by Scott Hardie on December 13, 2022
I think a lot (too much maybe) about morality in storytelling. Anybody keeping up with The MCU Project might be getting tired of my complaints about how little thought the writers of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. put into this important part of their job.
Someone said to me that comic book stories are meant to be simple good-vs-evil morality tales, but I'd argue that, even though that's often all they are, they are capable of more. The fantastical nature of their world, in which organizations like S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra operate with apparently infinite resources, makes them able to stage scenarios to test morality that are impossible in the real world. I was asked for an example, so I spitballed the following.
Captain America, one of the straightest of straight arrows (equivalent to Superman in moral impeccability), is lured into a trap by Hydra and gassed to lose consciousness. He wakes up in a prison cell made of adamantium or some other unbending metal. He has everything he needs to live (toilet, sink, bed, food delivery through a little slot, light and ventilation through little holes, etc) but cannot free himself.
On the wall of his cell are two flat-screen panels, each with a button underneath. Every few hours, a bell rings, and then video starts playing on the two screens, depicting two scenes from ordinary life outside. A voice narrates what's happening and then asks Cap to choose one of the two by pressing a button.
The stakes start out simple. "On the left is a man who has dropped a $20 bill on the sidewalk. Choose him and it will be returned. On the right is a woman who is approaching a building with a broken doorbell that will give her a harmless but painful electric shock. Choose her and she will be warned to knock instead. You cannot choose both. Make no choice and neither of them will be helped. You have thirty seconds."
Maybe Cap figures it's some kind of trick, so he doesn't play along, choosing inaction as if in the classic trolley problem. The time limit passes. He watches on the screens as the $20 bill blows irretrievably into a sewer drain, while the woman receives a jolt and recoils in pain but soon recovers and goes about her business. The screens go dark.
As days pass, the stakes gradually rise. One screen shows a skinny woman who was stopped on her way out of a grocery store by a manager who pulls loaves of bread from her coat pockets while a cop walks into frame. The other shows a haggard man crossing mid-street on foot as a parked police car turns on its flashing lights. The narration says, "On the left is a woman stealing bread to feed her children who are home with her disabled mother. She'll be arrested for shoplifting and her children will go hungry, unless you press the button to release her. On the right is a homeless man who jaywalked after finishing a grueling 12-hour shift at his minimum-wage job. He'll be arrested and lose employment at one of the few places that will hire him, unless you press the button to release him."
Cap cannot take the chance that these are real scenes and that real people will suffer. He makes a choice and watches the outcomes play out. One person suffers and the other is spared.
The stakes gradually get stomach-turning. "His caregivers have not noticed that this old man with dementia has gotten a window open in his high-rise apartment and is figuring out how to climb out. Press the left button to warn them. Her parents have not noticed that this young girl is tugging on the legs of a charcoal grill while trying to get a hot dog and is soon to spill its burning contents onto her. Press the right button to warn them."
After a while, the scenarios become atrocious. "On the left is a school bus full of teenagers approaching their high school. On the right is a ferry with a hundred commuters on their way into Manhattan to work. Each one has a large bomb that's about to go off. Choose one bomb to disable."
Eventually Cap is freed from his captivity by his Avenger teammates. He tries to shake off what happened, and tell himself that it wasn't real, that those were actors or maybe CGI animation. But in subsequent issues of the comic book depicting their further adventures, he's not the same: More aggressive, less patient, less compassionate. He beats up enemies who haven't attacked yet, or who won't give him information that he needs. When he has to restrain himself from killing a particularly cruel foe, he knows he needs help. He takes a leave of absence until he can conduct himself responsibly again, gets therapy, works through his guilt and newfound nihilism, and comes back seemingly restored. But can he be trusted with power again?
I know that the story is dark. Feel free to reply, "Calm down, Jigsaw." But even though this impromptu example that I came up with is very on-the-nose with its points, I think they're worth making anyway. It doesn't matter what choices Cap makes, or whether the scenes presented to him are real or staged, or what the ripple-effects are on future stories. What matters is that Cap took a situation in which Hydra tried to break him of his moral perfection and seemed to succeed, and instead allowed them to break him of his illusion of moral perfection. He recognizes his fallibility, but doesn't embrace it; instead, he strives to improve himself and resume making right choices, because of the responsibility that comes with his position. This is what we should ask of all figures in power in our real-world society.
If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. made more than the tiniest effort to think through the meanings of its stories like this, I'd have a lot less to write about.
The creator of Funeratic, Scott Hardie, blogs about running this site, losing weight, and other passions including his wife Kelly, his friends, movies, gaming, and Florida. Read more »