It’s a word that defines Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the studio’s first attempt at porting their cinematic universe to the small screen. Whether it be a physical evolution, like the show’s Inhumans, or the more subtle development of a character’s motivations, nothing in S.H.I.E.L.D. ever stays the same for long. It is this vital characteristic that allowed the show to endure a series of early rough patches that not even Phil Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) flying car could avoid. This element would also end up making the series, now completing its fourth season and just picked up for a fifth, truly unique.
Yes, plenty of shows line their foundation with development of character, but most television programs are a one-trick pony when it comes to tone. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as many of the most critically acclaimed properties on TV have a singular vision. HBO’s Game of Thrones, for example, is a masterpiece that firmly established its voice from scene one and has maintained it throughout. But what happens when a property’s idea of what it wants to be blows up all over the launch pad?
Here are the four ways Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. overcame its identity crisis by developing an ever-evolving voice:
A re-watch of the beginning of the show’s first season almost feels like the launching point for a different series. Each week found Coulson and his team of agents going on a wacky new spy-laden adventure. Though intended to be fun and lively, the show reached a little too far over the top, resulting in an awkward feeling of camp (think Roger Moore’s Bond films) that simply didn’t mesh with the world the Marvel films established.
This first incarnation of S.H.I.E.L.D. failed spectacularly at connecting with viewers, and initial reactions were particularly troublesome considering the show launched with a built-in audience of passionate Marvel fans. Viewership numbers dropped with each passing episode, and many wondered if it would (or should) be canceled.
Then, in 2014, as the show’s first season began its final arc, Captain America: The Winter Soldier happened.
To remind viewers of the show’s interconnected nature with the films, Marvel and ABC added the tagline “It’s all connected” to all promotional pieces advertising the upcoming crossover. Understandably, fans couldn’t expect run-ins with Robert Downey, Jr. or Chris Evans in their respective Avenger roles, but Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. did possess the ability to partake in Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)-spanning crossovers.
The events of the Captain America sequel tied in heavily with the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series, as its plot consisted of enemy organization H.Y.D.R.A. revealing they had not been defeated at all at (as viewers believed to be the case during the conclusion of 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger). Instead, the enemy faction had been quietly acting from the shadows, infiltrating deep within the ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D. over the last several decades.
The revelation finally came to the forefront, and chaos ensued, as nobody in the show knew exactly who to trust when numerous presumed allies began to reveal themselves as enemy sleeper agents. H.Y.D.R.A. systematically began dismantling S.H.I.E.L.D. piece-by-piece from the inside, and the intense game of spy-versus-spy gave the show a sense of universe-shattering stakes. The show’s cartoonish nature dissipated in an instant as it reformatted to fall in line with the tone of The Winter Soldier.
It had taken almost all of Season One to get there, but the series began taking itself seriously. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finally felt like it belonged within the MCU instead of being relegated to the outside looking in and, ironically, H.Y.D.R.A.’s attempt at destroying S.H.I.E.L.D. proved to be the show’s saving grace. The plotline had given S.H.I.E.L.D.’s showrunners a second chance, and they took full advantage of the opportunity by transforming their series into an espionage-thriller overnight. It was this very ability to change on the fly that would later become the show’s signature characteristic.
S.H.I.E.L.D.’s second and third seasons continued the fallout from the villainous plans of H.Y.D.R.A., but the series’ primary focus switched to the introduction of one of its most vital components: the Inhumans.
An altered version of Homo sapiens, the Inhumans are the result of aliens experimenting with human DNA thousands of years ago. While sharing similar concepts and powers to the mutants from X-Men, S.H.I.E.L.D. better captured the essence of what these types of outsiders were always meant to represent. In the vibrant panels of Marvel’s comics, the Inhumans were a super-powered allegory for xenophobia and nationalism. The showrunners understood this heavy concept, as their adaptation dedicated the proper time to exploring these characters’ mindsets as they tried to figure out where they belonged inside a society that actively rejected them.
The use of such profound themes displayed the emotional depths S.H.I.E.L.D. could achieve in a cinematic universe that generally stays away from socially conscious metaphors. The willingness to delve into the psyches of these characters was yet another example of the show’s ability to expand its narrative horizons.
In Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., not only are one-off episodes subject to genre exploration, but long-form story arcs as well. This is brazenly exhibited in the show’s current season, which has presented a wide variety of contexts for its storytelling.
Season Four began with a journey into the mystical, as S.H.I.E.L.D. took advantage of the fresh elements the 2016 movie Doctor Strange added to the existing Marvel universe. The agents found themselves encountering several of these new supernatural obstacles, including the mysterious Ghost Rider. Coulson’s team came face-to-face with the character, and struggled even to wrap their minds around the raw force of paranormal nature.
Seeking revenge for his brother’s paralysis at the hands of a violent gang, Robbie Reyes (Gabriel Luna) gave chase to the group responsible. The pursuit ended in further tragedy, however, when Reyes was ejected from his vehicle. In his final moments, he swore to God, the universe and anyone who would listen that he would give up anything for a second chance at vengeance. He dies from impact with the pavement, but is reborn, possessing a demonic spirit that just happened to be listening to his litanies—the soul of the Ghost Rider. It was yet another example of the show rejecting the idea of the status quo, as the agents were faced with an enemy for which science held no answers.
The season then promptly shifted to the Life Model Decoy narrative, bringing hardcore science fiction elements to the surface. A study of the moral dilemmas behind human cloning ensued, culminating in a Matrix-like simulated world (The Framework) created by rogue artificial intelligence. Trapped within this virtual plane, the agents found themselves in a Big Brother situation much like Orwell’s 1984, a drastic change from the developments just a handful of episodes prior.
On paper, these transformations sound ridiculous and out of left field, yet the writers have always found a way to make them work cohesively. The series often turns on a dime, but the viewer never feels whiplash. An impressive accomplishment given the multitude of times this show could have easily veered off the rails.
The television industry has finally reached the point of saturation regarding comic book adaptations. Practically every network has at least one such series (with more on the horizon), and many of the longer-running examples are encountering a similar issue: narrative stagnation.
AMC’s The Walking Dead struggles more with each passing season to find an escape route outside its ouroboric nature. The CW’s The Flash has also lost its way, as the writers’ room ironically seems to be running in circles by repeatedly recycling plotlines. Fox’s Gotham throws as many references and characters at the audience as possible in the ultimate case of quantity over quality. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. never finds itself dealing with these industry-wide trappings because it never slows down. For Coulson and his team, a long shelf life didn’t become a prison like it did for so many other adaptations. Longevity simply granted more opportunity for the show to achieve its goal: lasting impermanence accomplished through tonal versatility.
Always remaining in a state of reinvention, no two seasons are alike. Revolving team lineups keep the character dynamics fresh, and the audience can never fully guess which direction the series is going to head next. This sense of ballsy exploration keeps the narrative from ever becoming stale, resulting in a show that is both criminally underrated and underappreciated.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. absolutely belongs in the upper echelon of Marvel’s catalogue, be it works from the small screen or the silver one.
The Season Four finale of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Tuesday, May 16 at 10 p.m. on ABC.
Geoff Miller believes purgatory is the state of never being able to clear out your DVR. You can read more of his work over at Comic Book Resources or by following him on Twitter @GeoffMiller47.