Just over 10 years ago, on September 24, 2013, real cinema premiered on ABC. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was the studio’s first attempt at expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe from movie theaters to the small screen. The initial rollout was far from perfect. Erratic breaks in the programming schedule led to the series’ airing of just six episodes over three and a half months. (If fans kept watching live after that, they deserve financial compensation.) Still, even with that disruptive opening season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. developed a small but loyal fan base. Those viewers would help keep the series on television for seven years and 136 episodes, making the show the longest-running and arguably most successful program developed by Marvel.
In 2019, Marvel Television was folded into Marvel Studios, and after Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ended in 2020, Marvel shifted its focus to creating TV content exclusively for Disney+. The idea was for that content to be not just spawned from the MCU, but directly connected to it. “For the first time, [the shows and movies] will interlink,” Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige explained. “So, the MCU will be on your TV screen at home on Disney+ and interconnect with the movies and go back and forth.” This did not sit well with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans, who to this day believe the show should be firmly recognized as MCU canon. (The series currently has a murky status in that regard.) Nevertheless, Marvel moved on to making MCU-centered shows and miniseries, starting in January 2021 with WandaVision.
Since then, the nearly three years of Disney+ MCU content have produced some good (Season 1 of Loki), bad (the finales of most series, namely The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Moon Knight), and ugly (all of Secret Invasion) television. Overall, Marvel’s small-screen offerings have been a mixed bag, and it’s clear there’s plenty of room for improvement. So, in celebration of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s 10th anniversary, let’s examine six lessons the new Marvel series could learn from it.
1. Surround the main character with a great supporting cast.
One of the best things about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t just that it represents the MCU’s first expansion, but also that it introduces new characters who make strong impressions from the jump. Everyone knew Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) heading into the series, but the ensemble that joined him brought a real vigor to the proceedings. Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet), Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), Antoine Triplett (BJ Britt), and Leopold Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) added an immediate sense of comfort and depth that kept fans engaged in the wide world of S.H.I.E.L.D. By giving the audience characters they could root for—Daisy and her journey of becoming an Inhuman superhero, how May opens herself up to the team, the whirlwind romance between Fitz and Simmons—Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. developed a found-family dynamic that helped carry the emotional weight of the series. In later seasons, new additions Bobbi Morse (Adrianne Palicki), Lance Hunter (Nick Blood), Yo-Yo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley), Mack (Henry Simmons), and Deke Shaw (Jeff Ward) rounded out a roster of compelling characters that kept the show vibrant and fresh deep into its seven-season run. It’s all so well done, and some fans could make the argument that characters like Daisy and Fitz had more meaningful arcs over the course of the series than Coulson did. A show like Moon Knight gave us character after character, but how many of them were truly memorable?
2. Have a willingness to adapt the formula.
If we’re being 100 percent honest, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is technically a misnomer. Seventeen episodes into the show’s run, viewers found out that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been infiltrated by the terrorist organization HYDRA, and S.H.I.E.L.D. as a government institution ceased to exist. But the show didn’t blink. Gone were the “villain of the week” episodes that the show had built its early run on; with nobody certain of who was a HYDRA operative and who wasn’t, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. transitioned into a true thriller, and the show finally hit a groove.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. did its best to keep the formula fresh over the years, and Season 4 is the best example of that. It begins with Ghost Rider, a.k.a. Robbie Reyes (Gabriel Luna), who comes onto the scene and becomes a thorn in the side of the agents—at least for the first third of the season. Then, the show shifts its focus to Life-Model Decoys, or LMDs: androids designed by S.H.I.E.L.D. to replicate real people. In this new phase of the season, AIDA, an LMD corrupted by a magical book of spells known as the Darkhold, takes our heroes hostage. The plot pivot leads to a run of episodes where you don’t know who is real and who is an LMD: a story line that gives more drama and weight to our characters’ choices than Secret Invasion offered even at its best. As AIDA brainwashes most of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team, the show exits physical reality and moves into the Framework, a virtual world where HYDRA rules and AIDA has trapped the S.H.I.E.L.D. members. It’s rare for any show to drastically shift gears even once in its entire run, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. did it three times in one season! If the formula is getting stale, it’s OK to move things around to keep it interesting.
3. Inject personality into the characters.
Gone are the days of 22-episode seasons, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to really develop a show’s characters. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is easily a more popular character than Coulson, having appeared in 12 MCU projects to Coulson’s five (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. notwithstanding), but Coulson has more depth in seven seasons of television than Nick Fury does in 15 years in the MCU.
When fans first met Coulson in Phase 1 of the MCU, he was just a guy in a suit who worked for a government agency. In his first scene in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Coulson shows a different, more humorous side to himself that gets only more apparent as the show goes on, and, frankly, he’s hilarious. Marvel’s Disney+ series can also show us new dimensions of characters we’ve spent time with before, but it’s up to the studio to commit to it. Bucky Barnes in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a great example—we just need to see that throughout the TV side of the MCU more often.
4. Earn those emotional moments.
When Trip went into the Inhuman temple and was turned to stone by Terrigen Mist in the Season 2 winter finale, it meant something. When Lincoln Campbell (Luke Mitchell) confessed his love for Daisy right before he sacrificed himself to finally get rid of Hive, it meant something. When Bobbi and Hunter left the series to embark on a journey to the land of failed spinoffs, it meant something. Fans felt a real sense of loss because they spent genuine time with these people, not just as vehicles to move the plot along, but as actual characters that breathed life and energy into a world filled with so many heroes to keep track of. When Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) died during Secret Invasion, it meant what, exactly? Although Talos and Fury’s relationship dates back to the events of Captain Marvel, the series didn’t do nearly a good enough job of getting the audience to see Talos in the way Fury did, so when Talos died, there wasn’t much emotional backstory for fans to mourn. The same can be said for Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). Killing off characters for shock value just doesn’t work.
5. Learn to expand the lore behind smaller moments.
Remember the cellist whom Coulson and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) briefly discussed in The Avengers? The one who “moved back to Portland”? She shows back up in Season 1 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. We learn about her and Coulson’s history, why they aren’t together anymore, and why moving on from their relationship is best for both of them—all in under 45 minutes! It’s brilliant how such a small moment in one of the biggest movies ever can become a full story line for a character. Taking a tiny interaction in the movies and expanding upon it opens up so many fun possibilities and offers satisfying Easter eggs for the fans. The MCU is so vast, and there are so many more elements to explore. There’s no limit to what stories can be told in the wider universe.
6. Don’t make every problem the end of the world.
In a world full of superpowered individuals capable of reducing cities to rubble in the blink of an eye, many scenes can feel like a matter of life and death. But, honestly, it gets tiring having the fate of the planet at stake every … single … time. There are much better ways to build tension over a season of television. For example, in Season 6 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., most of the main characters spend the majority of time in space searching for one of their missing friends. Their journey isn’t spent trying to save the world; they’re just trying to save one person. Those are the kinds of intimate stakes that can elevate a show past run-of-the-mill superhero fare.
If the new Marvel Studios shows follow these six steps, we could be in for a new, more engaging, and more exciting era of Disney+ television. The kinds of shows that just might be worth losing out on a relationship for.
Just as a final reminder, the lessons are as follows:
Surround the main character with a great supporting cast.
Have a willingness to adapt the formula.
Inject personality into the characters.
Earn those emotional moments.
Learn to expand the lore behind smaller moments.
Don’t make every problem the end of the world.
Hmmm. All of that put together sounds like a mouthful. Let’s just shorten it to S.H.I.E.L.D.