I recently discussed how Disney's (DIS 1.09%) ABC network was having problems with the Avengers spin-off "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," due in part to how segregated the show seems from the cinematic universe that Marvel Studios has built. The lack of "Marvel"-ness seems especially obvious when compared to shows such as the CW's "Arrow," which is based on one of Time Warner's (TWX) DC Comics characters. While "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." has largely relied on more generic threats and occasional name-dropping to tie it in to the larger Marvel universe, "Arrow" features appearances by a number of DC heroes and villains.
It seems that ABC has more planned for "Agents" than just a few one-off references and a cameo by Samuel L. Jackson yelling about goldfish. Recently announced plans show that ABC is building toward more interaction with the Marvel universe at large, and possibly may be dropping hints about the future of Marvel Studios' films as well.
The most recent episode of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." introduced Donnie Gill, the alter ego of the Marvel villain Blizzard. Similar to the previous introduction of Gravaton, the episode focused on Gill as a non-powered character and granted him cryogenic powers near the end (potentially foreshadowing him as a villain later in the series). It turns out that Gill was only the first of several Marvel characters planned for the second half of season one, however.
Feb. 4 will see the continuation of J. August Richard's storyline, which began in the series pilot. When his character Mike Peterson was last seen, he had been captured by the recurring antagonist Centipede. According to executive producer Jeffery Bell, Peterson will be transformed into the cybernetic assassin Deathlok; this is significant as the character not only has a 40-year history in the comics, but almost made it to the big screen in a stand-alone film as well. Though the film has generally been considered dead for a few years now, if the character proves popular then it's always possible that Marvel could revive it with Richard in the lead.
Also coming to "Agents" is a direct crossover with the "Thor" films. Jaimie Alexander will reprise her role as Lady Sif in the 15th episode of the season, coming to Earth to track down an Asgardian named Lorelei. This could give viewers a hint of what to expect in a potential third "Thor" film, as in the comics Lorelei is the sister of Amora (better known as the "Thor" villainess The Enchantress, a major character that is expected to show up sooner or later as a film antagonist.)
Will it work?
While "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." isn't strictly a "superhero" show in that it doesn't follow the exploits of costumed heroes, many fans have been disappointed in how little the show deals with known characters given the number of heroes and villains in the Marvel universe. The inclusion of several Marvel characters in the second half of season one could be a move toward the vision many had for the series based on early hype: a weekly view of the Marvel universe from the point of view of those who have to keep it under control.
The transformation of Mike Peterson into Deathlok, combined with the teasing of villains such as Graviton and Blizzard, shows that "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." is playing a long game with its storytelling. With Bell's statement on Deathlok revealing that the transformation was planned from the introduction of the character, it gives us a glimpse at how far in advance the studio is planning some of its plot twists. This isn't necessarily a good thing, however.
Most of the episodes of "Agents" are designed to be self-contained, with larger story arcs looping through them. If not handled well, this can lead to pieces of the story arcs feeling bolted on or out of place in the context of the episodes that they appear in. Worse yet, it can make the individual episode plots seem like filler designed to stretch out the story arcs across the season. Balancing these two aspects will become more important as more of the Marvel universe at large begins showing up in "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."
There's hope yet
Though viewership has declined significantly since the show's pilot brought in more than 12 million viewers, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." seems to have found a core audience by this point with between 6 million and 7 million viewers each episode. If ABC and Marvel Studios can begin fleshing out the groundwork they've been putting down and using the show to expand on the cinematic universe that appears on film, then the show might just be getting started.