Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a brilliant idea.
The recipe practically screams success. First, take a widely successful movie universe, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Then add a hugely popular character from that universe, S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), mysteriously resurrected. Then add a promise of finding out what S.H.I.E.L.D. does in between assembling Avengers. Then sprinkle it all with the Whedon name and the show should be awesome, right?
But as Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. progressed, the show turned out to be a disappointment. Due to how hyped it was it could be said that it was the biggest disappointment of the 2013-2014 television season.
There are several reasons why the show isn’t working. The reasons cover a distinct lack of superheroes/villains, ill-defined stakes for the characters, and the lack of character development for said characters. Some people are even saying that the show is just boring and that the characters are facsimiles of a million characters we’ve seen before.
Personally, I wouldn’t be so harsh. Many first seasons are far from perfect. A show has to work out exactly what it is and who these characters are. Growing pains are expected and characters, unfortunately, often start out as cardboard cutouts before they’re given flesh.
As you watch the show throughout its first season, you see how these other problems are beginning to be addressed. But what isn’t being addressed, and what I think might be the biggest problem, is the character of Skye (Chloe Bennett), who I’ll argue is a Mary Sue character type and who, in her sheer annoyingness, is holding the show back.
To show how Skye is the quintessential Mary Sue, and why it hurts the show, I’ll cover the typical Mary Sue traits and then discuss how each one applies to Skye (these traits are from TVtropes.org’s useful entry on Mary Sues, worth reading for those unfamiliar with the concept).
1) She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name.
It’s an ABC primetime drama so being gorgeous is like a prerequisite. Actress Chloe Bennett is hot. She also has an “exotic” beauty due to her genes since her Dad is Chinese. So her character Skye, naturally, can be considered to be exotically beautiful.
Skye also has a cool name and is the only character on the cast without a last name. Again, exotic.
2) She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting.
Skye is the best hacker ever. Since S.H.I.E.L.D. has to deal with hackings from Tony Stark, they probably try to do their best to keep the systems at the top of their game. A paramilitary organization that deals with espionage and superheroes run by Nick Fury is going to have top-notch stuff safeguarding their systems.
But Skye breaks into S.H.I.E.L.D., an agency which probably eats the C.I.A. and N.S.A. for breakfast and deals with otherworldly beings with superpowers, from the back of her van with a laptop that she won in a bet.
She’s never even really learned code. She says that it “just comes naturally to her.”
Whoa, wait a minute. Tony Stark secretly building the first Iron Man suit in a cave in Afghanistan made more sense than this.
She also knows how to expertly manipulate others around her. In the episode “The Asset,” she tries her first real world secret agent experience and, during this outing, is able to talk her way out of being captured during a dangerous situation. So in addition to being a genius hacker, she is able to psychologically outmaneuvers people who do this for a living. I’m sorry but even in a Marvel setting it’s hard to accept that anyone can naturally be that good at everything.
3) She lacks any realistic, genuine character flaws. The “flaws” that she does have are obviously meant to be endearing.
One of Skye’s supposed flaws is her relentless questioning. She’s supposed to represent those who go against “the Man” (in this case S.H.I.E.L.D.) because she wants a better world.
The issue is that while she does question authority and power, she does it in a way that is self-congratulatory and snotty.
She also has the flaw of “caring too much.” In the pilot episode, she is the one who tracks down Mike Peterson and puts the idea in his head about being a superhero. Skye starts the chain of events that leads to Mike nearly blowing up at the end of the episode.
In this and in other episodes, we see that even as she shows how much she cares she manages to do it in the most annoying, bratty way humanly possible.
Meanwhile, she calls everyone else out on not being good at dealing with the human element. In “Repairs,” she repeatedly demands access to the girl that they’re protecting with claims that she is the only one who can reach her despite the fact that Coulson is trained to deal quite well with “gifted” people. And then she does it again in “The Bridge” when they bring back Mike Peterson despite the fact that she was the one who kind of triggered his berserker mode.
4) She has an unusual and dramatic backstory. The other protagonists are overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her as one of their true companions, even characters who are usually anti-social and untrusting. If any character doesn’t love her, that character gets an unsympathetic portrayal.
Skye’s backstory is largely shrouded in secrecy at the moment. She doesn’t even know her own origins. Coulson tells May that Skye can never know the truth about her parents.
She is also “witty.” She always has a quip or a line stashed somewhere in regards to the situation at hand.
When she does something wrong, the other characters are very quick to forgive her for it.
In “The Hub,” for example, she blatantly manipulates Simmons into risking her own job and security clearance in order to hack into the database. She uses Simmons’ own feelings of camaraderie toward Fitz against her. She has her so-called friend risk her job so that she can get into the network. Then she selfishly attends to her own problem first. Yet, for uncovering certain information, she is still considered a “hero” for her actions.
Agent Grant Ward falls under the minority who are untrusting of Skye, and he is portrayed as someone who has trouble connecting with people on a larger level in general. He doesn’t think Skye is good for the team but she wins him over by playing Battleship and doing forced witty banter with him. He is hurt by her betrayal and despite it being only weeks since then, she is still shocked that he doesn’t trust her and we’re clearly supposed to side with her on this. We’re supposed to be upset that he is not trusting her again quickly enough.
Agent May doesn’t like Skye either. She doesn’t trust her and probably doesn’t think that highly of her. She looks annoyed when, in episode 10, “The Bridge,” Coulson tells May that Skye is going to try to talk to her regarding her parents. She visibly snaps at her when Skye chooses epically bad times to approach her regarding her parents. They’re trying to stop an international terrorist organization and Skye is still focused on her personal thing.
When May tells Skye off, it is framed in such a way that we’re supposed to be mad at May for telling Skye off when, in regards to common sense, May is totally in the right for telling Skye off. Wait until after the international terrorist organization is dealt with before talking about your parents.
5) She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author’s favorite canonical character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc.
Agent Phil Coulson is the only character from the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon that the audience dealt with previously and has a connection with from the get-go. And being our central character, he has a very close relationship with Skye. It’s clear the writers are going for a surrogate father-daughter bond. They interact more than Skye does with her love interest-to-be, Ward. During these moments, they talk a lot about a number of things and Coulson tries to teach Skye about being an agent in the gentlest of ways possible.
Fury, in his cameo in Episode 2, “0-8-4,” warns Coulson about the risk he is taking by bringing Skye on board but Coulson believes in her. When Skye betrays them he gives her a second chance by letting her back on The Bus with the provision of a bracelet that monitors her online activity. When she goes against his orders in “The Hub” by tracking down that information, he tells her off for going against him but also listens to her.
He’s the one who suggests that she becomes a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. He’s the one who offers her his help in finding out about her parents. He tells her how great she is.
He also confides in her really personal details about May’s past in the episode “Repairs.” This was an effort to get Skye to like May. May clearly doesn’t want to talk about it but Skye was given access to the info over everyone else.
Coulson, a badass agent who took out two armed robbers with a bag of flour, is putty in Skye’s hands because she just really gets the human condition.
So there you have it. I hope I’ve been able to clearly show how Skye fits the Mary Sue character type to a T.
Now before you all start calling me a hater, let me say that I wanted to like Skye. I like actress Chloe Bennet a lot, and I like the hacker, snarky, outgoing, socially awkward, weird type of character so I really gave Skye multiple chances.
Abby Scuito from NCIS. Penelope Garcia from Criminal Minds. Kaylee from Firefly (just one among numerous Whedon examples). These are the types of characters that I believe the writers and producers of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. want Skye to be – the heart of the team, someone honest and outgoing but who has to overcome a personal tragedy in order to find peace with her place in the world. They want her to be the outsider who questions the status quo. I am all for a character like this.
You can tell that effort was put into Skye. The problem is that the function that the writers wanted her to play on the team could be filled by two other characters: Simmons and May. Simmons, who genuinely does care about her teammates and wants them happy, easily fills the heart of the team. The person with the mysterious past who can get things done is filled by May.
Skye, for all the talk of her being an amazing hacker, spends most of her time either arguing, looking things up on people on social media, and not hacking all that much. Hacking probably isn’t the most interesting thing to watch but I was hoping to see more of it.
I hate to say it but for a Whedon show, Skye is just badly written. It’s on the writing because an actor can only do so much with what they’re given. This is unfortunate because while the other characters are slowly growing out of their cardboard selves and showing more depth, the same doesn’t apply to Skye.
I hope that with the second half of the season coming, Skye becomes better written and that they do some sort of overhaul. You can salvage a Mary Sue with time and a good game plan. The writing just needs to be more focused, Skye needs to be less perfect, and the other characters need more opportunity to shine and be unique.
Then, hopefully, Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. can become the good show it’s capable of being.