This Friday marks the release of the second installment in the central film franchise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), The Avengers, and fans everywhere couldn’t be more excited (myself included). It is through the team superhero movie that all the disparate film and television volumes of the MCU connect. It also exists, though, as its own standalone film and Age of Ultron is a sequel to the first Avengers more than it is to any other piece of the MCU. That being said, one of the most unique features of the MCU and perhaps the most exciting for us nerds is the interconnectivity of the different pieces which, since 2012, has included television chapters in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, Daredevil and the upcoming AKA Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. Each installment operates fully with its own identity and style, a feat unto itself, and one needn’t have seen every previous film or show to enjoy any given one. That being said you really should see them all to most fully enjoy the franchise. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the first television enterprise of the MCU is also probably the most panned in terms of critical reception. Those dissenting opinions quieted in the wake of last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier tie-in and even moreso with this year’s lead-in to the 2019 film The Inhumans. Ardent and casual fans alike have seen their desires for connections to existing movies and comic book canon answered (#ItsAllConnected) as the show has progressed, with Agent Carter taking the backstory back half a century, employing canon characters of its own such as Howard Stark, the Howling Commandos, and Dr. Faustus/Fennhoff.
With the releases of Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel was able to do something unique with the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Surrounding the opening weekend of each, the plot of the show developed and changed with the events of the movies. The effect of Thor 2 was lesser but the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Winter Soldier disrupted the way Fury’s clandestine organization operated on the tv show in an impactful yet organic way. These tie-ins are a brilliant move that have made opening weekend viewing a near-necessity for us in nerd nation. As we approach the opening of Avengers: Age of Ultron, AoS fans are eagerly wondering how the events of the show will tie in to the film and vice versa.
In his interview last week with The Hollywood Reporter, the show’s Executive Producer Jeffrey Bell addressed the topic of a tie-in:
“Winter Soldier happened between episodes 16 and 17 last season, which allowed six more episodes, which was kind of its own separate arc. Last year was such a nuclear option on our show where SHIELD was blown up, revealed to be run by Hydra, and how that affected us. Even though this is a big world and we’re all connected in a cool way, Avengers: Age of Ultron is happening so late in the season, between episodes 19 and 20, there are only three episodes left after that and it really doesn’t lend itself to a separate thing… We found some nice ways to connect, but nothing will be as nuclear as last year. It’s not like it blows up our show in a completely new dynamic the way it did last year. We’ve been doing enough blowing up on our own this year.”
So while the ties-in might not be as disruptive as last season’s, they are certain to be there. Before last night’s episode I had three possibilities in mind:
(WARNING: some SPOILERS follow about the most recent episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but none about Age of Ultron, as I have not yet seen the movie)
1. AoS Agents Appearing in Age of Ultron
Back in September internet rumors began to spread that certain unnamed AoS actor(s) had been spotted on the set of Age of Ultron, later named to be B. J. Britt. If these rumors of Britt’s Agent Tripp appearing in AoS were to prove correct it would position the film somewhat behind the show timewise, given Tripp’s present very dead status. But the rumor traces back to a single blog and the evidence of Britt’s presence is not good. There was also the “Marvel intern” who was posting “leaks” to Reddit two months ago including
“In Age of Ultron, cast of Agents Of Shield show up. May, Daisy, Coulson, etc.”
Unfortunately the intern never provided any way to verify the validity of his claims, but feel free to read the full post here.
To further the point, like many fans I would have expected that after his death in Avengers and then active life in AoS, Coulson would be revealed to the heroes to be alive in AoU. It seems this is not to be as director Joss Whedon attempted what I can only assume was a misdirect on the topic in his recent IGN interview:
“It’s a weird little yes and no. As far as I’m concerned in the films, yes he’s dead. In terms of the narrative of these guys [The Avengers] his loss was very important. When I created the television show, it was sort of on the understanding that this can work and we can do it with integrity, but these Avengers movies are for people to see the Avengers movies and nothing else. And it would neither make sense nor be useful to say ‘Oh and by the way remember me? I died!’”
This seems odd coming from the man whose own idea it was to resurrect Coulson as the protagonist for the television show. Claiming that the television and film segments exist in different parts of the MCU seems to fly directly in the face of what Kevin Feige and Whedon himself have been working toward. As far as the Avengers know Coulson is dead; this perhaps is the truth inside Whedon’s implied lie. But to feign a separation between the entities is either insincerity or the artistic haughtiness that has caused the recent rift between the director and Marvel’s film heads.
2. Maria Hill
During her recent Jimmy Kimmel appearance actress Cobie Smulders confirmed that her character Maria Hill would be appearing in an upcoming AoS episode. Near the end of last night’s episode Hill appeared in a video call with Coulson. Formerly of S.H.I.E.L.D., now employed by Stark, Hill is one of the few characters, along with Nick Fury, to have a role in both the show and films. Contextually it seems that Coulson and Hill have been working together (further belaboring the point about Coulson being dead to the Avengers) as Phil reports on the progress of the mysterious “Theta Protocol” (more on this in a moment). In the wake of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s fall it remains to be seen what Hill’s position will be but it is sure to be affected by Ultron’s world war and the efforts that will become the Avengers Civil War as a result.
3. Baron Von Strucker
The one link we did already have before last night is Baron Von Strucker. In the MCU he was introduced in the Winter Soldier post-credits scene and in this mythology his experiments have created Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, key characters in Age of Ultron. Earlier this season we saw Coulson’s S.H.I.E.L.D. launch a mafia style attack that killed the heads of HYDRA other than Strucker. Many fans thought we might get a showdown with the villain in last night’s episode but instead we got several references to him, his location, “the twins”, and Loki’s staff, presumably laying the groundwork for AoU‘s opening battle at Strucker’s base.
It is here, I assume, that the AoU will tie directly into the show with Coulson’s clandestine search for powered people, a primary plot point for the show, becoming a precursor to the film’s global catastrophe. It’s part of why I find Whedon’s remarks about Coulson being dead for the films to be misleading. He wants Coulson to exist in some artistic gray area so the integrity of his film is protected from outside influences that he himself created. For all its faults, the showrunners (Joss’ brother and sister-in-law) have built an interesting story for Coulson, one that puts him in an important position as the Marvel world turns toward Registration and Civil War. If he were actually dead in the films’ narrative his work would mean nothing and the work that the show itself has done to ground (to a certain extent) outlandish concepts would suddenly have no impact on the larger MCU.
What else did we get last night?
In the final act of last night’s episode we got several references to the larger MCU that were exciting. Coulson dropped his own “Spoiler Alert” note that Fury would be returning to retrieve his Toolbox (does “real S.H.I.E.L.D.” think he’s dead?) right before answering the call from Maria Hill. During the call it is revealed that Loki’s scepter was the real target in last night’s mission, leading to the AoU assault on Strucker’s base mentioned above. At the same time Raina gets a stunning vision of Loki’s scepter and the destruction that is coming from Ultron.
“Consequences are upon us. Men made of metal will tear our cities apart and the world will be changed forever.”
But the biggest Age of Ultron lead-in last night came when Hill asked Coulson if the secretive “Theta Protocol” was ready yet. On par with Fitz’ line earlier in the season about The Inhumans, Coulson answers with a glorious, zoom-in “he said it!” moment:
Maria Hill: Last thing. Theta Protocol, is it ready?
Coulson: Yes it is. Time to bring in The Avengers.
What exactly is Theta Protocol? We know it has to do with Coulson’s global search for powered people and his establishment of secret bases with hundreds of bunks. It is linked to the information in Fury’s Toolbox, given Coulson’s willingness to hand it over now that the Protocol is complete. Why specifically are the Avengers now needed? We know it is not merely the search for HYDRA and Loki’s staff and since Ultron doesn’t yet exist it’s not a response to his destruction. Is Theta Protocol the beginning of the Ultron program, the “suit of armor around the world” that Tony has been building and that’s why Maria Hill is involved? Is Theta Protocol a plan of Fury’s, a failsafe against the work that Stark is doing that will eventually become Ultron?
One theory on the interwebs and the one I like best is that Coulson has been laying the foundation for what is to become the Avengers Academy. Establishing bases all over the world, locating powered people, especially young ones, to train in safe environments towards a greater purpose – this would seem to fall in line with both Coulson’s actions and Fury’s vision and could make for interesting alliances when the Civil War rolls around.
Along with the droves of fanboys (and girls) I’ll be hitting the theater this weekend for the summer’s first blockbuster in its full 3D glory. There will be an additional dimension to my enjoyment, one particular to the MCU, in my curiosity for how the movie will impact the final three episodes of a big second season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. #ItsAllConnected, boys and girls, I don’t care what Joss Whedon says.