Marvel's Agents of SHIELD is back, and the show's return has brought not only some real highs and lows for the main cast, but a ton of comic book references, and major Avengers' villain Absorbing Man to boot!

This first episode of the season is fairly strong, with some real development taking place off screen, but not so much that audiences feel lost or cheated. The new villains seem really strong and the heroes seem more focused than they did last year. On the downside, the parts that are darker might be a little too dark (though not Walking Dead-level depressing), and the ending might leave a few audience members scratching their heads.

Once again, Marvel is releasing comic book cover-quality art to go along with the episodes, and while I love this first image, I haven't been able to identify the artist. Anyone know who it is?

Spoiler-Light Recap: Months after the fall of SHIELD and Coulson's promotion to director of the now defunct agency, a small (but growing) team of SHIELD loyalists are trying to flush Hydra out of hiding while protecting a world that fears and hates them. Pursued by a well-meaning but pig-headed military man and attacked by a basically evil supervillain, the team is forced to make some hard sacrifices to continue operating under the radar.

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On with the Comic Connections:

This episode's monster-of-the-week is actually a pretty major villain in the Marvel Universe. While not a mover and shaker like Doctor Doom, he's a legitimate threat to heroes whenever he shows up. In the show, Carl "Crusher" Creel was a Gifted™ individual on SHIELD's Index of superpowered individuals, but he was deemed too much of a threat and ordered put down. Unfortunately, they trusted last season's threat John Garrett with the job, so Creel ended up with Hydra instead. In the comics, Crusher Creel became the Absorbing Man when he was empowered by Loki to be a nuisance to Thor. Since he can absorb the properties of anything he touches - he's nearly unstoppable when he absorbs Cap's shield, but since he's not the brightest bulb in the bunch, he's been defeated after accidentally absorbing the properties of the common cold. He's known for his distinctive look (shirtless but with prison-striped pants) and his signature ball-and-chain weapon (the geek in me was excited to see him use it on screen!). Creel's characterization has been pretty consistent over the years, except for the brief time he was a genius manipulator, but this was later explained as a hiccup in reality. He is not, and never has been, the Hulk's dad.

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Creel's major love in the comics is She-Hulk villain Titania. Wonder if she'll show up in the show anytime soon.

Backtracking a bit, the ep began with a flashback to an evacuating Austrian Hydra base in 1945. No need to get into the significance of Austria during the war, and anyone who saw either Captain America movie should have at least some idea about who and what Hydra is. In the comic book universe, Hydra has been around since the closing days of World War II, founded by Baron Strucker (who appeared in the stinger of Captain America: The Winter Soldier). By contrast, SHIELD only existed for about 10 to 20 years (Marvel time), although Project: Shield has been around for decades. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) Hydra was founded by the Red Skull. As an aside, his name is spelled Johann Shmidt in the comics (despite occasional misspellings) but it seems the film version uses the more common Schmidt.

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The mysterious glasses-rubbing Nazi is Herr Whitehall (although I swear the flashback scene seemed to say "Reinhart," but the subtitles said "Whitehall"). In the comics, Daniel Whitehall was a Hydra leader codenamed Kraken (as in "release the"), but at some point he was murdered and replaced by Nick Fury's long-lived brother Jake Fury. While his history in the MCU is no doubt different, he apparently shows up - not having aged a day - in the modern day in this episode's stinger. Curiouser and curiouser.

Whitehall's Hydra going-away party is disrupted by Agent Carter and the Howling Commandos, giving us a glimpse of the forthcoming mini-series, including Dum Dum Dugan and Jim Morita. Dum Dum in the comics has been Nick Fury's right hand man for years - so much so that when (SPOILER FOR ORIGINAL SIN) he died in the 1960s, Nick Fury had him replaced with a lifelike LMD because he couldn't bear to be without his friend. That means ever Dum Dum appearance set in the modern era was an android that thought it was human. Morita was an ally of Nick Fury's WWII Howling Commandos, even leading his own Niesi Squadron. "Nisei" being a term used to describe American-born Japanese, especially in the 1940s.

Both Whitehall and Carter are interested in "the Obelisk" an enigmatic object that seems to transform people into living statues (or something?). Whitehall views it as the key to Hydra's return, Carter views it as dangerous enough to lock away from even (Iron Man's dad) Howard Stark's eyes. It is catalogued along with other objects by the Strategic Scientific Reserve - the SHIELD precursors established in the first Cap movie. As happenstance would have it, the Obelisk is labeled SSR Item #084, making it the namesake for all powerful-but-unidentified objects SHIELD would encounter in the years to come. Oh, and Dugan briefly opens a box that seems to have a mysterious Big Blue Guy with strange markings on his arm. The source of GH.325 from TAHITI? Hmmm...

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Jump to the present Alexandria, Virginia, and we see a deal go down between traitorous former SHIELD agent Browning and Hartley's mercenary squad. These new characters include Izzy Hartley, an old school SHIELD agent who was deep undercover when Hydra's big reveal caused the downfall of SHIELD, a cranky (but good-hearted) mercenary known only as Idaho (so who knows what state he's from), and a English chap named Lance Hunter. In the comics, Lance was Nick Fury's British counterpart from UK's STRIKE agency (acronyms are fun!). He was introduced in the UK-only comic Captain Britain. Back in the 70s and 80s Marvel published a lot of comics made in and for Britain, and didn't start publishing Marvel UK titles stateside until the 90s just before the whole imprint closed up shop. Apparently Hartley and the team were holed up in Budapest for a long time - seems like a popular place for traumatic SHIELD agent experiences.

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Browning has info on Item #084, a Level 10 classified item. At Level 10, only the SHIELD director (in this case Coulson) should be allowed to look at it.

Coulson, meanwhile, has been completely off the grid thanks to the Silhouette Protocol (presumably connected the Odyssey Protocol and Full Eclipse Protocol from episode "Providence"). The team has been working at the Playground (location unknown) for the past few months, but they've hardly seen hide nor hair of Director Phil. Apparently he's been hopping the globe (flying coach under false identities) trying to find SHIELD loyalists who could aid the new regime. One agent he found was Alphonso "Mack" Mackenzie, the team's new mechanic. The comic book version of Alphonso "Al" Mackenzie was very different, as he was a SHIELD agent-turned-whistle blower who wrote an autobiographical exposé of the agency.

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Also at the Playground, Billy Koenig - it's almost like Eric never died! Almost. Trip even points out how odd it is that Billy is so identical to Eric, and that there are other Koenig "brothers" out there (alluding to Sam Koenig from Comic Con). He asks how this is possible, further hinting at the possibility that Billy, Eric and Sam could be LMDs. Life Model Decoys were intended to be used as literal decoys, even "dying" in place of real agents without anyone being the wiser, but as time went on SHIELD used LMDs more and more, often having dozens of identical LMD "agents" serving in menial positions (something the original Human Torch, himself an android, finds disturbingly like slavery).

May is second-in-command to Coulson, and is considered the field leader of the team. She's also become very protective of Skye, who has spent the intervening time upping her training regimen. Skye's now a competent agent and an excellent shot. She's also been investigating those strange symbols seen by Garrett and Coulson, similar to the ones found by Ward in "Eye-Spy." A similar symbol may have appeared on the Obelisk as well... hmm...

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Then there's Fitz... ah, poor Fitz. We left off last season with Fitz in a coma, having risked his life to save Simmons. It seems he pulled through, mostly. Having suffered oxygen deprivation, Fitz now suffers memory problems and has trouble grasping reality. In an effort to give him time to heal, Simmons took a leave of absence from Coulson's team, but Fitz has compensated for that loss by hallucinating Simmons as his ever-present, ever-encouraging companion. It seems this show really has gone dark. In comics, and speculative fiction in general, it's not uncommon for a traumatized character to completely imagine a missing colleague or loved one. Like that time Professor X made Magneto brain dead, then imagined an entire conversation with his lost friend (of course, this might have been a hint towards Onslaught, which would come shortly afterwards).

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Ward, meanwhile, is being kept in SSR Vault D. The fact that there's an SSR symbol in the Playground suggests that it was a very old base, probably pre-dating SHIELD (and possibly appearing in the Agent Carter series). He's kept behind an invisible force field generated by an inertial confinement laser barrier (pseudosciencey!). It seems Ward survived varies indignities (Including May's torture? She doesn't seem the type to make idle threats) and a few suicide attempts, but he refused to give any relevant information out, unless it was to Skye. Needing info on Creel, Coulson orders Skye to ask Ward. He's helpful, but predictably creepy. He suggests that he'll never lie to Skye for the rest of his life, but he does omit the slightly important fact that he knows who her real father is. By the way, throughout the 80s and 90s, the Vault was the main supervillain prison in the Marvel Universe. Just sayin'.

Ward discloses Hydra's white noise transmissions within SHIELD's quantum key distribution channels. Koenig uses this info to suss out dozens of potential Hydra operations around the world, including an attack on the thorn in Coulson's side, Brigadier General Glenn Talbot. Having successfully captured an undefined quantity of SHIELD and Hydra agents, not to mention Fury's old Providence base, Talbot's been promoted. He takes a brief respite from hunting Coulson to take his wife Carla Talbot (named in promotional materials) and 11-year-old son to the Potomac Plaza in DC - how patriotic. As stated before, Talbot was a major figure in Hulk lore before his death years ago. His brother Brian Talbot is currently the Grey Hulk (just called "Grey").

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May saves Talbot from an attack by Creel only to kidnap the Brigadier for Coulson. That was nice of them. Creel, meanwhile, is taken to a plastic prison. This is certainly reminiscent of Magneto's plastic prison from the X-Men films, no doubt unintentional, but in the comics he was kept in a plasma force field that he was unable to absorb. Of course, he still found a way out (this is during that inexplicably intelligent period mentioned up top).

After a failed attempt to win over Talbot (in any universe, he's an ass), Coulson releases his pursuer and attempts an all-or-nothing mission with all of his available agents (except for himself, Fitz, Mack and Koenig) sent into the top secret government compound holding Creel and Item #084. Trip adopts the alias General Jones to trick the low-ranking Private Tilden, and the mission seems to go off well until Creel predictably escapes, causing Hartley to carelessly grab the Obelisk. As the strange device transmutes her arm to some dead, stone-like substance, her team disobey Coulson's orders to try and save her, resulting in the deaths of Hartley and Idaho, and Creel's escape with the Obelisk. With that kind of result, Talbot's beliefs will only be reinforced.

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On the upside, Coulson's team successfully steal a SHIELD Quinjet, giving them the much-needed ability to fly cloaked (as Fitz's brain is too addled to whip up a new cloaking device at the moment). So... win? Johnnyma45 specifically said he hoped the team would get one of these - wish granted! Quinjets date all the way back to the earliest days of the Avengers, and were designed by the Black Panther using Wakandan technology. They've been upgraded several times over the years, most notably by Tony Stark, and can go anywhere and everywhere the Avengers need them to go, even deep space. They are so representative of the Avengers, in fact, that SHIELD Avengers units have taken to using massif Quincarriers lately, instead of the usual Helicarriers SHIELD usually uses. The MCU version of Quinjets have been pretty prominent in The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Bonus Section:

This episode offers special thanks to some very important people. Added to the list this week are Steve Ditko and Roy Thomas.

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Steve Ditko co-created Talbot, but more importantly, he was the artistic visionary behind Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and most of the formative Marvel Universe that was not drawn by Jack Kirby. Ditko's distinctive style and singular philosophy has helped shape a lot of what we think of as Marvel, but today he's something of a recluse, as far as fans are concerned. Avoiding comic book press (for the most part) and shying away from photos or film interviews, some now spend a lot of time and energy searching for this elusive man.

Roy Thomas, co-creator of the Quinjet, was the wordsmith behind the Avengers and most of the formative Marvel Universe not written by Stan Lee. Invited to fill Stan's shoes as The Man took a more editorial role at Marvel, Roy was one of the first writers to really control what the Marvel Universe would become. His love of continuity and the Golden Age of comics ensured that tons of connections were made between disparate characters and that heroes from a bygone age would not be forgotten.

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Well, that's it for now SHIELDites - see you next week, same Coulson time, same Coulson channel!