Note: This article contains heavy spoilers for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4's finale, "World's End."
"All right, Phil, enough sight-seeing. Get back to work."
What's next for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? This last season has been a breathtakingly successful one, loved by both fans and critics. But it closed in fascinating fashion, revealing that Phil Coulson has just taken a first step into a far wider universe than even he could ever have imagined. Yes, it's official; Marvel fans are reacting in utter excitement, as we look set to move from S.H.I.E.L.D. to S.W.O.R.D.!
What Is S.W.O.R.D.?
If you thought S.H.I.E.L.D. was a crazy acronym, you ain't seen nothing yet! S.W.O.R.D. is the Sentient World Observation and Response Department. It's a top-secret organization created by Joss Whedon during his Astonishing X-Men run, and it has two major focuses: protecting the world from alien threats, and managing human relations with the many alien races of the Marvel Comics Universe.
S.W.O.R.D. enforces human interests in ruthless fashion, traditionally commanded by Commander Abigail Brand - a half-human/half-alien who makes Nick Fury look open and communicative. In the comics, Brand is pretty intense — she was willing to sacrifice the X-Men in order to prevent war with an alien race from the planet Breakworld. More recently, though, S.W.O.R.D. has been playing a major role in the pages of Captain Marvel, where Carol Danvers has taken over the organization.
S.W.O.R.D. is based on an orbital satellite known as the Peak, which stands as a first line of defense against alien invasion. It's very much possible that the closing scene of Season 4, showing Coulson in space, is actually set on the Peak!
Adapting S.W.O.R.D. For The MCU
Until now, we'd actually been a little uncertain whether or not Marvel had the rights to use S.W.O.R.D. — as mentioned, they were introduced in the pages of Astonishing X-Men, and they've often had a strong relationship with Marvel's merry mutants. That said, an alternate ending for Thor included a reference to S.W.O.R.D., and the Season 4 finale seems to leave us in no doubt. We see Coulson and his team brought down by mysterious forces who are waiting for a 'window' (presumably a launch window, to take them into space). Next thing we know, Coulson is based somewhere near an asteroid field! Marvel fans are in no doubt at all; this has to be S.W.O.R.D.
We've actually had subtle hints that the world was setting up S.W.O.R.D. before. Back in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 3, Constance Zimmer's Rosalind Price hinted that, in the aftermath of the Chitauri invasion, the line between space exploration and defense has blurred. It makes sense; that event revealed to the world that aliens exist, and you can bet the world's governments haven't been ignoring the threat of future alien invasions. With S.H.I.E.L.D. in chaos for the last few years (courtesy of the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier), it's likely their old bottomless budget has been channeled into a global defense. That would be S.W.O.R.D.
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. And Avengers: Infinity War
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been renewed for a fifth season, but — in a surprising twist — it's not going to be part of the fall lineup. Instead, in fall we'll be watching Marvel's new Inhumans TV series; only when that brief 8-episode series has ended will we move on to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. It's a decision that has left fans somewhat bemused, but the closing twist of Season 4 hints at a possible reason.
The story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is building to a head, and the climax will be next year's #InfinityWar. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has traditionally tied into the latest Marvel blockbuster, and fans are particularly eager to see the show link to Infinity War. Unfortunately, had Season 5 began in the Fall, it would have been drawing to a close by the time the film aired.
That's no longer the case. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 5 is now confirmed to be (at least partly) set in space, just as the #MCU prepares to face the cosmic threat of Thanos and the Black Order. What's more, the delayed launch of Season 5 means the series will still be running when Infinity War hits the box office. Season 4 was divided into three 'pods,' and if Marvel took a similar approach then we'd potentially see a whole third pod exploring the aftermath of Thanos's invasion!
Drawing The Threads Together
But Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. may well be tying into the movies more than we think - through the character of Tony Stark. He has a unique understanding of the scale of the threats facing the world. What's more, concept art for Infinity War has suggested he's taken the Iron Man initiative to an industrial scale — probably in the cause of planetary defense. It would make sense for Stark to be a supporter of the S.W.O.R.D. initiative, so we can expect to see S.W.O.R.D. using Stark technology. The 2018 Stark Expo — teased on the set of Spider-Man: Homecoming — is likely about his gathering together the world's greatest minds in this cause, too.
Adding a further explicit connection, in Avengers: Age of Ultron Stark saw a vision of the Avengers defeated. That vision looks set to become a reality — and the bodies of the defeated Avengers were surrounded by mysterious fallen agents. S.W.O.R.D. agents?
Meanwhile, in another subtle nod to S.W.O.R.D., there are indications Brie Larson's Carol Danvers will make her MCU debut in Infinity War. Based on a recent retcon over in the comics, fans have already been speculating that she'll be a background character who works in the field of space exploration; it's entirely possible that #CaptainMarvel's origin has been tied to S.W.O.R.D..
The last year has seen Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. dial down a little on its overt MCU connections, but that closing scene tells us this is about to change. Season 5 will dovetail perfectly with the release of Avengers: Infinity War, while S.W.O.R.D. as an organization look set to play a major role in the future of the MCU. If this is indeed the final season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., as most fans believe, then we're going out in the most fantastic way possible!