Why the 'Captain America' Crossover With 'Agents of SHIELD' Is Problematic (Analysis)

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD Pilot Episodic Clark Gregg - P 2013
Does the latest episode of the ABC show underscore its also-ran status when compared with Marvel's big-budget movies?

At first glance, this week’s Agents of SHIELD could have been mistaken for a direct crossover with the upcoming Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The reality, however, may be something that demonstrates the problem the ABC series has when it tries to tie in to Marvel Studios’ fan-favorite movies.

Even though “The End of the Beginning” echoed what trailers have teased about this weekend’s big-screen return for Chris Evans’ Star-Spangled Avenger -- rogue elements inside SHIELD acting against the greater good, an earned paranoia about who, if anyone, is actually trustworthy -- it may be better for Agents in the long run if they remain echoes. After all, SHIELD has been building the mystery about the Clairvoyant and his (her? The last-minute reveal that Victoria Hand is on the other side doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s the Clairvoyant herself) ultimate goals for the entire season to this point. Offering up the revelation and resolution of that plot to The Winter Soldier feels like a decision so poor that no executive would sign off on it, regardless of the synergy at play.

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Similarly, the idea that the SHIELD uprising inside The Winter Soldier isn’t going to be addressed in the movie, if not entirely wrapped up (It is a Marvel movie; dangling plot threads are a prerequisite, if only to serve as potential sequel fodder), is something that seems too ridiculous to consider. No matter how successful Agents of SHIELD may have ended up being, why would Marvel Studios agree to turn a multimillion dollar film franchise into little more than a pricey installment of a television show?

What fans are left with, instead, is the likelihood that SHIELD is apparently beset by two separate, if potentially collaborative, conspiracies at the same time, with agents simultaneously being turned by two different entities with, presumably, similar let’s-get-rid-of-SHIELD aims. It suddenly makes SHIELD seem like a pretty poorly run spy organization, doesn’t it?

For all the benefits of the show sharing plot points with the critically acclaimed, much-hyped and eagerly awaited movie -- let’s politely call it “the potential for increased buzz as fans wonder if the two are interrelated” -- it’ll be interesting to see how these parallel storylines play out in the weeks ahead. Will The Winter Soldier steal SHIELD’s thunder by offering a conspiracy that not only plays out on a larger scale, thanks to the joys of a movie budget, but also comes to a conclusion in two hours, while SHIELD’s storyline runs for a further six weeks? (Or the opposite: Will Captain America’s seeming victory be undercut by knowing that Caterpillar and the Clairvoyant are still out there for a while?)

This situation underscores a problem for the ABC show: while it can play in the same sandbox as Thor, Iron Man and the rest of the Avengers, it can’t really play the same game -- whereas the comic book source material is built in such a way that stories can effortlessly cross between series and swap characters, something that the movies have similarly played with on a small scale relatively successfully. Based on budget, scheduling and practical necessities, Agents of SHIELD can, at best, hope to offer a half-hearted additive, not a core part of the main story.

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Those involved in the series know that -- showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen talked about that very problem in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter -- but haven’t, as yet, offered a strong enough alternative reason for the show to exist just yet.

There’s the potential for Agents of SHIELD to offer something that the Marvel movies haven’t, yet -- something longform, more character-based, less bombastic -- that still speaks to the “Marvel”-ness of its comic book origins. But in order to find that, the show will have to stop giving us stories that are literally interchangeable with what the Marvel Studios movies serve up, bigger and better, twice a year.