A true Marvel: Agents of SHIELD is the hidden gem of the MCU

The concluding seventh season is about to hit UK screens, and it has all the Whedon-esque charm fans have come to expect

Jeff Ward, Elizabeth Henstridge and Chloe Bennet in Agents of Shield
One last mission: Jeff Ward, Elizabeth Henstridge and Chloe Bennet in Agents of Shield. Photograph: Mitch Haaseth/ABC
One last mission: Jeff Ward, Elizabeth Henstridge and Chloe Bennet in Agents of Shield. Photograph: Mitch Haaseth/ABC
Emma John

Last modified on Thu 12 Nov 2020 05.02 EST

When Agents of SHIELD returns to UK screens on Friday for its seventh and final season, there will be plenty of casual Marvel watchers surprised to hear it is still going. The show that made a hero of the movies’ bit-part player Phil Coulson, a suit working at a shadowy men-in-black government division, received huge hype as the Marvel Comics Universe’s (MCU) first TV crossover. But it lost profile amid the slew of series that followed: the classier Agent Carter, the cooler Jessica Jones, the more “adult” Punisher. A couple of years ago, even its producers looked ready to walk away, with a fifth-season finale that offered endings all round.

An unexpected, and much shorter, sixth season propelled the plot into deep space: a perfect symbol of SHIELD’s mission creep. What began as a spy operation, comprising a hacker, two scientists, and a couple of black-ops specialists, was now a band of intergalactic renegades protecting the Earth with a blend of superpowers and bionic limbs, not unlike the Avengers themselves. Now, at the start of season seven, the team have beamed back in time to 1930s New York. The writers’ approach to the ever-widening scope of adventures seems to be to shrug and say: if Doctor Who can get away with it, so can we.

And it works. In an era when you couldn’t accuse Marvel of underselling anything, SHIELD has been one of the franchise’s forgotten gems. After a leaden opening gambit as an X-files-style procedural, the show got more enjoyable the more it appeared to over-reach. Core characters were revealed to be treasonous villains. Narratives expanded to take on any number of sci-fi tropes and genres, from biological warfare to AI to hell dimensions to grand space opera. With every new phase, a descent into silliness beckoned yet, somehow, was kept at bay.

Part of that is down to central performances full of warmth and integrity. Clark Gregg’s everyman-hero Coulson became a televisual oasis of unruffled sense and decency while the real world was being overrun by incompetent narcissists. The pairing of Iain de Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge, as lab partners Fitz and Simmons, provided the kind of best friends-turned-lovers chemistry most romcoms would kill for. Even cardboard heartthrob Grant Ward, as played by Brett Dalton, evolved into a nuanced, multi-faceted character.

Clark Gregg as Coulson with Henry Simmons as Alphonso Mackenzie
Clark Gregg as Coulson with Henry Simmons as Alphonso Mackenzie. Photograph: Jessica Brooks/ABC

While no one would deny that recent seasons have had their hokey moments – including an army officer transformed into one of the campest costumed villains since General Zod – its final legacy does not deserve to rest in a cluttered MCU dump truck alongside Iron Fist and The Defenders.

If anything, Agents of SHIELD has always felt more affinity with the 90s oeuvre of Joss Whedon: no surprise, since Whedon created the pilot, and the showrunners are his brother Jed and sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen, who collaborated with him on Dollhouse. The overarching narrative has followed Daisy Johnson, AKA Quake, a young woman struggling to grasp her new identity in the wake of kick-ass super powers emerging in the second season. Coulson is the father figure guiding her and their tightknit Scooby gang as they face down one imminent apocalypse after another. As Whedon himself might say: Buffy much?

It is this dynamic, established with a familiar snarky wit, that has allowed the characters to grow increasingly complex. Here is a group who are stuck with each other, but would also die with each other, as they hide out in underground bunkers or their perpetually cloaked spy plane. Even in a world where there is always a “solve”, actions have real and lasting consequences, and guilt is a recurrent motivation – exactly the dynamic that Buffy mined so well.

No wonder that the two most powerful story arcs have been ones that sent its heroes into dystopian realms. In season four, a Matrix-style “framework” imprisoned its team in a virtual reality where the fascist propaganda of Captain America foes Hydra had prevailed. Its topicality was biting – Donald Trump references everywhere you looked – but just as powerful was the revelation that even Fitz, the show’s most soft-hearted character, could be twisted by his environment into a sadistic monster.

Iain de Caestecker as Fitz
Totally wired: Iain de Caestecker as Fitz. Photograph: Mitch Haaseth/ABC/Getty Images

The fifth series, meanwhile, spun the crew into a post-apocalyptic future they were burdened with the task of unmaking. Keeping Fitz and Simmons apart has become one of the show’s key connivances – Simmons was stranded off-screen for several episodes in season 3 – and here it was Fitz who was kept out of frame. When he was eventually sent in to the rescue, it was with more than a whiff of Han Solo, and resulted in a touchingly funny marriage proposal. But the writers refused to allow even this newly made action hero to entirely redeem the past. Who Fitz had been in the framework was never forgotten, nor written off as a dream.

This is the way with SHIELD, characters often left to count the personal cost of their unseen heroics. As much as it borrows the spunk and arch humour of the Whedon-verse (“If I come out will you shoot me? Because then I won’t come out”), it also has the melancholy that comes from repeatedly sacrificing yourself for a public that never sees or appreciates it.

Coulson, like Buffy herself, has died at least twice in the course of his duties; we know already that the version we encounter in this final series will not be the original, but an android, uploaded with his memories and personality in a manner eerily reminiscent of Dollhouse. Yet it wouldn’t be SHIELD without him, and this show deserves to go out with all guns – and characters – blazing.

• Agents of SHIELD season seven is on Disney+ from 13 November

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