This has been a very busy year for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Three movies hit the theaters in one year, three different Netflix shows— including The Defenders and Inhumans—finally joined Agents of SHIELD (AOS) on ABC, and The Runaways started on Hulu. But while it diversified, the MCU also said a final goodbye to two of its age-old antagonists. The Defenders defeated the Hand in their mini series, and Hydra made a brief return in AOS just to make sure it was completely buried.
By the way, spoiler warning for the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I guess. Mainly the TV shows. And a smaller spoiler warning for DCTV.
Why does it matter?
Both Hydra and the Hand were secret societies, implied to have existed for thousands of years. That’s cool. Secret societies are cool. It’s not for nothing half of the conspiracy theories out there include one of those. They made for great intrigues, twists and turns. They’re fun. Also, those two were cornerstone of the MCU.
Hydra had been present since the first Captain America movie. Alongside Loki, it was one of Marvel’s most recurring villains, and the only one to truly made the transition between movies and shows.
The Hand doesn’t have the same track record, but it did appear in the first Daredevil season, although briefly. Its appearances in both Daredevil Season 2 and Iron Fist served as the link for the Netlix team up that was Defenders.
So, what happened to them? And what should we expect next? This first article will only focus on Hydra, and I’ll tackle The Hand later down the line.
A brief history
Hydra are Nazis. At least, that’s how we’re introduced to them in Captain America: The First Avenger. In the movie, they’re lead by a guy with a red face. They’re actually mega-Nazis, since they raise both arms for the salute.
Then Hydra became one of the few villains in the MCU to actually make a come back in Winter Soldier. This is when they truly appeared as a secret society that had infiltrated the SHIELD and tried to take over through that means. They lose, again, but thanks to that movie, they made the transition to TV shows with Agents of SHIELD. This transition not only allowed Hydra to stay relevant, but it made Agents of SHIELD an actual show.
I was personally told to stick with Agents of SHIELD until the episodse where Hydra’s infiltration is revealed, and I had to be told that otherwise I would have stopped watching the show. Without this twist, the first season of AOS is dull. It’s a succession of monster of the week episodes, with a few connections to the movies that feel really forced just to stay relevant. It has fun characters and a certain style, but no plot to cement that until Hydra shows up. And that’s how important this organization is to the show.
And so, in season 2, despite the introduction of a whole plot about Inhumans, Hydra remains one of the primary antagonists. They lose, yet again. At approximately the same time, they make a final appearance in a movie with Avengers: Age of Ultron, where they lose in the first 20 minutes. That was the last appearance of Hydra in a movie, except for a cameo in Civil War and another one in Ant-Man.
They weren’t done in Agents of SHIELD though, and season 3 revealed that Hydra in fact predates Nazism. It was actually a society created with the purpose of bringing back an ancient Inhuman Overlord who had been exiled to another planet. And they managed to do it, then got defeated, then he got defeated. And that was the end of Hydra.
Then comes season 4. And Hydra made an appearance in an alternate universe—created in the confines of a computer program designed to keep people prisoners—where it controlled the U.S. So, it was more of a cameo than anything else, since the “true” Hydra is dead. But still, the premise may sound familiar.
Evolution of their representation
When they were first introduced on screen, Hydra weren’t Nazis. Hydra was just a comic book supervillain organization. They wanted to take over the world with their blue MacGuffin and they lost to the all-American superhero. At the time, it wasn’t that much of a problem, because Nazis weren’t that relevant. If you didn’t portray their evil in detail, it was a bit weird, but Captain America was just a silly comic book movie.
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the whole Nazi thing disappears to keep the focus on the secret society. The idea of a secret organization infiltrating the very foundation of another, here an intelligence agency like SHIELD, makes for a great plot twist. But that also meant that the fascists vibes of Hydra got downplayed. And again, it wasn’t that problematic.
Agents of SHIELD kept the secret society part of the equation and used to to the fullest. They said the word Nazi from time to time, but it was just to remind us of who they were. For 2 seasons, Hydra mainly did what classic bad guys do. The writer of the show used the secrecy to introduce the plot of the Inhumans, and there was a clash over who would reveal the truth first.
By season 3, Hydra had kind of overstayed its welcome. The show was moving in another direction and a secret Nazi cult wasn’t exactly in line with it. But it was an iconic organization that included some of the main characters. (Well, one actually.) So the history of Hydra was revealed to be much more ancient and linked to the new big bad guy, Hive. That way, they could keep the historic villain just enough time to introduce the new one.
It was a strange choice since it changed a good part of what we knew about Hydra, distancing them from the Nazis. Now, they weren’t a branch of the Nazis who evolved since the defeat. They are far older, and only joined the Nazis temporarily. Still, it was a way for Marvel to give a final goodbye to Hydra. And that was it. After 2 movies and three seasons, it was time to let Hydra rest.
Then 2016 happened. At that point, I think the writers of the show probably started to bang their heads against the nearest wall. Nazis had become relevant again, as had punching them. And they had just killed off their Secret Nazi Cult.
They needed to bring it back. And in their defense, they didn’t use the simple “Cut one head, two shall take its place.” The introduction of Hydra in season 4 was quite clever. But it did come with issues.
For 3 years now, Hydra had slowly evolved to reflect the changes of the show. Whether it was a good idea or not, it was done, and they had kissed Hydra goodbye the previous season. In this one, not only did Hydra appeared again, it got back to its roots. Nazism. I’m not joking, the show even has a line designed to remind you of that. And also, probably take a jab at what Marvel comics was doing at that time.
“And for the record. Hydra? They’re all Nazis.” – Jemma Simmons
The last part of the season, where Hydra appears, is filled with references to our era and what happened in America. And not in a subtle way. Once again, Hydra evolved to conform to the show, but it was the first time it marked a regression in its storyline.
The DC thing
So, this section wasn’t supposed to be very long. I just wanted to compare the depiction of Hydra in the different season and how it evolved over the years. Maybe engage in a discussion on why exactly was it necessary to give Hydra an older history, then compare it to the Hand, etc.
But considering what happened quite recently in the DCTV universe, I had to rework part of this article. Full disclaimer, I never watched anything from this universe apart from Supergirl, and I stopped mid-season 2. But, from what I’ve read on here, there are some striking similarities in the themes of this Crisis on Earth-X and those of Agents of SHIELD. One of which I’ll talk about in detail later.
But first we’re here to talk about the bad guys. There is a striking similarity between the two depictions of Nazis. Specifically, they are very ‘Nazi lite’.
And look, I’m kind of a fan of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. It’s not the best show out there, far from it actually, but it came a long way since its first season. It has heart and it has ideas and convictions, and I feel like season 4 was an overall improvement in writing. Buuuut…
The depiction of Hydra in power feels extremely lackluster. Even with more episodes than DCTV had to set up their world, Agents of SHIELD doesn’t go too far. Yes, they show the control of information, the terror set upon the people; they show torture and the rounding up of Inhumans. But it doesn’t feel like a world dominated by a Nazi cult despite what the characters tell us.
In that way, it actually follows the changes made to Hydra through the years. The organization is now more focused on the Inhumans than it is on any Nazi ideology. Which is fine. But because of that, it’s weird that each character feels the need to remind us so often that “They’re Nazis, guys!”
It’s not that huge of a complaint, honestly, because showing an actual Nazi state would force the show to take a very dark turn. And I can see why neither Marvel nor DCTV want to do that, because…that’s not what their shows are about. It still a complaint though and something that I hope they would tackle better. DCTV didn’t even bother to explain why their Nazis aren’t as repressive as expected, which is something Marvel at least tried to do. I doubt they’ll get another stab at it, unfortunately. Or fortunately, depending on where you stand.
What their shows are about
Remember when I said there was a theme in common between Agents of SHIELD and the giant DCTV crossover? Well, it’s a very good theme. One often underplayed because the heroes are perfect. I was glad to see it in Agents of SHIELD and from the few things I’ve seen of DCTV, I’m sure they can do great with it, too.
This theme is whole idea that someone’s education and environment shape their personality and ideas. A person we know as an all-good, American ideal could become a horrible monster in an alternate reality, given the proper childhood.
In AOS, Fitz gets to experience it to the fullest. During his time in the Hydra-dominated alternative universe, he lives as one of Hydra’s top agent as “The Doctor.” At many points during the story, his friends try to get to him, to make him remember, and at no points does that work. Because he has memories of an entire other life, so there is no way he would remember. An easy route that they didn’t take, which was refreshing.
And when all of that is over, he gets to remember both his lives, the one where he is a good guy and the one where he is an absolute monster. Something that deeply affects him, and which I hope will be followed through in season 5.
That’s good drama. And more importantly, it’s character-driver drama. That’s what has made show good from the start. From what I know of DCTV, that’s also something they’re trying to explore. (Again, might be wrong on that, feel free to insult me and tell me that.)
The MCU movies are also character-driven, all of them. It’s good writing, I like it. But that’s also the issue with organizations like Hydra. (And spoiler alert, the Hand has a similar issue.)
Lack of characters
Yes, really. The major issue that I have with Hydra is that there isn’t any character that really represents Hydra once Red Skull is out of the picture. It should work because it’s a shadowy organization with thousands of heads. But it makes it difficult to follow. Brett Dalton as Ward was an agent of Hydra, but he was the one evolving, while the organization itself seem to just switch depending on what the writers needed.
Hydra was just a little bit different each time we saw it. The changes between movies were understandable. During the show, however, it was less believable. The narrative of Hydra changed to fit the show. And it was acceptable to a point because, in the comics the history of Hydra had been revealed to predate the Nazis as well. (I don’t remember Hive being involved, though.) It’s also clear that Hydra came back because it looks cool. Marvel apparently marketed the shit out of their symbol. There are mugs with the skull-tentacles on them and all. Very cool.
Overall, Hydra in the movies and particularly in the TV shows, feels more like a plot convenience than an actual threat. Their motives and methods change with each installment, to make sure they stay relevant to the plot. In that regard, I prefer to see the good side of Hydra’s last cry. Now Marvel, and Agents of SHIELD, seemed to aim for the star, literally I mean. New directions, new ideas. Not completely a fresh start but, here’s hoping. Hoping it only gets better. And that it was truly a final goodbye.
(Please, no more heads, Marvel, please.)