One of the most common traits that most film adaptions of comic books share is an attempt to add realism to the highly fantastic and science fictional world of the comics. Marvel Studios has done a remarkable job of this in its films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, beginning with Iron Man in 2008, as has DC in Man of Steel. Usually, this means explaining “magical” concepts in ways that veer towards plausible science fiction, such as the Asgardians being aliens instead of actual gods and magic itself being a form of highly advanced technology. Other times, it involves placing the powers that be in the hands of governments, such as HYDRA becoming a branch of the Nazi war machine and S.H.I.E.L.D being subordinate to the U.S. government. In the comics, HYDRA is an international terrorist group while S.H.I.E.L.D is a U.N.-sponsored intelligence agency. When it comes to the plots of some of these movies the changes make sense, but to some fans they do nothing but take away what they already know all too well and replace it with information that is either confusing or fails to live up to the original material. Marvel’s treatment of S.H.I.E.L.D. in its film universe is a perfect example of both of these failures.
Iron Man, the first film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, introduces S.H.I.E.L.D as a branch of the U.S. government called the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division, apparently having not yet adopted its famous acronym. It is mentioned in a tie-in comic for the Iron Man film that S.H.I.E.L.D was not approved for overseas operations, with the word homeland being used as a reason. This further proves that the MCU’s S.H.I.E.L.D was an American agency at this time.
2010’s Iron Man 2, however, seems to reverse what the comic had said. In one of the final scenes of the film, there is a map of the world with various parts marked off, which is heavily implied to be references to other super humans around the world. This seems to show that at least by this time S.H.I.E.L.D has been able to operate outside the boundaries of the United States, though the extent of their authority was not revealed.
2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger has S.H.I.E.L.D agents working in Antarctica at the beginning of the film, the first time in any of the MCU media that agents are shown working outside of the United States. The First Avenger also introduces an Allied agency called the Strategic Scientific Reserve, which operates much like the later S.H.I.E.L.D does and is responsible for the titular hero gaining his powers. As the SSR is a multi-governmental body made up of agents from all across the Allied Powers openly allied with a superhuman, it is almost obvious that this is the precursor to S.H.I.E.L.D. The short film Agent Carter, released in 2013 and revolving around Captain America’s former flame on a mission of her own for S.H.I.E.L.D (she had originally appeared as part of the SSR) further proves that the SSR becomes S.H.I.E.L.D and fuels speculation that S.H.I.E.L.D is actually a global agency, not just an American one.
This is where the confusion starts to mount. Is (or was) S.H.I.E.L.D a purely American super-spy agency (why the U.S. would need both them and the CIA I have no idea) or is it actually a multi-national organization?
Prelude comics to the great 2012 movie The Avengers (and the film itself) answer the question completely. Through these we are introduced to the World Security Council, whose members appear via large, highly-advanced video monitoring equipment in Nick Fury’s office. It is not alluded to as to whether or not this group bears any kind of relationship to the real-life United Nations Security Council, but it is shown that the World Security Council has vast power not only over S.H.I.E.L.D but the entire world as well. In the film the group is shown to be made up of members from all kinds of nationalities, further alienating S.H.I.E.L.D from being a solely American entity. While it is entirely possible that in the relatively short time frame (both in real-life and in the film universe) between the first Iron Man and The Avengers S.H.I.E.L.D could have grown from being solely agency of the United States to an international one this remains unlikely.
Public awareness of S.H.I.E.L.D has also been treated rather strangely in the MCU. In Iron Man the moniker of S.H.I.E.L.D has not yet been established, and a few characters are shown humorlessly trying to repeat the entire name, which lead to the acronym being used in the finale. The aforementioned Agent Carter short, however, shows that it was well in use during the 1940s. Another tie-in comic has Nick Fury surprised that he had never heard the name S.H.I.E.L.D used before, which makes absolutely no sense if it had already been in use since the end of the Second World War. Also, in Iron Man, the great international spy agency of the comics seems to be relatively unknown to the world at large. Five years later, in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D TV series everyone knows who S.H.I.E.L.D is, and the agency seems to be no longer hiding in the shadows.
To sum it all up, in five years we have seen a complete turnaround of the S.H.I.E.L.D organization from unknown U.S. government agency to well-known international spy agency with many questions left unanswered, and many more rising all the time. This is only one example of real-life “reinventing” of the source material. There was never any confusion in the comics. From the beginning S.H.I.E.L.D was a supercool, superspy international espionage agency who knew everything and had the power to take on any and all threats, even a superhero Civil War. The S.H.I.E.L.D of the Marvel Cinematic Universe seems to always be one step behind of just about everyone else, whether they are superheroes, terrorist groups, corporations or even their own governing Council. I have sympathy for the fans out there that feel betrayed and let down by the way Marvel is treating its adaptions of the comic book material. I completely understand that when it comes to adapting something for a larger audience or a different medium that things have to change. But when it comes to a complete and total revamping of a concept, and making very obvious mistakes when doing so, it is insulting to the intelligent fan. I sincerely hope that someday this piece becomes outdated and that Marvel explains away a lot of this confusion.