I will be the first to admit that the first season of Agents of SHIELD got off to a weak start; I didn't find myself empathizing too much with any of the characters, there were only the most tenuous connections to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it all felt a little too mundane or familiar; a retreaded X-Files having difficulty reaching its potential.
Given executive producer and MCU guru Joss Whedon's love of a good slow boil, I was more than willing to give AoS time to find its footing. If nothing else, it was family friendly adventure tv I could enjoy with the girls, but I hoped to see something a bit more awesome before too long.
The show has taken tremendous strides of late, and our enjoyment has increased considerably, but I wonder if, looking back, we won't be even more impressed with the first half, knowing that the producers and writers were forced to fight with one hand tied behind their backs.
In The Winter Soldier, it is revealed that the villainous organization from the first Captain America movie, HYDRA, had survived WWII and infiltrated SHIELD. Prior to this playing out on the big screen, the SHIELD showrunners were forbidden from even using the word HYDRA, making it difficult to hint at the size of the organization they were unwittingly pitting themselves against, or to foreshadow the scale of the coming conflict. "No mentioning the 'H' word," was the watchword. What a restriction!
Immediately after the film's opening weekend, the ropes were cut, and the results of this infiltration played out on TV in AoS, with a huge immediate effect and repercussions that will follow through to the season finale, three episodes from now. If you haven't been watching, now is your chance! HYDRA is out in the open! SHIELD has been almost completely dismantled! No one knows who to trust! Cyborg assassin Deathlok is on the loose! And everyone is wondering if they will have to change the name of the show to "Agents of Nothing"!
I'm having a wonderful time, but...at the same time, I'm uneasy and a bit concerned.
Here's the crux of it for me: in the episode before last, a HYDRA footsoldier, dressed in black tactical gear and indistinguishable from most of the SHIELD agents we've seen, raises both arms in the air to salute the highest ranking field leader we've seen, and shouts, "Hail Hydra!"
In response, the leader looks both annoyed and embarrassed, and says, "All right, all right. Put your arms down, Kaminski. You look like a West Texas cheerleader at a pep rally."
No, no, no, please don't do that; don't diminish the salute that looked so intimidating in Captain America: The First Avenger. Don't try to make HYDRA cool, or cynical. Don't try to make them conventional. And most importantly, don't try to make them rational.
What makes HYDRA effective in the comics is the fact that they are fanatical. They are terrifying in their commitment to their goals, whether that goal is world domination or human extinction. HYDRA is not a gang, they are not a paramilitary; in effect, they are a cult. A death cult, actually.
Don't get me wrong: I get the need to update things a bit. In the comics, HYDRA never went away, becoming the major foil of the Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD comics of the 1960s. In the MCU, they have been underground for, what, seven decades? I didn't expect all the traitorous turncoats (ptooey!) concealed within SHIELD to literally rip off their jackets to reveal HYDRA issue green long johns beneath, before pulling on their traditional half-face hood and yellow gloves.
At least, not right away.
What I did expect though, was some sort of acknowledgment or at least reference of HYDRA's heritage, some vintage esprit de corps, certainly no dissing the salute, and yeah, more "Hail Hydra!"
And not just, "Hail Hydra!" either, but "HAIL HYDRA!!"
Keep the SWAT looking SHIELD kit they've nicked, but paint it green, dark green if you want, I don't care. Give them green gas masks or ballistic hoods for their combat gear to emulate the look from 40+ years of comics.
Tell us the secret history of HYDRA; some of it is told here, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe Wikia. Some insights as to the political status of HYDRA can be found at The Legal Geeks website (where the image above came from!), but it is vitally important we find out not only how they survived the end of WWII, but how they passed the torch to young guys like Kaminski. How can such a clandestine group possibly recruit so many people? Is it a family thing, with the secret passing from father to son to grandson? What's in it for the HYDRA footsoldier? Money, power, a licence to kill? It can't be that simple, or it would prove too easy to re-align their loyalties, turn a HYDRA agent into a mole, and so on, right?
What prompts the degree of dedication that would make someone lethally turn on their former comrades simply by hearing the words, "Hail Hydra"? We aren't talking about someone getting greedy and capping their fellow security guards in order to run off with a bank shipment, these are people crossing the line into outlaw territory in an old-fashioned way that makes real world examples like the 'American Taliban' pale in comparison.
Cynicism just isn't going to cut it as a HYDRA ethos, I'm afraid. In The Winter Soldier, we hear that HYDRA's goal is control of humanity, and to accomplish that they need a means of convincing people to give up their freedom willingly, which turns out to be terrorism.
Fair enough, I suppose, but what is the prize awaiting faithful HYDRA goons? A cultist wouldn't care, and a cheerleader wouldn't ask, which is why the dismissal of the salute was so disheartening to me. I love Joss Whedon and what he has done with his orchestration of the MCU, but I hope and pray he doesn't go too far in reflecting the real world's cynicism and pragmatism in it, at least as far as HYDRA is concerned. They can't be the villains from Die Hard; they need to be crazy, terrifying, more unpredictable and way, way more dangerous.
Still, given the intense levels of secrecy involved, and the size of the organization, maybe this boring and disaffected aspect isn't the true face of HYDRA after all. I mean, in the post-credits scene of The Winter Soldier, we meet a monocled fellow that most of us assume to be the infamous Baron Von Strucker, the Supreme HYDRA. He speaks of sacrificing other bases and operations in order to keep the superhero types off their backs while they bring their next plan to fruition with 'The Twins', who we will learn more about in next spring's Avengers sequel, Age of Ultron.
Maybe Strucker or the Supreme Hydra or whoever will take exception to their field leader's dispassion; perhaps he'll end up dealt with in a sufficiently ruthless fashion pour encourager les autres, as they used to say. What if they are building back up the fanaticism I crave in my villainous organizations seeking global domination? Could it be their plan to go from a whisper to a scream?
Look, I'm really happy to have HYDRA back in any capacity, honest I am. But if the people behind Agents of SHIELD and the rest of the MCU really want me on board, at some point I`m afraid I will need to see some sort of assault on a HYDRA base, full of guys dressed like this:
Saying stuff like this:
HAIL HYDRA! IMMORTAL HYDRA!
CUT OFF ONE HEAD AND
TWO MORE SHALL TAKE ITS PLACE!
Is that really too much to ask for?