Is ‘Agents of SHIELD’ going back to being a puppet of the Marvel movies?

A review of tonight's “Agents of SHIELD” – as well as thoughts on the current state of the franchise as we near the release of another Marvel movie – coming up just as soon as my gift is spinning really fast to collect gold rings…

“The Dirty Half Dozen” conspires to bring Coulson's original team together for the first time this season. For one reason or another, newbies like Hunter and Bobbi and Agent 33 are sidelined, while Ward and Skye both wind up back on the Bus one last time(*) with the old gang. The point seems to be to illustrate how different these people have become since they last traveled together: everyone wants Ward dead, Skye has superpowers, May doesn't trust Coulson, etc.

(*) And even if this configuration of characters comes together again, they'll need a new vehicle to travel in, since Coulson sacrifices the Bus, “Star Trek III”-style, as a distraction for Hydra's anti-aircraft defense systems.

But rather than feel like a referendum on how much the characters have changed, the episode instead felt like a frustrating reminder of how little the series has – or, rather, how the show briefly had a chance to become something else before being pulled back into setting up things for the Marvel movies.

A year ago, the tie-in between “Agents of SHIELD” and “Winter Soldier” were welcome, because the TV show was  lacking in direction or reasons to watch beyond brand loyalty. It wasn't designed that way(**) – no one wanted the first two-thirds of the first season to be disposable – but it rebooted the show at a moment when it badly needed to become something other than what it was. The Hydra twist gave necessary focus to both the series and its characters, and the stretch from “Turn Turn Turn” through the first half of season 2 suggested a show that had a genuine reason to exist beyond extending the Marvel brand to television.

(**) In this revealing profile by BuzzFeed's Adam Vary, Joss Whedon  talks about the decision to do a SHIELD show even after he was told that “Winter Soldier” would be blowing up the agency, as well as his regrets about bringing Coulson back to life. And in an interview with IGN, he talked about the show being hamstrung by the demands of the Marvel movie people. One gets the sense that if he had a mulligan, he might have picked some other corner of the Marvel universe to set this show in.

Since the series returned in 2015, though, many of the old problems have crept back in. Character shifts have either been forgotten (it's been a while since Fitz had trouble communicating his ideas to anyone) or traded for something less interesting (Skye the badass SHIELD agent = compelling; Skye the orphan torn between her biological family and her makeshift one = much less so). Bringing in Gonzales and Real SHIELD theoretically gives Coulson's team another set of opponents, but it's played out more as adding back some of the layers of tedious bureaucracy that “Winter Soldier” mercifully did away with. And the story arcs involving the Inhumans, Hydra's plans, and the secret of Theta Protocol all feel less like ideas that make sense for this particular show and its characters than they do things that Marvel management needs to happen to set up the next eight or nine movies.

A year ago, if an episode had ended with Coulson giving Maria Hill intel to pass on to the Avengers, I might have been excited, if only because I was more interested in the Avengers than I was in anyone on the TV show. Now, though, having so many recent developments turn out to be set-up for “Age of Ultron” is just frustrating. It says that “Agents of SHIELD” can never really have its own identity or tell its own stories, because it always has to be operating on some level in service to the movies, whether that's introducing characters and concepts that can be used in the films, or having to reset its own status quo to accommodate what's happened in the latest movie.

Based on the comments these reviews get each week, I know there are some of you who watch “SHIELD” primarily for the continuity between the different Marvel franchises, in the same way that some comic book readers can't get enough of every crossover issue from the company's latest mega-event. But I reached a point a long time ago where I want my stories to be able to stand on their own, and often come to dread news of a crossover. (It's the reason why most of the recent Marvel books I've enjoyed, like Fraction's “Hawkeye” and Waid's “Daredevil,” have been largely isolated from whatever the Avengers or X-Men are up to.)

It's been striking to watch this half-season of “SHIELD” right after “Agent Carter” ended, and while “Daredevil” was being released by Netflix. Those are shows that have ties to the movies – Peggy is motivated by Steve's apparent death at the end of the first Captain America film, while the Kingpin's moves in “Daredevil” are made possible by what the aliens in “Avengers” did to Manhattan – but they aren't defined by them. They tell stories and feature characters that are compelling whether or not you've seen a second of any of the films, and if anything in them winds up informing a future movie, that's a bonus, rather than the whole point.

Maybe next week's episode will only have a brief nod to “Age of Ultron” before getting back to SHIELD business. But If Coulson's team are just going to be the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, then that's something that doesn't need an expensive 22-episode per season network TV drama. You can accomplish the same thing in a web series at a fraction of the cost and time, while devoting the big resources to another show that Marvel wants to make because it's exciting, and not because it can fill in gaps in the franchise.

The episode ended not with Clark Gregg saying “Stay tuned for more 'Marvel's Agents of SHIELD,'” but simply “Stay tuned for more Marvel.” Rather than a closing scene from the episode, we instead got one final “Age of Ultron” preview scene. The whole thing felt like yet another acknowledgment that “SHIELD” itself is only around to make you excited about other parts of the catalog, and that whatever the characters are up to at this time next year will have to be put on hold to offer supplementary material about what's happening in “Captain America: Civil War.”

Some other thoughts on “The Dirty Half Dozen”:

* Also annoying: Ward claiming that he regrets breaking up the team much more than he does murdering lots and lots of SHIELD agents, and trying to kill Fitz and Simmons. That should have been the moment where everyone told him to shut up, rather than the end of his speech.If you have to push that hard to sell your audience on the importance of this little work family – to have a character, even a sociopath nobody else likes, suggest he cares more about this particular group than he does being responsible for many deaths – then you haven't done a good enough job selling the value of the group in the first place.

* The show generally saves the fancy fight choreography for May or Bobbi, but that single-take sequence of Skye taking out a bunch of Hydra goons – using only her guns and fight training, and not her powers – was impressive.

* Bakshi was a very evil guy, and so is Ward, but will there be any follow-up on Simmons trying to kill the latter in cold blood, only to instead disintegrate the former?

What did everybody else think? Are you excited the show is tying back into the movies again, or is it time to let “SHIELD” stand largely on its own?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at