One characteristic of Whedon’s work is the distinction he makes between two types of power. The first is the power possessed the Chosen Ones– the slayer, the Avengers — which is the physical, superhuman ability that defines them as messianic figures. This is the power that is needed to save the world, whether it be from the threat of vampires or the Chitauri, but it is bestowed on flawed individuals who are burdened by the weight of this responsibility. The more insidious kind of power is the power of the council — the Watcher’s Council, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s faceless superiors — that is designed to oversee and control the chosen ones. The council sees them as tools that they can use to achieve what they think is a socially optimal end, and the bureaucratic power they hold gives them the authority to dictate how the chosen ones should wield their power even if the source of their mandate is unclear.
This arrogance and narrow-mindedness often creates tension between the superhero and the bureaucracy: the former has a much more personal stake in saving the world while the latter comes from a purely utilitarian perspective that overlooks the human costs of their actions. For Buffy, saving the world also means protecting her mother, her friends and the people in Sunnydale. For The Avengers, saving the world means putting aside their egos and personal issues and working together for a common purpose bigger than themselves. But because of the relationship of the two forms of power, the agent which is the most physically powerful ironically has the least control over it.
Thus in both Buffy and The Avengers, there exists a narrative of the chosen ones subverting and liberating themselves from the authority of the Machiavellian council — for Whedon, the perceived weakness of these agents being tragically human and feeling emotions such as guilt, camaraderie and love are actually strengths that put them in the position to make better decisions over the detached, more “objective” bureaucracy.
A key figure in both stories is The Watcher, the authoritative figure assigned to immediately supervise the agents on the council’s behalf. This is of course the role of Rupert Giles in the Buffyverse, and Nick Fury adopts a similar position in The Avengers. They are first required to do the council’s bidding, but they soon come to understand the flaws his superiors. This happens to Giles in the episode Helpless, where he was required by the Watcher’s Council to physically torture Buffy as a ritual intended for slayers on their eighteenth birthday. Seeing Buffy suffer at the hands of the Council, he undermines them by deciding to help her instead. For Fury, this tipping point comes when he saw that his superiors were willing to nuke Manhattan to end the Chitauri invasion. Instead of cooperating, he lets Iron Man intercept the missile. In both cases, the Watcher and the Council have a different sense of what’s right, because the former has been imbued with a deeper sense of humanism because of their proximity and relationship to the Chosen Ones. They, in a sense, are redeemed.
Whedon’s shadowy councils are further dehumanized by the fact that we never get to know who they are — they are never given names or faces and are always referred to as a collective. This is a political statement against opaque sources of power who presume to hold expertise and knowledge without real understanding. The church, governments, patriarchies, traditional figures of authority — they are all being implicated. And in the power struggles between the messiahs and the councils, it is the messiahs who always win, not because of their superhuman powers but because they turn out to be more human than anyone else.
Part 3: A Hellmouth in the Sky