Ever since Agents of SHIELD came back from its midseason hiatus, the mysterious individual known only as the Superior, who is the apparent leader of the anti-Inhuman Watchdogs group, has been repeatedly invoked. In a move right out of the show’s first season, when the equally-enigmatic Clairvoyant was the overarching nemesis, showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen are slowly building up the figure’s mystique before finally revealing who he – or she – is and allowing all hell to break loose.
It’s appropriate that the current season would call back to the first, as the Superior’s probable identity will also be a way of doubling down on the series’s various narrative tendencies. We have, in fact, three different guesses as to who, exactly, the power behind the Watchdogs is, with each representing a different thematic tack that SHIELD has employed time and again throughout its 77 episodes.
Just to be upfront: while there is a great deal of deductive reasoning involved, these are still just guesses, with some meant to be more illustrative to make a general point. You’ll see what we mean as we work our way through the different scenarios.
Ex-Agent Felix Blake (Titus Welliver), who was originally introduced in the “Item 47” short film, was a recurring character in Agents of SHIELD’s first season before he was seriously injured, resulting in him being paralyzed from the waist down. Just when audiences thought that the showrunners had completely forgotten about Agent Phil Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) old friend – or that he had died from his injuries – he was brought back in a surprise move at the end of last season, revealing that he was one of the powers behind the Watchdogs. Perhaps even... the power?
Should we learn that Blake is still the captain of the militia ship it would, on the one hand, be a letdown, a case of much ado about, well, something that has already been known for some time. On the other hand, however, it would play into the show’s propensity to revisit past characters or developments – what we also saw in this week’s episode, “Wake Up,” in the form of Agent Melinda May’s (Ming-Na Wen) Bahrain flashback. And it would, obviously, constitute yet another tie-in to the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe, something which SHIELD tends to do on a regular basis (such as grabbing Dr. List from The Avengers: Age of Ultron and making him another recurring character, or having Coulson meet with President Matthew Ellis).
The more of a role that Felix can play, the more it transforms him from a quick throwaway to real character, and the more it helps to ultimately set up the Inhumans series, which will premiere on ABC this September. What Marvel loses in terms of a dramatic revelation it more than makes up for in world-building – never a bad trade-off in a shared cinematic universe.
Of course, if the series unmasks the Superior as someone else, then we’ll still need to take account of ex-Agent Blake and how he fits – or doesn't fit – into the new power structure.
Having Jeffrey Mace (Jason O’Mara), the newest face in SHIELD’s cast, be the head of the Watchdogs might be something of an outlier in terms of probability, but it is certainly the kind of surprise twist that the series loves to throw at viewers time and again, whether it be the real explanation behind T.A.H.I.T.I. and Coulson’s resurrection or Agent Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) secretly being the superhero Quake from the comic books.
And it’s not like the reveal would be inconsistent with the way that Mace’s character has been handled thus far. He’s not the Inhuman that he has portrayed himself as being and, by his own admission, he’s used to performing for every gathering that he has to face, making him something of a perfect spy, if not a natural one. When combined with the fact that the Watchdogs are now exceedingly well-funded, and that Mace’s participation in Project: Patriot was brought about by the military and other players with deep pockets, it’s not hard to see how more reactionary elements of the American government would secretly be hunting down enhanced individuals.
There’s more to this scenario. It could very well be Mace who is the actual mole in SHIELD instead of Dr. Holden Radcliffe’s (John Hannah) Life Model Decoy, and if the director isn’t part of some sort of farther-reaching conspiracy, it could simply be that the psychosis-inducing side effects of the supersoldier serum he’s been taking have started to settle in. Finally, in a season in which secret identities have proven to be more salient than ever before, Jeffrey’s identity as a fake within a fake within a fake would be the ultimate hidden identity.
But let’s not limit ourselves to just Director Mace – Brigadier General Glenn Talbot (Adrian Pasdar) would also be a suitable fit for this betrayal, one who would still fit the core dramatic requirements outlined above (just minus the Zabo formula’s unintended consequences). And if we want to get really out there, why not make it Radcliffe himself or Werner von Strucker (Spencer Treat Clark), who also hasn’t been spotted since the end of season 3?
If not the previously-revealed mastermind or a pre-established character who audiences have gotten to know over a period of time, then that leaves one final option for who the Superior of the Watchdogs is: a brand-new character, one presumably taken from the world of the comics.
Our money would be on a candidate like Ran Shen, a relatively recent addition to the Marvel roster who is perhaps better known as the villain Iron Nail. The son of Chinese immigrant parents, Shen joined SHIELD and quickly catapulted himself to the top ranks of the spy agency, giving even Nick Fury a run for his money – until the two have a falling out, and Ran ends up going rogue. When complemented with a series of almost-mystical superpowers bestowed upon him by a dragon (which may or may not be part of a shapeshifting alien species that has populated the source material for over 50 years and was responsible for giving the Mandarin his own extraordinary abilities), Ran Shen took up the name of Iron Nail and declared a war against the West.
Yes, the backstory would need a fair amount of reworking in order to fit the tone and continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – then again, which comic-originating character on Agents of SHIELD hasn’t featured such a makeover? – but the basics are all there: a falling-out with SHIELD, terrorist sensibilities, and a hidden past mixed up with ex-Director Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) himself. Even the extraterrestrial component could be kept in the form of the Inhumans, thereby further aligning Shen with the show’s backstory and, possibly, with The Inhumans’s future.
There are, of course, several other candidates who could fit the Superior bill, and maybe – just maybe – one of these others could continue Whedon’s and Tancharoen’s recent trend of acknowledging the Netflix series. At this point, the future is still wide open for Agents of SHIELD.