S.H.I.E.L.D. is a huge part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – not just in the films, but with two TV series centering on the organization (Agent Carter providing a kind of origin story for the organization, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. focusing on the rebuilding of it). It’s an integral part of the Marvel-verse in the comics as well, crossing over into multiple story arcs and comic series.
Such a huge organization obviously has a long and complex history, and to really grasp it, there’s no substitute for reading the comics themselves. However, we’ve rounded up some of the most important things to know about S.H.I.E.L.D. for the casual fan.
S.H.I.E.L.D. Stands For More Than One Thing
There are actually three “correct” titles for S.H.I.E.L.D.. The name originally stood for Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage Law-Enforcement Division, before becoming the Strategic Hazard Intervention, Espionage and Logistics Directorate. This happened in the comics in the ‘90s, although there seems to be no clear reason for the change. It’s simply one of many changes that the organization has gone through over the years.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the name was changed a third time, to the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division. As Ward (Brett Dalton) points out in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the reason for this is essentially that “someone really wanted our initials to spell out ‘shield.’”
S.H.I.E.L.D. Is Not Part of the U.S. Government
S.H.I.E.L.D. is most commonly portrayed as an organization in cahoots with the United Nations, rather than the United States Government, but there have been some inconsistencies in the comics over the years (which is unsurprising, given that the organization has been around in one form or another since the ‘60s).
In the MCU, the organization is much more American, and was founded by Peggy Carter and Howard Stark after WWII, out of the S.S.R. (Strategic Scientific Reserve) – a U.S.-based organization created to battle Hydra. While S.H.I.E.L.D. now has global jurisdiction, it retains the word “homeland” in its title from its days as a U.S. organization.
S.H.I.E.L.D. Has Two Sister Organizations, A.R.M.O.R. and S.W.O.R.D.
The UN has also spawned two other groups to deal with various super powered and otherworldly threats, A.R.M.O.R. and S.W.O.R.D.. (Ward would have a field day with those names!)
A.R.M.O.R. stands for Alternate Reality Monitoring and Operational Response, and was formed to deal with matters of extradimensional security. In layman’s terms, they deal with alternate realities, dimensions, etc.. S.W.O.R.D., meanwhile, stands for the Sentient Worlds Observation and Response Department. S.W.O.R.D.’s purpose is to deal with extraterrestrial threats.
S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Spinoff Organizations
A.R.M.O.R. and S.W.O.R.D. aren’t the only other teams dealing with superpowered/extraterrestrial/supernatural threats. There are multiple organizations within the Marvel-verse, all with appropriate acronyms.
S.T.R.I.K.E. (Special Tactical Reserve for International Key Emergencies) is a British counter-terrorism and espionage agency, similar to S.H.I.E.L.D.. Best known for working with Captain Britain, the agency in the comics was taken over by malicious forces and is now defunct. In the MCU, S.T.R.I.K.E. has appeared, but has been revealed to be lost to Hydra.
S.A.F.E. (Strategic Action For Emergencies) is the U.S.-only government organization serving the same purpose as S.H.I.E.L.D., but only operating within the United States.
S.H.I.E.L.D. Was Briefly Renamed H.A.M.M.E.R.
After one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s biggest failures (the failure to prevent the Secret Invasion) Norman Osborne took over as director and the agency became H.A.M.M.E.R.. Unlike the other acronyms, it was never revealed what H.A.M.M.E.R. stood for, but it makes for an interesting guessing game! H.A.M.M.E.R. became a dark version of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and is part of the Dark Reign story arc) – unsurprising when a villain like Green Goblin is at the helm! H.A.M.M.E.R. included a team of villain “Avengers,” headed up by Osborn as the Iron Patriot.
H.A.M.M.E.R. was ended by Captain America, but during this time it was discovered that Hydra had infiltrated the organization from the get-go. He wanted to rebuild S.H.I.E.L.D. entirely, and put Quake in charge of the new agency, alongside Agent Coulson. This is (presumably) the inspiration for the MCU TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where the MCU S.H.I.E.L.D. was discovered to be corrupt, and Coulson was given the task of rebuilding the team from the ground up (a task he recruited Daisy/Quake to help him with).
Everybody knows Nick Fury, the incredible eye-patch sporting man-in-charge brought to life on the big screen by Samuel L. Jackson. Fury is definitely the most famous director, but he’s not the one and only.
When S.H.I.E.L.D. was first formed, the director was Rick Stoner. Stoner and Nick Fury didn’t always get along; in fact, when the two first met, it nearly ended in a brawl! Stoner acted as director of S.H.I.E.L.D. until he was assassinated when he learned of an undercover Hydra agent (who happened to be Nick’s brother Jake). Nick Fury took over as director after his death.
Maria Hill became the next director, taking over from Fury, although she handed the reins to Tony Stark after only a short stint in charge. As director, Stark used his own technology to build a new helicarrier for the organization, as well as using S.H.I.E.L.D. to fund the Avengers and their headquarters.
Maria Hill has appeared in the MCU (played by Cobie Smulders) but not as a director. The current director (according to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Phil Coulson, was actually created specifically for the film universe, although he has now crossed over into the comics.
S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Superhero Agents
Unsurprisingly, many (many) superheroes have been agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. at one time or another. Plenty of these have been seen in the MCU, including Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Mockingbird (Adrianne Palicki), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and of course, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). Though it’s worth mentioning that being an Avenger does not automatically make someone an Agent.
There are many more superheroes who have been agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., including Spider-Woman (Jessica Drew), Ant-Man (Eric O’Grady), She-Hulk (as a Hulkbuster), Gargantua (Edward Cobert), and Deathlok (Jack Truman). It’s definitely possible that we could see any of these characters appear in the MCU in future, especially in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War.
S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Famous Non-Super Agents
While the superhero agents certainly draw attention, there are plenty of other, un-enhanced humans who have been important to S.H.I.E.L.D. over the years.
Dum Dum Dugan was one of Nick Fury’s Howling Commandos during WWII. After the war, he became Fury’s second in command at the agency. He’s recognizable by his impressive red moustache, and has made appearances in the MCU in both Captain America: The First Avenger and in Agent Carter (played by Neal McDonough). Gabriel Jones is another ex-Howling Commando (who also made an appearance in Captain America: The First Avenger portrayed by Derek Luke) who became a high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. agent under Nick Fury as director. Gabe was also one of the first black characters in mainstream comics.
Clay Quartermain is an ex-air force pilot who was recruited to S.H.I.E.L.D. and became a good friend to Nick Fury. He is best known for his work with the Hulkbusters, and against the Yellow Claw. Another agent who was involved in bringing down the Yellow Claw was Jimmy Woo, a distinguished FBI agent. Neither Quartermain nor Woo have appeared so far in the MCU.
Contessa Valentina De Fontaine was an Italian spy who joined S.H.I.E.L.D. after the death of her parents. She was involved with Nick Fury at one point, before heading up the S.H.I.E.L.D. Femme Force (an all-female team of agents).
Finally, Sharon Carter (aka Agent 13) is the niece of agent Peggy Carter, and a formidable agent in her own right. She has even briefly been a director, although she is better known as the liaison to Captain America (who she has been in love with in the past). Sharon Carter appeared in the MCU in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, portrayed by Emily VanCamp. She’ll be reprising the role in Captain America: Civil War.
S.H.I.E.L.D. Clearance Levels
All S.H.I.E.L.D. agents have a “clearance level” which corresponds to their rank within the organization. These levels are consistent across the entire organization, including any divisions within S.H.I.E.L.D.. There are ten levels of clearance in total, with one being the lowest and ten being the highest. Every S.H.I.E.L.D. agent has a Level One clearance, and Levels One to Six are fairly common for operatives.
In the MCU, Nick Fury is the only known agent to have a Level Ten clearance, while agents involved in the Battle of New York have a Level Seven clearance. Phil Coulson was revealed at Level Eight, although as the new director, he could potentially have risen higher since the beginning of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..
S.H.I.E.L.D. has a lot of impressive technology at its disposal, but is probably best known for its Helicarrier, Quinjets and LMDs (Life Model Decoys).
The Helicarrier is the home base of S.H.I.E.L.D. as an organization. It is an enormous airship, and is constantly airborne. Created by a team of the world’s greatest super-scientists (Tony Stark, Reed Richards and Forge), it is capable of remaining in the air indefinitely. This is used as a base for S.H.I.E.L.D. because it was felt that a base on the ground would be too much of a target for S.H.I.E.L.D.’s enemies. There have been multiple helicarriers over the years, including a red and gold Iron Man version for Tony Stark, and the helicarrier does feature heavily in the MCU.
The Quinjets are smaller craft, created by the Wakanda Design Group, and used to ferry agents and superheroes to and from missions. Tony Stark was the first to take the design and make it available to S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers.
Life Model Decoys are androids designed to look exactly like their human model, right down to fingerprints, iris scans, etc. They are controlled by their model, who can see and hear through them. These were designed to be used on missions to try and decrease human casualties, and Nick Fury has been known to use them to fool his enemies and potential assassins. While we have yet to see LMDs in the MCU, they have been mentioned by Tony Stark.
It’s no surprise that S.H.I.E.L.D. has made many enemies over the years – that’s just what happens when you are always trying to save the world! The biggest bad on the S.H.I.E.L.D. radar is Hydra, a terrorist organization founded by Baron Von Strucker under the command of the Red Skull. Hydra has been a constant enemy of the organization since its beginnings, and it has been revealed that Hydra agents have penetrated S.H.I.E.L.D. and compromised it from the beginning. All of this has been a part of the MCU, first in Captain America: The First Avenger, and then in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The re-building of S.H.I.E.L.D. after Hydra’s involvement was discovered is the basis for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., where we’ve seen both sides undercover in the others’ camp.
Other major enemies over the years have included A.I.M., Zodiac, The Corporation and The Yellow Claw. A.I.M.is a team of super scientists originally employed to develop weapons for Hydra. After breaking ties with Hydra, they struck out on their own to attempt to overthrow governments and take power worldwide. Zodiac is a criminal group that gets its name from astrology, and believes that astrology governs human fate; its members are named after the signs of the Zodiac, including Scorpio, who is also Nick Fury’s brother. The Corporation and the Yellow Claw have no specific ties to S.H.I.E.L.D. or Hydra, but have come up against S.H.I.E.L.D. many times in the past.
There you have it! A collection of some of the most important facts about S.H.I.E.L.D. in the comics and the MCU. What else do you think is important for new fans to know about Nick Fury and the gang? Comment and let us know.