First off, if anyone reading this hasn’t seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier or the most recent episodes of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. then stop reading this because MAJOR SPOILERS will be discussed. Last warning, if anyone doesn’t want to be spoiled then go and watch that excellent movie or watch the TV show online somewhere and come back here when done.
The events in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, without exaggeration, completely changed the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What happened in that movie probably has more far-reaching consequences than the alien Chitauri attack on New York City seen in The Avengers.
S.H.I.E.L.D., the elite spy agency of the Marvel Universe, no longer exists by the film’s end thanks to Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and his partners. It turned out that the ultra spy organization was infiltrated long ago by Hydra, the Nazi off-shoot organization led by the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) in Captain America: The First Avenger. That revelation halfway into the film was a big WTF moment in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, especially with the disclosure that Hydra was responsible for orchestrating many chaotic and destructive events in our history since the end of World War II. This was something that is disturbing to learn given our violent history and is the stuff conspiracy fans thrive on. But in hindsight, Hydra’s malevolent influence was there in the open for everyone to see.
Think about it, ever since S.H.I.E.L.D. was introduced in Iron Man, there was something a bit too Big Brotherish about S.H.I.E.L.D. They seemed to know too much, had too much access as seen when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the agency’s director, turned up uninvited in Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey, Jr.) place in the post-credit scene in that film. The man was for all intents and purposes a trespasser but everyone was too busy wetting their pants when Fury mentioned the Avengers Initiative. Then they came off as a bit nefarious with the way they coldly confiscated scientific equipment and data from Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her group in Thor. Their blasé attitude throughout the movie didn’t alleviate this feeling, it was as if they were untouchable and they were. In the climax of The Avengers, the World Security Council ordered a nuclear strike on New York City to stop the alien Chitauri invasion. Nick Fury refused to carry out the order, but the Council overruled Fury and had S.H.I.E.L.D. pilots carry out the order nonetheless. Being that the head of the Council, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), was revealed to be part of Hydra, this decision makes sense since he would be fine with sacrificing the city.
As with real-life spy agencies, it would be par for the course for S.H.I.E.L.D. to be philosophically gray and murky when it came to getting their hands dirty when carrying out missions. To them the ends do justify the means; that is just the unshakable mindset of spies. Nick Fury at the beginning of Captain America: The Winter Soldier was fine with this concept. He even scolded Rogers and told him to just accept the questionable philosophy of Project: Insight and get with the program. For that initiative, S.H.I.E.L.D. constructed three state-of-the-art helicarriers that would preemptively take out human targets before they could commit any acts of terror or criminal activity. Helping the project was a computer program that analyzed and predicted the behavior and actions of prospective targets. Later in the film, Pierce ordered the helicarriers to eliminate all potential threats, which numbered in the millions and included Bruce Banner, Tony Stark, the Avengers and Stephen Strange. While those name drops are cool Easter eggs for fans they point out the fact that Pierce and Hydra’s extreme plan would’ve eliminated any resistance to their plan to instigate world order.
At one point in the film, Fury wanted to preserve S.H.I.E.L.D., but Captain America was adamant about taking down the entire structure. Unlike Fury, he saw that the organization was corrupted and unsalvageable. Even without Hydra’s influence S.H.I.E.L.D. was too omnipresent and powerful. The agency was a perfect example of power corrupts. Thus, it had to be disbanded. This decision would immediately impact the lives of many S.H.I.E.L.D. agents around the world.
“Turn, Turn, Turn” the most recent episode of the TV show Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. proved to be an eye-opener. One of the major characters, Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), turned out to have been working for Hydra. That episode ran parallel to the events in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and took advantage of that. Unlike the limp tie-in episode last winter to Thor: The Dark World, this episode felt like a true complement to the Captain America film. Important events from the film like the Hydra infiltration, Nick Fury being killed and the film’s climax drove the narrative. The characters reacted to what happened in the movie and the ramifications of that movie were explored in the episode. As expected, a sense of paranoia permeated the episode as agents turned on one another and no one, not even the viewers could tell for certainty which characters were allied with Hydra.
This paranoia and doubt was so intense that there was doubt if Ward was really part of Hydra or if some of the other characters were truly innocent. By the end of “Turn, Turn, Turn” the show’s feeling of stability was turned upside down. That confidence that the characters had was shattered, more so for the younger members. Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), the seasoned veteran, had been going through his own personal qualms about S.H.I.E.L.D. for some time now. In fact, his arc about finding out how he survived Loki’s attack in The Avengers (he didn’t, he was brought back to life) was the only reason to tune into the show until recently. Not only does Coulson have the burden of finding out why Fury had him resurrected, but now he has to ensure his team’s survival without the comfort and backup of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s technology and infrastructure. How will Coulson and his team function now that their support system is gone? The show’s producers promised that the final few episodes will show the heroes under very different circumstances now that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been taken apart.
One thing for sure with Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is that it has now become very interesting to watch because Coulson’s team are now on the run and can’t trust anyone. Unfortunately the show took too long to find its legs with most viewers and it may be too late in its run to warrant a renewal. Hopefully a second season will allow Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. to further explore a life without S.H.I.E.L.D.
Overall, what do the events shown in the movie mean for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? For one, S.H.I.E.L.D. is gone, so their constant presence is no more. Is that a good thing? Was Captain America justified in destroying S.H.I.E.L.D.? People may be free as Captain America wanted but are they secure? It’s been shown that the world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t without extraordinary peril. This went back even to World War II with the rise of the Red Skull, which in turn led to the creation of Captain America. There needs to be an organization or security force that can handle extraordinary global threats. Perhaps the events in next year’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron will lead not just to the superhero team reuniting but for the spy agency’s resurrection.
S.H.I.E.L.D.’s problem was that it went too far; it was too willing to disregard personal liberties for the sake of security. That is a lesson that resonates today given our current political climate. On the other hand, it can be argued that they were justified in their actions because the agency was merely reacting to the growing threats that were becoming too much for them to handle under normal circumstances. Look at how easily they were defeated in the early Marvel Cinematic Universe films Iron Man and Thor when S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were tossed aside like toys by the likes of the Iron Monger (Jeff Bridges) and the Destroyer.
It’s legitimate to ask if the world is better off without S.H.I.E.L.D. Sure, Hydra was decimated, but as seen in the post credits of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, factions of that organization still exist. More importantly, Hydra will affect the events in Avengers: Age Of Ultron, thanks to the fact that they have the mutants (can’t call them that!) Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), key characters in the Avengers sequel.
So what happens next to Steve Rogers? Will he remain a fugitive because of his actions? And what about the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan)? Does he recover his memory? What will be the focus in the third Captain America film? An obvious way to go would be to loosely adapt “The Death Of Captain America” story arc, where Rogers is killed and the Winter Soldier takes up his mantle. It should be noted that Stan has a nine-picture deal with Marvel Studios and Evans has recently said that he wants to retire from acting once his multi-picture contract is up. Another way to go is to adapt parts of “The Captain” story arc from Captain America #332-350, where Steve Rogers quits and John Walker becomes the new Captain America, while Rogers assumes the identity of the Captain. Until then, all we can do is speculate and enjoy the ever-changing nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.