Sorry, Marvel. ALL heroes are super.

“Superpower” is a technical term used by some writers and editors, myself included. It’s awkward when used in superhero fiction, but generally speaking it’s a great term packed with a lot of information.

Your protagonist must have a superpower. Your secondary characters usually need them too. Your villain always has a superpower, but an antagonist doesn’t always need it. (Yes, there’s a difference between a villain and an antagonist. There’s also a difference between main characters, protagonists, heroes, and viewpoint characters, but that’s another blog post.) It’s advisable to have a kryptonite as well, but that’s not as important as long as you’ve practiced.

So what is this superpower thing? Flight? Super-strength? The ability to leap tall buildings faster than a speeding bullet while running alongside a train?

It can be, but it’s not necessarily supernatural. A character’s superpower is defined as anything they can do better than anyone else in the story. Similarly, a character’s kryptonite is that which forms an obstacle they cannot overcome.

Superpowers are vital in any ensemble cast, because it lets that cast work together without anyone being redundant. It’s most often seen in caper stories (Ocean’s Eleven being a great example, but anyone who’s seen an episode of Leverage or Burn Notice knows what I’m talking about). It’s something that Joss Whedon has learned and perfected over the years. By the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, the non-Slayer characters had moved beyond the sidekick roles they’d started in to have defined superpowers.

This was seen most obviously with Xander, who — so subtly that I suspect Joss didn’t even realize what he was doing at first — became the observant one, the guy who would see what others did not. The only problem was his kryptonite: beautiful women, who would blind him or confuse him, at least long enough to get him into trouble. When Xander became literally blind in one eye, his superpower actually grew in the face of adversity; in the after-series comics, he becomes the first in a new line of Watchers, and his first appearance in that series, standing in front of the monitors and coordinating Slayers, is too symbolic to be a coincidence.

In the same franchise, Joss showed he’d learned from the first three seasons of Buffy by the way he formed the Angel cast. It changed over time, with different characters and different superpowers, but no one — not even pre-visions Cordelia — could be termed as just a sidekick. The Dollhouse cast was shaky at first, but they settled down into their respective roles; they really only seemed undefined compared to the phenomenal ensemble cast in Firefly, where every character had an easily-defined superpower and kryptonite.

Agents of SHIELD is a story where the six main characters don’t have literal superpowers in a superhero setting. (Well, Coulson might, but that’s to be seen.) That doesn’t mean they don’t have literary superpowers, though. We’re told four of them right off the bat: Fitz and Simmons are genius scientists, while May and Ward are combat specialists. Neither of them overlap entirely, though: just as Fitz is tech and Simmons is biochemistry, May and Ward have different specialties. May is an expert in direct combat, and I suspect as we find out more about her we’ll see that she’s become afraid of how easily she deals damage. Ward, on the other hand, is the observant one: as we keep getting told, he’s an expert in “threat assessment,” and we saw that in action twice during the most recent episode.

So what about Coulson? He might have a literal superpower, but what about the literary version? I’d say it’s best defined as pattern-recognition. He can plan ahead because he sees stuff no one else sees: the way people react, the way they think, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and so on. We’ve seen this time and again in the movies, but particularly in one of the little Marvel clips from a while back. No, I’m not talking about “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer”; I’m referring to “The Consultant,” where Coulson knows exactly how to get General Ross to do what Fury wants. Coulson is a leader — not because he inspires like Captain America, not because he pushes people around like Fury, but because he knows exactly how to present a situation to get the best result from the people involved.

(Oh, and he’s got a clearly-defined kryptonite, too: nostalgia. A love of “better days.” It’s seen in his hero-worship of Captain America, his longing for the clearer days of Cold War spy-versus-spy conflict, and his difficulty to see that people change. That latter was, of course, demonstrated in the most recent episode.)

That brings us to Skye. Skye, the girl that I said I didn’t care about in the first episode. Well, it’s a little better this time, but mostly because I can see where Joss is going. She’s being set up as the glue that holds the team together.

SPOILER ALERT. We’ve got spoilers from here on out. Spoilers ahead, cap’n. Get it? Got it? Good. Moving on.

When I started “0-8-4,” I really couldn’t see what her place on the team would even be. She would have agreed, too. She’s obviously feeling useless, and even gets in the way. But there was one interesting moment at the start of the episode, when they reach the object. She’s looking at her data phone and saying that she’s searched “all the data streams.” From her phone? And with what search terms? She knew nothing about it before laying eyes on it.

I rolled my eyes and moved on, until we got to the argument between the team members and Skye’s conversation with Ward afterward. Now, the argument is classic Marvel: the second adventure of a new team always threatens to break the team apart, in a pattern that was set with the original Avengers comic, to say nothing of the Avengers movie. (Mind you, Fantastic Four #2 was an exception, though they debuted two years before the Avengers. Also, they still suffered an attack on the nature of the team itself, so perhaps it’s not as a huge exception.) Solving that issue is what really cements the team as a team, and even though the formula is obvious it still works.

When Skye was pointing out that no one was working together, except perhaps her, I started to see where she was going. Coulson listed Fitz’s, Simmons’, and Ward’s strengths, and the fact that he didn’t touch on Skye’s when she was right there was telling from a writing perspective. When, after that, she was talking with Ward about how everyone on board has their own “lingo” and that this was what made it hard to communicate, I knew what her superpower was.

Her superpower is information. She can take it in, digest it, and use it faster than anyone else on the show. That bit with the data phone wasn’t just fluff. It was setup, both for this episode where she saves Ward because she did the reading and for future situations where she’s no doubt going to coordinate efforts because she’s the only one who can speak everyone’s languages.

And that brings us to kryptonite.

May, as I suggested earlier, probably has a kryptonite of fear, handicapping her combat superpower. There’s nothing as frightening as being afraid of yourself. I’m not saying I’m absolutely right, because this is just a guess; but it makes sense based on what we’ve seen. She’s obviously afraid of nothing around her, but she’s upset and angry each time she uses violence. I’m pretty sure her internal conflict is rooted in fear of some sort. Fear of herself, fear of failure, I don’t know.

Fitz and Simmons seem to share a kryptonite — lab geniuses in the “real world” — but with different flavors. Fitz seems to be OCD, more worried about his drones being placed in the wrong slots than the bullets flying overhead. Simmons looks like she gets panic attacks while under stress. Again, they both effectively amount to the same thing, but it’s one way to differentiate what are still very shallow characters.

Ward’s superpower is threat assessment and observation, and his kryptonite is trust. He can’t trust until someone proves himself. It’s a very familiar handicap to me, both one I share and one I see in other people. But his kryptonite doesn’t end there: once he gives trust, he doesn’t do it partway. He goes from saying Skye shouldn’t be there to saying to May that he’d personally train her as a SHIELD agent.

And that leads directly to Skye’s kryptonite: divided loyalty. She believes in Rising Tide. She believes in freedom of information and the right of the people to know even if it causes a panic. She believes SHIELD is, at best, the broken clock that’s right twice a day. And she’s infiltrating SHIELD with ulterior motives. She’s as idealistic as Coulson, but with none of the experience.

I honestly hope that Skye and Ward aren’t being set up as a romantic couple. It’s the obvious pairing, but I think it would be more interesting as a brother-sister relationship, rather like Fitz-Simmons. And in some ways, I think it will make the coming sense of betrayal larger. We almost expect romance to end in disaster, especially in literature — but family? The betrayal of family always makes for raw, harsh storytelling.

Regardless, we’re left with a question: is Skye’s presence on the team a result of Coulson’s superpower, or his kryptonite? Is he blinded by his belief that she’ll come around, or does he truly see something in her that others can’t? It’s a given that he’s manipulating her, but to what end — and what will the fallout be? Who will really wind up feeling betrayed?

It seems fitting that the episode ended with Fury’s cameo. Oh, I know it’s a great ratings bump, and it indicates that if they got Sam Jackson to do a walk-on as Fury then we might get other Avengers characters in later episodes. But take a step back and look at it from a story perspective. Fury has always been the great manipulator. It’s his superpower, with delegation as his kryptonite — he has a hard time not being personally involved in every major operation.

The fact that he shows up here suggests to me that he’s not liking the situation. He doesn’t like not being involved. A hole in the side of the plane? You seriously expect me to think that General Fury is making a personal appearance because someone shot a hole in the side of the plane? Fury, the guy who thought nothing of taking a bazooka to one of his own fighters in Avengers? (Granted, there was a lot at stake, but still.)

No, there’s something else going on, and only he and Coulson are in on it. And it has to do with Skye and Rising Tide. Fury doesn’t like the fact that she’s there, and he could get her off at any time — so why wouldn’t he? Obviously, Coulson has convinced him that she’s vital to the Rising Tide operation.

So I’m going to lay it out here. Having Skye on the team is no accident. It wasn’t coincidence that they went after her. Recruiting her as an asset wasn’t an unexpected opportunity. Coulson planned it. It’s even possible that they knew Centipede was in the area ahead of time, and it was vital to keep that from the team so that Skye wouldn’t suspect anything. (After all, even she had a hard time believing that she was that far ahead of SHIELD with her limited resources.)

So when Fury repeats that Skye’s a risk, he doesn’t mean the obvious. I think he means what will happen later, after things are in place. Not that she might be a double agent, but rather whether she’ll decide to flip and be a triple-agent down the road.

There was an impressive amount of characterization crammed into a very action-packed episode. Not as much as I’d like, but it was there and completely true to both Marvel and Whedon techniques. The main problem at this point is pacing. This looks to be more of a Dollhouse than a Firefly, and the only thing that’s keeping it going right now is the Marvel setting . . . which, at the moment, basically amounts to Coulson. It’s necessary to show AoS as its own thing, not simply riding on the coattails of Avengers, but at the same time we need to know that it does fit into the setting.

If the next episode doesn’t spice things up, deepen the mystery, and show us more of the Marvelverse, we’re going to see a drop-off in audience interest. The show has a lot of promise. Right now, though, delivery is fifty-fifty. If I were advising Joss Whedon, I’d say that the next big thing to show is that AoS has an effect on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Little nods to the original comics, like the plane’s callsign (“616”), or detailing events in the MCU (Thor, Captain America, and Avengers all getting referenced in this episode) just doesn’t cut it. We need to see that AoS can change things. That the show matters to the MCU.

ABC and Marvel have both invested a lot of hype in this show, and they had a large existing fanbase to draw on. They can’t depend on that forever. And, while I like a show that doesn’t treat its audience as dumb — and Joss never likes writing for dumb — I know that the second episode was a bit too subtle. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t have needed over twenty-two hundred words to talk about it.