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Different But Not Broken: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Disability

by Jihan Abbas | Originally posted at the Disability Visibility Project

Within the superhero genre, comic books have always strongly connected notions of difference with unique abilities. Villains and heroes alike often find their motivation and power through origin stories that speak to difference or a process of change. Alice Wong wrote a great piece exploring how the mythology behind superheroes is relatable to many disabled people and those who grew up on the outside looking in.

It was our shared interest in disability representation in comic books and the recent expansion of Marvel into television that prompted a back and forth between Alice and I around disability and difference in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. While the show first framed itself as an opportunity to view the inner workings of S.H.I.E.L.D. — the so-called “normal” folks who work behind the scenes in this superhero filled world — it was clear from the beginning that the show was pulling on powerful threads about change, difference, and otherness. While this is not unusual where superheroes are concerned, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. applied these same dynamics to the bureaucracy behind the Avengers. In the first season Phil Coulson’s return from the dead — and the differences in him that resulted from this process, as well as Skye’s mysterious origins — were front and center.

While the first season provided a lot to digest for those of us interested in how difference and otherness operates on this genre, season two has expanded on this theme in major ways and brought disability front and center. From a disability standpoint, the “broken” Fitz we saw early in season two provides a lot to think about. Fitz is a man struggling to process information, relate to others, and work in the same way he had prior to his brain injury. While I was hesitant at first about his story line, as it seemed to drudge up some old clichés where disability and storytelling are concerned (his conversations with an imaginary Simmons, his anger at other characters for taking his place, etc.) I have been pleasantly surprised with how his story has evolved.

In the first half of the second season, the writers used his journey to illustrate how he deals with these changes. While he now has trouble finding the right words (it turns out imaginary Simmons in part helps fill these gaps), and he becomes overwhelmed when others rush him, the audience comes to see that he is still a valuable and contributing member of the team. The way his teammates and friends respond is equally interesting. Different characters respond differently: some see him as broken, some feel responsible and want to take care of him, some continue to hope he will return to who he was before, and some remain awkward in his presence. Through his burgeoning friendship with Mack, a new character, Fitz is not bound by who people remember him as being, but instead allowed to explore a different way of doing things with Mack’s encouragement, support, and through the use of technology. We even get a great scene where Mack recognizes the pressure of a rushed and chaotic environment for Fitz and has other S.H.I.E.L.D. scientists leave to accommodate Fitz’s working needs. While this isn’t how Fitz worked before the accident this is how he effectively works now. He is not broken — just different.

Whether it is intentional or not, the writers have given Fitz the space to come to term with how his brain functioning differently and adapt to this. The team members who knew him before struggle to adapt to this difference, and this creates a more nuanced plot. Yet, what is most important for me is how his value to S.H.I.E.L.D. was not dependent on him being “fixed” or “cured” but instead through a more complex process that required everyone to adapt to a new way of working together. His place on the team, even when he struggled and isolated himself, remained. Through this story arc then it is not about Fitz “getting better” but instead becoming better by adapting and learning to do things differently. Indeed, by the mid-season finally Fitz and his scientific contributions are again an invaluable part of the team and their missions.

This season’s driving question for all characters — what will they become? — speaks to how change is being used to shape the characters and build new and emerging abilities. While there is no telling where the second half of this season will take us, there is incredible promise in the way this season is framing difference, change, and disability, and I hope the writers continue to build on this and showcase the value in being different.

Jihan Abbas is a researcher with both personal and professional experience in the area of disability and equality rights and the former Director of Policy and Research for Independent Living Canada. Her research interests include disability and the labour market, social policy, and the inclusion of persons with disabilities. She is also one of the inaugural winners of the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship and am currently completing my PhD at Carleton University in Ottawa. Twitter: 

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