Over seven seasons, Marvel’s TV black sheep assembled its own admirable sense of identity.
It might surprise you to know that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is still on the air. The show (which ends its seven-season run this week) debuted in 2013, one of the first new releases from the Marvel Cinematic Universe following the 2012 megahit The Avengers. Superhero fans, and the public writ large, were champing at the bit to spend more time in that world. They also wanted to spend more time with Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), the workaday agent who’d become the connective tissue for Phase 1 of the MCU.
Then, the show actually debuted, and viewers didn’t like what they saw. Marketing promises that “It’s All Connected” gave way to tangential-at-best ties to the A-list characters and their escapades. Those hoping for rollicking superhero adventures instead saw something akin to CSI: Marvel and walked away disappointed.
Some die-hards stuck around for the twist that upended the show’s premise after Captain America: Winter Soldier. But most left the series for dead. Its ratings cratered after the much-hyped premiere and would continue to decline season after season. The MCU’s first big television expansion couldn’t hope to match the success of its big screen counterparts. That seemed to be the end of it.
And yet, a funny thing happened after that bumpy start. Away from the spotlight and the expectations that come with following up one of the most successful blockbusters of all time, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. blossomed into its own distinctive, inventive, and endearing series.
The show was theoretically still a part of the same universe occupied by Iron Man and Black Widow. But it slowly but surely found its own unique corner of that sandbox. What’s more, it built some amazing things there, entirely separate from Marvel’s heavy hitters.
The series became one of, if not the most diverse parts of the MCU. At a time when the world was still seven years away from the franchise’s first female-led film, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. rapidly made one thing clear: while Phil Coulson would always be a major player, its lead was Daisy “Quake” Johnson (Chloe Bennet). This was ultimately her story.
It took the MCU proper almost as long to release a movie led by a person of color. Hell, we’re still at least a year away from the first Shang-Chi film. Meanwhile, the franchise’s first TV show featured Asian women as the series’s protagonist and its resident badass, introduced a Black man and a Latina as core members of the team, and offered a gender-balanced cast of both heroes and villains. The series itself was co-run by Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon.
The show’s diversity is interesting, given rumblings that it was Marvel head Ike Perlmutter who scuttled plans to diversify the studio’s movie slate. True, MCU godfather Kevin Feige eventually wrested away control of the film division thanks to the Disney takeover. But Perlmutter retained more direct authority over Marvel’s TV division.
The irony is that the movies are only now catching up to where Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D was years ago in terms of diversity. It’s a refreshing result of the leeway that comes from no expectation to sell toys and video games. By the end, it’s typical to see scenes exclusively featuring women of color, still rare in Marvel’s silver screen offerings.
It’s also typical to see wilder and nuttier storylines than you’re likely to find elsewhere in the universe. Rather than embracing the quasi-realism of the Defenders series or the more grounded take on superheroes the film series started with, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. steadily ratcheted up the Silver Age-style audaciousness in its plots and set pieces.
Season arcs might involve a separate branch of HYDRA that worships a body-swapping Inhuman from another world. Individual episodes might include games of “guess who’s secretly a robot” after infiltration by Life Model Decoys. The show offers heads in jars as villains, trips to alternate dimensions, and teleporting extremists dispatched by an amusingly ludicrous shotgun/axe combination.
As the series progressed, it became less afraid of unveiling the woolier, more off-the-wall elements of the Marvel Universe. It embraced the show’s comic book roots to deliver some delightfully outlandish and, at times literally, out-of-this-world adventures.
The show could break that ground in live-action superhero TV because it gradually severed its connections to the wider MCU. The series went from depicting its stars literally picking up the pieces after the events of Thor: The Dark World to ignoring the Thanos snap heard ‘round the world.
At times, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would still pay lip service to the cinematic universe that spawned it. But this was often with thematic rather than plot-based tie-ins, or wry lines about the show’s obscurity. But eventually, the series moved on, unburdened by whatever The Avengers happened to be doing at the moment.
That opened up incredible new avenues for the series to explore. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. sent its characters on intergalactic jaunts. It sent them into the past and to the future. In the series’s best arc, it even sent them into The Matrix. This break with the big-timers made the show’s experimental, free-wheeling bent possible.
Forging its own corner of the Marvel Universe meant that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could go places and try things its contemporaries couldn’t, no longer beholden to other stories the writers had no control over. This resulted in some of the most outlandish and enjoyable tales Marvel had to offer.
And yet, what made the show so endearing through all of that craziness is the way it kept its focus on the characters, their relationships, and their individual journeys, no matter how insane the challenge of the week.
Daisy Johnson grappled with her parentage, her relationship to S.H.I.E.L.D., and her place in the world. Phil Coulson struggled with terminal illnesses and the existential discomfort of repeatedly coming back from the dead. Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) dealt with her dark history and a more empathetic future. Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) built a poignant romance despite the stars being crossing against them. Alfonso “Mack” Mackenzie (Henry Simmons) and Elena “Yo-Yo” Rodriguez (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) found comfort in one another despite traumas in both of their pasts. Whatever the daily hardship or latest sci-fi threat, the team got through it together and forged meaningful, affecting bonds in the process.
Little of that was present, or even hinted at, in the show’s earliest days. But oddly enough, as the attention paid to the series waned, its quality improved. The combination of big swings from the creative team and the devotion of diehard fans kept it afloat through time slot shifts and other sea-changes within television and superhero cinema. Ironically enough, the show seemed to do better and better the further it stepped away from the spotlight, despite its initial hype and early stumbles.
[W]hat made the show so endearing through all of that craziness is the way it kept its focus on the characters, their relationships, and their individual journeys, no matter how insane the challenge of the week.
From those strangely gilded-yet-humble beginnings, the show outlasted all of its Marvel T.V. brethren. It ran longer than any of the Netflix Defenders series, despite their larger cultural cache. It stayed on the air past the unduly cut short Agent Carter series, the only Marvel T.V. show to have a character make the jump to the films. Despite flying under the radar, it outlived teen-focused MCU shows like Runaways and Cloak & Dagger, the disastrous Inhumans mini-series, and even Iron Man himself.
In short, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the MCU’s secret success, and it succeeded by doing everything that ran counter to conventional wisdom. It cast off the continuity of its record-setting big-screen brethren in favor of greater freedom to experiment. It set aside the quasi-realism of Daredevil and other Netflix series in favor of the imaginative, colorful, and fantastical. The show embraced diversity when the film division was still trying to break the executive logjam.
Rather than riding the coattails of its brand name, it carved out a unique niche on television, one more adventurous and distinctive than anyone anticipated when it premiered.
Now is the right time to say goodbye to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. After seven seasons, the series has explored enough worlds and brought its characters through enough challenges that if it went too much further, it would have to start repeating itself.
When it debuted, it was expected to be the Next Big Thing. When it stumbled, it was expected to quietly fade away. Instead, the series forged its own distinct path, one full of richly-developed characters and boundless possibilities, until it became the hidden gem of the biggest franchise in the world, by breaking away from it.