Agents of SHIELD is going out with a time-travelling bang. Although the Marvel Cinematic Universe pretty much abandoned its first foray in television a while ago, the show’s seventh and final season has been a hell of a lot of fun as Agent Coulson and the team traipse through time, trying to prevent a group of alien robots and Hydra from erasing SHIELD from history. But this season could have been a total disaster if it weren’t for Avengers: Endgame.
Even though ABC’s Agents of SHIELD hasn’t intersected with the movies in a few years, it’s far too easy to imagine a world where pedantic nerds have been freaking out as the titular agents bounce through the timeline of the MCU, wreaking havoc in their attempts to prevent havoc from being wreaked. After all, season seven has gotten back to the Marvel movies in a somewhat oblique way.
If the Chronicoms either destroy Hydra early in the 20th century or help Hydra take over SHIELD ahead of schedule — two plans the aliens have very much tried — then the MCU gets changed in a major way, especially the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Without Hydra’s infiltration, SHIELD likely doesn’t end up having the technology or power it needs to deal with the Kree invasion in Captain Marvel or Loki’s attack in Avengers. If Hydra takes over early, chances are it successfully takes over the planet years before Tony Stark builds his first Iron Man armour.
Either way, this would break the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s greatest asset: its continuity — the continuity that was meticulously planned and maintained through more than 20 movies, that the company’s various TV shows either had to adhere to or work in the shadows of, that droves audiences to see as many Marvel movies as possible just so they could follow the one, giant macro-story being told since the MCU began in 2008. The continuity that envious Hollywood studios have tried, and failed, to emulate ever since. For the Marvel movies’ most hardcore fans, it would be blasphemy to break it…
…unless the movies did it first.
By sending the beloved superheroes back through time to collect the Infinity Stones to fix Thanos’ snap-a-geddon, Avengers: Endgame didn’t so much break the MCU’s ridiculously caretaken continuity as it did put it in a metal trash can, set it on fire, and then kick the trashcan down the street.
The Avengers changed history in some major ways, from accidentally giving the significantly more evil 2012 Loki a Cosmic Cube (which be chronicled in the god of mischief’s upcoming, self-titled Disney+ series) to Thor stealing his own hammer during 2013’s Thor: The Dark World to bringing the Thanos who existed during 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy to 2023. It rendered a lot of what we’d seen in the previous Marvel movies invalid or at the very least relegated to a timeline tucked away in some far-off corner of the newly formed MCU. That should have driven fans, who’d invested so much in the original MCU, absolutely banana pants, but it didn’t, and that’s for several reasons.
The first reason is that Endgame’s time travel served as an ersatz highlight reel for the previous movies, and gave us a few satisfying character moments we’d never have gotten to see otherwise, like adult Tony Stark getting a chance to talk with the father who was killed while he was a surly teen. The second, more important reason is that Endgame was the conclusion to the “Infinity Stone” saga, and the conclusion to the MCU itself (at least, to that point). Endgame didn’t really mess with the movies’ main timeline as much as the fact that messing with the movies’ timeline was Endgame’s story. There wasn’t really anything for fans to get mad at, since the final movie superseded all the other movies that came before. To put it another way, Endgame couldn’t truly alter the MCU’s continuity because it determined the MCU’s continuity (or lack thereof).
While Agents of SHIELD has not even come close to intersecting with the events of Endgame — the entirety of season seven thus far takes place decades before the events of the original Iron Man — it has absolutely benefitted from that film’s decision to free the MCU from the shackles of continuity.
The show has been able to go through its Legends of Tomorrow-esque jaunt through the 20th century with the freedom to tell whatever story it wants and leave as many chronal messes as that story needs. Some of those are just for funsies — one of the episodes, set in the ‘80s, saw SHIELD’s semi-loveable goofball Deke pull the time-honoured, time-travel schtick of performing a bunch of rock songs from the future and pretending he wrote them. But some of them have given time for Agents of SHIELD’s cast to strut their stuff.
In 1976, SHIELD director Mack discovers his young parents were murdered and replaced by Chronicoms. Suddenly learning his parents were dead is one thing, and realising the childhood he’d had has been erased is another, but then Mack is forced to chuck the killer robots wearing his parents’ faces out a jet airlock. It is deeply traumatising, so much so that there’s no reasonable way the character could resolve his feeling over the course of a single episode — but with only a half-season of 13 episodes to wrap the series up, logistics dictated this important emotional suffering Mack needs to go through had to be processed post haste.
Thanks to the magic of time travel — and stories that use time travel — Mack manages to do the processing he needs in a way that’s still satisfying to audiences. While mourning his parents’ death by killer robots, Mack manages to get left behind as the rest of the team is forced to jump into the future. Deke, who knows what it’s like to have your parents murdered, tries to help and gets stranded as well. Then we get a highlight reel of Mack isolating and drinking himself into oblivion to avoid the mental trauma of what’s happened to him. Deke eventually pulls him out of his funk, and Mack gets to spend the next year and a half processing and healing while waiting for the rest of SHIELD to return from their time jump. When Mack rejoins the ream, the character is where the show needs him to be without cheating him out of his arc. It’s well-handled and effectively done.
And thankfully, in the grand scope of things, it doesn’t matter at all that the future director of SHIELD lost his parents when he was young. It’s not that things didn’t change — they obviously changed drastically for Mack — but Agents of SHIELD doesn’t need to worry about making everything perfect. They just have to make things as good as they can be, and that’s a far more interesting story (as Legends of Tomorrow can attest).
But it wouldn’t have been possible in the first place if Avengers: Endgame hadn’t told the millions and millions of Marvel Cinematic Universe fans, “Fucking up the timeline is officially ok, so don’t worry about it.” If not for that, the time-travelling adventures of the Agents of SHIELD would look very different, if they existed at all.
Chances are Disney, ABC, and Marvel Studios wouldn’t have approved anything that even appeared like the TV series was having some effect on the MCU proper, no matter how minor. Thankfully, Avengers: Endgame left the gate to the franchise’s nascent multiverse open, allowing Agents of SHIELD a brand-new place to romp around in, and the freedom to so. And in the process, become as good and fun as the show’s ever been.