Speculating the future of Agents of SHIELD in a post-Winter Soldier world

If you haven’t seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier yet, then stop what you’re doing and go see it now. I don’t care if you’re at work or taking care of your children; this movie is more important than any minor concerns like that. But if you can’t drop everything and go see arguably a top 3 superhero film ever, then at least don’t read the rest of this post, because massive SPOILERS are on their way. Same with anyone not caught up on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Agents of SHIELD returns

Ok, for those of you left, you should know that Winter Soldier revealed that since the end of World War II, and the beginning of S.H.I.E.L.D., the organization has been infiltrated at every level by Hydra agents; included among them was Arnim Zola, a lesser villain from the first Cap movie, who’d downloaded his brain into computers as his body died. The movie concluded with the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters and the release of all its secrets on the internet. One imagines that all that might have a fairly notable impact on a TV show built entirely around agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. So let’s check out some highlights from this USA Today article on the impending changes to the show:

The show’s group of agents led by Coulson (Clark Gregg), introduced in the Marvel movies, are faced with not only trust issues among themselves but a civil war within the entire S.H.I.E.L.D. organization, where no one knows who’s actually a Hydra operative.

Upcoming episodes feature at least one major betrayal, and what’s left of Coulson’s team is forced to deal on their own with the dismantling of their whole world as well as the new Hydra threat.

And the hardcore fanboy contingent has decried its lack of characters from the comics, though that will be addressed with the Hydra element, which the show couldn’t mention until now in order to avoid spoiling Winter Soldier, Whedon says. Instead, the series spent time building external threats — the big bad mystery man the Clairvoyant, the mad scientists of Centipede, the cyborg operative Deathlok (J. August Richards) — for the heroes to deal with that would then connect back to Hydra later. …

“I’m a little old for it, but I’m the one texting, ‘OMG! OMG! Oh no, you traitor!’ It’s kind of hilarious,” [Gregg] says. “People are racing to their car to read the new scripts and find out what new Hydra betrayal is going to be revealed.”

That gives me the vibe that they won’t be afraid to spoil Cap, at least to some degree (the Hydra infiltration), which is good. There are six episodes left this season; they would have had to really spin their wheels to avoid getting to Hydra explicitly. I suspect they still might not have the final destruction of SHIELD headquarters and the intel leak right away, maybe waiting til the finale or near for that part to link up. The rest of this season could play out simultaneously with the spread-out events of Winter Soldier.

The article mentions there will be at least one betrayal. I would hope that doesn’t refer to Victoria Hand, whom we already saw up to no good at the end of last episode.  She feels like an easy lock now to be an agent for Hydra, coupling her new antagonistic role with the Winter Soldier reveal. They could still back off that and make her just a pawn, but I’m guessing that’s unlikely. If any reveal is going to be backed off of, they seem to be saving that for May — which is almost a shame, because May felt scary as fuck while hunting down Fitz and would probably be a killer villain. But I think this promo makes it clear that if May was secretly working for anyone, it was the good guys:

So assuming it’s not May, and hoping that Hand isn’t close enough to the group to count as the big betrayal, who’s left?

I’ve seen some online chatter speculating that Bill Paxton’s character, John Garrett, would be Hydra too, and maybe even the Clairvoyant. Both theories make a certain sense marketing-wise; Paxton is probably the biggest name actor on the show (not counting the 20 seconds of Samuel L. Jackson), so he’d bring some serious cred as the show’s first Big Bad; his betrayal would also carry a bigger impact than Hand’s, which seemed too obvious from the start. I think Paxton would probably play an epic villain, but I’d rather have Garrett continue to be a good guy guest star in some form. And I think that’s where we’re headed, from another promo:

It’s possible that’s a fakeout to make Garrett seem clean, but it seems like a dumb chance for Hydra to take that Garret could have been killed, if he’s their own. Perhaps one of his protégés could be implicated, either Agent Ward or Agent Triplett, either of whom could be the “betrayal” (with Ward the bigger impact).

But as to the “Big Bad” himself, I’m desperately hoping that Arnim Zola is the Clairvoyant; his line in Winter Soldier about using his algorithm to predict the future was so spot-on. Moreover, while the Zola reveal scene was a highlight in a movie full of highlights, it would be kind of a shame if that was the last we see of him. Bringing in Toby Jones would amp the show way the fuck up, and I think Jones’ Zola could become Marvel’s second best villain thus far (after Loki). It even feels like a logical route; the show can’t touch certain characters earmarked for the movies, but how much further would Zola really factor into the movies now anyway? Continuing on in the show would makes sense all around, if Jones is game. It could also lead into a reveal that Centipede has been part of Hydra all along, which I’ve always hoped for.

Another interesting speculation I saw involved the first credits scene, introducing us to Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, who will reappear in Avengers: Age of Ultron. I don’t even remember the exact line, but apparently before introducing the twins, Baron von Strucker made reference to graves being littered with previous attempts. Could that in some way be related to Skye, and her weird origin? Probably not, if Strucker was only referencing attempts using Loki’s staff, and since we’re still a year away of Avengers 2, Marvel is unlikely to spoil whatever that connection is. But I won’t fully discount Hydra in some way being behind Skye; since we know now that Hydra has been fully active since WWII, there may yet be a connection there.

Finally there’s that matter of what form the show takes long-term after all this. My guess is starting next season, they’re a ragtag group of semi-unsanctioned operatives using their previous connections to make due without the massive version of S.H.I.E.L.D. behind them … but they still call themselves S.H.I.E.L.D. so the show title works. But while that’s what I would guess, my hope is a much bigger shakeup.

We also saw Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) in Winter Soldier, with her final scene showing her applying for a job at Stark Industries. This could sync up perfectly for my ideal scenario. In the first Avengers film, the superteam had the power of S.H.I.E.L.D. behind it, and the removal of that organization leaves a bit of a vacuum. Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige not so subtly implied that Stark Industries would now be the backer for the Avengers. So why not make Stark the backer for a new version of S.H.I.E.L.D., too? With the new liaison between Stark and S.H.I.E.L.D. being, you guessed it, Maria Hill?

maria hill

Here’s how I’d like to see it play out. The rest of Season 1 deals with the Hydra betrayal and massive S.H.I.E.L.D. infighting taking place at the same time as Winter Soldier, and maybe some cleanup after the conclusion of WS, including the reveal that the Clairvoyant is Arnim Zola. There’s a climactic confrontation there, but one that leaves open the possibility of Zola returning down the line. At least one member of Coulson’s team turns out to be a traitor, and one other member is killed, opening up room for new regulars next season. I would pick Ward to be a bad guy now, and Fitz to die (though flipping those two might be more fun, and definitely more surprising). I know everyone hates Skye, but I’d want to let her live to see where her mysterious origin leads us.

Season 2, we lay a new groundwork for the series. Rather than completely isolate Coulson’s team on their own, they become part of a new S.H.I.E.L.D. initiative led by Tony Stark — a nice full circle moment from how S.H.I.E.L.D. brought him into the Avengers. Robert Downey Jr. graces us with a brief cameo in the Season 2 premiere, ensuring that we get plenty of viewers back to give this reboot a chance, after ratings have declined during this season. With Nick Fury in retirement, this new version is headed by Maria Hill; no longer tied up by How I Met Your Mother, the wonderful Cobie Smulders joins the cast full-time. The power structure with her and Coulson could be a fun dynamic, maybe even with a little romantic tension teased.

Another spot could be filled by Agent Triplett (B.J. Britt), an intriguing repeat guest star who already has plenty of chemistry with Agent Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge). Paxton’s Agent Garrett could pop up fairly regularly, if he survives this season. And since I’m living in a dream world, we get Lady Sif herself (Jamie Alexander) as at least a regular guest star, if not regular. Her guest spot earlier this season gave an intriguing pathway, with her clearly somewhat weary of losing the battle for Thor’s affections; wouldn’t striking out on her own be a logical outgrowth? Since Loki is secretly King of Asgard now, he would surely not object to having another danger to him a little farther away. And if Hydra is still using Tesseract power for some of their weapons/experiments, then Asgard has an interest for her initial reunion with the group. None of this would need to preclude whatever role she has to play for Thor 3.

lady sif

Hydra can become a lingering Big Bad, the overarching villain the show can return to as needed while also developing new threats and goals. They certainly can’t just be done with the death of Alexander Pierce in Winter Soldier, as we already know from the Baron von Strucker reveal, so having them plague the new S.H.I.E.L.D. is a ready-made plot point. If Toby Jones can be had to occasionally return as Zola, awesome; otherwise, we can see them through the lens of one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. traitors (Hand or Ward/whomever).

Most importantly, the show can start really living in the Marvel Universe, the lack of which, as pretty much every fanboy agrees, has been its biggest problem for most of Season 1. Bringing in more secondary and tertiary characters we already know, playing with superpowers more, will only help the show. A new S.H.I.E.L.D. could routinely battle Hydra for influence of those new powers, especially if we could get Sif in to give the group its own super-powered member — maybe throw in J. August Richards’ Deathlok to give them two.

Take that path, or one just somewhat similar, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could finally deliver on its substantial promise.

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