Trigger warning: non-graphic mentions of rape, torture
Spoilers for Seasons 2 & 3 of Agents of SHIELD and for West Coast Avengers (1985) #17-23
With Agents of SHIELD having wrapped up filming their final season within the past few weeks, there’s a lot of chatter among fans on social media about what they’d like to see in the final season. Most notably, you can find calls for the return of fan-favorite characters like Robbie Reyes, Joey Gutierrez, Mike “Deathlok” Peterson, Lance Hunter, and my personal favorite, Bobbi Morse.
As a huge fan of Mockingbird from the comics, it’s always nice to see how much the AoS fandom appreciates Bobbi’s television counterpart, despite the fact that she was only on the show for a season and a half. And as a latecomer to the show, when I started watching, I was incredibly curious: How good of a job did Agents of SHIELD do in adapting her character?
If you go by checklist, she’s pretty comics-accurate. Spy, check. Scientist, check. No powers, check. Stick fighter, check. They even gave her an on-and-off ex-husband like she has in the comics (although since Clint was busy being Ultimate Hawkeye in the movies, they brought in Lance Hunter, a British Intelligence agent in the comics, to take his place). On the surface, it would seem that it’s an extremely faithful adaptation. And I’m not here to argue with that conclusion, but there’s something else, something not as obvious, that struck me as interesting: the way her respective revenge arcs are handled.
In the comics, a storyline from the 80s called “Lost in Space-Time” finds the West Coast Avengers (including Mockingbird) stuck in the Old West with a broken time machine. During the adventure, Bobbi gets kidnapped and love-potioned by a former ally of the team called the Phantom Rider. Since the storyline was written during the era of the Comics Code Authority, the word “rape” is never used, but when she later describes what happened to her, she says that the Rider “forced [her] to love [him].” Steve Englehart, the writer of the arc, has confirmed the rape.
After the brainwashing hold is broken, Bobbi immediately rides out to confront Phantom Rider for what he’s done to her. They start to fight at the top of a cliff, and as they fight, he ends up falling off the ledge and hanging onto the edge of the cliff by his hands. When he urges Mockingbird to pull him up, she responds with, “I’m going to give you the same consideration you gave me!” Then she watches as he falls to his death. The combination of the Old West setting, the thunderstorm that rages during the fight, and the Rider’s ghostly nature give the whole thing a fantastical and supernatural setting, and the scene gives off a satisfying power-fantasy vibe.
Bobbi’s revenge storyline in Agents of SHIELD is very different. Grant Ward, a former Hydra mole in SHIELD, kidnaps and tortures Bobbi because he blames her for Hydra’s capture of former SHIELD agent (now his partner) Kara Palamas, and he thinks that torturing an apology out of Bobbi will give Kara closure. After a few hours of torture, Kara and Ward set up a trap for Bobbi’s rescue party, rigging a gun to shoot the first person to walk into the room where Bobbi is restrained. As Bobbi’s ex-husband Hunter walks into the room, Bobbi throws herself in front of the gun and takes the bullet in her shoulder.
The aftermath of this story focuses primarily on Bobbi’s recovery. This is partially for practical reasons—she’s been shot, she’s physically incapacitated, and the first priority is saving her life. Afterwards, she’s taken off fieldwork for a few months. During this time, Bobbi and Hunter plan their revenge on Ward, intending to find him and kill him for what he did to her. However, unlike the comics, Hunter is the one who physically goes after him. Bobbi stays behind, physically recuperating, keeping busy in the lab, and spending time with her friends/colleagues.
This recovery period never happens in the comics. When Bobbi snaps out of the brainwashing, she’s still separated from her husband and teammates, and her revenge is over and done with by the next time she sees them. And when they’re reunited, she’s too afraid to tell anyone the whole truth about what happened, because the Avengers bylaws prohibit killing, and she’s afraid they’ll judge her for letting the Phantom Rider die. When the truth comes out, her fears bear fruit. Hawkeye, who’s the team’s chairman in addition to being her husband, disapproves of her actions and kicks her off the team. Hurt that he’s putting the team rules before her wellbeing, Mockingbird decides to separate from him. Bobbi leaves the Avengers and forms a short-lived splinter team with Tigra and Moon Knight, who take her side in the split.
Between the ongoing superhero battles, the secret-keeping, the arguments, and the team shake-ups, Bobbi doesn’t get the kind of convalescence period that she does in the show. There’s no break from fieldwork, no stable environment where she can regain her bearings, and no competent therapist on hand.
While Bobbi’s recovering, Hunter is off tracking Ward down. When his mission ends disastrously, Melinda May goes to Bobbi directly and convinces her to take matters into her own hand, reproaching her for letting Hunter “fight [her] battles for [her].” While this inspires Bobbi to get back into the field, she ends up deciding that she doesn’t want to kill Ward after all, saying that she doesn’t want to lose herself in a revenge quest.
They say the best revenge is living well, and the show does a good job in emphasizing the importance of Bobbi’s health, both mental and physical. Even her decision to stop searching for Ward is essentially a healthy choice—she’s deciding to live her life on her own terms instead of letting her past control her.
On the other hand, Bobbi’s showdown with the Phantom Rider is an important moment in comic book history. For an industry that gave us the “women in refrigerators” trope, it was revolutionary to see Bobbi avenging her own damn self. The fact that Ward eventually met his end at the (literal) hand of Phil Coulson, while Bobbi never got a chance to confront Ward, left me disappointed, and the fact that Coulson killed Ward to avenge a female character whose death met the textbook definition of a “fridging” poured salt on the wound.
It’s hard to say which story gave Bobbi a better arc. I appreciate that both narratives exist: one, a powerful image of a woman reclaiming her agency; the other, a healthy and more realistic portrayal of the healing process helped along by a support network. Both stories take Bobbi’s agency into account, and both can be called empowering, but neither is complete without the other.