When it was revealed that Joss Whedon had not only signed on to write and direct The Avengers sequel (Age of Ultron) and help guide Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but would develop a live-action TV series set in same universe, it was the safest of all bets that the show’s pilot would be picked up. And it did with the help of Marvel branding and the return of fan-favorite Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) from the dead to lead its cast.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiered strong on the ratings front but has remained on a mostly downwards slope with a few upswings for key episodes ever since. The midseason finale however, despite being marketed strongly, was the season’s lowest viewed episode yet. So what will ABC and Marvel do to turn things around when Agent Coulson and co. return in January?

When Whedon and writers Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon discussed the show at the outset it was described as a series about the “ordinary” people behind-the-scenes helping keep safe a world now host to super-powered beings and aliens. It would “weave in and out of the films” as Joss told us at Comic-Con but wouldn’t rely on characters from the movies or comics. But are the unknown S.H.I.E.L.D. agents created just for the series enough to sustain a Marvel show – against major hype and expectations – that’s meant to share the same space as the films? Not anymore.

They tried but despite their best efforts, the viewers are dropping off and the reaction to most episodes has been mixed at best – read some reader reactions in the comments here and follow along on Twitter after each episode for examples. TV Guide and The Huffington Post even labeled the series as the season’s “biggest disappointment” – and that’s the type of publicity the Marvel brand cannot accept going forward into Phase Two of the film franchise, and against steep upcoming competition.

Whether it’s the characters, storytelling, lack of superheroes and characters from Marvel Comics, or the tone of the show, we can expect some changes as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. heads into its most crucial period early next year. The midseason finale ended with a cliffhanger that left many of its key characters in awkward spots (read: an opportunity to change the team chemistry). With two new regulars joining the cast, the creatives have a chance to start fresh in January, should they choose. There’s also a lot riding on the show to help setup some of the background for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Page 2: More “Marvel” Tone, More Characters & Cameos Coming

Captain America: The Winter Soldier releases on April 4, 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy on August 1, 2014The Avengers: Age of Ultron on May 1, 2015, Ant-Man on July 31, 2015, and unannounced films for May 6 2016, July 8 2016 and May 5 2017.

Follow Rob on Twitter @rob_keyes.

Sources: CBRHuffington Post (2), TV Guide

Header art by Dammit-Clint.

Needless to say, for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to fit into the larger movie plans for Captain America 2 and The Avengers 2 – and to be successful for viewers and critics – changes need to be made and part of it might be altering a few of the original plans. For Marvel, that seems to mean introducing more, higher profile characters from the books – something CW’s Arrow has relished in as of late. Speaking with CBR, series executive producer Jeffrey Bell teased the idea of seeing more Marvel characters pop up in future episodes of the series and the show working to tie-in more closely with the films.

I would say, in general, I think fans will experience the episodes as being a bit more “Marvel.” I mean that on several levels. I think we’re always looking to find characters either from the Marvel movie universe or the comic universe that fans would recognize. I think bringing the tension and suspense of the movies is something that we’re looking to do as our characters become more confident.

The other thing that seems to be happening, just based on the fact that what felt like standalone were in fact for us setting up a lot of different pieces of the puzzle, I think you’re going to feel more momentum from the stories, episode to episode. Occasional cliffhangers, which I feel are more like a Marvel Comic ending than, “it’s all neatly tied up in a bow.” So I think on a few levels, fans will feel it’s moving a bit more in the Marvel direction.

Echoing these words, Jeph Loeb, Head Of Marvel’s TV Division, offered an interesting response to Huffington Post’s question about why the show has avoided pulling in characters from Marvel Comics.

“Stay tuned, there’s a plan.”

Are we going to see some major movie cameos in the series in the spring as the show leads into and ends its first season around the same time Captain America 2 opens in theaters? Could we see some lesser-known characters from the comics pop up in the show? If so, can ABC and Marvel live up to the hype of these higher profile appearances and will they service a larger story and go beyond generating buzz to bring back viewers?

As it stands, outside of using Marvel keywords and logos, and namedropping Marvel characters, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t have much “Marvel” in its DNA – at least in the episodes so far. Even the episode “The Well” which tied directly into the aftermath of the events of Thor: The Dark World barely had anything to do with the film, outside of showing London and mentioning Asgardian lore. That episode, for example, could have swapped out the Asgard angle for any made-up-on-the-spot alien species and nothing would have changed. That reality combined with Marvel really drawing out the mystery surrounding Agent Coulson’s death highlight just some of the issues the show needs to address when it returns.

Are you satisfied with the series as it stands? If not, what would you change? Let us know in the comments!

More: 4 Ways to Improve ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’

Captain America: The Winter Soldier releases on April 4, 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy on August 1, 2014The Avengers: Age of Ultron on May 1, 2015, Ant-Man on July 31, 2015, and unannounced films for May 6 2016, July 8 2016 and May 5 2017.

Follow Rob on Twitter @rob_keyes.

Sources: CBRHuffington Post (2), TV Guide

Header art by Dammit-Clint.