Before Joss Whedon's Avengers (2012) (reviewed here) rocketed him onto the main stage, he already had a core following of dedicated fans watching and analyzing his works. A lot of attention has been paid to the role of gender and language across Whedon's canon, but on the verge of a new series carrying his creator's seal, Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D., to premier on ABC, there is another repeated element that deserves examining. Since the beginning of Whedon's television career, his main characters have been pushed and pulled by shadowy unseen organizations, and pitted against not just individual villains, but also entire evil institutions.
Angel (1999-2004) begins by introducing viewers to Los Angeles' literal darker side. The show is set up as a combination of a detective noir and horror/fantasy. The head of this grim side of LA, though, isn't organized crime, it's a law firm, Wolfram & Hart, that specializes in defending and protecting the worst of the worst, which in this universe, means vampires, demons, and genocidal maniacs. Though each season of the show has it's own arc and main villain, the law firm remains as the central embodiment of evil throughout the show.
It's an obvious joke, a firm of powerful lawyers that keeps the rich richer and the poor underpowered (“Evil white folks really do have a Mecca! … Oh, I get it, I get it. You all can cater to the demon, cater to the dead man, but what about the black man!” - Charles Gunn, Episode 1.21 Blind Date). Here, they are taken to the extreme, with demonic clients and bloody rituals. But Whedon uses the idea of evil lawyers beyond the humorous gag. They become an examination of evil, (often seen as wild and animalistic or demonic) as it is enacted through something so proscribed and systematic as law. Angel, a hero on a quest for good and personal redemption, is forced to face a world where evil is institutional, and intrinsically engrained. At one point, the former head lawyer of the LA branch tells him as much:
"Our firm has always been here in one form or another. The Inquisition, the Khmer Rouge—we were here the first time a caveman clubbed his neighbor and watched in fascination as his brains oozed out in the dirt. We're in the hearts and minds of every living human being [...] The world doesn't work in spite of evil, Angel. It works with us. It works because of us."(Holland Manners 2.15 Reprise)
Wolfram & Hart, then, is about how evil is part of civilization from the beginning, because it is part of us from the beginning. Evil lawyers are in power, but isn't evil always?
Whedon's next evil corporation never got a chance to come out of the shadows. Much of what viewers know about Firefly (2002) and Serenity's (the 2005 movie sequel) mega corporation of Blue Sun comes from piecing things together from the 14 episode show, interviews, and official merchandise. What is clear is that Blue Sun is everywhere. The logo is all over the show, on products from food and clothes, to more luxury goods, to transport vehicles. But the company reaches much farther. On some planets, they are an exclusive monopoly. The show reveals (or would, but didn't have a chance to get that far, and instead does so on DVD commentary) that they have even begun human experiments for their medical and military contracting subdivisions, which have led to horrifying results. There are clearly implied ties to the government and it is not clear whether Blue Sun and the Alliance Government are even actually separately functioning entities. Unlike Wolfram & Hart, which operates inside a system as it's necessary or ever present evil, Blue Sun is the system. Our Heroes, in this show, are rebels against this system and in 14 episodes and one movie, we only see reasons to agree with them. But in an interview, Whedon elaborated on more nuance of the main character, Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds's politics:
“Mal’s politics are very reactionary and ‘Big government is bad’ and ‘Don’t interfere with my life. And sometimes he’s wrong — because sometimes the Alliance is America, this beautiful shining light of democracy. But sometimes the Alliance is America in Vietnam: we have a lot of petty politics, we are way out of our league and we have no right to control these people. And yet! Sometimes the Alliance is America in Nazi Germany. And Mal can’t see that, because he was a Vietnamese.”
If Wolfram & Hart is about evil inherent in the system, Blue Sun is about the dangers of an unbalanced system, of one company with too much power, and people with too little voice to change that.
Dollhouse (2009-2010), unlike his two previous shows, takes us inside a corporation, a biomedical firm, Rossum, that produces the most advanced neurological treatments, and also runs an underground elite network of “houses” of programmable humans, known as dolls. From the inside of one of these Dollhouses, the show depicts several characters moral struggles with the technologies that allow for the complete rewriting of the human mind. The dolls are people who have entered into a contract of slavery to do things they cannot imagine and will not remember, in exchange for financial compensation and being cured of whatever problems they may have had (often mental illnesses) or instead of prison sentences. As the end game for Rossum is revealed, and the stakes get higher, allegiances change and justifications fall away. Rossum has a lot of elements of Blue Sun, in that they are too powerful, and too long unchecked, but it also brings in some elements of Wolfram & Hart's message. The series tells us that the technology that Rossum possessed was so powerful that it would almost inevitably end all of civilization. Why? Because people seek power and control, and now they can have it.
In his non-TV shows, Whedon cannot seem to leave the institutional evil behind him. Though the main character of Dr. Horrible is technically supposed to be evil, the “Hero,” is clearly an absolutely terrible person. In the 45 minute web musical, Whedon makes sure to mention that this hero is a “Corporate TOOL.” Cabin in the Woods, (which this blog already touched on here, [spoiler warning]) toys with a corporation that seems quite evil, and well, turns out to have a more complicated purpose.
The reason all this is important to understand in the wake of The Avengers and the anticipation to S.H.I.E.L.D., is that in the source material, S.H.I.E.L.D. is a very large, very powerful organization. Though technically under either US or UN control, in the recent Avengers, they are shown to be largely autonomous, and occasionally even act against the advice and order of these authorities. In the block buster superhero movie, of course, S.H.I.E.L.D. is unambiguously the good guys, coming in and saving the day. But Whedon's fear of such institutional power survived even until filming, as a cut scene from the beginning shows. This scene would have framed the whole movie with the question of whether this agency is, in fact, reckless, dangerous, and too powerful.
With a whole series, more personal creative freedom and less big name super heroes, I for one, and anxious to see where Joss Whedon plan's to take this next large institutional power in the future.