What's fascinating to me about this hatedom is how totally strange it is within the context of wider media culture. Ward is, after all, the perfect grim antiheroic masculine figure, present in media everywhere: a brooding loner, with multiple romantic prospects, a tendency to buck authority, a powerful fighter... Ward could have been transplanted from just about any action film.
But the thing is, Ward's been transplanted into a show about some stuff that doesn't fit so well with his character archetype: teamwork, openness with your allies, the power of god damn friendship of all things, and the need to carry the responsibility of power carefully and not cross the line into world-policing authority and authoritarianism. These are ideas dramatically opposed to the singular authority of the male antihero and Ward feels out of place to some extent in the show's narrative. For a while it seemed like the team would succeed in changing him, but in the end it's turned out that he's been playing them all along in a weirdly metatextual game of tropes and expectations.
And that's what makes this reveal so successful, ultimately. It's a metatextual move, not just a textual one, because our understanding of Ward's character is partly a construct in-show by Ward in accordance with some of these tropes, as he revealed in a lengthy speech a few episodes ago.
So what I'm going to do, over the course of a series of shorter (by my standards) articles over the next week, is analyze all the ways in which Grant Ward sucks, and what his status as the ultimate heel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, what his place as the guy we love to hate, says about the MCU's place in culture and take on other action movie narratives.
And what better place to start than with an idea I've complained about before: the authority of the male antihero above that of female characters.
|Pictured: A Toolbag.|
In the context of these kinds of narratives, women can be powerful, but not really autonomous figures. Acting as independent agents tends to get them captured, assaulted, or killed. Their feelings are typically downplayed as insignificant or downright incorrect compared to the feelings of men, or the feelings that men feel women should be feeling. It doesn't matter that the logic driving these haphazardly orchestrated situations is often as tortured as the syntax of my last sentence, the dominance of the male antihero takes precedent above and beyond all story logic. And ultimately, these women often serve as disposable resources, to be broken in an emergency in order to provide the antihero with motivation and/or angst.
This is the role that Grant Ward seeks to put Skye in, and the plot almost, almost accommodates him, nearly bringing her low earlier in the season in a way that appeared to be perfectly poised to motivate Ward later on in typical action series fashion. This could have played out in a remarkably rote way.
Except the show took a series of rather remarkable swerves.
First of all, when Ward shoots the man who seems to be the Clairvoyant, the evil Hydra mastermind responsible for ordering the death of Skye, the rest of the team, and Coulson in particular, react not the way they might have in another narrative. They do not respond by giving Ward a slap on the wrist or excusing his actions as understandable. Rather, Coulson chews him out and throws him into the plane's reinforced holding chamber. Not only did Ward kill an unarmed man, he also, Coulson points out, walked straight into what could very well have been a Hydra plot to trick the team into killing a decoy Clairvoyant! There are real consequences for his actions, and they are ALL negative, tangible consequences of his choices and his choices alone.
I want to stress how different this is from other shows. Arrow, to return to my favorite punching bag, spent Season 2 emphasizing that Arrow had to give up his murderous ways, and repeatedly attempted to sell that as a huge moral and practical dilemma for him. But the problem was that his actions were totally decoupled both from a consistent sense of his ability and from any actual consequences.
And increasing the lead character's MANPAIN is not in and of itself a tangible consequence.
Now, look, we all know that in the Real World(tm) not all bad actions have consequences. This is because the real world is without a controlling intelligence (or at least I've never seen compelling, scientifically verifiable evidence for one).
It's easy to conclude from this that if we want our stories to be realistic they must correspond to how things happen in the Real World--i.e. things have to just sort of happen in a big jumble where actions don't really have consequences.
But to that I'd like to point out that fiction is fundamentally not like the Real World. It DOES have a controlling intelligence, and that controlling intelligence is in some measure responsible for the message being conveyed by a text. If you want to convey a theme beyond "life is incoherent and meaninglessly chaotic," you actually do have to decide what actions have what consequences. (If you don't want to convey a theme beyond that, you are going to run out of stories very quickly because that's frankly a pretty boring message, and one that really stops being interesting after one or two narratives about it.) This doesn't necessarily mean that all evil acts must be punished and all good acts must be rewarded, because, well, sometimes things don't go as planned, and there has to be some nod to reality even if a direct correspondence to reality results in incoherent garbled nonsense.
FILM CRIT HULK, the blogger who more than anyone else has shaped my sense of what Storming the Ivory Tower can and should be (i.e. that my articles can and should all be really obnoxiously long), recently summarized this effectively in his article on the failures of the most recent Spiderman film and what its implications are. In fact, the following passage, which does a good job of explaining the basic action at work here, also ties us effectively back to this question of the Chauvinist Hero and how the narrative warps in order to accommodate his authority:
PRETEND EVERY MOVIE WORLD HAS A GOD. WELL, THAT'S ACTUALLY TRUE BECAUSE MOVIES HAVE ACTUAL AUTHORS BEHIND THEM. THE STORYTELLER IS GOD OF THIS UNIVERSE. AND THE STORYTELLER CAN MOSTLY BE ONE PERSON OR MORE LIKELY A WHOLE GROUP OF PEOPLE, BUT THEY ARE MAKING A SERIES OF CHOICES IN THE STORY AND THEY SAY SOMETHING WITH EVERY SINGLE CHOICE THAT THEY MAKE. AND THE THING THAT SAYS THE MOST ABOUT HOW THE WORLD WORKS? IN MOVIES IT IS ACTION AND CONSEQUENCE. DO THIS? THEN THIS HAPPENS. DO THAT? THEN THAT HAPPENS. AND WHAT THE UNIVERSE CONFIRMS THROUGH THESE "ACTIONS" IS THE FIRST PART OF THE STATEMENT COMING FROM THE WRITER; IT'S THE WAY THE UNIVERSE "WORKS." BUT THEN THAT STATEMENT IS CONTEXTUALIZED BY HOW THE CHARACTERS REACT TO HOW THE UNIVERSE WORKS AROUND THEM, WHICH IS THEN CONTEXTUALIZED THROUGH A THIRD LAYER OF THE TONE AND VIEW OF THE FILM ITSELF. IT SOUNDS COMPLICATED, BUT REALLY THIS IS JUST BASIC CREATION OF THEME. IT'S INTEGRAL TO EVERY MOVIE EVER... SO HOW DOES THIS FILM NOT UNDERSTAND IT AT ALL?
TO TIE THAT QUESTION BACK INTO STRUCTURE, HAVE YOU NOTICED THAT PETER NEVER LEARNS A SINGLE LESSON THROUGHOUT TWO MOVIES? THINK ABOUT THAT. PETER MAY REACT AND GET UPSET AND BE SAD OR WHATEVER, BUT ASIDE FROM THE WHOLE DISCARDING OF "the verbalized needs of every single person he comes into contact with," HAS ANY OF THOSE EVENTS ACTUALLY CHANGED PETER'S BEHAVIOR AT ALL?
DO YOU REALIZE THAT THIS MOVIE IS SAYING THAT GWEN DIES BECAUSE SHE DID NOT LISTEN TO HER BOYFRIEND? AND HAD TO BASICALLY INSIST ON MARCHING OFF TO HER OWN DEATH SO IT'S NOT PETER'S FAULT?
Now I'm less interested in authorial intent here than Hulk, who I think has an approach slightly more informed by auteur theory than my more structuralist, Roland Barthes tinged approach, but the basic point is the same: there's deliberate choices being made here for how the narrative plays out, and the consequences for actions do some of the work of contextualizing the thematic purpose of those actions and their overall argument. In Hulk's estimation, the film constantly dodges out on forcing Peter Parker to face actual consequences of his actions by staging negative story beats so that they will not be his fault or under his control. In fact, in the case of Gwen Stacey, it makes it her decision, and Peter Parker has no culpability on any level. I haven't seen the film, because literally every film critic I respect effectively had a nervous breakdown after watching it, but I don't see any reason to think Hulk's reading is wrong here... not just because I respect him but because I've seen this so many fucking times that it's actually a surprise when a narrative dodges this convention.
So, to jump back to Ward here and the idea of the chauvinistic anti-hero, what we've got in Agents of SHIELD is a character that has killed an unarmed man because he was pissed off, and now the entire team has to face the material consequence of that in the form of a possible setup by their opponent and a loss of months of work trying to bring down Centipede. This is a tangible consequence. This is how the show makes it obvious to the viewer that what Ward did was wrong. Not by having him mope, but by having him fuck up the actual strategic operations of his team. And the show contextualizes this as well by reminding us that Coulson has literally killed to save Skye's life, in the process confronting the deeply uncomfortable origins of his own escape from death... and yet he holds his shit together when they meet the Clairvoyant. He acts as a tangible foil to Ward, showing that Ward wasn't out of control, or unable to stop himself, or "made" to do what he did by someone else making him angry. He made a choice, and we're given the context necessary to see that his choice was wrong.
When a usually female character is killed in order to push the antihero to acts that push the limits of what an audience might accept, the narrative provides the antihero with a get-out-of-consequences-free card. He gets that card because the audience will be sympathetic to his motivations. This isn't exactly complicated stuff--it's pretty straightfoward and understandable. If that motivation is paired with a lack of tangible consequences within the narrative, the result is that what little consequence there is (in the form of his MANPAIN) is neutralized, and his actions become totally excusable.
In this scenario, then, the female character is instrumentalized in order to further the authority of the male antihero to do whatever he wants. The woman is disempowered in order to provide carte blanche to the man to violently impose his vision of right upon the world.
And this is what Grant Ward, at the behest of the actual clairvoyant, Ward's boss Garrett, literally does here. That's the second major twist the show throws in. Ward, within the narrative itself, transforms his teammate into a walking narrative trope. He uses her brush with death as cover for his murder of the dummy Clairvoyant in the same way that the writers of other shows use the injury or death of female characters as excuses for violent action, while often making the injury or death the fault of the female character for straying outside of the hero's protection.
By transforming the plot into an actual plot by the villains the show takes that subtext and transforms it into text. It transforms the action of writers to disempower women for the sake of male authority and male action into a plan concocted by actual Nazis.
Damn. That's harsh.
But pretty fucking fair, in my estimation. Because ultimately what this kind of narrative shows is that A. the writers constructing these narratives have no respect for the agency of female characters as independent agonists and B. the writers really want their main characters to be able to take action without consequence, and without restraint, and will happily pile up as many corpses as needed to allow that to happen.
Sounds pretty compatible with fascist ideology to me, frankly! That paired chauvinistic arrogance and violent authoritarianism is right in line with the manifestos the Italian Futurists were writing back in the day, for example. (I jump to that because my inroad for this sort of stuff is art history.)
And the show later demonstrates clearly just how little respect Grant Ward has for the women surrounding him. Most notably, there's this charming little exchange between Ward and Maria Hill:
Hill: You know, I never liked you, Ward, not since our first sit-down, but I never figured you for John Garrett's lapdog.What's interesting to me is that while neither are particularly pleasant to one another, Hill's disgust with Ward is on the level of his performance as a member of SHIELD. But Ward jumps immediately to gendered insults, describing her as eye candy, and throwing in a wholly unnecessary and gratuitous insult to Black Widow as well.
Ward: A lot of us lost respect for Fury when he picked you as his second. If he needed eye candy around, he could have at least picked Romanoff.
Hill: That's funny. I'll tell her you said that.
This exchange, remember, comes after Ward claims that the modern Hydra isn't really like the Hydra of the Nazi era. The casual chauvinism he displays here doesn't exactly make his claim seem particularly credible. And the swipe at Black Widow seems, on a metatextual level, perfectly poised to piss off her quite sizeable and vocal fanbase.
So what we've got here, then, is a narrative that helps highlight the evil of Garrett and Ward by making use of and dramatically subverting the chauvinistic authoritarian agency of the traditional male antihero. The show makes us hate Ward not just by having him do evil things, but by having him do evil things in the context of a wider set of tropes about how male and female characters behave in narratives like this.
That's some pretty impressive footwork from a show that has had a rough first season, and it bodes very well for both the second season and for the newly announced Agent Carter series.
But enough of this happy fuzzy stuff! There's still a lot of hate to be piled on Agent Grant Ward, Asshole of Hydra, and by god this is the blog that's going to do the piling! But not tonight. Rather, we'll continue this conversation after the finale in at least one more mini-article, and keep plugging away at Ward's place in the show and our wider narrative culture.
Everyone hates Grant Ward, after all, and it'll take us a while to get through the full list of reasons why.
It's a lengthy goddam list.
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