Throughout its fourth season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. blew open the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe by introducing a number of concepts from the comics. Ghost Rider, LMDs, and a world controlled by Hydra each could have spun out entire seasons, but SHIELD deftly wove them all together into a cohesive story mixing science and magic into the show’s strongest overall arc yet. But as big as many of the introductions were this season, the brief tag at the end of last week’s finale may prove to be the most consequential move the show has ever made.
Until the show returns next January, fans will be fervently discussing Coulson’s new job and his apparent location in deep space. But more than just provide a shocking conclusion and an interesting new status quo for next season, SHIELD may have just introduced a huge concept from the comics. Immediately following the finale, fans of the comics quickly began theorizing that SHIELD had just debuted S.W.O.R.D., an organization similar to the titular agency that deals in extraterrestrial threats. But while it seems obvious at first blush, there are a number of questions surrounding the possibility. In the end, the tag scene begs the question: Will SWORD Appear In The Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Like S.H.I.E.L.D., S.W.O.R.D. is an acronym, in this case standing for Sentient World Observation and Response Department. As the name implies, SWORD is tasked with defending the world from threats outside of the planet, most often involving alien invasions and cosmic intrusions. While SHIELD certainly handles their fair share of these sorts of incidents, SWORD has in recent years become the first line of defense thanks to its position in Earth’s orbit.
Created by Joss Whedon, SWORD debuted during his run of Astonishing X-Men during issue #6 back in 2004. Headed up by Abigail Brand, the new organization works alongside SHIELD and the U.S. government, but had their own way of handling things. Brand is both a strong and bullheaded leader, much like SHIELD’s Maria Hill. While that already puts her at odds with the Avengers and X-Men at times, things have only grown worse since Nick Fury stepped down from leading SHIELD. Still, SWORD and their space station headquarters the Peak have helped stop a number of extraterrestrial threats, thanks in no small part to Brand’s work and skills.
Given the position of the group in the comics and Whedon’s connection to SHIELD, SWORD may seem like a given now that Coulson is clearly in space. After all, what other work would the agent be tasked with above the Earth other than protecting the planet? But while SWORD is the first thing to jump to mind when you think ‘SHIELD in space,’ things aren’t so cut and dry.
Thanks to the group debuting in the X-Men universe, the rights to SWORD and Brand are in question. Prominent members of the team also include Beast and Shadowcat’s dragon Lockheed. Outside of the X-Men, human SWORD agent Henry Gyrich has even appeared in Fox’s movies. In the first X-Men, he served alongside Senator Kelly, mirroring Gyrich’s superhuman hatred from the comics. Of course, the issue of Marvel and Fox’s rights is a tricky one, and we’ve seen some deviations and exceptions over the years. So the question remains as to who owns the rights to adapt SWORD.
Who Owns S.W.O.R.D.?
Following the finale, many fans began taking to social media to ask the various creatives behind SHIELD if we could indeed expect to see SWORD next year. So far, the only word that’s come back was from visual effects supervisor Mark Kolpack. According to a series of tweets he sent out, Fox owns the rights to SWORD, but he quickly admitted he wasn’t positive about that fact.
On the surface, this makes sense given what we know about Fox and Marvel’s deal. But it gets more complicated when you consider that SWORD appeared in 2004, three years after the last update to the contract between the two companies. By digging into the agreement, however, things become clearer. You can read the full thing here, but the gist is that Fox has the first rights to adapt any characters connected to the X-Men. That means that if Marvel wishes to use SWORD, they’ve got to make sure Fox don’t have plans to do the same. With SWORD, it’s tricky, as Fox could easily add a space element to future films. After all, SWORD could be the first line of defense against the Phoenix in next year’s Dark Phoenix movie. Then again, the idea may just further complicate Fox’s Marvel universe.
In the plus section is the idea that there’s precedent for Marvel and Fox playing nice and even sharing ownership. In exchange for Fox tweaking Negasonic Teenage Warhead’s powers in Deadpool, the studio allowed Marvel to use Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Likewise, the latter movie introduced the Watchers, a popular concept from Fantastic Four comics—the rights to which Fox also own. It was recently revealed, however, that Fox and Marvel co-own the Watchers, alongside other characters like the Skrulls and even Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, the two most well-known examples of dual ownership.
There’s also mutants like Molly Hayes from Runaways and Squirrel Girl from New Warriors, both mutant characters (though Squirrel Girl's origin has been altered recently) who will be appearing in upcoming Marvel TV shows. Of course, the rights get trickier when it comes to television itself, as Marvel still have ownership over all of their characters on the small screen. It’s for that reason that Fox had to strike deals with Marvel TV for Legion and The Gifted. It’s that last bit of info that makes the strongest case that, regardless of who owns the film rights, Marvel should have no problem introducing SWORD to the MCU.
If Not S.W.O.R.D., Then Who?
It’s worth considering alternatives to SWORD, in case all of this speculation is wrong. After all, Coulson could easily be in some other space station. He could even be in some other location entirely, with the whole idea of space just being a red herring. But assuming he is floating through the cosmos, let’s take a look at some other possibilities.
The two biggest ideas from the comics that could play out are Alpha Flight and The Wall. Alpha Flight was recently confirmed to be owned by Fox, but the rights question makes it just as tricky. Though it once featured a number of mutant members, recent years have seen it more connected to Captain Marvel—with Brand in tow. With Carol Danvers soon joining the MCU, however, it doesn’t seem likely Marvel would use the idea on SHIELD, even if they were able to. Still, there’s a chance it could appear just like Ghost Rider and the Inhumans have debuted on the TV show.
The Wall, meanwhile, is more of a metaphorical concept. Though space bases are involved, the idea is more about a lone individual guarding the Earth from extraterrestrial threats. For decades, Nick Fury was the Man on the Wall, until he passed the mantle onto Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier. The idea of Coulson being the Man on the Wall is an alluring one. For one, it has him once again following in the footsteps of his friend (if it’s put forward that Fury once held the post in the MCU). It also means that Coulson could be up in space by himself. While this seems odd at first, it would tie into the deal Coulson made with Ghost Rider to take the Spirit from Robbie Reyes.
There’s also a chance that this is merely a separate SHIELD or government outpost with no real ties to the comics. After all, the Framework and Project Looking Glass were huge sci-fi concepts invented for the show. The former allowed for some rich storytelling and the big final arc, while the latter opened up a world of fan theories and made AIDA into a true big bad. All told, it’s not hard to imagine some new group or headquarters being dreamt up for the show.
Though the show won’t be returning until the beginning of 2018, we probably won’t have to wait long to learn that fate of Coulson and what next season will bring. In two months, Comic-Con will likely offer some teases about the future of the show, and the premiere of Inhumans in the fall will offer a prime place to promote season five of SHIELD. Whether or not SWORD is involved in the new season, everything from Coulson in space to the potential for the return of Ghost Rider will provide Agents of SHIELD with more than enough to sustain another exhilarating run of episodes.