The Villain Problem
Marvel Studios long had an issue coming up with good villains, and Agents of SHIELD wasn’t any better when they kicked off. In what I still consider to be the show’s worst episode, season one’s “The Well,” with that cold open of the team sifting through rubble and saying “Wow, all that stuff with Thor sure was wild, huh?” they immediately leave for mainland Europe, where a bunch of Norwegian “anarchists” have gotten their hands on an Asgardian artifact that amplifies your strength and your anger, so they use it to wreck a bunch of stuff, because that’s “anarchy,” right? Those villains were so half-assed the Hawaii Five-0 writers were rolling their eyes. Remember this, ’cause it’ll come up.
Sure a lot of the villains are or turn out to be Hydra or Hydra related, but complaining about Hydra showing up in a show about SHIELD feels like complaining about Superman going up against Lex Luthor too much. It’s easy to do, because there have been five Superman movies with Lex and none with Brainiac and what is that, but come on, eventually Sherlock Holmes gunsta go round and round with Moriarty. No, the final season made me realize that my problem with the Big Bads of Agents of SHIELD boiled down to one thing.
They’re always so goddamn smug.
And only some of them can pull it off.
Bill Paxton? Yes, he could sell it. Reed Diamond? He got there. Mallory Jansen? Only smug in the Framework and she wore it well. But honestly I put some blame on the writers because you know who couldn’t make it work? Parminder Nagra and Oscar Nominee and Silver Medallist for Female Lead (for Preacher) Ruth Negga.
Most Chronicoms don’t really show emotions, being a species of robots. It’s what made Joel Stoffer such a delight as Enoch, the one friendly Chronicom. Stoffer nailed Enoch’s dry delivery, making him a delight in the cast.
And on the flip side, there’s Sibyl.
Sibyl, played by the perfectly talented Tamara Taylor from Bones, is what the Chronicoms call their Predictor. She has access to a device called the Timestream, which lets her read the past, present, and probable futures, and thus figure out exactly what events to change to ensure that SHIELD doesn’t exist to stop their invasion, and… and… do the Chronicoms time travel often? They’re called “CHRONicoms,” but they had to pull the secret to time travel out of Fitz and Simmons’ minds… I don’t know, it’s not important, what’s important is that no matter how many times the Agents foil her plans, no matter how many Chronicom hunters are killed (if that’s the word) along the way, she is so. Endlessly. Smug. It is episode 12 of 13 before she finally starts to seem even a little annoyed by Coulson taking out dozens, maybe hundreds of hunters several episodes back. Her unbreakable smugness, her absolute certainty of the inevitability of her success despite everything, wears thin so fast.
But it gets worse, because after Coulson wipes out most of her hunters, she finds a new ally… Nathaniel Malick, Hydra bigwig Gideon’s brother, who was supposed to die in the early 70s after being sent to Hive’s planet but Sibyl kept him and his father alive. Nathaniel witnesses Daisy’s quake powers and decides he wants a piece of that, and calls family friend Daniel Whitehall (from early season two, but don’t get excited, he doesn’t show up in person) to learn how to steal Inhuman abilities. Sibyl is too smug; Nathaniel Malick is insufferable. And recruiting Young John Garrett doesn’t help at all. Now we have three different flavours of smug. Also watching Nathaniel gaslight people into helping fight SHIELD almost physically hurt me.
And what does Nathaniel want? Is he trying to make Hydra second in command to the Chronicoms, who very clearly want to conquer Earth, I don’t know why that doesn’t bother him? No. He wants “anarchy.” No SHIELD, no Hydra, no rulers (except I guess the Chronicoms?), he kills someone for calling him “sir” too much… but what does he think “anarchy” is? What do the writers think anarchy is? Because twice now they’ve gotten it confused with chaos, and if you don’t see the difference, read V For Vendetta.
Okay rather than complain, here’s a rank order of all the Big Bads of Agents of SHIELD history, from worst to best, and a smugness ranking.
- Nathaniel Malick, I hated basically every moment he was on screen. Smugness: 9/10
- Izel (Karolina Wydra). Super smug, overpowered, and I still don’t know what her deal was. Throw “Sarge” in there with her. Smugness: 10/10
- Sibyl, see my above rantings. Smugness: 10/10
- Senator Ellen Nadeer (Parminder Nagra). A Watchdog sympathizer who had the balls to go on TV and say “I don’t care if the Watchdogs were caught doing that global terrorism, I still think it might have been the Inhumans.” A WOC embodying the worst of the Republican party’s distortion of reality to fit a bigoted narrative isn’t a good look. Smugness: 8/10
- Anton Ivanov (Zach McGowan), head of the Watchdogs. The only good thing about him was Coulson dismissing the beginnings of his grudge against SHIELD with a “Cool origin story, bro.” Smugness: 7/10
- Raina, aka “Flowers.” (Ruth Negga) The Original Sin of SHIELD’s aggressively smug villains, and it didn’t work better then. She was insufferable about the need to see “who we become” right up until her Terrigenesis, at which point she didn’t like what she became, and had the audacity to blame anyone else for her circumstance. Smugness: 10/10
- Billionaire CEO Ian Quinn (David Conrad). Season five had to remind me he’d been a thing for a while. Smugness: 9/10
- Whoever was behind the murder ghosts during the Ghost Rider arc. I don’t remember who that was or what their deal was but there’s worse than “unmemorable.” Smugness: 2/10
- Kasius (Dominic Rains), head Kree in the post-apocalyptic future of season five. He and his henchwoman overstayed their welcome, sure, but they were a notch above “unmemorable.” Smugness: 9/10
- General Hale (Catherine Dent), Secret Head of Hydra #4, and her daughter Ruby (Dove Cameron). Hydra was a little played out but they were okay. Smugness: 4/10 for the general, 6 for Ruby.
- Gideon Malick, Secret Head of Hydra #3. Powers Boothe can make a lot of things work. Smugness: 6/10
- Ward. Turning out to be Hydra was the best thing to happen to that character. Smugness: it varies. Anywhere from a 2 to an 8/10 depending on where he’s at emotionally.
- Hive. Possibly Brett Dalton’s best bit of villainy. Smugness: 6/10
- General Talbot, aka Graviton (Adrian Pasdar). A former ally driven crazy by exposure to gravitonium. Smugness: 5/10
- Jiaying (Dichen Lachman), Daisy’s mother, head of an Inhuman sanctuary utterly unconnected to the Inhumans show. Smugness: 3/10
- Daniel Whitehall, Secret Head of Hydra #2. Reed Diamond can even make a Nazi scientist fun to watch. Shame they killed him so fast. Smugness: 7/10
- John Garrett. Bill Paxton really stuck the landing on an arc that had gone nowhere before Winter Soldier. Smugness: 9/10, but he sells it.
- Cal Zabo, Daisy’s father (Kyle MacLachlan, Bronze Medallist for Best Villain, 2015, but if I’d included Wilson Fisk on the podium like I should have he wouldn’t have been). He was fun. Smugness: 5/10
- Aida, she was great, start to finish, no notes. Smugness: 7/10 in the Framework, 3 elsewhere.
As you can see, smug villains were a problem, even if a few of the villains could pull it off. An unfortunate trend that did not help their final season. I was so angry Nathaniel Malick lived to the finale, I really hated him. That kind of character needs Neal McDonough level charisma to pull off, and he didn’t have it (most don’t, Neal is a treasure).
(Also I didn’t include more minor villains like Wilfred Malick or Werner Von Strucker, son of Age Of Ultron’s Secret Head of Hydra #1, Baron Von Strucker, because they never had their own agenda, they were pawns in someone else’s game.)
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