The agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D. first appeared way back in 1965, and has appeared in various iterations in a wide variety of Marvel properties since then. Now, almost half a century later, S.H.I.E.L.D. is getting its biggest-ever moment in the spotlight with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the new ABC series. Here are ten essential facts to know about S.H.I.E.L.D. (Since S.H.I.E.L.D. is a spy operation, all of these facts are classified and subject to aggressive retconning.)
1. S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for many things. Literally: The acronym was originally the shortened form of Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division, before being changed to Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate. In Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, which also encompasses the new TV show, it splits the difference and stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.
2. It’s been around for a long time. Throughout the various Marvel universes, S.H.I.E.L.D. as an organization typically dates back to the postwar era. In its original incarnation, it was a Cold War organization whose main nemesis was HYDRA (which, confusingly, was not an acronym even though it’s usually rendered in all-caps.) In the Marvel movies, Tony Stark’s father Howard Stark was a founding member.
3. It’s not usually affiliated with any one nation. S.H.I.E.L.D. has generally been portrayed as an organization which works for the United Nations, albeit a shadowy corner of the UN with top-level clearance and an apparently limitless budget. I say “generally” because the history is inconsistent — and in Marvel’s rebooted “Ultimate” universe, S.H.I.E.L.D. is a specifically American operation. The Cinematic Universe S.H.I.E.L.D. answers to a shadowy “World Security Council,” which appears to be a literally shadowy version of the UN.
4. In its first great comic book story incarnation, S.H.I.E.L.D. was very, very weird. Jim Steranko’s mindbending run on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. placed the operation in a world that suggested The Prisoner and the more gonzo James Bond films, filtered through a lens that vaguely suggested Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol. See here and here and here.
5. S.H.I.E.L.D. is basically everywhere. Perhaps not surprising given that this is an organization which operates out of the Helicarrier, a gigantic floating base which works perfectly except for those rare occasions when it almost crashes into a major city. But especially since the organizations return to prominence in the late-’90s, it has usually been presented as an organization at the forefront of information technology, practically omniscient and with a limitless budget.
6. As a result, S.H.I.E.L.D. is most often used as Marvel-Universe connective tissue. This strategy was especially true of the Marvel movies, which — starting with Iron Man — used S.H.I.E.L.D. as the main link between Marvel’s diverse franchises. Agent Phil Coulson first appeared in Iron Man — as did Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury in a post-credits cameo. Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D. practically took over the entire second act of Thor, while Fury appeared in both Iron Man 2 and Captain America.
7. S.H.I.E.L.D. has had some dark moments. Although generally portrayed as a good-guy super-organization, S.H.I.E.L.D. has had some dark moments, and many of the most interesting stories about the group represent contemporary concerns about government overreach. In “Secret Invasion,” it turned out that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been infiltrated by several enemy agents (actually shapeshifting aliens.) Later, various corrupting forces combined to turn S.H.I.E.L.D. into a decidedly not-so-nice organization called H.A.M.M.E.R. In The Avengers, the titular heroes became suspicious when it was revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D. was using the Tesseract to create weapons of mass destruction — a controversial issue that the movie ultimately ignored. But expect more exploration of the organization’s unseemly operations: The upcoming Captain America sequel, The Winter Soldier, is heavy on S.H.I.E.L.D. and appears to portray the organization in a darker light.
8. On the TV show, S.H.I.E.L.D. is not touching magic with a ten-foot pole. The show will feature superpowers, but they’ll all be explained using scientific means. So don’t expect a Dr. Strange cameo anytime soon!
9. You should probably keep an eye on Maria Hill. Cobie Smulders’ terse agent didn’t do much in The Avengers besides give good sidekick and look great in the S.H.I.E.L.D. jumpsuit. But a deleted scene hinted at the character’s suspicions about her boss. Smulders appears in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiere; although she’s currently starring in the last season of How I Met Your Mother, expect more appearances from Hill in the future.
10. This isn’t the first time S.H.I.E.L.D. got on television. That would be this Hasselhoff-headlined TV movie. Good luck, Agents!