SHIELD is the ultimate secret agency in MCU for the duration of Phase 1 and 2 of the universe. After Thor: Ragnarok, I became particularly immersed in the universe, and it made me come across the organization now and again as I rewatched the films and read fanfiction. And the more I saw of them, the more it made me wonder. They are supposed to be scarily awesome by definition, but when we actually look at them…what kind of job do they do?
I’ll be working only with information from the MCU here, not the TV series. Agents of SHIELD would be a goldmine for this topic, naturally. However, there would also be too much information to be able to go through it with such detail. Instead, I want to look at the image that is presented solely by the movies. Needless to say, there will be spoilers.
The first glimpse we catch of SHIELD is with Agent Coulson in Iron Man. His approach to Tony Stark is completely legitimate and above board to begin with—or, well, mostly. I’m pretty sure it’s not the most professional thing to just catch people at gala events and press for a work meeting, but it’s also done really often, so no big foul, really. It’s not like Tony is the essence of professionalism.
It gets a little more dubious at the very end, when SHIELD dictates Tony his cover story without consulting with him at all. It’s not only common courtesy, but also common sense to go through the evidence with people you want to give said evidence. And no one sends people into a press conference without briefing them in detail about what is supposed to be said. “Just read it off the cards”? Really? It leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth to see SHIELD assuming it can control Tony. There’s also the way this scenario is just asking for him to go off script, exactly as Tony did. It wasn’t smart and it wasn’t decent. Especially as they, as spies, should be able to tell Tony is not the kind to follow orders well.
Then we get Fury coming into Tony’s house and apparently at least partly disabling JARVIS to speak to him about the Avengers.
Now this is a situation where Fury wants something out of Tony, so I’m not sure why he thought breaking into his house was the best strategy. On the other hand, it does have impact in how dramatic it is. Maybe he thought that the unassuming Coulson, who had been staying mostly professional, didn’t have enough effect. He probably didn’t, given how easily Stark went off script, so Fury decided on a different approach. It makes sense, and it’s not like Fury did anything particularly bad—just a little distasteful. I’m just questioning how he could be so sure that Tony wouldn’t decide to ignore him or even go against him for this. After all, the idea that he would follow the script they gave him without consultation shows they don’t know him too well.
But it worked, obviously, because at the end of The Incredible Hulk we see Tony approach Ross about the Avengers. Apparently Fury made some sort of deal with Tony to have him doing this, so good job, I guess.
There’s nothing more to do with SHIELD in the Hulk movie, but Fury’s winning strategy clearly served as a model for how to interact with Tony from now on, because now we come to the real clusterfuck of Iron Man 2.
Let us recap the situation as it stands before the film first. Tony Stark is not an Avenger, and refused potential participation. However, he is cooperating with SHIELD. At the same time, he’s the only powerful superhero at their disposal. They have Natasha and Clint on rank, but we all know they’re lower-powered. The Hulk already exists, but is not cooperative and probably doesn’t even know about SHIELD. At the same time, Stark is at the very least a potential source of funding, cool gadgets, and important contacts. I’m assuming the last is why they sent him to speak to Ross instead of someone from actual SHIELD. In other words, Stark is absolutely crucial on many different levels.
Now let’s see what SHIELD does with this situation. It makes sense, I suppose, to send someone in to keep an eye on him. Because he is so crucial, it pays to keep tabs. Fury says they did it after they found out he was ill, though, which makes rather less sense. How is sending someone to spy on the person you just found out was ill a rational reaction in any universe? Unless it was a case of “you’re hurt and vulnerable so we can suss out your weaknesses and secrets easier.” That is reasonable, though as behavior towards an important ally it also carries big risks. How they go on, though, is very far from reasonable.
Natasha clearly seizes the opportunity to impress Stark as much as she can while in his presence. We don’t know if getting the PA job was her goal from the start or if she just took the chance when she saw it, but at any rate, good job.
Then she goes on to ‘test’ him by flirting and encouraging his worst impulses while she knows he is dying.
Now what, exactly, was SHIELD trying to gain by that?
For one, what even is the point of the testing? As I’ve established, they need Stark. Fury also chose to go to him for help, and he obtained said help. Stark is cooperating at the moment. That, however, could change real fast if…say…he found out that his PA was a spy with no good intentions towards him, or that Fury was letting him die while knowing of a solution.
Which, of course, is exactly what they did.
There was nothing to gain by this at all. There was enough pressure to watch Tony without their interference. Natasha could have easily just observed from a distance and learned a lot. This kind of treatment was unlikely to make Tony want to join the Avengers, which seems the one thing he was unwilling to give Fury at this point. And SHIELD had so much to lose. Not only was this whole strategy an absolutely shitty one on a personal level, it was also really incredibly dumb. There were no potential gains and innumerable potential losses.
The situation comes to a head with the conversation Fury has with him in the diner. And let me ask—what the hell was that? Fury knows Stark is dying and desperate. He scolds him like a child, then injects him with a life-saving drug before telling him first or obtaining his consent. How exactly did he think this was okay or helpful in any way? His complete disregard for Stark as a person is obvious, and usually not a good strategy to use on your important assets. And Fury has the gall to accuse Stark of being self-centered in this context, saying “you’re not the center of my universe.” I’m sorry, Director, when exactly did Tony behave in any way like he was the center of your universe? And maybe if you just offered the cure like a normal person, we wouldn’t have been in this mess.
Then of course Fury pulls out Tony’s dad because why be subtle in your emotional manipulation? Or, you know, try not to piss the people you need off completely?
He also threatens Tony, makes ultimatums and puts him under house arrest until he does what Fury wants him to do, cutting off communication with the outside world. I’m even leaving out when Coulson threatens him with a taser—something that is really not a good idea for someone who has an electromagnet keeping him alive—because I honestly believe this is just stupidity on the part of the authors of the script.
Even without it, though, SHIELD goes out of their way to act like complete assholes. Tony acts like an idiot through most of this film, yes, but he is also dying, so I honestly believe he deserves some slack. Even notwithstanding that, it did not prevent Fury from being the adult in the room. Role theory teaches us that when you treat someone like a child, they will behave like a child. We get a prime example of that in the diner conversation.
Then there’s the assessment at the end, too.
Tony meets with Fury, for once like a normal person, in his office. Though Fury continues being dramatic and has the entire office in the dark. Fury leaves two folders on the table for Tony to find, one about the Avengers and the other about Tony. The Avengers one is there clearly only so that Fury can tell him he’s no longer welcome, because Natasha’s assessment put him at ‘Iron Man yes, Tony Stark not recommended’.
Let’s go back for a moment and remember that Tony had rejected the offer to be an Avenger before.
Now he seems like maybe he could be interested, and so Fury turns around and pulls the rug from under him by saying no.
This is nothing but a power play, and a really childish one. I don’t think anyone can truly believe that because of the assessment Natasha made during the time Tony was desperate and dying (and still got the job mostly done by the way, though his behavior at the birthday party was reckless endangerment) was in any way relevant to his normal behavior. So this was not a realizatino that in spite of his usefulness, Tony was too volatile to work with. This was Fury’s childish petulance at being rejected, getting his own back by rejecting in turn. It was also a blatant attempt at manipulate Tony by trying to make him prove them wrong.
It apparently mostly worked, given what happens in The Avengers, but there was no certainty it was going to. Likely, it was chiefly Tony’s relief at being alive that made him less that completely furious with what Fury did. While Fury was no doubt counting on that, it was still a very shitty risk taken for no good reason. Especially as the chance they had to save Tony’s life could have been employed in a much more friendly manner that would have left some actual gratefulness and bonds in its wake. This was a messed up job from start to finish.
As for SHIELD’s involvement in Thor, the biggest problem is their treatment of Jane Foster when they confiscate all of her equipment without any attempt at an explanation, or even politeness or apology. They conform to the role of evil government agents everywhere, of course, so this a Doylist case of the writers employing an old trope. Looking at it from an in-universe, Watsonian point of view, though, they are making unnecessary enemies. Some explanations would have gone a long way. Perhaps a bit of cooperation without having Thor force their hand would have been nice, too.
As Steve Rogers would say, they’re deliberately acting like bullies, probably because they enjoy the power trip. As spies, one would expect them to be capable of subtler modes of persuasion. Because the thing is, Jane is good at her job. You do not want people good an important jobs turned against you. You do not want her working for some supervillain. To that end, it would be a sound strategy to actually treat her like a person.
Coulson does a decent job the rest of the time, though, investigating the hammer and Thor. Kudos for that, I guess.
In The Avengers, we’re back to manipulating Tony by way of making him prove someone wrong. They break into his house once again, too, but by now that’s small fish. This time, they use Steve Rogers to manipulate Tony, so it’s shitty behavior towards the Captain as well. In particular, they probably gave Steve the report Natasha wrote about Tony, because Steve’s reaction towards him is hostile from the start (not that Tony is friendly). But, Fury, are you sure that when under alien threat, it’s the best time to try and turn two of the most prominent members of your team against each other?
Tony clearly learned from his contacts with Fury in the past though, because he doesn’t trust Fury and goes looking for Phase 2. I hope it was all worth it, Nick.
There is also Fury’s manipulation of Coulson’s death (or “death” if we take into account the TV show) to motivate the Avengers. It really only concerns Tony and Steve, since no one else is present and the others have motivations of their own. I somehow doubt that Steve needed to be convinced to save the world from an old Hydra weapon, so in the end it was probably for Tony’s benefit. Manipulating him must be a habit for Fury by now.
The thing is, though, it was very heavy-handed and I don’t think it was particularly effective. In the scene that follows the manipulation, Tony and Steve talk. Tony protests his further involvement by saying that he doesn’t want to dance to Fury’s tune, and Steve points out that neither does he, but that there is a job to be done. Most of all, it gives the impression that they both recognized the—again, very obvious—manipulation, and decided to go save the world in spite of it more than because of it.
Honestly, after what happened in Iron Man 2, I don’t blame Tony for being reluctant. Steve has enough reasons of his own to despise what SHIELD did. But he is enough of an adult to know when to put it aside, and in the end, so is Tony. It’s Fury who cannot put his games away.
The first two Phase 2 films don’t really contain SHIELD or any of its agents, though they do get two honorable mentions in Thor: The Dark World, which confirms that their strategy in the first installment of the MCU franchise wasn’t the best one. Jane is examining a phenomenon that would clearly fall under their purview, but doesn’t let them know and is upset when Darcy contacts the police because it could lead to their presence. Jane is afraid of losing her research once again. It’s not exactly working with supervillains, but wouldn’t it have been nicer to have her cooperation from the get go?
The absence of SHIELD in these two films is fully compensated by its plentiful presence in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It would be nice if I could say that all of SHIELD’s failures until now were because of the Hydra infiltration we discover in this film. Unfortunately, it was always either Fury or Coulson in person, neither of whom are supposed to be Hydra.
This whole mess with Hydra would be enough of an argument for this entire article. What more proof of failure of a secret organization do you need than finding out they have been infiltrated by another for forty years and never noticed? In fact, Steve uses this very argument in the film. However, this is a trope. It’s one I particularly hate: the super-secret infiltration that is never discovered and goes incredibly deep. It’s water to the mill of any conspiracy theorist, and to me, it breaks suspension of disbelief far more than superheroes with superpowers. It’s lazy, too. How did Hydra manage this? Oh, because they’re super smart and super secret. Right. It sounds impressive and like an awesome plot twist, but in reality it’s just silly.
But it’s not what I want to focus on, because to me, that falls more into the Doylist ‘tired tropes and lazy writing’ territory than the particular SHIELD faults we could examine from the in-universe point of view. So let’s instead look at the way the infiltration started, because that, too, is absurdly stupid. Zola was apparently brought in to SHIELD as part of the project where you acquire German (and sometimes, Nazi) scientists to do your work for you. And, of course, this is a real thing, the US did this. But not with people like Zola. Hiring Zola to work in your secret organization is like asking Goebbels to help you with PR. Sure, he’s good at his job, but it would still be insane. At a certain level, you just assume that people are too dangerous and too loyal and you don’t tempt fate in this way.
There is also the fact that Natasha decided to follow Steve’s decision to put all of SHIELD’s secret files online. This is mostly on him, true, but on the other hand, he is from the 40s. He doesn’t really understand how the modern world works. He could hardly imagine how fast the information made public would spread, and what the effects would be. Natasha, however, knew the cost in detail. She knew exactly how many innocent people would inevitably pay for it. Do you remember Mission: Impossible? The entire disaster they were trying to prevent from happening was the name of secret agents and double agents being released, because it would mean their death. And this is what Natasha deliberately does, and not even for some life-saving reason. No, she does it because Steve thinks it’s the best thing to do and she’s disillusioned about her work for SHIELD.
True, given what I just wrote, the loss of SHIELD is probably no great loss in the secret intelligence department, but it’s still a lot of innocent people dying for no good reason. Badly done, Natasha, badly done.
To summarize, every SHIELD agent we actually meet (except for Maria Hill, hey, there’s something) is bad at their job and makes decisions that are both unseemly and stupid, and the organization as a whole is no better off. Fury in particular is petty, childish, and too fond of his manipulations to see where a straight approach would be better. Coulson, on the other hand, is too heavy handed and seems to prefer arranging things by force over compromise and cooperation.
Hopefully, when something new grows in its place in MCU, it will have a better quality standard. Perhaps Maria Hill could be at the head?