While I have high hopes for Legion and the other mutant-centric TV shows in development, but — from where I’m standing — there already exists a pretty great X-Men TV show: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The ABC show might not technically be an X-Men TV show (though, like X-Men, it does take place in a Marvel universe), but it explores many themes closely associated with the X-Men universe, especially via the Inhuman storyline that is becoming increasingly important in the show’s overall arc.
For those who aren’t up on their Marvel mythology, Inhumans are a race of altered human beings with dormant superhuman genes that can be activated through a process known as Terrigenesis. Basically, they’re X-Men with a cool, alien-related backstory — and, at one point, they were coming to a movie theater near you in 2019 with MCU’s Inhumans feature film, which was recently dumped from the MCU’s upcoming film docket. Within the S.H.I.E.L.D. universe, Inhumans suffer many of the same fears and prejudices as our beloved X-Men. Like mutants, they are often unaware of their superhuman abilities until they manifest. They are our neighbors and our friends. They are both heroes and villains.
It’s no coincidence that mutants and the Inhumans have so much in common. They were both created in the 1960s by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, with the Inhumans appearing in Fantastic Four #45 only two years after mutants premiered in their own issue, Uncanny X-Men #1. Of course, the X-Men would go on to become much more popular and, presumably, if Marvel hadn’t sold the on-screen rights for X-Men to Fox in the 90s, then it would be mutants and not Inhumans currently building a kind-of foothold in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This comparison between Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and especially the cinematic X-Men became particularly pointed in Season 3, when S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Hive plot shared quite a lot in common with the plot of X-Men: Apocalypse — though, arguably, S.H.I.E.L.D. did it much better. Someone even went to the trouble of creating a trailer for Season 3 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. using the soundtrack from the X-Men: Apocalypse trailer — and it works really, really well.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. became so X-Men-like in Season 3 that it even briefly flirted with the classic Mutant Cure Storyline, except in this case, the cure was a vaccine Inhumans could potentially take prior to the Terrigenesis that would make their dormant powers manifest. Like the storyline explored in the X-Men film franchise, Lincoln and Daisy — both Inhumans themselves — fall on opposite sides of the To Cure or Not to Cure debate. They literally spar while discussing it. Daisy doesn’t think of her Inhuman identity as something to be cured. It’s something that is a part of her. But Lincoln — who doesn’t have the same ability to control his powers, and can empathize with Inhumans who transform in more dramatic ways — thinks the vaccine could be a good thing.
Ultimately, the vaccine is a bit of a red herring, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 3 embraced other plot lines moving forward, but its introduction and discussion served the larger Inhuman plot nicely.
One of the things that sets the X-Men film franchise apart from other superhero movies that have done well in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or other projects categorized as superhero or comics-based TV, is its status as a true ensemble piece. While the MCU launched with standalone features like Iron Man and Captain America before bringing its heroes together for The Avengers, X-Men was interested in the ensemble first. This same commitment to ensemble is ingrained into S.H.I.E.L.D’s narrative DNA. Though Coulson and Daisy are arguably the central protagonists of this story, it would be a mistake to describe this story as anything other than an ensemble drama — something that is actually hard to find amidst all of the comics-based shows currently airing on TV.
The most celebrated superhero TV shows, though they have serious ensemble elements, are introduced and, in the end, structured around the lone superhero and his team. From The Flash and Arrow to Daredevil and Jessica Jones, these are characters who might have superhero friends, but who, ultimately, get only their name on the marquee. The Flash might espouse the benefits of working as a team, but it is often a struggle. On S.H.I.E.L.D, like in the best X-Men stories, the team is the foundation of the story. It is a given.
Elsewhere in comics-based TV, Gotham has a crazy-large cast, but they are rarely ever integrated into one story. Legends of Tomorrow may be an ensemble, but — as of this point — it is too much of a mess to properly develop any of its characters or character dynamics in any satisfying way. But Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has done an amazing job not only developing its individual characters, but also the relationships between them.
Sure, there are the most emphasized dynamics like the ones between Daisy and Coulson or Fitz and Simmons, but we know how almost everyone in this massive cast of characters feels about one another. May and Fitz get storylines, too. Mack and Daisy’s friendship was integral to last season’s climax. This isn’t a show that only cares about its romantic couples or its trope-determined dynamics. It demonstrates the best aspects of the ensemble drama in a superhero TV genre currently ruled by various degrees of lone wolf.
That ensemble or group aspect of the series is reminiscent of X-Men, in that the latter has long been considered a fictional mirror for the treatment of marginalized groups within American society. (See: “Have you tried not being a mutant?”) Sadly, this popular comic book theme hasn’t gotten the thorough exploration it so richly deserves within much of superhero TV.
Arrow started with a grounding in social context, but its exploration of vigilantism as a chosen profession versus X-Men or S.H.I.E.L.D.’s exploration of superhuman powers as a genetic inheritance is vastly different. With the introduction of the Inhuman storyline into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s main plot, we have seen how it has affected the various Inhuman protagonists — especially Daisy. Daisy doesn’t only have to deal with prejudice and fear from both strangers and loved ones, but also a fear of herself. It is a major part of her Season 2 arc and shares a lot in common with Rogue’s cinematic introduction in the original X-Men movie.
Later in the Inhuman run, even after Daisy has learned how to control her powers and trust herself, she and her fellow Inhumans are often marginalized. In Season 3’s “The Team,” it is Secret Warriors vs. the human agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. when Malick suggests that one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Inhumans has become brainwashed by HIVE. Sequestering the Inhumans is a pragmatic choice, but it mimics the behavior the Secret Warriors so often face at the hands of the frightened and the bigoted.
Elsewhere in Season 3, we meet Mack’s little brother, Ruben (played by Friday Night Lights’ Gaius Charles). Recently laid off, Ruben’s frustrations are quickly channeled via bigoted propaganda into hate for the Inhumans and the government that protects them. The parallel between the Watchdog’s anti-Inhuman rhetoric and Trump’s anti-immigrant rants is not very subtle, but social commentary doesn’t have to be. I appreciate that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is attempting to comment on the current socio-political state of the country in a way that many of the other superhero TV shows don’t even attempt to do. It’s perhaps the show’s most X-Men-like quality.
I haven’t even mentioned that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D easily has one of the most diverse casts on television. This is a particularly important in relation to the ensemble point I made earlier. S.H.I.E.L.D doesn’t just have token minor minority characters it trots out for special, socio-political occasions. Its main cast includes three main female characters (two of whom are Asian-Americans) and multiple characters of color beyond that.
One of my favorite examples of diversity on the show is Yo-Yo Rodriguez, a recurring member of the Secret Warriors who didn’t even speak English when we first met her. Rather, the Columbian Inhuman conducted all of her conversations in Spanish. She has since learned English, but she still often launches into Spanish conversation with Mack or Joey, which is pretty cool and relatively unheard of on primetime TV outside of Jane the Virgin, and certainly not on any other superhero drama.
Speaking of unique takes on the superhero genre, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. addressed the “Who watches the Watchmen?” question Captain America: Civil War also took on this past year. It’s such a common theme in superhero storytelling, for obvious reasons, but it’s one that X-Men and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D confront in similar ways: through the exploration of institution.
In S.H.I.E.L.D’s Season 3 episode “Inside Man,” our cast of heroes listens in on a summit of world leaders discussing what should be done with the ever-growing population of Inhumans. It is a problem/opportunity that knows no borders and that doesn’t necessary bow to the all-mighty dominance of the current world order. Daisy and other Inhumans are understandably peeved that there isn’t an Inhuman representative there to give voice to what the Inhuman population needs or wants. It would have been easy for S.H.I.E.L.D to simply go along with that frustration, to bemoan all established institutions and tell a story about rebels working towards a new world order.
Except for the tiny problem that, like X-Men, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is an inherently optimistic work that, though willing to admit that there are flaws to its optimism, ultimately has faith in the institution. In X-Men, that institution is best exemplified in Professor Xavier’s school and in his ability and preference to work within the system (versus Magneto’s affinity for burning the institution down). This is also true within the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D universe where, even when it is seriously being challenged by its characters, S.H.I.E.L.D. is ultimately depicted as a force for good — or at least Coulson’s branch of S.H.I.E.L.D. is.
Here, Coulson is our Charles Xavier, the enigmatic leader who keeps a group of superhuman characters together through a found family mentality and a belief in a better world: a world where everyone is safe and everyone is protected, and a world that doesn’t have to be afraid of difference. This inherent (though not simple) optimism, more than anything, is what makes Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D such an X-Men-like show. In a landscape of nihilistic, alpha male superhero stories, it’s also what makes it one of my favorite shows on TV.
Though we are robbed from getting to see many of our favorite X-Men characters within the MCU because of the aforementioned rights issue, we still get to enjoy many of the themes prominent in the X-Men universe through S.H.I.E.L.D. This MCU show is an uneven, but ultimately ambitious effort that is too often unfairly maligned for its (admittedly) truly terrible start. If you’re a fan of what X-Men has done — or simply good superhero storytelling with a science fiction twist — then you should consider giving Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D a chance.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4 premieres Tuesday, Septembers 20th on ABC.