As the sixth and most recent season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. concludes its run with an epic 2-hour finale, we ask what made the MCU’s first foray into network television its most successful. Netflix slowly began pulling the plug on its own Marvel originals, and ABC’s other Marvel entity, Agent Carter, was cancelled after just two short seasons.
However, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. somehow managed to find a winning formula, and is now waiting to air its seventh and final season next summer, with filming having wrapped recently. So what is it about Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his ragtag team of agents that allowed it to remain Marvel’s flagship show for the best part of a decade?
Characters and Relationships
One of the aspects that keeps S.H.I.E.L.D. fans engrossed in the stories is the beloved characters. Whilst AoS is able to tell exciting science-fiction focused narratives across its seasons, it is ultimately the characters themselves which keep audiences invested in the stories. S.H.I.E.L.D. is also a rarity in that it has managed to keep hold of five of its six original main cast members, with only Brett Dalton (Grant Ward) departing.
This has allowed for long-form storytelling across years which has given appropriate screen time for these characters and their relationships to develop at a natural pace. Skye (Chloe Bennet) the hacker became the inhuman superhero Daisy Johnson/Quake. Adorkable science whizzes Fitz (Iain de Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) go from a platonic relationship to being husband and wife.
The diversity of the show’s core cast was also recognizable and highly praised, with the current eight-member team being made up of equal numbers of men and women, as well as people of color to White people. With this brought many firsts for the broader MCU, including Daisy Johnson being the first super-powered female superhero in the MCU as well as its first Asian superhero; add to that Elena ‘Yo-yo’ Rodriguez (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) being the MCU’s first Latina superhero.
Reinvention of the Sci-fi Genre
Over the course of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s six seasons the show has continually managed to reinvent itself. As tying the show to the Marvel Cinematic Universe became more complex as the show continued, showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen managed infuse interesting and exciting sci-fi plots with each season’s incarnation of the show.
Over its duration the show has gone from quintessential spy drama, to handling human-alien hybrids, androids, virtual realities, demons and time-travel. All of these adaptations have merely proved the strength of the show’s abilities to embrace the genre elements it occupies, and present engaging storylines for its characters to explore.
Separation From the MCU
As the wider cinematic universe continued to rapidly expand throughout the 2010s, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. somewhat got left behind. The show has unfortunately not been the ratings hit Marvel initially wanted it to be. With that, alongside other executive disputes at Marvel Studios, the show failed to ever cross back over to the films.
Although the show itself felt somewhat contractually obliged to feel the ripple effects of the events of the movies, especially in its first two seasons. This led to strong criticism of the first season’s blundered start as the show held out its main story arc regarding the fallout of HYDRA within S.H.I.E.L.D. until the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the movie in which this major plot point is revealed.
Due to these inconveniences as the show progressed it got more and more confident in forging its own identity separate from that of the MCU. Whilst recent seasons have subtly acknowledged some of the movies’ events, the show now exists in its own timeline, in the years between Thanos’ snap and the return of the fallen heroes five years later in Avengers: Endgame. This particular setting gives the show the playground to enjoy the storyworlds and characters of Marvel, see most notably Ghost Rider, without having to shoehorn itself into commentating on the most recently released Marvel film.
One of the major criticisms of the early days of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was its’ ‘monster of the week’ feel, where every episode felt somewhat standalone. Since then AoS has come on leaps and bounds in constructing serialized narratives. Not only do story arcs play out across the duration of a single season, but they also make frequent overt and subtle references to story elements of previous seasons.
One such recent example includes the villainous Izel (Karolina Wydra) harnessing the powers of the mysterious monoliths in the later episodes of Season 6. These aforementioned monoliths first featured halfway through Season 2, and have been one of many characters, storylines and objects sprinkled throughout the show to gain more significance at a later date. This proves that the writers are expertly able to establish storylines which are right in front of the audiences’ noses that at first watch are miss-able but are far more enjoyable to pick up on on rewatch.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns next summer with its final season.
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