Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Agents of SHIELD season 4, episode 16: 'What If...'
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returned for the third distinct "pod" of season 4 and with it brought a frightening New World Order. The first pod introduced Ghost Rider to the Marvel Cinematic Universe; the second pod involved Dr. Radcliffe's creation of the Framework, a virtual reality world not unlike The Matrix, and human-like Life Model Decoys ('LMDs') to replace the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. To kick off the final pod of the season, Agents Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) entered the Framework to free their captured fellow Agents and found themselves thrust in a nightmare world where S.H.I.E.L.D. had fallen and Hydra had captured the world.
The episode "What If?" was Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. by way of The Man in the High Castle; the Marvel series hitting high marks by delivering some of its finest speculative storytelling. In this sinister and compelling world where Hydra is fully in command of society, America is a police state where no one has smart phones, check points are everywhere, and regular people are forced to always prove via identification they are not Inhumans and are encouraged to report anyone they suspect of being Inhuman. School children are taught a new history where Hydra is the savior of a broken, corrupt society.
"What If?" featured some surprising twists on familiar faces: Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) is a high school history teacher who lectures against the threat of the Inhumans; Melinda May (Ming Na Wen) is a fearsome Hydra agent, and Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) is not only alive, but hiding some surprising secret allegiances of his own - ever the double agent. What's more, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. cleverly worked in a couple of greater allegories, serving as not just as a cautionary "What If?" vision of our own world, but also a commentary on recent Marvel Comics, specifically Captain America: Steve Rogers and the upcoming Marvel event Secret Empire.
For over a year, writer Nick Spencer has been the primary architect laying the groundwork for the upcoming major Marvel event. Secret Empire will involve Hydra successfully achieving global domination thanks to their greatest agent, Steve Rogers. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. beat the Secret Empire comics to the punch by depicting our world grounded under Hydra's authoritarian boot on television. Within "What If?", Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. weaves in some sly, unmistakable perspective on the comics themselves. Let's look at the parallels between the Hydra World Order on television and what we've seen so far from Marvel's comics.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: AGENT OF HYDRA
Spencer ignited a firestorm of controversy last year when Steve Rogers seemingly murdered one of his partners and revealed his true allegiance by uttering two simple words: "Hail Hydra." How could this be? In short, a sentient, all-powerful Cosmic Cube named Kobik re-wrote Steve Rogers' history. As a boy, Steve was recruited into Hydra, which manipulated events so he would receive the Super Soldier Serum and become Captain America. With Rogers as their secret agent, Hydra played both sides of World War II. Rogers continued his career as Captain America, being frozen into modern day, reawakened, joining the Avengers, up until present events, where, working alongside his childhood best friend Helmut Zemo, Rogers has become the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and invited the Chitauri to invade the Earth to destabilize the world, allowing a full Hydra takeover.
Captain America becoming an Agent of Hydra was met with an outcry of fury from fans, accusing Spencer and Marvel of appropriating a beloved character who was the brainstorm of Jewish creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, as well as Stan Lee, and bonding that character with Nazism. Fans argued this story and the symbolism it contained betrayed everything Captain America - who debuted on a comic book cover punching Adolph Hitler - ever stood for. While this status quo is unlikely to be permanent - comic books constantly alter or even kill their characters and then return them back the way they were as the needs of creators and publishers dictate - Spencer defended his story:
“I think the interesting questions to ask about this story are: What happens when people feel they’ve lost faith in institutions? What happens when people feel their sense of idealism is gone? What happens when they feel like their sense of idealism is gone and the trust in the people that protect them erodes? Who thrives in that kind of environment — who prospers? That’s really the kernel of the story."
Well before Secret Empire, the comics offered a glimpse of the world where Hydra won, showing Hydra agents out in the open in American cities and people being checked for I.D. and living in fear. The imagery was starkly similar to what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. depicted in "What If?"
THE FRAMEWORK: AGENTS OF HYDRA
In "What If?" Hydra won the war that began in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and destroyed S.H.I.E.L.D. Firmly in control of the government and society, Hydra instituted a police state and killed as many S.H.I.E.L.D. loyalists as they could find, including Agent Jemma Simmons. The remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D. went underground and formed a Resistance, which surprisingly includes Grant Ward among its ranks. Hydra's primary enemy is the Inhumans, whom they've made public enemy number one as a result of what became known as "The Cambridge Incident": a young Inhuman girl from the country of Bahrain killed hundreds of people in Cambridge, MA, cementing the Inhumans as a global terrorist threat that must be eradicated.
In the Framework's reality, Hydra now controls the Triskelion, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s fortress headquarters in Washington, D.C., and is run by a new Director, Madame Hydra (Mallory Jensen), who is the alter ego of AIDA, the evil Life Model Decoy created by Dr. Radcliffe. Leopold Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) became The Doctor, Hydra's chief scientist, and is in a relationship with Madame Hydra. Agent Skye (in this reality, Daisy Johnson never assumed her real name) and Grant Ward are lovers (to Daisy's chagrin) and field agents under the command of Melinda May, who ended up saving the little girl in Bahrain whom she failed to save in real life. That Inhuman girl went on to cause "The Cambridge Incident."
ARE HYDRA NAZIS?
In Phil Coulson's high school history class room, Coulson lectures against the Inhuman threat when one of his students asks the pivotal question: "Aren't all Hydra agents Nazis?" Coulson argued vehemently that they were not; despite Hydra being introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger as "the Nazi Science Division," Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has since clarified that Hydra is actually a millennia-old organization founded as worshippers of Hive, the first Inhuman created by the Kree, and were dedicated to bringing Hive back to Earth, which was achieved in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 3. However, there are also other divisions of Hydra, such as the one headed by Baron Strucker, who used Loki's staff in Sokovia to empower Wanda and Pietro Maximoff as we saw in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The question of Hydra being synonymous with Nazis has been plaguing Marvel's recent publishing efforts as well. Marvel has taken pains to revise their history to show that, as with the TV series and movies, Hydra has existed well before Nazism, and only allied with Hitler during the Second World War because they shared similar goals with the Third Reich. However, one of the greatest obstacles preventing Marvel from separating Hydra from being seen as Nazis is their leader the Red Skull, who has long been depicted as a servant of Hitler and a white supremacist, both in the comics and in the more widely seen movies. The Red Skull is inextricably linked to Hydra, and thus Hydra is linked to Nazis. Hydra's racism and military totalitarianism is also hard to separate from Nazism.
In "What If?" Simmons confronts Coulson's rebellious student who asks her flat-out "Are Hydra Nazis?" Simmons answers without hesitation: "Yes, they are. Every last one of them!" Simmons has grown into perhaps the most intelligent and most heroic character in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and is in many ways the heart and conscience of the series. When Jemma Simmons delivers an answer with such conviction, it's hard to find cause to disagree.
Where do you fall in the "Are Hydra Nazis?" debate? Sound off in the comments below.
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs @ 10PM on ABC.