed by the show but, as I watched more episodes, I was starting to see his genius at work.

Throughout the first part of the season, I detected Whedon’s usual theme of the creation of a family unit. Then I thought that the principal theme was about trauma as most of the characters in AoS are suffering from various degrees of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, with the change in the show’s direction following the release of the Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I see that it is the theme of evil is what is truly being explored. I’m really excited by that because evil is fascinating and it’s something I’ve pondered before. Evil is usually a pretty deep subject, so using a television character in a show based on comic books to explore it is pretty gutsy.

The show spent the first 16 episodes of the series making the audience believe that Agent Grant Ward was the Shield team’s protector. He was the one they all trusted to keep them safe. No one doubted his loyalty, moral center and commitment to good. Then, in episode 17, he was shown to actually be a traitor, a member of the evil group Hydra (an offshoot of the Nazis and Captain America’s greatest rivals) and all hell broke loose.

But here is what they did that makes this so powerful. Instead of portraying Ward as a stereotypical mustache-twirling villain without a conscience, they’ve shown his backstory (he was an abused child), his hesitancy (he doesn’t appear to like doing bad things), and even hinted at some of the reasons for his behavior (loyalty to a father figure). Thus, while Ward continues to act badly, his humanity is still on display. His evil is a bit questionable or, at the very least, contextual. And that’s what makes it so difficult for people to consider.

As a culture, we all have pretty strong feelings on evil. When I was a professor, I used to begin a course on family psychology by having students read Israel Charney’s (1996) chapter on evil in personality. Students usually freaked out a bit because the author was suggesting that we make evil a relational diagnosis in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (psychology’s bible). Although the students struggled to articulate their objections, their horror was mainly because of their belief that evil is huge, recognizable and hopefully rare. Evil is reserved for people like Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pol Pot and Sadam Hussein, not people we know and certainly not people like Ward who has done plenty of “good” things.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Evil isn’t as simple as we would like it to be nor is it all that rare. We delight in putting Hitler in a box and self-righteously saying that of course we would have immediately understood that he was evil and would never have followed him. But that wasn’t the case for a lot of people. If you read accounts of Hitler from people who knew him, they talk about how brilliant, articulate, brave, artistic and charismatic he was. Those are hardly the characteristics we associate with evil.

Moreover, Hitler was just one man. He could never have done so much damage all by himself; he had to have people helping him. Within the millions of people who followed Hitler, there were numerous doubters, people who committed acts they knew to be wrong because they didn’t know what else to do or how to stand up to those more influential than they. Again, I can hear those out there claiming that they would have spoken out for the downtrodden and abused, that they would never follow or participated in such evil. They steadfastly believe that they would not voluntarily do mean things to others, especially those who are in vulnerable positions.

It’s lovely to have such firm convictions about our potential for evil but that isn’t what social psychological research has discovered. For example, Stanley Milgram’s research on obedience showed that most people would voluntarily hurt people. In these very famous experiments, ordinary people believed that they were shocking subjects like themselves for the mere purpose of learning correct answers. Although there were a few who refused to do it, most of these regular folks did the shocking even though the subjects (who were in reality research confederates who were not being shocked at all) screamed, pleaded and eventually fell silent like they were unconscious. Among other things, these experiments demonstrated that authority is a powerful influence on behavior and that people will actually perpetrate evil on others even if there is very little at stake.

But we do not want to hear this. We want to believe that evil is for other people, not something potentially within us. That’s one reason why the Grant Ward narrative has been so challenging. His evil was made and nurtured; it could have happened to any of us unfortunate enough to be caught in the wrong circumstances. He came from a family in which his parents didn’t care about him and his older brother was a psychopath who not only beat him up but forced Ward to beat up their younger brother as well. Ward lashed out at them, got in trouble with the law, and was ripe for the picking when Hydra came calling. People have said that because he was old enough (he was in his mid-teens when he was recruited) to know right from wrong, he deserves no compassion or mercy. However, that is ignoring the reality of both human beings and evil which is what I will explore in Part 2.

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