Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Umbrella Academy, and the Optimism of Time Travel

And they look damn good doing it.

TV Features
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Umbrella Academy, and the Optimism of Time Travel

Picture this: A man (or at least, someone adjacent to a man) flashes into existence in the middle of a hail of apocalyptic rubble. “Come with me if you want to live!” he (or as the case may be, not) shouts, extending a hand. Another flash, and you’re out of the rubble. A bang, and you’re thrown to the well-dressed sharks of America’s 20th-century past. Apocalypse? Averted. Hope for a better future? Restored.

On the one hand, this scenario reads like pure fiction. I mean, it sure seems like—had anyone from the future managed to crack time travel—we wouldn’t all be stuck, you know… [gestures exhaustedly at the chaos vortex of the last handful of years].

At the same time, between the ongoing final season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the recently released second season of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, it also seems like fans of a certain kind of superpowered television ought not to ignore the fact that, back in 2019, two whole superhero teams looked to the horizon and saw a future so apocalyptic, they were willing to risk deeply unreliable time travel technology to jump back to a point where they might be able to at least try to course correct. Because, like, okay, [gestures exhaustedly at the chaos vortex of the last handful of years]. But have we considered the possibility that maybe this particular chaos vortex isn’t actually the result of a handful of superheroic time travelers preventing something even worse (or at least, different) from absolutely leveling humanity?

This is a rhetorical question. Obviously fans of a certain kind of superpowered television have considered this possibility. (See, if nothing else, the entire, hopeful arc of the late, great Timeless.) Still, the fact that both The Umbrella Academy and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have ended up jettisoning their heroes through some of the most iconic and/or loaded periods of 20th-century U.S. history now, smack dab in the middle of the Summer of America’s Warring Pandemics, makes for some especially potent sci-fi conspiracy-making. What kind of alien-embattled, moon-shattered, Sparrow-Academied present day multiverses are we (in the depths of COVID-19, historic rates of unemployment, and a long-awaited racial reckoning), missing out on? When did we actually send the first chimp to space, and was his name really Pogo? Who, truly, is behind the iconic 80s hit, “(Don’t You) Forget About Me”? (And before you say Simple Minds, have you considered that it might really have been the wildly beloved, totally non-fictional synth pop band, The Deke Squad? Because I have, and the evidence is pre-e-tty strong in their favor.)

Okay, so back to that scenario at the top. Picture, again, a man (but not a man) flashing into existence right as the world starts crumbling down around you. Picture him (or, not him) extending a hand, wrapping you up in untested time travel technology, and thrusting you back far enough in recent history that you might actually be able to shape a better future without breaking the timeline entirely.

So at least, go the opening moments of this summer’s runs of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy. In the former, it’s S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) showing up to the Temple of the Forgotten in Fitz’s (Iain De Caestecker) tricked-out Zephyr to whisk Daisy (Chloe Bennett), May (Ming-Na Wen), Mack (Henry Simmons), Deke (Jeff Ward) and Yo-Yo (Natalia Buckley-Cordova) away from the ruins of Season 6’s devastating alien-god battle so that they can follow a pack of genocidal Chronicoms back through time to stop them from wiping S.H.I.E.L.D. off the map entirely. In the latter, it’s superpowered teen Five (Aidan Gallagher) taking his six adopted siblings by the hands (five living, one a ghost) and thrusting them backwards through time at random, just barely managing to avoid Vanya’s exploded moon incinerating them along with everyone else on the planet. One team—S.H.I.E.L.D.—lands together in New York in 1931. The other—the Hargreeves siblings—land separated in Dallas across multiple years in the early 1960s. Neither decade is very welcoming to the non-white, non-male, non-straight interlopers from the future. At the same time, neither decade is facing an apocalypse. At least, not yet. And so our heroes are set up to fight for the future, from the past, while all of us at home get to enjoy the vicarious thrill of something like optimism, even as we’re stuck in a present so chockablock with fantastic disaster, it seems impossible to imagine optimism might be worth anything.

That said, as easy as it is to read existential metaphor into anything even slightly fantastical these days, nevermind two superhero stories about looking to a flawed past for ways to fix to a chaotic present, the way that time travel is being used in both Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Umbrella Academy is worth appreciating simply for the playful way it builds on each series’ established narrative, simultaneously letting the characters (and the audience) let loose and blow off some steam, while also giving them (and us) a clear objective to look towards, unmuddied by the evolving external demands of either show’s complex present.

As early as we are in the Hargreeves siblings’ mythology, this mostly amounts to freeing the emotionally stunted siblings from the baggage of the coldly superheroic childhood that made them known to every stranger they’ve ever come across, and which hung, throughout Season 1, like an albatross around their collective necks. Just dropping them off in the 1960s would have been enough to free them from most of this, but Umbrella Academy Season 2 goes even farther, scattering them, alone, across four different years. This narrative move cuts with vicious acuity the tethers to the heaviest of their family baggage, giving them each—though most explicitly Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), Vanya (Ellen Page) and, weirdly, Ben the ghost (Justin H. Min)—a chance to determine for themselves who they might want to be if allowed to set their own terms, without having to worry about what tensions that might introduce to the Umbrella Academy as a dysfunctional family whole. These periods of solitary evolution make space for the siblings to appreciate one another when they eventually do get the family band back together, which in turn makes space for them to work with (as opposed to against) each other to stop first the apocalypse, and later, the Handler (Kate Walsh).

That the setting they’re given to accomplish all this self-actualization in is a segregated Dallas, shortly before Kennedy’s assassination and at the dawn of the women’s lib and free love movements, only makes the Hargreeves siblings’ individual journeys stronger (and, duh, more fun to watch). The Hargreeves were already a bunch of weird kids yanked by circumstance out of belonging to the mysteriously miraculous age they were born to (thrice over, in Five’s case); throwing them into a place and a time itself teetering on the edge of explosive cultural and political change gives their timelessness real purpose. Plus, as Klaus (Robert Sheehan) so astutely points out when they finally do see each other again, something about Dallas in the ‘60s just makes them all hotter. Honestly, a win for everybody. You know, at least until the next apocalypse.

Which, speaking of hotter … if you haven’t seen the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. dressed to blend in at a 1930s speakeasy, on a 1950s S.H.I.E.L.D. rocket base, in a 1950s noir mystery, with a 1970s bar crowd, or at a 1980s rock concert/underground robot battle, then you haven’t lived. Talk about pure joy!

A) Director Mack in any kind of suit—wow.
B) Deke Shaw as red-leather rock star by day, fake S.H.I.E.L.D. team director cursing out history’s rampant racism and sexism by night—dream.
C) Jemma Simmons as Peggy Carter and Daisy Johnson as a fake 50s CIA operative.
D) Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj). (That’s it, that’s the sentence.)

Fans of the CW TV shows Legacies and Legends of Tomorrow have long enjoyed the kind of bananapants, we’re-just-here-to-have-fun storytelling those goofball fantasy action series thrive on, but while Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn’t avoided fun in the past, it’s never really given itself leave to have this much of it, for this long a run of episodes. Like, sure, technically they’re all only dressing up so they can blend in and track down the face-stealing Chronicoms before they can destroy S.H.I.E.L.D.’s future prime Earth to become the Chronicoms’ new home, and technically they each have a lot of emotional baggage they’re working through to various degrees at various points throughout the season, and technically isolating this particular S.H.I.E.L.D. team from the context of their Avengers-filled present makes it easier, like in The Umbrella Academy, to focus the story on these specific, beloved characters (greater MCU be damned). But that’s the story. It has nothing to do with the title credits, which have changed with every jump in time—including, in last week’s time-loop episode, re-appearing after the first time loop—or the palpable glee the actors are obviously taking in getting to play so much dress-up as they send off the Avengers spin-off that became so much more. That, to be a broken record, is pure joy.

With only three episodes left in the season (and series), and the team stuck with a broken time engine in the 1980s with a psychotic agent of chaos (Thomas E. Sullivan) who’s stolen Daisy’s powers and put them all square in his and the Chronicoms’ crosshairs, the goofier tones of the earlier episodes have mostly been replaced by classic Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. earnestness. But that’s okay. The final showdown was always coming. The team’s farewell jaunt through time to stop one last apocalypse? That’s a big, goofy, gorgeously costumed gift we never could have expected, but will always have to come back to.

The Umbrella Academy Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix; Season 7 of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs on ABC Wednesdays at 10 p.m.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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