Marvel has been a dominant force in cross-media entertainment for the last decade, earning the franchise immense mainstream popularity (despite the occasional misstep). That broad popularity has yet to transition to the comics the franchise draws its source material from. And it might not anytime soon, what with Captain America being revealed as a sleeper Hydra agent in Secret Empire.
That event has been met with resounding boos in an era where every day brings a new political crisis and people are more scared, hateful, and divided than ever. And so it's refreshing that Marvel's Agents of SHIELD’s fourth season pulls the best elements from the MCU and the most over-the-top elements from comics to remind me why I love Marvel: superheroes punching Nazis.
For years, Agents of SHIELD has remained the forgotten little brother of the modern Marvel cross-media empire. It debuted in 2013 as ABC’s marquee prime-time network show, spinning off the story of Agent Coulson as he comes back from the dead and forms a new team of agents.
The first two thirds of season one were formulaic and toothless. The actual cast was fun, particularly Ming-Na Wen's Agent May, a veteran badass with a troubled past. But the show's connections to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe were ancillary at best, and its generic white guy lead was as bland as the show.
Then Captain America: The Winter Soldier transformed Agents of SHIELD into something spectacular. Hydra dismantled SHIELD, agents became villains, and new heroes emerged. Over the next several years Agents of SHIELD cultivated an intriguing world that's one part secret agent and one part comic superhero.
Hydra was expanded into a complex global organization with multiple leaders and an interesting mythology. We were introduced to the world of the Inhumans — giving the MCU a concept of normal people gaining powers that it has sorely lacked, with cinematic rights to the X-Men residing at 20th Century Fox. Agents of SHIELD also turned its lackluster female sidekick into an amazing ass-kicking, complex, super-powered leader in Agent Daisy “Quake” Johnson.
Most Improved Show is an understatement. Coming off its emotional and immensely satisfying finale, Agents of SHIELD just concluded its best story arc yet.
Like other comic-based shows, SHIELD has begun splitting up its seasons into two distinct story arcs. The first half of the season introduced Ghost Rider – not the Nicolas Cage one, but the more recent muscle car-driving incarnation, Robbie Reyes. The character was neat but the plot was a misfire, involving lame ghosts and an evil spellbook McGuffin. The second half of the season, “LMD,” put things back on track by utilizing one of the more familiar and effective comic book stories – the dystopian alternate reality.
As teased during the end of the “Ghost Rider” arc, the secretly built and fully self-aware android Aida had already captured Agent May and attempted to construct a new digital reality called the Framework for her to live in. May's struggles foreshadowed Aida's final solution – to create an entirely new Matrix-like reality that erases our heroes’ biggest mistakes and regrets. Ironically, this means a world where Hydra is in control.
Agents of SHIELD had plenty of comic material to draw upon, but focusing on Hydra allowed it to stay grounded and realistic. Super-powered inhumans made people nervous, and Hydra provided a safety net that is a sobering reflection of our real-world socio political fears toward minorities and immigrants.
The show used a stirring event from May's past that was revealed in season two – a time when she was forced to kill a young girl with superpowers — as a catalyst for Hydra's political gain. In Aida's Framework, May never killed the girl, and that little mind-controlling child went on to kill a lot of people. Instead of seeking absolution, Agent May became militant, joining up with Hydra as they gained trust in the public by declaring open war on inhumans, setting up frequent checkpoints and testing and arresting them on sight.
Other agents fall victim to Aida, captured and forced into the Framework. Eventually only Agents Daisy Johnson and Jemma Simmons are left, and they're forced to jack-in to rescue their fellow agents from the strange new world.
The entire sequence can be summed up in a brilliant exchange between Coulson, Simmons, and a young student in episode 16, “What If.” Coulson had only recently had his eyes opened by a desperate Simmons – those captured by Aida have been completely brainwashed into believing the Framework world is real. It's a fun chance to see how our cast would behave within a different world.
Coulson, naturally, is a mild-mannered but passionate teacher who has inklings about government conspiracies. Despite a phenomenal performance by Elizabeth Henstridge, Coulson refuses to accept the proverbial red pill. He looks on as Hydra comes to take one of his students, a suspected inhuman, right out of his classroom. One of his students asks point-blank if Hydra are Nazis. The still brainwashed Coulson is flustered, and responds that Hydra existed long-before the Nazis. There's no way Nazi or Nazi-adjacent ideology could rise through the ranks of the US government. That is crazy.
As Simmons walks out she finds the questioning student vandalizing her car with “Hydra Lies.” In response, she declares the confident line that we've all been yearning for: “For the record – Hydra? They're all Nazis. Every one of them. Don't you let anyone forget it.”
Agents of SHIELD dropped the mic and put its foot down, and that was only the beginning of the “LMD” arc. In the episodes that followed we've seen death, love, betrayal, and shocking character twists as many of our beloved cast came to grips with the terrible people they became within the Framework.
The Framework has brilliantly been used as not only a fun What If scenario, but also an intriguing character building tool with very serious (spoilery) repercussions. Fitz has to reconcile his full-blown supervillain persona, Mack lost his daughter all over again, and Coulson and May might be restarting a relationship. The very end of the finale also gave us a huge tease for the fifth season, which will be delayed from its usual fall release to allow for the first season of Inhumans. Agents of S.W.O.R.D. anyone?
It's tricky to declare that now's the time to jump into a show that is four seasons deep. But during a time when Iron Fist has been an awkward disappointment and Captain America uttering “Hail Hydra” is a complete betrayal of his character, Marvel's Agents of SHIELD has been a surprising sanctuary of Nazi-punching superhero goodness.
Eric is a freelance writer who enjoys talking about video games, movies, books and Dallas-based sports teams. Every week he watches a random film from his collection of several hundred DVDs and live tweets about it @RogueWatson. You can watch him play D&D on his YouTube channel. He also makes a mean tuna quesadilla.