We’ve talked about Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. previously on this blog, but never very positively. Although S.H.I.E.L.D. got off to a rocky start, the show undeniably got a lot better after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Sometimes you have to destroy a franchise in order to create it anew, and in this, S.H.I.E.L.D. did an admirable job. The characters of Ward and Fitz in particular serve to illustrate a view of masculinity which is rarely seen on television.
Spoilers for all of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 below.
From the start, Grant Ward is played up as a stereotypical man’s man: he’s the specialized agent who has no need for a team and no conception of teamwork. As each episode drags past, he slowly becomes invested in his teammates’ lives, even acting selflessly to save Simmons by jumping out of the helicarrier and apparently developing romantic feelings for Skye. Of course, after S.H.I.E.L.D. falls, it turns out that Ward was only ever loyal to John Garrett, the Clairvoyant, and everything he did in the first half of the season was just an act to get the team to trust him.
We learn through a series of flashbacks in “Ragtag” that Ward has a backstory similar to many gruff-voiced antiheroes of comic books past: he’s thrown into juvie because of an abusive family history that we’re given several different versions of, and Garrett finds him there. He tells Ward that he works for a super special secret organization that’s looking for cool kids like Ward, and makes Ward choose between said organization and juvie. Of course Ward chooses Garrett, and Garrett then drops him off in the mountains with a dog to see if he can survive on his own, a move that other bloggers have called cultish indoctrination. When Garrett comes back to get Ward, he orders Ward to kill the dog with whom he’s bonded, saying: “If you’re gonna work within S.H.I.E.L.D. for HYDRA, you can’t ever get attached to anyone or anything. You have to fight that weakness in you. […] Now take care of Buddy and we’ll get out of here. That’s not a weakness, is it?”
This is the lesson that Ward carries with him throughout his time on our screens: loyalty to Garrett, whom he sees as his savior, and indifference to all others. When he does show that he likes Skye, and that he likes FitzSimmons, he berates this supposed weakness in himself and tries to shut down his own feelings. Basically, Ward is a big ball of repressed manpain, a character that echoes many other such characters who exist in pop culture today.
Contrast this to Leopold Fitz, who’s introduced to us as one half of the FitzSimmons science pairing—S.H.I.E.L.D.’s attempt at a British version of science bros. And to be sure, he and Simmons had chemistry, but they were such dull characters that five episodes in, Saika and I still couldn’t tell which of them was Fitz and which was Simmons. Fortunately, however, they were allowed room to grow with other characters, and that’s when they started to blossom as people rather than as part of a unit that at times felt forced instead of quirky. Fitz’s clearly a genius when it comes to engineering, but is reluctant and frightened to shoot a gun in “Turn, Turn, Turn” when Coulson and May are fighting HYDRA; this is at a stark contrast to Iron Man, who’s also an engineer but has no qualms about picking up weapons and wreaking some destruction himself if the time calls for it.
Most importantly, though, Fitz cares for his teammates freely and without artifice. This can be seen most clearly in the Ward fiasco, where it’s revealed that Ward is working for HYDRA. In a fascinating inversion of the trope where the romantic interest insists her loved one can’t possibly be evil, Skye outright declares that Ward is “a freakin’ Nazi”, while Fitz is the one insisting that Ward can’t be. “I don’t believe that people are born evil,” says Fitz, totally disbelieving.
This carries over to his romantic life—he has a puppy love crush on Skye for the first few episodes which is thankfully dropped without comment, but his love for his science partner, Jemma Simmons, couldn’t be more obvious. Simmons likes him, but whether that’s platonically or romantically remains to be seen. And yet Fitz never does the equivalent of pulling on her pigtails and then running away. When he’s angry with Trip because Simmons likes him, he confronts his own emotions rather than misplacing his anger onto her. When he finally confesses to Simmons in the finale, he doesn’t pressure or shame her into reciprocating, and in my reading, doesn’t even expect her to.
Simmons: Agent Triplett thinks he’s done something to upset you. Fitz, if you’re questioning his loyalty in any way—
Fitz: It’s not him.
Simmons: Well, what is it, then?
Fitz: I—you know how I can be. I hate change.
—S.H.I.E.L.D. 1.19, “The Only Light in the Darkness”
Throughout the season it’s been strongly implied that Ward is a victim of a highly abusive home life, and even though we can no longer take Ward’s words at face value because it’s been revealed he was a very deep cover spy, this possible history should certainly be taken into account. In terms of the narrative, though, the writers have clearly attempted to give him some amount of agency. Ward chooses to shoot his dog, he chooses to jettison Fitz and Simmons, and he chooses to mislead Skye. Whether or not it’s a result of years of psychological manipulation by Garrett (and that certainly deserves more backstory), the writers mean for us to believe that Ward is consciously making these choices and that these stereotypical, antihero, masculine choices are wrong.
Fitz: I know that you’re a good person, Ward. And you can choose right now to be good. It’s a choice.
Ward: I’ve got my orders. […]
Fitz: You don’t have to do this! You have a choice! I know that you care about us, Ward!
Ward: You’re right. I do. It’s a weakness.
—S.H.I.E.L.D. 1.21, “Ragtag”
Ward has been taught to think of caring for other people as a weakness, as many boys in today’s society are taught. Though his choice is almost certainly a result of nurture, not nature, he makes it over and over. He jettisons the science team, in the finale he threatens to “take what he wants” from Skye, and he made a pretty chauvinistic reference to Black Widow in a previous episode, so I really hope Scarlett Johansson guest stars someday to kick his ass. He is the walking talking trope of so-called “badass masculinity”. However, Fitz has never bought into this. Though his teammates chastise him for it, he never stops believing that Ward can still be a good person—like Coulson told Skye, sometimes showing compassion is harder than killing someone. In the finale, Skye directly juxtaposes Fitz’s actions with Ward’s, saying, “I feel sorry for you, betraying the only people who gave you a chance at being a decent human being. Fitz was a hero because he still wanted to give you that chance after everything. […] Garrett is evil. You’re just weak, doing anything you’re told.”
Masculinity in the MCU is coded like, well, like Nick Fury. Being a masculine guy means that you have the power to stop the bad guys, whether with a gun like Coulson or with your smarts like Tony or by way of gamma radiation like Bruce Banner. It’s rare in most any media to have a male character like Fitz, who’s unapologetic about his love for Simmons, his apparent fear of guns, his lack of field knowledge. A character like Fitz would normally be the butt of a joke, not the acclaimed hero, and yet S.H.I.E.L.D. goes out of its way to prove that the Wards of the world don’t always have to be the ideal when it comes to masculinity. With Ward and Fitz, S.H.I.E.L.D. asks us to consider what a weak man truly acts like, and concludes that physical strength and mental stoicism are not always the mark of a strong man. Strength is compassion, and compassion is badass. The latter half of S.H.I.E.L.D. had a lot of good things going for it, and I can only hope that Fitz will continue to be this awesome in Season 2.