In the third to last episode of season five of Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., one character, General Glenn Talbot, makes an unpleasant discovery. See, the team has been trapped in an underground facility—and surrounding town—cut off from the outside world, so they’ve been unable to receive communications. (The only team member to briefly venture outside, Daisy “Quake” Johnson, responded to someone asking, “You seen all this weird stuff happening in New York?” with a terse, “I can’t watch the news, it makes me crazy.”) So the events of Infinity War are unknown to them, until Talbot unexpectedly boards an alien vessel far away from Earth, and is informed Thanos is attacking the planet as they speak. So half of existence has yet to be obliterated with a snap of the Mad Titan’s fingers, but it’s entirely possible the real death here will be the lingering continuity between the film and television sides of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Last week, io9's James Whitbrook published a smart piece exploring the slowly fracturing history of Marvel’s planned unity of TV and film productions. From the beginning, the concept was to have everything take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with a much-vaunted angle of “it’s all connected” uniting these far-flung and disparate characters and stories. But as Whitbrook demonstrates, that plan quickly fell victim to the wildly varied production schedules and timelines of Marvel’s various projects on the big and small screens. The first season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. demonstrated the difficulty of a steady overlap between the films and television, and by the time the Netflix shows based on the Defenders cast of characters started rolling out, their only real connection to the movies (beyond the odd Easter egg reference to a big-screen hero) was an occasional reference to the massive New York-set battle from The Avengers, the TV shows’ shorthand equivalent to a 9/11 reference that everyone can use as a universal backdrop to these narratives. Even S.H.I.E.L.D., the flagship of TV-based interconnectivity in the MCU, reduced its involvement to dropping thematic links to subsequent movies as they appeared (e.g., introducing a magic-centric storyline to coincide with the release of Doctor Strange).
By the time Joss Whedon openly admitted in 2016 that any remaining relationship between the films and TV shows would always be a one-way street from the former to the latter (presaging remarks from Kevin Feige and others), the rift between the two halves of Marvel Studios was obvious. New shows like Runaways and the upcoming Cloak & Dagger barely bother to acknowledge the larger MCU of which they’re ostensibly a part, and that might be for the best: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is nothing if not a demonstration that keeping your series at arms length from the events of the films frees a creative team to tell the stories they want to tell, instead of other ones they begrudgingly acknowledge.
So Infinity War might be the chance for the two to decisively separate—and in truth, that’s probably a good thing. Consider the repercussions: Any shows airing between Infinity War and Avengers 4 would have to effectively kill off half the cast to make sense in the MCU, unless they want to monkey around with alternate timelines or period pieces, something none of them are currently engaged in. (Emphasis on currently, and even if/when such a move occurred, it would similarly liberate the show from MCU continuity.) Having seen the first part of Cloak & Dagger, I can assure you neither of the above options are happening.
True, Avengers 4 could involve some sort of massive retcon to reset the universe and return everything to just as it was before Thanos began his genocidal mission, but even so, that’s a kind of acknowledgement of separation in its own right. It would render any events that transpired on TV between the two meaningless if we still took the “it’s all connected” mantra seriously, unless Marvel wanted to do even more complex logistical gymnastics to claim some sort of jump forward to a post-Avengers 4 world had already happened, a dubious and frankly exhausting proposition.
A much better proposition would be to take a page from the very comics that inspired these movies and series, and adopt a looser set of guidelines in which the TV shows don’t need to address the matter every time a giant wormhole appears in the sky, or whatever. The films are going to continue to interlink in sensible enough ways, and given the vast amounts of time it takes to produce each one, the opportunities to maintain continuity are much simpler. (Although not always: Observe Ant-Man And The Wasp having to travel back in time to before the events of Infinity War, despite coming out several months later.)
But TV works on a wholly different production schedule, and expecting it to bend storylines to the whims of movies not due out until years from now is absurd. When something truly massive happens that literally changes the MCU—such as the Chitauri invasion from The Avengers awakening the world to the existence of things beyond our planet—it’s perfectly reasonable to give the shows a chance to work it into their backstories the following season. Expecting anything more is both foolish and creatively stifling. DC’s division of its TV universe and cinematic universe is a solid example to follow.
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be a test balloon for the final transformation of “it’s all connected” into “eh, it’s sometimes connected if the TV show wants it to be.” The final two episodes of season five will reveal whether the show is going to genuinely try and stick to the events of Infinity War—awkwardly eliminating up to half its cast in the process—or simply use its Thanos plot point as another MCU reference, a reminder that yes, there can be some fun to be had by maintaining a connection to the larger universe. Who doesn’t like a good joke about Thor now and then? But the show has gotten better the farther it’s strayed from fidelity to its big-screen counterparts’ timeline. The best victim of Thanos’ universe-altering, all-or-nothing transformation might be the need to pretend Marvel’s TV shows can still serve at the whim of its cinematic stories.