Agents of SHIELD recently wrapped up its second season.
And there was much epicness.
Thus, a discussion. Also, all the spoilers for the second season.
Captain America is back!
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m a sucker for superheroes — especially the ones who are trying their best to be good people, as happens in the good portrayals of Superman. This means that I also like new version of Captain America, since it’s dropped (and lampshaded) the anvilicious patriotism and swapped in some actual moral considerations.
Regardless, big spoilers follow. Given the nice meshing of stories within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I may also drop spoilers for Agents of SHIELD as well. You have been warned.
I am the Iron Man, duhnuhnuhnuhnuh nuhNuhnuhnuh.
Even Superheroes Can Have Mental Illness
I’m of mixed feelings about this aspect.
On the one hand, it’s reasonable. It’s not too surprising that after going through all sorts of major stressors, Tony Stark develops what appears to be PTSD. He has panic attacks and trouble sleeping. It’s a good thing to see that even a superhero can have a mental disorder — perhaps it will go towards reducing the stigma, and helping people in real life seek help if they need it.
Which leads us to the other hand. The kid who acts as Tony’s sidekick for a little while asks him, after seeing a panic attack, “Should you see a doctor? Should you be on medication?” (To which his replies are something like “Probably” and “maybe”.) If somebody benefits from medication, that’s fine. But I worry a bit about two different things. First, there’s the pejorative implications — since “he’s off his meds” is often used as an insult. Second, counseling doesn’t seem to get mentioned so much as the meds, even though it’s a more common treatment. Even though it helps many people. And the fact that medication isn’t provided without counseling to go along with it.
Prototype Iron Man suit. Two points for the Hitchhiker’s reference.
And then… I’ll admit that the self-assembling suit is kind of cool, but I’m not sure exactly what the point is. So… you can push a button, and various pieces of your suit fly at you and assemble on top of you. This is convenient if you want your suit in a hurry, but inconvenient when only half of your suit arrives. It also seems unnecessarily complicated. Stark has already been demonstrated to have a suit that can be collapsed into a briefcase — why not just keep that around at all times?
This is one that also, at some point, responds directly to Stark’s mental commands. Perhaps something like motion capture, except more high-tech and working off of Stark’s mental impulses. We’ll just ignore the fact that this works from a device in his arm instead of around his brain. Nonetheless, it is cool, except for when he has a nightmare and the suit attacks Pepper Potts… because he kept it in while he was asleep, and didn’t put in safety features to prevent the suit from responding while the controller is not conscious.
Ultimately, I’m left with a single question: if Stark’s suits are capable of autonomous operation, as is demonstrated in the big final battle, why do we need to put humans into any of them? Sure, maybe you have them get in the suit to protect them while the other suits are battling the bad guys, but… otherwise?
This is this film’s equivalent of Captain America’s supersoldier serum. It gives you super-strength, speed, and amazing regenerative powers. It also lets you burn things, since apparently your temperature can go up to 3000 Kelvin or something . You should also careful while doing it, since you’re now made of explodium if you go too hot.
Aside from the obvious design flaws, there’s a critical, rather obvious biological problem. People don’t just become immune to heat like that. As you warm up a person, they’ll start having issues with hyperthermia and heat stroke. Warm them up a bit more, and depending on how fast you do it, we can start talking about burns and denaturing all the proteins in your body. (Denaturing of proteins is why cooked steak is a lot easier to eat than raw — the proteins have come apart to some degree, making it easier to take the steak apart.) As we continue to increase the temperature, we rapidly pass the point where even heat-loving bacteria called hyperthermophiles can survive. And we’re not even to 400 K yet! The surface temperature of the nearest extra-solar planet to us, Alpha Centauri Bb, is right next to its sun, and has a surface temperature of about 1500 K. Which is hot enough that silicate-based rocks melt and turn into magma. At 3000 K, you’re getting close to the vaporization temperature of iron. Yes, that’s right, iron boils at about 3134 K. Silicon dioxide, the main chemical component of things like glass, sand, and quartz, boils at around 2500 K. The Extremis people are 500 K hotter than vaporized glass.
Suffice it to say, a person as hot as 3000 K would, indeed, be able to melt through a lot of things. But it’d be hard to make a solid metallic robot that could safely be that hot, much less anything biological.
Your Intrigue Needs Work
This was… over-the-top at best.
I’ve seen another movie (RED — Retired, Extremely Dangerous) that had the VP be in on some delightfully over-the-top plot. Deliberately over-the-top.
I liked that setup better.
There is the lead villain, the Mandarin, who is, initially, an extremist terrorist with Arab-style dress and accent, blowing stuff up and blaming the US for everything.
He is later revealed to be a perpetually intoxicated actor named Trevor who doesn’t really know what’s going on. The obsessive scientist-CEO is the actual brains behind the operation — intending to supply terror to increase demands for his weapons tech, including Extremis. He’s funded by the VP because the VP wants a treatment for his daughter’s amputations, and, presumably, doesn’t mind the plot to kill the US President too much.
Um. Wow. The degree of transparent conspiracy-theory trappings is pretty annoying.
I would have liked it much better if the Mandarin had actually been the mastermind all along, and not a British guy masquerading as one. Let the Middle Eastern dude be cleverly manipulating the military-industrial complex and American anxieties for his own profit, rather than the stereotypical political and religious motivations. Perhaps he has the obsessive scientist-CEO on a tight leash — blackmail, or threatening someone the CEO cares about. And then, that character can do a heel-face turn at a critical moment. Or perhaps the good guys can try to make a deal with the Mandarin, letting him show off his expert skills at social maneuvering. Or something a little more interesting…
I watched the first episode of Agents of SHIELD, and felt it was worth a quick review. As ever, here there be spoilers.
Too Cool to Kill
What actually happened to Agent Coulson? This, of course, is the first question that would be asked by anyone who had already watched The Avengers. (Well, after the cheering stopped. Coulson is a delightful, power-free Captain America fanboy.)
The answer? Well, Coulson says that he stopped breathing for a bit, but the medical care was good enough for him to pull through. Nick Fury just faked his death to make the Avengers play nice with each other. Coulson says he got bored recuperating in Tahiti.
And then… the implications by a couple of the other characters. “Does he know?” “No, he can never know.”
Which makes me wonder which variant on the back-from-the-dead tropes they’re planning to pull. Resurrected with alien technology seems most likely, but there are also pretty good odds on clone and robot. We’ll have to wait and see how cheap death is in this series.
There are lots of them.
One that impressed me was the “centipede” device that gives a couple of normal guys superpowers. Your super-strength comes at the cost of anger management issues, which, if inadequately managed, cause you to explode. It’s still scientifically ridiculous, of course, but it is explicitly derived from the Extremis human-enhancement thingamabob that appears in Iron Man 3, and includes both visual similarities and as well as the possibility of humans-made-of-explodium. (Don’t worry, the review on that film is coming shortly.) I firmly approve of consistency.
Also entertaining is Lola, Coulson’s car. It looks like a well-maintained old-school red Corvette. Nice silver shiny details. And then… in the end scene, it actually flies.
It looks a bit more like a hovercar, actually. But that leaves us with the fundamental problem, as discussed in the post about Independence Day. To fly, the hovercar must exert a downward force, and the reaction pushes the car up against gravity. That downward force has to do something… which involves a certain amount of squishing of things on the ground underneath. It’s like the downdraft from a helicopter. Or the backwash from a rocket being launched. (Planes do this, too, but they’re usually so high in the air that the force in question is spread over a very large area.) And where did Coulson get Lola, anyway?
The Not-Quite-Ominidisciplinary Scientists
This is better. In fact, much better than most shows of this type.
Also, Fitz and Simmons are hilarious. Leo Fitz is our engineer with a fondness for weapons tech, and Jemma Simmons is our expert in biology. This is awesome! We don’t have to make Spock do it all. For bonus points, the person who gives the various agents medical clearance is yet another person, different from Simmons — an encouraging distinction, since back in real life, relatively few researchers are experts in both medical science and all the rest of biology all at once. (There are some people with both an MD and PhD — and they work with both medical research and patients. They impressively skilled and dedicated individuals, and also in very short supply.)
By the end of the episode, a woman named Skye is recruited as the new Hollywood Hacker. So we don’t even have to make our poor engineer also be the computer expert. Yay! So, each of them will only have to know between 1/3 and 1/2 of everything there is to know about science, engineering, and computers. Piece of cake, right?
A Comment on Team Composition
This leaves the team with an interesting mix:
We have Coulson, who is essentially playing Captain. We have Melinda May, the pilot and weapons expert; Grant Ward, the black ops and sniper guy; and our three scientists.
Half the team is non-combat-focused people. Presumably, they can call for more muscle for backup if they need to. This is a bit different from the usual setup, where the team is all about each person having a different fighting style and having one Smart Guy in the mix. [EDIT: Watching Episode 2, it looks like one of the first arguments between the senior agents is… we already had two non-coms, Coulson, and you’re adding a third?! I approve of the characters’ actual awareness of the situation.]
Half the team is women.
When I consider that most superhero teams have one woman at most to prove that they’re not all men (e.g., the Avengers), this makes me happy.
“What if?” is a very popular question. It’s arguably the basic question for most works of fiction. But here we’ll talk about one variation: “what if something happened differently?”. As we talked about in the first half of this series, time travel jumps up and down the timeline of a story, causing closed loops and paradoxes. But what if the timeline breaks into two or more possibilities? Then you have alternate universes – where something in the past of a story is changed (the “point of divergence”) and everything afterwards is different.
This is popular for resolving time travel paradoxes, sometimes with a handwave misapplying the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. But it’s also popular in its own right, spawning long lists of related tropes and whole forums and wikis for discussion. There is both alternate history of reality, and alternate universe fic of other fictional stories. So what problems are there with such stories?
Butterflies & Butterfly Nets
The butterfly effect was originally named from discussions of weather forecasting. The basic idea is that while climate is relatively predictable, daily weather is a boundly-chaotic system. Even the slightest difference in initial conditions, like a butterfly flapping its wings, can dramatically change everything that follows. This is also known as “for want of a nail”.
For alternate universe fic and alternate histories, the butterfly effect is almost always not respected. That’s because it is hard to trace out causality in complex systems, even in retrospect. For example, if Star Trek: Voyager had cast a different actor as Seven-of-Nine, Barack Obama might not currently be president of the USA. The causality for that one goes like this: Jeri Ryan played Seven-of-Nine. She was then married to Jack Ryan. They eventually divorced, in part because of the stresses from frequent travel between Los Angeles and Chicago. Five years later, Jack Ryan was running against Obama for the Illinois seat in the US Senate. Jack Ryan was compelled to release the records of the divorce proceedings during the campaign. Various unflattering things about him in those documents led to him being compelled to resign from the race. Obama went on to win a landslide victory against Alan Keyes, who was brought on by the Republicans as a last-minute replacement.
It is hard to write an appropriately chaotic timeline, especially for something as complex as the history of a planet with more than seven billion people on it. And so authors invoke butterfly nets (or “in spite of a nail”), constraining their timelines to be artificially similar to each other. Thus we have good Spock and evil Spock; several dozen versions of Superman; and going back in time more than a hundred years changes the personality of a dictator but doesn’t erase every person currently in the world and replace them with different people.
The last deserves special mention. Part of the appeal of alternate universe fic (and a lot of alternate history) is “I have this cool character. What would they do in a different situation?” . In TV and film this also saves on casting. So butterfly nets are invoked to get the same set of characters, even when they should have been butterflied away entirely if the point-of-divergence was long before they were born.
One of the most notable offenders here is Star Trek. Despite 200 years or more of divergent history between the main Star Trek universe and the Mirror Universe, almost all of the characters exist in both – same names, same faces, same genomes, although far different personalities. This makes no sense. e.g. Ben Sisko was conceived by the Prophets/wormhole aliens to be their emissary. Since there is no emissary in the Mirror Universe, how is he there? And how did his father and mother and all ancestors back at least 8 generations exist, exchange gametes, and give the exact patterns of genes and environment that produced Sisko? The same argument applies to Spock, who only has the goatee so you can tell which one of him is evil.
In terms of total number of offending doppelgangers, comic books probably win. Consider the Crisis on Infinite Earths line, which was an attempt to clean up the various DC properties and all of the different alt universe versions of them – well over 100. And a bunch of new ones have been written since then. The Marvel comics have their own multiverse, with dozens of alternate universes in it. Comic book canon is very messy.
Economics of Parallel Worlds
Characters and butterfly nets aside, let’s consider the economics of alternate universes. First, there must be some way of getting from one world to another – be it a special communications device, a broken transporter, magic powers, or vaguely-described biological technology. As with time machines, the convention is usually to arrive at the same spot that you left from in a geocentric reference frame. This ignores length-of-day variations and perturbations to Earth’s orbit. Or you do some navigation and portal yourself anywhere you want. You may go “cross-time”, from one alternate universe to another, or also forward and backward in time.
I’ve written before about what you would want to do if alternate universes actually existed and were accessible. But this is rarely done. Charlie Stross’ Merchant Princes series is an example. In a European-Middle-Ages-like alternate North America, an extended family clan develops around carriers of a mutation that lets them walk themselves and a person-load of cargo between worlds a couple of times a day. This started in the 1800’s, and they established a credit base in our world by securely transporting bullion and on their side by rapid transit and limited technology imports. But the clan is not properly using their skills. Rather than going public and getting a load of money and bringing teachers and tech from our side to their side, they barely break even making money as cocaine mules. This holds even after some of them have been schooled in business, engineering, or medicine on our side. After a while, the whole plot kind of unravels. Rachel and I have considered a somewhat similar setting, based around the concept of world-walkers but done correctly. Things change very dramatically very quickly, as the walkers tie together a network of thousands of worlds by hauling petabytes of data back and forth until technology replicates their skill.
If there is time-travel as well as cross-time travel, you can engineer branches in the timeline (or you will can have). Subject to the limits of chaos and history before the point-of-divergence, you can build alternate universes to-order. Consider the ethics of that.
The idea goes back to A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, although Twain was writing satire. In some sense, it is the goal in the Terminator series: Skynet wants to engineer a timeline without humans, the humans want to engineer one without Skynet. But the most extreme case I know is a series by John Barnes, The Timeline Wars. Two large alliances of timelines are playing a massive game of Achron against each other, going back and creating alternate universes that support them (including some of the timelines that will provide the resources of the teams that went back in time to create those timelines). Their agents try to subvert the timelines that the other side has split off, either to ensure that the future turns out as it was going to or to split the line again and give an equal balance. The rival sides build massive generators to have sent agents further back in time, to gain an edge. Things end when a timeline that was spawned by agents going back to the Roman Republic and teching it up finally reveals itself and its Sufficiently Advanced Technology. The problem with this of course is the same as that with regular time travel: infinitely long time along one set of world-lines, looping through the time portal, leading to the heat death of the universe.
Good thing time travel is impossible.