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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 3, episode 12: Marvel is giving us an X-Men story

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

"The Inside Man" was Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s most X-Men-esque episode to date.

When the X-Men first burst onto the scene in 1963, their story — about a group of mutant kids with weird powers — introduced a new kind of superhero. The superheroes who'd come before them were loved by society, but the X-Men were shunned for their strange powers and weird appearances. They saved the people who feared them most.

Rising above people who don't understand you and, at worst, hate you defined the X-Men's heroism. And being misunderstood defined the X-Men.

Of course, the X-Men belong to Fox, not Marvel, thanks to the splicing of film rights. But that hasn't stopped Marvel from exploring the same territory via its Inhuman plot line and setting up a complex political story to bolster all the superpowers we're seeing this season.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Inhumans face the same political battles as X-Men's mutants



"The Inside Man" features two major stories: Most of Team S.H.I.E.L.D. — Coulson (Clark Gregg), May (Ming-Na Wen), Bobbi (Adrianne Palicki), and Hunter (Nick Blood) — is sent to monitor a private Inhuman roundtable, while Daisy (Chloe Bennet) and Lincoln (Luke Mitchell) stay behind to train.

Daisy and Lincoln's training is mostly an excuse to crank up the sexual tension between the two. But there are glimmers of philosophy, too. Daisy believes her Inhuman roots have empowered her and strengthened her identity. Lincoln disagrees, explaining that not all Inhumans share Daisy's feelings when it comes to their Inhumanity, pointing out that there could be people who feel like it's a burden.

It's definitely a story the X-Men have told — an exploration of what it feels like to be a minority in society, and how lots of people erroneously think of minorities as monolithic entities, where everyone who identifies as part of a given minority is on the same page. But as we've seen in the X-Men world, some mutants believe that people are inherently good, some believe humans are the enemy, some live in sewers and shun the world, and many fall at other points along that spectrum.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is certainly fleshing out that worldview with Daisy and Lincoln, who each take a different approach their Inhumanity. But the show is also addressing the Inhumans through the human characters who are aware of them.

As I mentioned above, the other members of S.H.I.E.L.D. spend "The Inside Man" at a private Inhuman roundtable, where they're guarding one of the generals in attendance. The general is part of a cabal of human world leaders who are deciding how to deal with Inhumans. And those leaders have a belief spectrum just like the Inhumans do: Some call the Inhumans a disease, while others see them as weapons and still others see them as powerful allies.

"The Inside Man" offers a glimpse into human nature as leaders from different nations reveal their completely different outlooks — many of which are rooted in fear — on what Inhumans can do.

But the episode is also a commentary on how a majority almost always has power over a minority, even if the minority in question has literal superpowers. These world leaders were deciding the fate of an entire group people based on what the leaders felt was best, with no Inhumans present to speak for themselves.

While S.H.I.E.L.D. is largely a show about gadgets, gizmos, and superpowers, it's got some promising (albeit sometimes heavy-handed) political stuff going on, too.

But S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Inhumans aren't as varied and diverse as X-Men's mutants — at least not yet

Some of my favorite mutants in the X-Men universe are called Morlocks. They're a group of mutants who live in the sewers, because their particular mutations are often visible; they can't hide their powers or their identities the way other mutants can. Their mutations are as obvious as blue skin or bones growing out of weird places on their bodies.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has yet to tell a similar kind of story. Most of the Inhumans we've met are generally good-looking — Lincoln, Daisy, Joey, Yo-Yo, etc.— and don't suffer from any kind of hideous deformities or eccentric evolutions that would signal their Inhuman status to the rest of the world. And Lash, the one character who did become a huge, unmistakable monster when the Terrigen was released, has been relatively quiet since S.H.I.E.L.D.'s winter finale.

This world has to have some hideous Inhumans, right?

The Inhumans are a thematic connection between S.H.I.E.L.D. and Captain America: Civil War



One thing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has going for it is the opportunity to fold its Inhumans into a bigger story about government power. While the X-Men never quite got to explore this idea, S.H.I.E.L.D. is slowly and steadily asking the question of, "Who watches the watchmen?" in the terms of who is keeping these powerful Inhumans in check.

And the next question that arises is whether the world is so dangerous that the Inhumans deserve a pass on their brutality as long as their intentions are good.

Marvel didn't really incorporate this dilemma of heroic responsibility into its first slew of its movies, where the Avengers had free rein to do whatever they wanted and were glorified for it. But the company's more recent films have increasingly focused on this topic, and Captain America: Civil War — its next big superhero movie — is poised to tackle the issue head on.

On Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the Inhumans represent a superhuman, Avenger-like option for protection. But no matter how good they are, they're also untrusted and treated like villains, because Inhuman villains do exist (just like X-Men villains exist). We get to see how other people's wide-ranging views of Inhumans affect and complicate their personal heroism and the relationships they have with their teammates. And it makes for a better story.

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