Of all the various properties that comprise the Marvel Cinematic Universe – that’s 12 movies, five short films, and four television series at present – few have proven to be as central to the shared universe’s overarching storyline as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The inaugural Marvel TV show just finished the first half of its third season two nights ago, capping off a 10-episode run that has done much to help set the stage for next year’s Captain America: Civil War (the first entry in Phase 3) and all the films beyond, going all the way up to 2019’s The Inhumans (Phase 4’s first installment).
If you don’t watch Director Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his team on their weekly adventures to rebuild S.H.I.E.L.D. as a leaner, meaner, more secret agency, it’s understandable. The sheer amount of time that the MCU now requires in order to fully follow along means that even people who are caught up on all the movies might be left out on what's happening in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter and Netflix shows Daredevil and Jessica Jones. But that’s why we’re here – to provide the basic information you’ll need moving forward to appreciate the full background and connective tissue of the company’s ever-more-climatic narrative.
We have compiled for you What Marvel Movie Fans Need to Know from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Season 3.0 – and though there are only four points, they are all doozies. They’re all also SPOILERS, so please proceed carefully if you plan on watching the mid-season finale.
1. The spread of the Inhumans
Across the show’s first two seasons, it was revealed that the Kree, the alien race first seen on the big screen in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy (that’s Ronan the Accuser’s species), visited Earth several millennia ago for the express purpose of creating a slave warrior race that could be used as foot soldiers in the Kree Empire’s never-ending battles for interstellar conquest. The would-be alien rulers ultimately thought better of this plan, however, and decided to exterminate all of the “abominations” – although a number of these genetically-modified, superpower-fueled humans managed to live on in secret and have progeny.
This lineage continues on to the present day, and though these descendants call themselves Inhumans and loosely organize themselves into various communities, most have yet to undergo Terrigenesis, the process that activates their latent super powers and which requires a Terrigen Crystal to initiate.
This all changed in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 2 finale (which aired in May 2015, just two weeks after The Avengers: Age of Ultron released). During a skirmish between Coulson’s team and a particularly militant group of Inhumans, a box of Terrigen Crystals got pushed off of a vessel and sunk to the bottom of the ocean floor, leaking its contents – which eventually get consumed by fish, which, in turn, get processed into fish oil pills and distributed around the world.
Although SHIELD is eventually able to track down the source of this Kree contaminant and discontinue most of the pills, computer simulations show that it’s had an irrevocable, exponential effect on the (In)human population: soon, there will be countless newly-activated superpowered individuals on the move, confused as to the nature and origin of their powers and unpredictable in their responses – will they identify more as human or as alien? If this sounds suspiciously close to the X-Men franchise, that’s because this is essentially Marvel Studios’s workaround.
2. Continuing Sokovia backlash
Audiences may first have learned of the public outcry over the Sokovia incident in last July’s Ant-Man, but the full effect of the controversy is laid bare in the first few episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s third season.
It makes sense for such a prolonged furor – after all, the human race nearly went extinct when Ultron scooped Sokovia out of the Earth and attempted to imitate the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs. Even if it hadn't been a near-extinction event, it still was a city floating several miles in the sky, an occurrence which is sure to raise an eyebrow or two. But beyond being a nice touch of realism in a superhero-infused world, it also serves double duty as being a deft bit of foreshadowing: it is Age of Ultron’s climax, after all, that serves as the foundation for the titular conflict in next summer’s Captain America: Civil War. All S.H.I.E.L.D. is doing is helping to reinforce that foundation.
It also manages to expand on the show’s ever-building narrative momentum, saying that the recent rash of Inhuman “births” has only added fuel to the fire of public hysteria. With superheroes on the one side and super powers on the other, the average populace is feeling increasingly caught in the middle – so much so that President Matthew Ellis (originally introduced in Iron Man 3) has to personally introduce a brand-new initiative meant to deal with such crises in the future: the Advanced Threat Containment Unit. His primetime speech to the American public is revealing enough (and well-written enough) to warrant quoting in full here:
“By executive order, I have created a special task force to neutralize these alien threats on our soil. The Advanced Threat Containment Unit, or ATCU, will be given full license to act with whatever authority is necessary. The laws of nature have changed – and until the laws of man change to reflect that, we must do what we feel is right.”
It’s unknown whether the ATCU survives as a fully functioning unit going into season 3.5 – most of its core personnel have been killed, and the initiative is revealed to be a pet project of Hydra’s – let alone heading into Civil War, but we do know, of course, that the law will, indeed, end up changing in that next film, when the Sokovia Accords go into effect.