After what feels like forever—mainly thanks to the fact we had to endure the collective trauma of Inhumans before we could get here—Agents of SHIELD is finally back on our screens tonight. If you’ve drifted away from the adventures of Coulson and the gang, you really should consider coming back and seeing what’s up, because right now SHIELD is at the top of its game.
Agents of SHIELD has long been hamstrung by the not-great first impression it gave off when it first aired back in 2013. A slow start—eventually revealed to be because the show had to wait for Captain America: The Winter Soldier to come out before it could kick into high gear—didn’t help, and by then viewers had left SHIELD in droves. The viewership hasn’t really returned, to the point Disney had to allegedly mandate that SHIELD didn’t get canceled this year.
Being too slow and too reliant on the world of the movies to impact on its narratives was never a good look, even if people who stayed were justly rewarded by SHIELD revealing what would make it such a great series going forward: That after Winter Soldier’s Hydra reveal came out, it didn’t need to lean on the Marvel Cinematic Universe to explore the comics that inspired it all in some fascinating and extremely satisfying ways. We all want SHIELD stars like Daisy Johnson and Melinda May to show up alongside Captain America or the Guardians of the Galaxy on the silver screen one day, but SHIELD’s greatest strength has come from moving away from the movies to poke and prod at the corners of the comics the films have yet to explore.
This is nothing new to SHIELD—after all, its second and third seasons actually built up the concept and existence of the Inhumans through Daisy’s evolution into a superpowered badass, in a much more compelling way than... well, whatever Inhumans was trying to do, other than be about terrible people cavorting around Hawaii like incestuous, despotic idiots. But SHIELD’s last season in particular told a trio of story arcs that perfectly encapsulated the idea of what the show can do so well: taking a minor hint from the movies, or even the current comics, to tell its own tale and explore something new.
These were arcs—stories involving the demonic Marvel antihero Ghost Rider, the duplicitous robot clones of the Life Model Decoys, and then an all-too-uncomfortably real alternate-reality world where Hydra was ascendant—that would’ve been so alien to imagine coming to TV just a few short years ago, when SHIELD was just getting started and The Winter Soldier was just a twinkle in the Russo Brothers’ eyes. And yet SHIELD made them some of the best Marvel TV around in the process. Bizarrely, it did it by taking the vaguest possible connection to Doctor Strange it could—a mystical artifact from the comics called the Darkhold that’s most commonly associated with the Sorcerer Supreme. But instead of using the promise of that connection to try (and ultimately fail, because it’s not something Marvel Studios particularly wants) to bring itself in closer step with its popular movie cousins, it used it to run in completely the opposite direction of the movies and tell new stories.
The newest of these was the introduction of Robbie Reyes as the Ghost Rider, finally adding a supernatural layer to SHIELD. Anchored around an exceptional performance from Gabriel Luna (and some pretty wild special effects to bring Ghost Rider to life), Ghost Rider is the most direct SHIELD has been able to come when it comes to bringing over big characters from the comics—and in the process, it got to play around with major elements of Ghost Rider’s comic book legacy, instead of having to leave it to the movies. The follow-up arc—featuring the rise of Aida, the first “Life Model Decoy” robot duplicate—was even better in this regard, taking a weird concept that’s long played a part in SHIELD’s comic history and turning it into a gripping piece of drama. It played off classic “trust no one” thrillers while tackling the scifi themes SHIELD has always preferred to play with instead of more traditional superhero fare.
But while Robbie and Aida’s storylines were excellent, SHIELD was at its strongest in its final season four arc, with its agents trapped in a virtual reality that cast them as agitators and collaborators in a world where fascists had taken over the US. It was timely, because Marvel Comics was also exploring this area with its ginormous event series Secret Empire (and because, well, have you looked at the news lately?)
But SHIELD had a bite that Secret Empire fatally lacked. It was incredibly willing to call a fascist spade a spade, and just as willing to dive headfirst into its alt-reality premise, telling a tale of resistance and heroism while also challenging the beliefs and skills of characters we’ve seen growing over these last four years in some gut-wrenching moments. It took a tried-and-true scenario from the comics, and used it to reflect just how far Daisy, Simmons, Elena, Fitz, Coulson, Mack, May, and the rest of the team have come since those early days.
Running these characters through that crucible has left them where we’ll find them tonight, not just in outer space (yeah, really!) to tackle more weird and fun areas of the Marvel universe, but stronger than they’ve ever been. If you left SHIELD behind a few years ago, you’re missing out—and you really should dive back in, whether it’s with tonight’s new season, or by going back to watch the excellent comic book TV you’ve missed so far.