Warning: The following article contains justifications, backronyms, and head-canon. Reader discretion is advised.
The moment when the scales fell from my eyes was about midway in the first Iron Man (2008) film. Tony Stark has escaped his captors, the Ten Rings, and has returned home. Pepper Potts is approached by a well groomed civil servant type who’d like a few words with Tony Stark.
But here’s the thing. He introduced himself as Phil Coulson, agent of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. That was an ingenious acronym in a storytelling sense. By 2008 the word “homeland” had been abused so much that it would make anyone’s brain shut down. Okay, I picked it up, but for the majority of viewers it wouldn’t have meant anything.
Coulson leads a strike force against Obadiah Stane (that doesn’t turn out so well), and eventually he asks Pepper to just call them S.H.I.E.L.D. Then we get the post-credits sequence. Spoiler: Nick Fury shows up.
Follow me after the jump where we’ll take a closer look at S.H.I.E.L.D. through its ever-changing state in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
S.H.I.E.L.D. has been a presence in comics since the ‘60s, flying aircraft carriers through the skies and fighting green pyjama wearing ex-nazis wherever they raise their heads. Over the years the organization has shifted in various directions, usually needing to be brought back into line by Nick Fury, and occasionally burned to its foundations and rebuilt.
S.H.I.E.L.D.’s presence in the MCU expanded to fill the environs of the cinematic universe. They were a constant thorn in Iron Man’s side, and tracked down mjolnir (the name of Thor’s hammer) after it arrived on Midgard (known to most as “Earth”). When Thor’s friends (and enemies) began arriving on Earth, they kept an eye on them.
Iron Man’s father was revealed in the Agent Carter (2013) short as one of the founders of S.H.I.E.L.D., as was Peggy Carter. S.H.I.E.L.D. was revealed to have been born from the ashes of the Strategic Scientific Reserve. They were seen to still be managing the organization until the late ‘80s in Ant-Man’s (2015) introductory scene.
What’s odd, in this circumstance, is why didn’t Tony recognize S.H.I.E.L.D.? Would he not be familiar with an organization his own father helped found and run? He definitely didn’t recognize the organization after they provided him with a cover story after his defeat of Obadiah Stane at the end of the first Iron Man film.
It’s entirely possible that he wasn’t cleared for S.H.I.E.L.D. activities. He works with the US Army & Air Force (and possibly the Navy & Marines, and maybe even the Coast Guard as well) as a weapons developer, but we never see how S.H.I.E.L.D. interfaces with the traditional military. I’m sure the Navy (and the Air Force) would love a flying aircraft carrier.
In The Incredible Hulk (2008), General Ross is working on reproducing professor Erskine’s super-soldier formula for the military, and was working completely independent of S.H.I.E.L.D., even though they developed the original formula.
In The Avengers (2012), Tony Stark seems irked by the fact S.H.I.E.L.D. has kept so much hidden from him, particularly when he attempts to dig deep into their systems and learn all their secrets.
S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mandate seems to be a suitably vague one. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has expanded it to be the peacekeepers and custodians of Earth, controlling parahumans and super-tech of various kinds and keeping them out of the public eye. This is a better mission statement than in the comics’ universe, where they were originally dedicated to fighting guys in green or yellow spandex.
The 616 continuity (the main continuity in the Marvel series of comic book publications) has S.H.I.E.L.D. joined by S.W.O.R.D., which also guards against alien interactions on Earth (and A.R.M.O.R. but that’s not something we need to worry about – yet). The MCU S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to be also taking on that role, based on the presence of Kree corpses in their Tahiti project.
It would make sense if S.H.I.E.L.D. was trying to track down the leader of the Ten Rings, since we know there’s an actual Mandarin out there who may or may not have a fistful of rings (viz All Hail the King).
Of course, after a slightly slow first half season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the engaging Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), we found out that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s been a rotten pumpkin all along. At some point in their founding, Hydra scientists brought over to help build up their scientific knowhow founded a new Hydra within S.H.I.E.L.D.
One of the recurring S.H.I.E.L.D. characters, Jasper Sitwell, was revealed as one of the HYDRA crew, but the remaining named characters were faithful to the organization.
S.H.I.E.L.D. (or a new, revamped S.H.I.E.L.D.) seemed to return in the second season of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series as well as the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), but we can only wait now and see how things will unfold in season three.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is now into it’s third, highly anticipated season. Story-lines revolve around characters called Inhumans along with an eventual expected tie-in to Captain America: Civil War in early 2016.