When AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. debuted in 2013, the superhero TV landscape was much different. With Arrow entering its second season, there was virtually none of the expanded universes dominating Marvel and DC’s mentality. S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t set itself up as superhero-like to begin with. It’s original premise of a revived Agent Phil Coulson and his team playing clean-up to MCU movie events could be easily retitled CSI: Marvel.
Fast forward to 2019 and AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. not only survived, but has outlived its own competition. Set to end with Season 7, it achieved double the length of Marvel’s more critically recognized prestige Netflix programs. Even though, in terms of single season quality, DAREDEVIL and JESSICA JONES’ first seasons remain the pinnacle of Marvel TV storytelling.
However, I propose a slightly controversial statement: AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. retained the most consistent quality of any Marvel program. With each season it grew bolder, more ambitious and, more importantly, less dependent on the MCU for guidance. Each new threat or narrative built off the next to an ongoing arc was both comic booky but also not playing catchup to the next Marvel film phase. With the show’ cancelation underway, it’s worth reflecting back on how this show and its characters evolved into the complex quality program we know today.
Hydra Gives S.H.I.E.L.D. Identity
Ask any long-time S.H.I.E.L.D. fan about their thoughts on the show, and you’ll get the same response: it got better after the WINTER SOLDIER tie-in. That statement isn’t wrong. Up until midway through its first season, AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. had yet to develop a narrative identity. Apart from an underlying mystery surrounding Coulson’s mysterious revival, it was a mission-of-the-week show. The team- Melinda May, Grant Ward, Leopold Fitz, Jenma Simmons and Skye (later Daisy Johnson) would visit locations and investigate Marvel-themed occurrences. For the most part, it was a vehicle to build upon Clark Gregg’s character after seemingly dying in THE AVENGERS.
This proved a double-edged sword to the MCU’s continuity approach. For a long time, the show couldn’t do its own thing because what it was doing was portraying a ground-level perception of movie events. The WINTER SOLDIER tie-in episode changed that by effectively destroying the S.H.I.E.L.D status quo. With Hydra revealing their presence within S.H.I.E.L.D., Coulson and his team lost their base of operations. Add that to the reveal that Ward was a double agent for Hydra and the team now having to fight moles at the highest level of government, the show developed something resembling stakes.
With Hydra’s momentary defeat came a chance for Team Coulson to take the reins on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s future. They took over its operations and could now interact with the film’s continuity as they saw fit. And the fallout saw multiple characters impacted by Ward’s betrayal, causing long-term feelings of distrust and PTSD. This is where S.H.I.E.L.D started becoming ambitious.
Inhumans Amongst Us
Season 2 is where AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. began to enact their own world-building tactics and never stopped. Ironically, that world-building involved characters that would later be scrapped from the film lineup altogether: the Inhumans. It’s no secret the INHUMANS TV series remains Marvel Studio’s biggest disappointment, even topping IRON FIST levels of bad. That’s a shame when you realize just how naturally S.H.I.E.L.D. incorporated them in a post-AVENGERS world.
Introducing Inhumans played two roles: expanding upon Marvel’s intergalactic relationship between Earth and the Kree, and further developing its characters on Earth. A byproduct of Kree experimentation on humans, Inhumans were the show’s X-Men stand-in. A race of genetically enhanced beings with unique powers, they soon became the center of a conflict involving skeptical bureaucrats, Inhuman extremists and a hate group dubbed the Watchdogs.
The most notable change was Skye learning her identity, birth parents and awakening her “Quake” powers from Terrigen exposure. In addition to developing Daisy, her Inhuman status gave S.H.I.E.L.D. their first unofficial superhero team member. Suddenly the show’s grounded tone got dropped for something more flashy and sci-fi level weird. And, much like the incorporation of Coulson into Marvel comics, this development proved influential enough to retcon Quake’s comic origins.
It’s also around this time that the S.H.I.E.L.D. team began expanding itself. New faces like Bobbi Morse, Hunter Lance, Alphonso “Mack” Mackenzie and Yo-Yo Rodriguez joined Team Coulson’s mission and soon became fan-favorites. Each had their own quirks, flaws and moral codes, all operating under the same mission but with different backgrounds. This made for compelling character drama and increased our long-term investment on what the characters would encounter next.
Fleshing Out the Team
Whereas the MCU films turned B-list heroes into icons, AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. achieved the same result with original characters. Apart from Daisy Johnson/Quake the majority of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s characters, Coulson included, didn’t exist in the comics. This gave the showrunners freedom to flesh out its heroes anyway they wanted, taking the team into creative, mature, and even disturbingly dark territory.
A lot of this development works by building off existing archetypes. Melinda May cool, no-nonsense layers are gradually pealed back as we learn the tragic origins of her nickname “the Cavalry.” Coulson’s level-headed attitude juxtaposes against the scars left by his revival and responsibilities as S.H.I.E.L.D. director. And Daisy goes from anti-establishment hacktivist to full-fledged hero of S.H.I.E.L.D.- Marvel’s biggest political system.
Easily S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most endearing MVP’s are Fitzsimmons, the ultimate Marvel couple ship. Starting out as close friends and blossoming into something romantic, it always feels like the universe is actively working to keep Fitz and Simmons apart. Yet the two constantly persevere against any obstacles keeping their love apart, even manifestations of their own dark sides. It’s a compelling relationship whose partners always regard one another as equals, both romantically and genius-wise.
Thanks to the show’s continuity, these character moments help give the overarching narratives emotional depth. Rather than tread old ground or genre clichés, the best episodes invest time into showcasing how far S.H.I.E.L.D.’s characters have come since Day 1. Titles like ‘4,722 Hours” and ‘The Real Deal’ especially come to mind.
Getting Dark and Weird
From Season 4 onward, S.H.I.E.L.D began embracing more fantastical comic book elements without worrying if they directly tied into the films. Plot details from the MCU were mentioned but ultimately provided a backdrop for things like robot doppelgängers and time travel. Yet this aesthetical weirdness remained grounded in stories about the team’s existing character arcs.
It’s here that S.H.I.E.L.D’s narrative structure surpasses the Netflix shows. Instead of a single story, it broke the central narrative into mini-arc “pods” linked by ongoing threats or mysteries. This structure kept the narratives engaging without outstaying its welcome, something that always plagued the DEFENDERS shows’ bloated length. Elements of one story converge into the next, keeping the status quo in constant flux.
For a lot of people, Season 4 remains the show’s best example of doing its own dark, but weird, thing. Three storylines link this season together: the arrival of Robbie Reyes’ Ghost Rider, undercover LMD’s and a Hydra-dominated Matrix simulation dubbed the Framework. Despite their varying tones, all three arcs are linked by ongoing plot element like the AI Aida and a mystical book titled the Darkhold. There’s just enough time to feel like one story ends neatly before a new challenge befalls its characters.
Seasons 5 built upon these sci-fi elements by broadening S.H.I.E.L.D.’s galactic scope. Transporting Team Coulson to a dystopian future introduced a doomsday scenario brought about by their clash with the Kree and Hydra. Even when they returned home, this inevitability dominated their attempts to prevent to nightmarish future from happening. By dividing its story into hubs yet again, the show linked its future and present chronology’s stakes to the same dire outcome.
S.H.I.E.L.D. Squad Assemble
AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.’s 13-episode reduction in Season 6 should have indicated some behind the scene troubles. Yet even with that reduced length, it tells a dark, but compelling story of doppelgängers, extraterrestrial entities and grief. And, unlike the Netflix shows, there’s no indication that this season ever feels padded despite having the same episodic runtime. It still focused on the core team’s relations with one another as they continue to protect the world from threats.
This consistency in the character drama and plot continuity remains crucial to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s lasting quality. It balanced the freedom to tell bombastic, albeit loosely connected, MCU stories with intimate group dynamics built up since Season 1. We care about Coulson and Daisy’s father/daughter bond, or Mack and Yo-Yo’s romance, or Fitzsimmons literally fighting the universe and time itself to reunite. The show took risks and, despite being overshadowed by more prestige Marvel programs and not even acknowledged in the film world, it pulled through.
For its final season S.H.I.E.L.D. has introduced time-travel elements to save their world from alien invasion. This is the franchise going all out, opening up unlimited possibilities much like a certain DC show. And who knows- we might even get some AGENT CARTER cameos along the way. Nevertheless, it’s bound to go out on a high quality note, an aesthetic that hasn’t left the show since mid-Season 1.