Originally published October 18th 2013
During my idle perusal of the vast wastes of internet I came across a review of this past week’s episode of Agents of SHIELD. What caught my interest was one of the reviewer’s criticisms: there were still too many techie-type characters who couldn’t fight. And that that was lame and frustrating.
Now, besides wrong, I find this criticism fascinating. Because yes, it is interesting to see an action-orientated show where half of the main cast aren’t able to actively fight bad guys. What often happens instead is we get only one of these characters who gets overshadowed by everyone else. When done poorly, this can get to the point that we wonder why they’re even one of the main characters. Yet there’s an obligation to have these sorts in a story. After all, not everyone in real life runs around guns blazing. Paramilitary groups and ships’ crews need their support teams. So they’re there, and that’s about it. But when written well, like I think Fitz and Simmons of SHIELD are, they can become great, interesting characters in their own right and add another dynamic to their story.
Let’s look at Fitz and Simmons further for a second. No, they don’t fight, in fact, they’re pretty adamant about avoiding combat. They’re scientists! Yet the show still keeps them vital to the team. In the pilot it was Fitz who engineered Coulson’s nonlethal third option, for example. Skye too, the other non-combatant, holds her own too, be it through hacking or sweet-talking. Point is, they do stuff! They’re cool! And, rather than having one Science Guy to do all the sciencing we have a team of three splitting the load.
We see the idea of vital non-combatants in another show Joss Whedon worked on: Firefly. Kaylee, Simon, and some of the others don’t do much fighting, but they’re still made to feel useful through how they’re written. The show’s plots aren’t always (and seldom solely) of the “we’re in a tight spot, let’s shoot our way out” variety. Instead, we’re given a variety of plots where sometimes mechanicing or doctoring is the best solution. Yeah, it’s harder to write, but when it works it makes each character feel that much more needed.
Pacific Rim did it too, with the scientist characters of Newt and Gottlieb. They’re interesting enough as they are, clearly, and they also want to help with the cancellation of the apocalypse. No, they aren’t pilot Jaegers and fighting Kaiju firsthand, but, as Newt puts it, he wants to be a rockstar. And later on he and Gottlieb are given their chance and proceed to get the information needed to save the day. The film’s written well enough that their moment doesn’t feel awkwardly worked in or just tacked on. Furthermore, it ties in to the movie’s theme of everyone having a part to play in saving the world, even the nerds.
There’s an interesting misconception that a strong character has to be a fighter. Ergo a strong female character has to be out doing something adventurous and can’t be one who stays home. Yet a character like that can still be terribly boring (see: Salt) and a character can be stay in the castle yet still be terribly interesting (see: Cersei Lannister). The strength of a character isn’t judged by the amount of butt they can kick but that they’re both interesting and vital. It’s up to good writing to ensure that characters feel needed and interesting throughout a story.
So by all means, keep Fitz, Simmons, and Skye inept at combat, just keep writing them as interesting, legitimate characters.