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Hail Hydra

April 10th, 2014

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. certainly looked like a sure thing. The first televised spin-off of the massive popular Marvel Comics film mega-franchise, centered around fan-favorite supporting character Agent Coulson, co-created by God Emperor of Geeks Joss Whedon and produced by Whedon’s close associates, at the very least it should have been a much beloved mayfly à la Firefly, and perhaps even whatever passes for a hit these days in the 500-channel TV universe.

Instead, it was arguably the biggest disappointment of the fall 2013 TV season, a dull procedural set in the periphery of the so-called “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” but refusing to engage with it in any meaningful way. Even the episode that was intended as a direct follow-up to the theatrical feature Thor: The Dark World amounted to nothing more than Coulson’s team picking up scraps of Asgardian technology. It reminded me of the old Marvel Comics series Damage Control, about the working stiffs who show up after the big superhero fight and clean up the mess. Coulson and his crew of prettily bland agents weren’t even the S.H.I.E.L.D. B-team. At best, they were the C minus-team.

Perversely, the show barely even drew upon S.H.I.E.L.D.’s decades of comics storylines, introducing a brand-new opposing faction named “Centipede” rather than the long-established terrorist organizations A.I.M. and Hydra. And many of the B-list, street level superheroes that would have been realizable on a commercial TV budget (Daredevil, Iron Fist, Power Man) were reserved for a Netflix production deal. The best that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could manage was a D-lister named Deathlok, and it took them most of the season to introduce him.

At last came the release of the Captain America movie sequel The Winter Soldier, which involved S.H.I.E.L.D. in a big way. And it became clear why Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had been treading water. This week’s episode was set within the events of The Winter Soldier, and was a huge step up in terms of excitement and relevancy. I’m not certain it will be soon enough to help, however.

(Massive spoilers ahead for both The Winter Soldier and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Do not cross below the threshold unless you have Level 6 clearance.)


So, it turned out that the franchise had been playing a long game, with S.H.I.E.L.D. fatally compromised by Hydra infiltrators from its inception. I don’t have a deep knowledge of Marvel Comics history, but it did strike me as reminiscent of the mini-series Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D., which posited that S.H.I.E.L.D., A.I.M. and Hydra were all components of an über-organization.

In The Winter Soldier, it served as an excuse for a ’70s-style conspiracy thriller and a rebuke of our modern surveillance society, with Hydra secretly manipulating world events for decades to bring humanity to the point at which they would welcome fascist domination. (It also served up something I would never, ever have expected: Robert Redford hailing Hydra.)

At the moment, it’s unclear how it will affect Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. My guess is that Coulson and company will form the backbone of a restructured, lower-profile espionage company, rooting out Hydra sleeper agents in preparation for the next big movie chapter, Avengers: Age of Ultron. At least they may finally have a purpose. Too bad that they lost most of their initial audience by the time viewers were given a reason to care.



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