Television

The Agents of SHIELD Finale Ends an Era When Marvel Shows Could Run Free

Marvel has made movies more like TV, but there are things only a long-running show can do, and Agents of SHIELD did them well.

In a still from the show, Clark Gregg, Enver Gjokaj, Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet, and Henry Simmons stand next to one another
Clark Gregg, Enver Gjokaj, Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet, and Henry Simmons in Agents of SHIELD. ABC/Mitch Haaseth

After seven seasons and 134 episodes, Agents of SHIELD comes to an end on ABC this week, and with it might go the last of the great Marvel TV shows. As Disney has moved to consolidate all of its properties under the same banner, it’s systematically extinguished the TV shows licensed to non-Disney outlets—Netflix’s Defenders quartet, FX’s Legion, Hulu’s Runaways—to make room for a new batch exclusive to Disney+, featuring actors and characters ported over from the movies, and even those on Disney-owned networkers like Freeform and ABC are getting the hook in favor of moving everything to Disney’s subscription streaming service. Agents of SHIELD isn’t quite the last of the pre-Disney+ Marvel shows (Hellstrom, a one-off limited series, will air on Hulu in October), but it already feels like a relic of an era in which those properties could develop along their own lines without needing to serve as trailers for future blockbusters. Agents of SHIELD was more closely tied to the movies than most—Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson, for one, made several jumps from the TV to the big screen—but as the series extricated itself from the larger continuity, it got a kind of freedom the rest of the universe couldn’t—and now, probably, never will.

Although it was the big HYDRA reveal tied into 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier that marked Agents of SHIELDs shift from maybe-DVR to must-watch, AOS, much like its sister shows on Netflix, largely kept the bigger Marvel Cinematic Universe in the background. This set the show free to go in directions the movies never could, taking risks and developing characters without having to worry that they might have accidentally caused a problem for a movie five years down the pipeline. Indeed, after that HYDRA reveal, Agents of SHIELD mostly stopped referencing the movie universe, and by the point space and time travel were introduced at the end of Season 4, continuity with the rest of the MCU was completely out the window. Take the “Marvel” out of the title, and it could have been any other sci-fi show, and a pretty well-made one at that, full of three-dimensional characters, big emotional payoffs, and thrilling plot twists.

With the new wave of Disney+ shows united under MCU mastermind Kevin Feige, I fear that self-contained quality may be on the verge of extinction. Where Marvel TV shows used to be allowed their own discrete tones and storytelling, the very nature of the new wave means those series must serve the movies first and themselves second. And, unfortunately, that also may mean less thematic freedom. The initial wave of Marvel movies and TV shows tackled all sorts of interesting, nuanced ideas: the underbelly of the military-industrial complex and war propaganda (Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger), knotty family legacies (Thor), marginalization and trauma (Jessica Jones and Luke Cage), and so on. That’s what made Marvel into the behemoth it is: the combination of superhero aesthetic with genuinely engaging, character-driven storytelling.

Now, with a few exceptions (thank Odin for Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther), every Marvel property tends to feel the same: bright color palettes, a mid- to late story twist, and a focus group–tested, PG-13 (for violence only), quip-punch-quip style of narrative that deprioritizes character relationships and only pays lip service to the interesting, grown-up themes that lurk beneath the surface. Marvel’s products have become too big to fail, but also too big to try anything too risky. The new shows might not fall into that same trap, but Disney+ has already acquired a worrisome habit of shutting down or selling off challenging titles like Love, Victor and the Lizzie McGuire reboot, which makes me skeptical that the stewards of its multibillion-dollar Marvel empire will be allowed to color outside the lines.

Agents of SHIELD has spent its final season on heady themes like the malleability of time and the deep bonds of found family, and even recently aired a complicated, tear-jerking interrogation of the nature of death, friendship, and loneliness. While “man out of time” Daniel Sousa found new purpose, new love, and literally new life in joining the team, humanoid alien Enoch sacrificed his life after over a year of learning what it means to be part of a team or a family. Enoch’s death scene—and his conversation about fearing the moment he would have to “leave,” alone—was devastating not just because it had no easy answers or reassurances, but because it was the culmination of a yearslong story arc. We’d watched him evolve as only characters on long-running network shows can, rather than being told to feel sad after knowing him for a few hours, max. It’s satisfying to be able to sit with those emotions and process, as a viewer, rather than worry that I can’t lose focus because I might miss some Easter egg hinting at some upcoming franchise entry.

That combination of more time spent with characters and fewer requirements to hint at future moves meant that AOS got to actually take risks and then explore the fallout in a satisfying way. Getting to be independent means getting to be messy, because those messes are the show’s alone to deal with. Over the years, the Marvel movies have increasingly behaved more like a sporadic, extremely expensive TV show than traditional films, with long-running plotlines, recurring characters, even “phases” that act like seasons. But Agents of SHIELD reminds us that there are still some things movies can never do as effectively as TV can. There’s no comparison between spending two-ish hours a few times a year with characters (often just a few at a time) and having them in your home for an hour a week over a span of several years. Most TV episodes don’t have to bear the weight of being an event, so there’s room for quiet and introspection in a way that, with a billion dollars in grosses regularly on the line, the Marvel movies simply can’t afford. By tying Marvel TV more closely to Marvel movies, the shows have to bear that “event” weight, too, and I fear that might squeeze out much of what has made Agents of SHIELD special.

That independence, coupled with the real-time scope of a long-running network show, has produced some of Agents of SHIELD’s best storylines. Fitz and Jemma’s slow-burn romance has been one of the most satisfying love stories in recent TV history—a marked departure from the three-scene-and-done romances we’re supposed to buy into in most of the Marvel movies. When Jemma is willing to time-travel to get her life with Fitz back, it’s devastating and makes sense for the character: These two have crossed boundaries of space, science, and logic out of love for each other over seven seasons, so why would time be any different? Contrast that with Steve Rogers’ decision to bend time to “go back” to Peggy in Avengers: Endgame, which feels less like a logical evolution of his character than a way to write Captain America out of the story (and gracefully play out the end of Chris Evans’ contract).

Since divorcing from the mainline Marvel universe, Agents of Shield has gotten room to breathe and room to do the weird, strange, interesting stuff that’s as thrilling narratively as it is thoughtful thematically. Where else could we have gotten the Framework storyline exploring what-ifs and alternate selves, or watched Fitz and Jemma literally confront manifestations of their traumas in humorous but gut-wrenching ways? AOS got gleefully weird and tonally experimental at times, tackling different genres within each half-season pod and treating its characters like mature adults rather than life-size action figures. They’ve gotten to make mistakes, have sex, have devastating fights, shatter and heal, and otherwise develop into complex characters who aren’t always perfectly family-friendly (although, of course, the ABC show didn’t go nearly as far in this direction as its Netflix cousins). It’s this kind of complicated, knotty humanity that I’ll miss the most about AOS and Marvel TV shows in general.

To be fair, it’s not necessarily all doom and gloom for Marvel’s future shows. The Mandalorian has proven that Disney+ is willing to allow for the occasional hint of darkness and moral murkiness even in its marquee properties, while the description for WandaVision—a kind of faux-’50s sitcom featuring a character who, in the movies, is already dead—sounds delightfully weird. But as Marvel moves toward an integrated, synergized universe, it seems more and more likely that the priority will be interplatform continuity. Agents of SHIELD went from a goofy “suits behind the suits” show to the kind of show that cheerfully throws together alien rock goo, literal demons, and Matrix-like fake universes alongside exquisite character development and nuanced themes. Will we see something like that again? Probably not, but I’ve enjoyed every minute of the wild ride.