Agents of SHIELD has a great track record of taking various tidbits from the movie side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – whether that be characters, plot points, or thematic motifs – and fully integrating them into its own ongoing narrative. This is, of course, an effort to fulfill its side of the “it’s all connected” bargain (the films themselves continue to neglect this bargain, and the Netflix series make token efforts at best). But, much more importantly to the faithful fans of the Marvel movies, it allows the full ramifications of what would otherwise be brief blips to be more thoroughly explored.
In the first season, the series depicted the fallout of Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s Hydra revelation, showing the war that raged between SHIELD and Hydra from base to base and, even, from agent to agent. In the second season, the show built up to The Avengers: Age of Ultron’s opening raid on Baron Wolfgang von Strucker’s (Thomas Kretschmann) facility, depicting how S.H.I.E.L.D. was able to track down the last (major) Hydra leader and revealing the full extent of his and Dr. List’s (Henry Goodman) experiments to create enhanced soldiers. That season also managed to explain where Age of Ultron’s Helicarrier came from, and how Hydra can still be around for Ant-Man’s villain to interact with. The storytelling footwork is impressive.
But such world-building took a major stumble in the third season, when Captain America: Civil War introduced the Sokovia Accords to the shared cinematic universe; all S.H.I.E.L.D. could muster at first was a weak reference in which then-Director Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) said he was on Team Captain America (Chris Evans). Given that Coulson was currently in the midst of compiling his own mini-version of the Avengers – a black-ops-esque unit of Inhumans that were informally called the Secret Warriors – one would assume that the prospect of having to register each of his superpowered agents would loom a little more largely.
The fourth season, however, looks set to dig a little deeper into the fallout of the Sokovia Accords, with “Uprising,” the third episode, in particular doubling down on this effort. Thanks to this single episode’s developments, we get the most thorough exploration yet of what a superpower-regulated world really would look – and operate – like.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s best storytelling lies on not only incorporating elements from the rest of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, but also putting its own twist on them, fully intertwining them with the rest of the show's story, and thus making the shared-world tapestry exponentially larger.
Hydra is undoubtedly the best example of this. After the malevolent secret organization was reintroduced into the present timeline in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. immediately began to fold it into its Inhumans throughline. Hydra leader Dr. List, who became a recurring character in season 2.5, experiments on Inhumans in order to further his own attempts at creating enhanced individuals with Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) staff. Most breathtaking of all, it was revealed that Hydra’s very origins have their ties with the Inhumans – the group having been formed in an effort to bring back out of exile one of the very first Inhumans, Hive. Hydra's iconic symbol, in fact, is based on Hive's true form.
Even before “Uprising,” the series started to do something similar to the Sokovia Accords, using it as part of the rationale behind taking S.H.I.E.L.D. out of the shadows, where it was forced to flee in the wake of The Winter Soldier. Now that Inhumans and other types of enhanced individuals (including Captain America himself) are all part of an official government databank, there’s little reason for the resuscitated spy agency to still remain hidden from public view.
There’s more to the socio-political fallout of the Sokovia Accords than just the re-integration of S.H.I.E.L.D. into the world order, however. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. adds the interesting little detail that each of the 117 countries that signed the Accords have access to all of the highly confidential information that other member nations have accrued. In “Uprising’s” case, this means all of the Inhumans that have been registered in the United States – which means that one rogue actor may be able to leak that data to any interested parties on the black market.
This is where the Watchdogs come in. Originally introduced in the third season as an extremist militia, the group’s sole mission statement is the hunting down and eradication of all Inhumans across the face of the Earth. The Watchdogs have only made a few appearances before now, but they nonetheless contain a lot of narrative potential, especially considering their ties to Hydra - an organization that has decidedly different plans for the Inhuman population.
The Watchdogs also mark a continued interaction with the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Their leader (and, potentially, founder) is one Felix Blake (Titus Welliver), who was a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent originally introduced in the Marvel One-Shot Item 47, who then went on to make a (small) number of appearances in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s first season, where he was critically injured in the line of duty. Upon emerging from his hospital stay, he discovered Hydra’s unmasking and the Inhumans’ “uprising,” forcing him to put all that spy training to use to fill the power vacuum left by S.H.I.E.L.D.’s implosion. Now that he has somehow gained access to the Sokovia Accords’ confidential listing of Inhumans, his efforts at tracking down and eliminating the alien menace are easier than ever.
Another fun bit of thematic tie-in: Blake was injured back in the first season by Deathlok (J. August Richards), the cyborg that started the series’s occasional obsession with human augmentation. Now that Agent Coulson himself has a piece of suped-up tech for a hand – and Dr. Holden Radcliffe (John Hannah), the newest addition to the main cast, is working on a mainstay from the comics, the Life Model Decoys – we may see the Watchdogs heavily influence another upcoming subplot.
Given such impressive behind-the-scenes flourishes, it seems only a matter of time before the storytelling material the show generates will become overflowing and, as such, must at least be alluded to in the movies themselves. And if the possible integration of the Watchdogs into the shared universe’s very fabric isn’t quite enough, then the public return of SHIELD ought to be. While it’s doubtful that either this November’s Doctor Strange or next May’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 will address the Earth’s ever-growing enhanced population (or the international ramifications attending it), it’s almost a shoo-in that next July’s Spider-Man: Homecoming will, making it something of a meta-franchise litmus test.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues with “Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire” Tuesday, October 18, at 10:00 pm on ABC.