As the Marvel Cinematic Universe gears up for Avengers: Infinity War, its heroes are in a state of unprecedented flux: Captain America has gone underground, the downing of his shield at the end of Civil War a concession that his reign as his country's greatest, most celebrated hero is firmly over. Bucky is back under, Black Widow on the run from the law, and Tony Stark has found himself in the ironic position of model student, keeping his head down and towing the line, whatever the consequences for his personal life.
In this familiar but all-new world, everything is out of balance, all sense of what it means to be a hero lost amid government intervention and the question of whether the people's protectors should have license to operate above the law.
The truth is that, if they are to stand any chance of surviving Infinity War and the threat of Thanos (much less emerging victorious from it), the Avengers — both factions — need a guiding hand to steer the ship: a cool head, a strategic planner, somebody who knows what to do in any situation and does it with a healthy degree of badassery.
If that person sounds familiar, it's because he's been doing this shit for years — and yet when the ship went down in Civil War, he was entirely off the grid, begging the question...
Where The Hell Is Nicholas Fury?
The last time we saw him in action, a brief cameo in Age of Ultron notwithstanding, Nick Fury had gone underground in the wake of the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D.
The Russo brothers have previously stated that Fury was absent from Civil War because his presence would've necessitated the choosing of a side, and that would be out of character, but that explanation doesn't fully satisfy considering that Fury always has his agents' backs.
In particular, now that Black Widow is in exile, it seems likely Fury would reveal his whereabouts to Natasha and do everything in his power to keep her safe while still operating covertly as an agent. In fact, that would be an excellent story for a Black Widow solo film — if we were in any danger of actually getting one before 2020.
If Feige and the crew at Marvel aren't in any rush to build a new secret agency for Fury to head up (which wouldn't make much sense story-wise in the wake of the Sokovia Accords), we're going to need a decent explanation for how and why this most fearless of men just dropped over the face of the planet.
One possible explanation is that he's not on this planet — Marvel will take us back into space in Thor: Ragnarok next year, and Loki is the driver behind the catastrophe facing Asgard, so Fury could feasibly have spent the last few years keeping tabs on Thor's supervillainous sibling. That would still ask us to believe he just wasn't that interested in helping out during Civil War, unless the events of the two films happen concurrently (which would also explain Bruce Banner's mysterious absence).
Here's a slightly wilder theory, courtesy of the Redditor Burnnoticelover: Nick Fury has the ability to see the future (at least, pieces of it). That would actually explain a lot, like how he's always prepared for the worst eventuality — emergency bunkers, secret Helicarriers — even when the circumstances are seemingly impossible to predict.
The Redditor Agent-A expands on the theory by suggesting Fury's clairvoyance applies only to pieces of the future which don't involve him, which would explain why he never foresaw the road traffic ambush orchestrated by the Winter Soldier early in that movie. It would also justify Fury's absence from Civil War — his distance from the Sokovia Accords proposal and the subsequent fallout allowed him to think that no intervention was required, as none of the Avengers lost their lives.
It may be hard to imagine that Marvel would really break from Fury's character in the comics by imbuing him with a superpower of sorts, but it's a pretty interesting idea which opens up endless story potential as the MCU moves forward.
Regardless of the reason, there are benefits to moving in the shadows. Right now, off the grid and seemingly inactive, Fury has the element of surprise in his favor — and that makes him the most formidable ace card in the Avengers' deck.
One day not too far from now, in their greatest hour of need, Colonel Nicholas Joseph Fury will come through for his team. May Lord have mercy.