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Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D portrayed sisterhood better than the MCU ever could

Photo; Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Television
Photo; Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Television
Graphic: Rebecca Fassola
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In April 2019, what now feels like decades ago, I sat in a packed theater for an advanced screening of Avengers: Endgame. During the climax of the film, as the Avengers assembled from Doctor Strange’s portals, my partner leaned over to me and whispered, “There’s one more.” Who he meant became clear about 10 minutes later as Captain Marvel gutted Thanos’ ship using her binary powers to simply blast through it. But as much as I adore Carol Danvers, the Marvel Cinematic Universe fangirl in me was hoping for another heroine and her team to show up.

At the time, the penultimate season of Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. was just weeks away. After years of the big-screen MCU mostly ignoring its small-screen counterpart, I knew better than to expect Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) to suddenly quake a Chitauri Leviathan into dust. Still, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed at her absence during the “girl power” scene, when the women of the Avengers team up to help Carol get the Infinity Stones to Ant-Man’s Quantum Tunnel. Having watched S.H.I.E.L.D. since the pilot aired in 2013, it felt empty to me, a payoff that was undeserved, something I was not alone in feeling.

Don’t get me wrong—my heart swelled and I leaned forward in my seat in excitement at Okoye’s assurance that Carol had help. But apart from the absence of my favorite superheroine, what took away from that excitement was that these women were strangers to one another. Sure, one wrong move and the universe would be decimated by the Mad Titan, but where were the emotional stakes? What was motivating them to fight together to protect their world? Why was I supposed to care that these characters came together on screen?

The two-part S.H.I.E.L.D. series finale, which aired last week, answered this question beautifully, particularly in the aptly titled final episode, “What We’re Fighting For.” The series demonstrates that we fight back to protect the people we love—we fight for our family, whether blood or chosen. While there were no epic, long-awaited team-ups in the finale, S.H.I.E.L.D didn’t need any to create additional drama to satisfy viewers. It didn’t need to check off any diversity and inclusion boxes either: S.H.I.E.L.D. has done that organically from the start and accomplished what Endgame couldn’t through its epic female team-up by grounding its storytelling in the relationships among its main cast. One relationship on the show is a shining example of how to depict female friendships, that of Daisy Johnson and bio-chemist Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge).

In a 2016 IGN interview, Bennet and Henstridge revealed the directions that series co-creator Joss Whedon imparted in advance of the pilot. The relationship between Jemma and Daisy (known as Skye at the time) was to always be based on respect and never the typical misogynistic cruelty or cattiness often seen in depictions of female friendship. While the characters have no problem voicing their concerns or disagreements with each other, their relationship indeed upholds Whedon’s rule throughout the series, the women evolving from colleagues to friends to sisters.

Skye is first brought in by Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) as a consultant, but eventually earns her own badge despite not finishing high school, let alone attending the S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy like the rest of her team. Rather than this being a dividing factor between them, Jemma and Skye accept each other as colleagues, and it doesn’t take long for the two to bond and become friends. Just in the sixth episode of the series (“FZZT”), Skye is anxious and distraught when Jemma becomes infected with what they believe is a fatal Chitauri virus, and tearfully embraces her when she survives. Jemma reciprocates, breaking down in tears as Skye barely clings to life, having been shot twice in her abdomen. Despite only knowing each other a few months and having absolutely nothing in common, as Skye lays unconscious and hooked up to an IV drop, Jemma admits to a colleague that she now can’t imagine her life without her.

There are countless moments throughout the series that demonstrate the sisterly love between Jemma and Daisy. Jemma is responsible for developing the arm gauntlets that become part of Daisy’s signature look, while Daisy cements herself as the biggest supporter of Jemma’s relationship with Leopold Fitz (Iain De Caestecker). The trust and love between them is highlighted in “Self Control,” one of the most acclaimed episodes of the series, when the two discover that their team has been replaced with Life Model Decoys. Once they affirm that they’re both still themselves, Daisy gently quaking Jemma to feel her bones, their relief is palpable as they sob into each other’s arms. It’s in this moment that they both find the strength within themselves to fight back against the odds, and escape the killer androids to rescue their team.

The final season introduces an alternate timeline where Daisy discovers her mother’s first daughter, Kora (Dianne Doan), who’s been recruited onto the antagonist’s side. In their first conversation, Kora tells Daisy that there is no future where Daisy lets her sister fight alone, prompting her to set off to rescue a kidnapped Jemma. “I already have a sister to save,” Daisy declares as she gets a Quinjet ready for takeoff. “Her name is Jemma Simmons.” This was a reunion I cheered for. By the one-year time jump in the finale, the two have gone their separate ways: Jemma retiring with Fitz to raise their young daughter and Daisy exploring deep space with her new beau and a reformed Kora. Although they both have their own families now, Jemma and Daisy’s sisterly bond will almost certainly stand more tests of time.

There’s nothing that resembles this kind of bond to inform the Girl Power scene in Endgame, which is what makes it ring so hollow. This isn’t to say that it misses the mark entirely; there’s no doubt that the stakes are high, given that Carol, Valkyrie, Okoye, et al. were up against a horde of aliens hellbent on destroying their universe. I should’ve been cheering and crying during that scene. Instead, as an un-snapped Hope van Dyne lands and glances between Shuri and Gamora, two women she’s never seen before in her life, I snorted at the ridiculousness of it all. As Henstridge said of Daisy and Jemma’s bond, “It just raises the stakes somehow if you really care for each other and you’d do anything to save them.”

The problem is clear when you look at the history of the MCU at large: In its 10 years on the big screen, the women in the MCU have primarily existed in tandem with their male counterparts. Black Widow, the first woman on the team, began as Tony Stark’s assistant-turned-spy in Iron Man 2, moving on to help Steve Rogers expose HYDRA in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, before sacrificing herself for her teammates in Endgame. The second woman to join the Avengers, Scarlet Witch, is powerful enough to hold her own against Thanos, yet most of her story (and the basis of her upcoming Disney+ show) revolves around her romance with Vision. Despite working together for years, the films barely develop Natasha and Wanda’s friendship—the most we see of it is in Avengers: Infinity War, when the latter sends Proxima Midnight to her explosive death, saving the former’s life in a bath of alien blood. The only female-centered relationship in the MCU that comes close to emulating the emotional resonance of those on S.H.I.E.L.D. is the one between Carol Danvers and Maria Rambeau in Captain Marvel—but as a more recent entry in the franchise, it’s more a sign of improvement than a representation of the MCU as a whole.

As the Marvel TV era pauses with the conclusion of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.—WandaVision is still on track to debut later this yearwe can only hope to see more organic and loving relationships between the women of the MCU going forward. S.H.I.E.L.D. understood this principle from the beginning: No matter how out-of-this-world its plots were, what made the show compelling was the extraordinary (and human) team at its core. Jemma and Daisy’s relationship perfectly illustrates that kind of sacred friendship. Let’s hope the Disney+ shows and future films follow in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s footsteps.