If Captain America: Civil War wasn’t proof enough earlier this year, Phase III of the continuously remarkable Marvel Cinematic Universe is off to a flying start. Whilst with any other franchise, the burden of sustaining quality would fall to a direct silver screen sequel, the MCU is a wholly different entity. So it is that next in line to keep the ball rolling is in fact the franchise’s televisual arm, with the return of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D for its fourth season on ABC in the US (Channel 4 here in the UK).
With the Sokovia Accords signed and sealed, enforcing the registration and subordination of all ‘enhanced’ persons to the UN, and present-day Nazi-offshoot HYDRA beaten down seemingly once and for all, it’s a strange new world for Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), now ex-Director of S.H.I.E.L.D, and his team. Now, their chief concern is former teammate-turned-vigilante Daisy ‘Quake’ Johnson (Chloe Bennett), whose quest for redemption has led the world to believe her a dangerous outlaw. The new director (Jason O’Mara) wants her taken down, permanently if necessary, but soon Coulson and co. discover they have even bigger problems with the arrival of the mysterious Robbie Reyes (Gabriel Luna), a man who can turn at will into the mystical terroriser of wrongdoers: Ghost Rider.
Much like the film franchise that spawned it, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has had a unique history by the standards of its own medium, characterized initially more by a sense of experimentation than anything else, before showing the royal flush it had in its hand the whole time. Like a curious hybrid of 24 and Heroes, with that distinct strain of Marvel humour, for the MCU’s first grand expansion into television it felt surprisingly generic and unimaginative. Scooby Doo in Suits. Firefly on Earth. Not that either of those shows don’t sound awesome, but coming off the back of The Avengers (2012) and Iron Man 3 (2013) this certainly felt like a backward step. Sure, it was cool to see characters reference events from the films, and watch the team clear up Thor’s London mess from The Dark World (2013), but fundamentally the show seemed to lack any substantial ‘reason to be’ in its own right. And yet…how could Coulson possibly be alive after his death at the hands of Loki? Questions like this hinted that the show had just a little too much spark for a story drying up from the start. Less your average street magician clamouring for your attention, more the Tommy Cooper technique of keeping you laughing and entertained with nothing you haven’t already seen a hundred times…before delivering the real punch line and reshaping your entire comprehension of what you’ve been watching.
For Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was that punch line. The revelation that HYDRA was alive and manipulating S.H.I.E.L.D from the inside would have lasting consequences for the films. For the show, it was a complete game changer. In the space of just a couple of episode tie-ins, the series evolved from its Buffy/Supernatural/Torchwood beginnings into a slick, suspenseful spy vs. spy action-drama that put its core cast of characters to the test unlike anything seen outside of the Bourne and Mission: Impossible franchises. S.H.I.E.LD in ruins, the team on the run and one of their own revealed as an especially psychotic HYDRA agent, Grant Ward (Brett Dalton). The fact that Ward had effectively been the audience surrogate since Episode 1 made for an especially inspired twist. Thus, what had felt at first like simple filler for Marvel fans to digest in-between film instalments had become what felt like pioneering television, part of a much bigger picture which it shared with the silver screen, with both mediums having the capacity to impact the other.
In Season 2, things would only get better. Chronicling the war in the shadows between the last remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D and HYDRA’s resurgence, the show would have been successful enough if it just kept to that newfound premise. The addition of Bobbi ‘Mockingbird’ Morse (Adrianna Palicki), Lance Hunter (Nick Blood) and Mack (Henry Simmons) to the team alone brought fantastic new chemistry and dynamics. But if there’s one thing the MCU shares across its films and TV shows in equal measure, it’s an appetite for taking risks. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D rolled the dice again, and opened up yet another new ballgame with the establishment of the Inhumans, humans with extraordinary abilities passed down from ancestors genetically engineered by aliens (specifically the Kree, the antagonists of 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy). Coulson and co. seemed to be going full ‘Heroes’ on us, but as the story unfolded it quickly became apparent that the MCU was evoking a different property, one with historically more substance. This was the MCU’s answer to the X-Men and the long-running themes in their comic books of equality, segregation, discrimination and civil rights. Tying the discovery of the Inhumans into the ongoing mystery of Daisy’s past proved another major surprise for fans and audiences alike, and demonstrated once again the show’s determination to bring us consistently intelligent, engrossing entertainment.
For Season 3, things got personal. Despite taking a beating from both Coulson and co. and the Avengers themselves (see Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015), HYDRA was still holding on, now reformed into terrorist cells under the command of Grant Ward. Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), the team’s scientific advisor, was presumed dead to all after being sucked through a portal, except that is for their besotted weapons and tech specialist Fitz (Iain De Caestecker). Thanks to global waters becoming contaminated by a substance that unlocks dormant Inhuman DNA, ‘enhanced’ people were now emerging all over the world. Agent Melinda May’s (Ming-Na Wen) husband was revealed to be one such person, grappling with a monstrous alter-ego who preyed on other Inhumans. The chaos prompted not only international pressure to contain the situation (laying the ground for what would become the Sokovian Accords), but an Arms Race for empowered beings between S.H.I.E.L.D and HYDRA, all of which set the scene for the final showdown between the two as the extent of the latter’s ambitions was revealed, an ancient threat emerged, and the costs to Coulson and co. mounted.
Which brings us to Season 4, in which we are promised one thing: vengeance is coming. Heartbroken at the loss of Lincoln Campbell (Luke Mitchell) and tormented by her own weakness against the control of the creature Hive, Daisy has left the now re-legitimized S.H.I.E.L.D and pursues a vigilante life to exorcise her pain. Fitz and Simmons are giving their long-budding relationship a serious go, but with Simmons now Scientific Adviser to the Director, her loyalties are split in the face of his hunt for Daisy. Fitz’ idol, Dr Radcliffe, who served Hive out of cowardice and scientific curiosity, has secretly perfected a means of blending the human body with technology through his development of Life Model Decoys, or androids, but to what end only he knows. The many-headed serpent that was HYDRA may finally be history, but for the man with the flaming skull it’s only the beginning. Mysticism is an as-yet unacknowledged dimension of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for all its gods and aliens, but with Doctor Strange set for release next month in cinemas, we could be looking at yet another game changer. How well Ghost Rider fares at laying the ground for this venture, we’ll soon find out. It may feel like a stretch to believe that the world of Tony Stark’s armoury can also play host to a man who can transform into a spirit of vengeance, but then again five years ago it was hard to imagine that same world could be home to Norse gods in space, not to mention a walking tree and a talking raccoon. Marvel, you have our trust. Show us what you’ve got.