Estimated Reading Time: 13 minutes
(This essay is #6 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD. The final four essays in this series can best be summarized as “Blubbering and Screams Interspersed With Big Words.”)
LET’S TALK ABOUT SCIENCE AND SCIENTISTS IN THE MCU, AKA MY LITERAL ACTUAL FAVORITE THING. Let me take you on a journey through the cultural historical traditions of scientists’ representations in the media, the necessity of carefully constructed science to the MCU, and how all this context helps me explain why Fitz and Simmons make me weak at the knees.
Please consider this more of an exuberant outline. I have so much research on this topic that I could literally fill a book with it and technically it covers the entire MCU.
Science in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
All speculative fiction is only as good as its world-building. Fantasy only holds together if the universe rules are consistent. Any social commentary from science fiction will only stick if the logic behind the scientific premise is sound. (Dempsey 34). This is why Pacific Rim is a masterpiece and Snowpiercer is awful. The Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular relies on well-reasoned sci-fi science to make its otherwise outlandish plot points plausible. Each entry in the MCU is not a science fiction story, but a work of another genre with science fiction elements. Iron Man isn’t a superhero movie, it’s a political thriller about terrorism with a sci-fi tech genius as the central figure. The rest of the films have similar dichotomies.
The realistic underpinnings are part of what makes the MCU so successful. Previous superhero films and comic book adaptations opted for cartoonish exaggeration and hand-waved logistics in favor of action/adventure. The MCU takes pains to ground everything it presents in a consistent in-universe logic that is carefully controlled. Nearly everything in the MCU seems reasonable. One reason why this grounding is even necessary is because Marvel Studios is disallowed from using genetic mutation as a reason for superpowers. No one can simply be born with them so everyone’s powers must be strongly argued and narratively important. Experimentation/accident, enhancement, or being an alien are the only ways to become superhuman in the MCU1.
Once I figured out that, for me, the sci-fi logistics are a huge part of what makes any individual piece of the MCU enjoyable, so much of my own preferences became clear. I think Guardians of the Galaxy is a pretty homage to 1980s sci-fi, but way too smarmy about its genre savviness and generally annoying2. Similarly, I find Daredevil‘s first season to be tedious and unsatisfying. In both cases they never bother to explain the science behind what’s making the story tick. Let me emphasize: it doesn’t even have to be plausible science. This stuff is all completely made up. But the MCU is so tethered to science to legitimate its world-building that never addressing the logic of the fictional universe makes for some unmoored narratives. Even spy thriller Agent Carter has Howard Stark. Alien adventure story Thor has Jane Foster. Moody noir mystery Jessica Jones has Kilgrave’s parents. When the stories work there is always someone there who provides exposition, even if only briefly. Once that practical foundation is set, the rest of the story can build whatever it wants.
(Mad) Scientists in Western Science Fiction
Science is inherently neutral. There is neither evil nor good in scientific understanding. The moral judgment of any piece of science comes when it is used to help or to harm, for altruism or for personal gain. It is the intentions of the scientists (or corporations) rather than the science alone that ultimately decides whether we perceive a discovery or advancement as good or evil. Western culture has a long history of portraying scientists as morally compromised and inhuman.
Representations of scientists in science fiction stem from the alchemist archetype in earlier literature. The alchemist was essentially a wizard attempting to turn other elements into gold. Alchemists were always expressions of greed and the hubris of humanity in attempting to circumvent the laws of God.
“The role of chemistry in this story is crucial because early nineteenth-century chemistry both exemplified modern experimental laboratory research and induced, due to its rapid growth, a ramification and fragmentation of knowledge that undermined former ideals of the unity of knowledge under the umbrella of metaphysics and religion. Because most writers considered contemporary chemistry an offspring of ‘wrong alchemy,’ all [literary] responses drew on the medieval literary figure of the ‘mad alchemist’ to portray chemists” (Schummer 99).
In the 19th century, the burgeoning practices of modern science were obvious parallels to alchemy. To further complicate matters, science and rationality were in direct contrast to what artists viewed as the inherent spirituality of humanity. “Essays in American literary magazines declared that because science by definition had nothing to do with such ideas as beauty and morality and holiness, it was worse than useless in dealing with human problems” (Weart 31). Basically, the long-standing trope of negative/insane/overproud scientists is a massive media smear campaign against science that continues to this day.
“Of course, real scientists are often warm and gregarious types, much appreciated as colleagues and teachers. But to newspaper and magazine writers, the scientist was an odd character who ignored mundane concerns, risking his health and scorning riches (as scientists themselves said), an unworldly ‘wizard’ who isolated himself in the pursuit of tremendous secrets” (Weart 34).
Additionally, “the now familiar trope of the mad scientist… traces its roots to the clinical association between genius and insanity that developed in the mid-nineteenth century” (Stiles 319). The simple fact of intelligence was enough to suggest an unbalanced personality as inherent to a scientist’s very nature. This perception continues to this day.
There are traditionally two types of mad scientists: those so emotionally volatile that they don’t care who gets hurt as long as their (usually dead) loved one is returned to them, and those who are so sociopathically disconnected from human morality in the first place that discovery trumps all harmful consequence (Stiles 323). There are sub-species of each type, but generally it’s that they feel too much or they feel too little. “[Victorian theories] further suggested that hypertrophy of the intellect led to atrophy of the emotions and consequent insanity” (Stiles 329). To be intelligent in media therefore traditionally means that the characters are incapable of feeling and behave strangely. Because most scientific fields were just coming into their own in the 19th century, Victorian perceptions of scientists in Victorian media continue to define how we present scientists in the modern era. A good example of this is Jeff Goldblum who is a modern-day trope codifier for regularly playing these types of quirky, socially maladjusted scientists (Stock).
Because science is such a necessary part of the MCU, scientist characters abound. Nearly every single one of them ends up punished for their hubris in messing with forces beyond their understanding (i.e. “Playing God”), goes power mad, or is harmed/killed by the phenomenon they’re studying. Sometimes all three. Tony Stark destroys a country through his pride and espouses totalitarianism. Particularly through the 1930s “the use of advanced science was becoming a key attribute of the totalitarian nightmare” (Weart 32). At this point, Tony plays straight into classical evil scientist tropes. (You can probably already tell I’m going to revisit this after Civil War.) Bruce Banner’s classic Jekyll/Hyde tale is literally straight out of Victorian attitudes about the morality of science as a practice. Maya Hansen gives a monologue about science and ethics that’s only used to manipulate Pepper into trusting her. Darren Cross becomes mentally unstable as a direct result of using imperfect quantum shrinking technology. By necessity, most of the villains in the MCU are scientists. Uniquely, most of the heroes are scientists as well.
Most science fiction is, traditionally, about those darned brainy scientists destroying the world and a rotating cast of ideologically opposed forces having to clean up the mess. Sometimes the heroes are overwrought Romantic poets who view emotion and sentiment as the most important facet of humanity and find the rationality of science threatening. Sometimes they’re the hyper-macho military factions who believe physical strength trumps everything else—especially all that squishy, effeminate brain-work. Yet even the heroic scientists of the MCU experience a corrupting force over the course of the narrative. Tony Stark is the current poster-child for seriously misguided hubristic science. You’d think because the foundation of this world relies on science for solidity that the story wouldn’t be so judgmental of science as a practice.
If you’re a scientist even in the MCU at this point, the chances are that science will be your downfall. Even honorable, pragmatic, paragon of goodness Jason Wilkes lost corporeal form through no fault of his own. Hell, even Simmons gets swallowed up by the monolith she’s studying.
FitzSimmons as Refutations of Mad Scientist Tropes
There are a lot of things I love about Fitz and Simmons on Agents of SHIELD, but the thing that sucked me in before I even recognized it was that of all of the scientists in the MCU, they are the most positive. They are, in fact, such pure examples of “good science” that if this were morality we were talking about they’d be sickeningly angelic. Not only are they unique in the MCU, they’re pretty damn rare in the entire science fiction genre.
By Victorian ideals “all aberrations from the norm could be seen as pathological, including extreme intelligence” (Stiles 322). This comes out in the way intelligence continues to be portrayed in our media. Fitz and Simmons are so intelligent that they have trouble interfacing with other people except through each other. Fitz admits that he was a loner who had trouble making friends before he met Simmons. Simmons is so bad at communication she continually misinterprets jokes, deflects compliments, and unintentionally insults people.
Fitz and Simmons start out as fairly archetypal fictional scientists. Fitz is timid and emotional, the seeds of Mad Scientist Type 1. Simmons is gung-ho and disturbingly cavalier about moral consequences, shading towards Mad Scientist Type 2. It’s together that they temper the excesses in each other’s personalities. Their relationship is what transforms them from stereotypical into fully realized individuals. When Fitz claims he doesn’t care how many people they kill to get Coulson back in 1×11, Simmons reins him in. When Simmons wants to cut people open or gets excited that the bad guys are winning because they figured out a difficult scientific problem, Fitz is the one who smooths over her social blunders. Their affection for each other is key to their presentation. Even in the 1943 film Madam Curie, the heroic scientists “sought no worldy power or material reward for themselves… only the pure light of truth…. Yet the film also suggested there was something odd about scientists” because they could not “easily show any human emotion” (Weart 34). Simmons in particular is incapable of gauging emotion, often misreading flirtation and badly handling her own feelings in the face of Fitz’s. But the close relationship between her and Fitz humanizes them in a way that allows them to transcend scientist stereotypes.
Simmons always teeters on the edge of amorality, while Fitz regularly comes perilously close to killer meltdowns. Simmons’ knowledge seeking lacks referents to traditional human principles, and if Simmons is in danger Fitz has absolutely no boundaries when it comes to protecting her. And yet neither actually falls over the edge into mad scientist territory.
The closest either of them gets to becoming a mad scientist is when Simmons suddenly decides that scientific discovery and curiosity are harmful in the second half of the second season. To my mind, this is one of the many examples of Simmons being used for narrative conflict whether it fits with her character or not. Simmons, more than anyone, gets whacked around for the sake of drama. Simmons spends the first season and a half seeking scientific understanding in order to help and protect people. All of Simmons’ positive perceptions of her work (and hence her entire worldview) get chucked out the window only to reemerge when the plot needs her to again be a peppy optimist. Notably, her negativity grows in Fitz’s absence and her positivity returns when she and Fitz repair their friendship. Separately, they each tend to drift closer to their respective mad scientist poles. Together they ground each other.
Even when Fitz and Simmons are separated, they never slide fully into Mad Scientist territory. Fitz does dangerous, irrational things when Simmons is in danger, but he never uses science in a way that harms others. He only ever puts himself in danger, never resorting to using science for personal enhancement. Even after incurring brain damage, Fitz gets better through a long rehab program rather than a quick-fix science experiment. Even with the perfect classic setup of Fitz’s loved one being taken away when Simmons is swallowed by the monolith, Fitz works the problem from a scientific angle rather than resorting to science as a weapon or dangerous shortcut. Fitz is emotionally destroyed, but only puts himself in non-scientific physical danger. For a moment in 3×01 it looks as if he’s willing to give advanced technology to terrorists in exchange for information, but even that was a ploy. With the perfect opportunity to slide into mad science, Fitz steadfastly refuses. Science is so sacred to both Fitz and Simmons that it’s as if it doesn’t even occur to them to use it for questionable purposes or personal gain.
FitzSimmons are an ideal presentation of scientists as human beings. They have elements of the traditional “evil” hubristic scientists of fiction but those elements function as personality quirks rather than defining characteristics. Fitz and Simmons are “people working to improve civilization but not to seize personal control over it, people devoted to their research but not contemptuous of normal human feelings, people pursuing knowledge but not aiming to master cosmic secrets of utopia and doomsday” (Weart 37). That they feel emotion and have genuine affection for each other is not just a cute plot convenience, it’s crucial to their characters and their position within the genre.
- Dempsey, Paul. “Science Friction.” Engineering & Technology Sept. 2013: 33-35.
- Schummer, Joachim. “Historical Roots of the ‘Mad Scientist’: Chemists in Nineteenth-century Literature.” Ambix 53.2 (July 2006): 99-127.
- Stiles, Anne. “Literature in Mind: H.G. Wells and the Evolution of the Mad Scientist.” Journal of the History of Ideas 70.2 (April 2009): 317-39.
- Stock, Francine, and Adam Rutherford. “Cells and Celluloid: When Science Meets Cinema.” Audio blog post. BBC Radio 4, 25 Dec. 2014.
- Wearn, Spencer. “The Physicist as Mad Scientist.” Physics Today June 1988: 28-37.
1 With the exception of Inhumans which is a topic for another day. Briefly, here is an article about the conspiracy theory to destroy the X-Men comic book line. Additionally, the hand-waved Inhuman logistics are part of what is again killing Agents of SHIELD.
2 The first half of Guardians of the Galaxy is a masterpiece. The second half is a flop.