We've come to another mid-season break for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4, and we're all eagerly awaiting the next 'pod': "Agents of Hydra"! This arc will dive deep into a virtual reality created with the forbidden knowledge of the Darkhold, a twisted world where key events in Marvel history turned out very, very differently. But whilst we wait patiently for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. prepares to explore the Framework, it's time to ask - what are the comic book origins of this idea?
Marvel's 'What If?'
The Darkhold tempted Radcliffe with the idea of creating a virtual reality; a world with less pain and less suffering. As "LMD" developed, though, he began to manipulate the Framework to his own ends — he came up with the idea of facing Agent May with the moment of her greatest regret, and allowing her to undo it. That became the foundation for everything he went on to do with the Framework. As we saw at the end of the episode "Self-Control", each of the captive S.H.I.E.L.D. agents has been treated to the same process. Their greatest regrets, their deepest hurts, have been undone; we're exploring a glorified, crazy 'what if' world.
This kind of alternate reality is nothing new in fiction; in fact, it's something of a mainstay. Probably the most famous sci-fi example is the Mirror Universe in Star Trek, which allowed us to glimpse an upside-down world in which heroes were turned into villains, and vice versa. It's also nothing new in comics, either.
Back in 1977, #Marvel Comics hit upon the idea of What If?, a series of comics that explored alternate worlds. Issues were typically introduced by the character of Uatu the Watcher, a cosmic being who can see all possible timelines; he would outline to readers what fundamental divergence had caused this timeline to head in a certain direction, and then we'd dive into another world.
Ironically enough, many What If? ideas eventually made their way into the mainstream Marvel universe, or were explored in the Ultimate Universe. What If Captain America Became President? In the Ultimate Universe, he did. What If Gwen Stacy Became Spider-Woman? Yup, now we have the ever-popular Spider-Gwen. What If Jane Foster Gained The Power Of Thor? That one has became an integral part of Thor comics since 2014's "Original Sin" event.
It's pretty clear that the Framework is about to introduce our heroes to a glorified What If? comic. In this case, the 'what ifs' are pretty easy to spot — What if Hydra triumphed in 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'? What if Agent Coulson never joined S.H.I.E.L.D.? What if Agent May worked for Hydra? In recognition of the obvious inspiration, the next episode is simply titled "What If".
House of M
Although What If? set the pattern for this kind of event, it seems one particular book played a major role; the 2005 Marvel Comics event known as "House of M". This book featured the Scarlet Witch warping reality, granting everyone their deepest, hidden desires. Naturally, it all went very wrong — you wound up with a new reality in which mutants warred on humans, where Magneto ruled as absolute monarch of the House of M, and where many heroes' lives had taken a very different twist. Spider-Man, for example, was happily married — not to Mary-Jane, his wife in the comics at the time, but to Gwen Stacy! In the "House of M" reality, Gwen had never died.
Ultimately, "House of M" was undone by Wolverine, whose deepest desire included to actually remember his past and so knew that the reality was false. Joined by a mysterious child known as Layla Miller, Wolverine gathered heroes to his side, and gradually revealed the truth; that this entire reality was nothing but a lie. The heroes ultimately assembled to confront the Scarlet Witch, and all was restored. While most people forgot the events of "House of M", a handful of heroes remembered them — most notably poor Spider-Man, who wound up having to deal with renewed grief for Gwen's death, while trying to make his marriage to Mary-Jane work out!
The comparisons are pretty clear; Aida has, in effect, created a twisted reality based on the deepest desires of her victims. Daisy and Simmons parallel Wolverine and Layla Miller, entering this virtual reality by hacking into the Framework, and fully aware that it isn't real. In the same way, they're aiming to seek out their friends and colleagues — but they'll find it a lot harder than they expected...
As I've discussed in an earlier post, there's an obvious connection between "Agents of Hydra" and Marvel's next summer event, "Secret Empire". Both events feature Hydra apparently triumphant, with a key character switched over to work for the fascist regime. The logo of Captain America: Steve Roger has consistently been a picture of the Captain America logo breaking apart, revealing the Hydra insignia behind it. In the same way, the logo of "Agents of Hydra" appears to be a flickering screen that begins by displaying the traditional Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. logo — and then switches over to the dramatic "Agents of Hydra" banner.
In the case of the Framework, though, we're going one step further; where "Secret Empire" sees Hydra's most dangerous attempt to take over the world yet, in "Agents of Hydra" the victory has already been won. This is a Hydra world, plain and simple.
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As you can see, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has taken a dramatic turn — and one that's clearly inspired by a lot of major comic book arcs. It's thrilling to realize that we now have a well-enough-developed Marvel Cinematic Universe to allow creative, imaginative twists like this to take place; and as a comic book fan, I can't help admitting that I love seeing some of my favorite concepts brought to life.
Are you looking forward to "Agents of Hydra"?
(Poll Image Credit: ABC)