We’re less than two months away from getting to see the new Captain America movie which is another major turning point for the live-action Marvel Universe. But one thing is already certain: If Civil War doesn’t acknowledge Agents of SHIELD, this movie’s throwing away an opportunity. [Update: It turns out they’re definitely throwing away an opportunity. See below.]

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Minor spoilers ahead...

Two years ago, Agents of SHIELD was all about playing around with the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier which in turn threw in a couple of Agents of SHIELD easter eggs. In fact, the whole storyline of Agents of SHIELD season one was geared toward the events of the second Captain America movie. Because the plot of The Winter Soldier included the reveal that SHIELD had been taken over by the evil Nazi superscience organization Hydra, Agents of SHIELD was unable to move forward with its storyline until Winter Soldier came out and various shoes were allowed to drop. This led to months of delaying tactics.

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But now, the shoe is on the other foot. (The shield is on the other arm?) Now it’s Agents of SHIELD that has put the next Captain America movie in a bit of box. And unless Captain America 3 devotes some energy to picking up the storyline from Agents of SHIELD, then the new Captain America movie is wasting a huge chance to do something way more cool.

I was thinking about this when I was watching the midseason of Agents of SHIELD which airs tonight. It’s pretty good, by the way. Like a lot of the premieres on this show, it’s not my favorite episode by any means, because it’s mostly setup. But there are plenty of reminders why this show has become essential viewing since it finally broke out of the box that Winter Soldier had shoved it in.

Teenage Mutant Fish-Oil-Eaters

And one of the main plots on Agents of SHIELD right now involves the Inhumans—who are sort of mutants, except that their mutant powers are activated via Terrigen crystals. At the end of season two, a bunch of Terrigen crystals were dumped in the ocean, and now humans who eat fish or take fish-oil pills have a non-trivial chance of undergoing a transformation and becoming an Inhuman, complete with superpowers and stuff. As a result, the population of superpowered people is increasing dramatically, and Inhumans will soon be a substantial minority of the population.

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A lot of the action on Agents of SHIELD has to do with trying to contain or control this brand new superhuman population. And of course, Hydra has its own plans for these Inhumans.

Meanwhile, the plot of Captain America: Civil War, as near as we can tell, is about the Sokovia Accords, in which the Avengers (Earth’s best super-team) is put under the control of some kind of governing authority. Because you can’t have people with so much power running around unregulated. Civil War is very definitely not lifting the plot from the comics crossover of the same name, in which Congress passes the Superhuman Registration Act, requiring everyone with superpowers to register with the government. And yet, the basic idea is the same—with great power should come great oversight.

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We already know that when Civil War hits theaters, Agents of SHIELD will have an episode that shows how the events of the movie affect SHIELD. (It’ll be another shakeup, according to Clark Gregg.) But this time, the crossover should definitely go both ways, or Civil War will risk looking kind of weak.

Because once you know that there are hundreds, maybe thousands of people with superpowers running around unaccounted for, that raises the stakes for Civil War tremendously, in an organic way. Civil War can be about Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross worrying exclusively about a tiny handful of people, who are mostly ex-soldiers and ex-operatives, or it can be about Ross and his people having a concern about superpowered people in general. And in that scenario, the Avengers are just the most visible and highly skilled tip of the iceberg. Which one sounds more interesting to you?

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In tonight’s Agents of SHIELD season premiere, we’re told that the proliferation of Inhumans has reached the point where Fox News is talking about it non-stop. So this is a known problem in the live-action Marvel Universe at this point, and it actually seems weird for Ross to devote so much time and attention to half a dozen former soldiers.

And sure, you could argue that Captain America, Hawkeye, Black Widow, the Falcon and War Machine could do more damage precisely because they’re all either ex-military or ex-SHIELD, and they have training and field experience in addition to their powers. But those five Avengers also have dossiers as thick as a Dagwood sandwich, and you can predict their actions. Unlike the Inhumans, who are mostly not known quantities.

So like I said—the more Civil War talks about the growing problem of Inhumans running rampant everywhere, and the threat of random superpowered people in every community, the stronger the government’s motivation becomes to get the Avengers on a leash. And it seems kind of weird when you have a flood of superhumans, to worry about a few stray droplets.

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So will Civil War acknowledge the much bigger problem of massive numbers of Inhumans, many of them with powers that rival the Avengers? Probably not. Either there will be a throwaway line of dialogue at some point, where somebody says “we already have our hands full with this Inhuman infestation, fer criminy’s sake,” or—more likely—it’ll just be ignored outright.

Update: Apparently on the set of Civil War, someone asked about the Inhumans storyline in Agents of SHIELD, and Civil War’s writers had no idea what they were even talking about, according to HitFix. (Thanks, Craig!) So there definitely won’t be any reference to this in the movie.

The Bigger Problem

And that’s too bad. Because not only is Civil War a lot more interesting if it calls back to all the stuff that’s been happening on Agents of SHIELD—but this would also help to fix the much larger problem with Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.

When you have a multi-media shared universe (movies, TV, etc.), all that continuity can be a drag as well as a support structure. Over time, unless the crossovers cut both ways, you actually weaken the foundations of the movies. Because the movies start to feel disconnected from the rest of the universe, and this could actually make the movies more claustrophobic. Smaller, even.

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This can happen in two ways. First of all, the more movies we have where Tony Stark obsesses about Steve Rogers and Steve Rogers obsesses about Tony Stark, the more short-sighted both heroes begin to seem. Oh no, Tony built a killer robot, and Steve has to deal with it! Oh no, Tony cut a deal with the government to restrict the Avengers, and Steve has to fight against it! Etc. etc. All these guys ever do is worry about each other. Other heroes have real problems to contend with, but whatever. Tony and Steve.

And then there’s the phenomenon which scientists* call the Stakenflatening. That’s where every big Marvel movie has to keep increasing its stakes over time, so that every film is a huge crossover among the same seven or eight people, and there are bigger and bigger explosions. But meanwhile, there are all these stories happening in other media, which are actually more interesting because they’re not just massive explosions involving the Hulk meeting Thor or whatever. And maybe, people start to wonder why the Hulk and Thor can’t have such fascinating adventures.

And here’s the thing—maybe people who go to see Civil War haven’t seen Agents of SHIELD since the start of season one, when it was more popular. (So they won’t even wonder why nobody’s mentioning the Inhumans.) But maybe those people have seen Daredevil, or Jessica Jones, or Agent Carter. When they see Iron Man zooming over New York, they know one way or another that the really mind-blowing shit is happening down there, at street level, and Iron Man is missing out on it. The most interesting villains, and the scariest plots, are happening under Iron Man’s nose.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Superhero Media

The larger point I’m making is this: I’m aware there’s a hierarchy with media properties. And movies starring Robert Downey Jr. are more “important” than TV shows starring Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen. So if there’s going to be any acknowledgement or shared linkage, it’s going to flow upwards, not downwards. But Marvel chose to have a shared universe, in which everything on TV theoretically “happened” for the movie characters—and over time, that’s going to be a bigger and bigger problem, as the TV stuff proliferates and gets more memorable, and the movies get bigger and (probably) more generic and tentpole-y.

In the comics, where Marvel also has a single cohesive universe (more or less), it’s simpler. If these were comic books, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark would have had multiple crossovers with the Agents of SHIELD by now. Just look at how many D-list comics Batman turns up in every month. But for some reason, Chris Evans can’t just drop everything and go film an episode of Agents of SHIELD once a year. Go figure.

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Alternatively, you can take the DC Comics route, where there’s a shared universe on TV and an unrelated shared universe in the movies, and they will never even glance at each other.

But Marvel chose to put all its eggs in one universe, and that seemed like a pretty good bet a few years ago when Agents of SHIELD launched. It’s only now, when Agents of SHIELD is finally spreading its wings, that the downside is apparent.

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So consider this a major acid test. Captain America: Civil War already runs the risk of seeming like a squabble over lines of authority and procedural jurisdiction among a handful of people. But it could actually gain relevance, by admitting that the oversight of superpowered folks is a huge topic that affects all of the Black Bolt-knows-how-many Inhumans out there as well. So Civil War can either give a shout-out to Agents of SHIELD and add to its cred, or it can sail blissfully over the heads Coulson and his crew and risk seeming a bit silly—and maybe not only to those of us who follow the TV show.

* These scientists do not actually exist. I made them up. I’m sorry. I’m aware that inventing scientists is a violation of the third codicil to the Sokovia Accords, and I’ll be turning myself in to Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross as soon as I finish writing this article. I only hope Liv Tyler is still his daughter, because she’s an elf and elves are cool.


Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, which is available now. Here’s what people have been saying about it. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.