Agent Phil Coulson and his plucky team of superheroes battled an alien race of Chronicoms in a high-octane journey through multiple time periods in the seventh and final season of ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It has always been a fun show, even when the narrative occasionally went bonkers—honestly, especially then—with compelling characters that kept you coming back each week. The seventh and final season brought a pronounced sense of playfulness to the show’s pre-existing strengths, effectively saving its best season for last and tying everything together in a satisfying two-part finale.
(Some spoilers below, but no major plot twists.)
The spin-off series created by The Avengers writer and Director Joss Whedon brought Coulson (Clark Gregg) back from the dead to lead an elite squad of agents to take on the terrorist group Hydra, eventually incorporating a superhuman race called Inhumans into the storyline.
One of the S6 subplots involved aliens called Chronicoms seeking Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons’ (Elizabeth Henstridge) help in solving the problem of time travel so they could save their home planet, Chronyca-2—until there was an internal coup and their new leader, Sibyl (Tamara Taylor), decided she would rather take over Earth and turn it into their Chronyca-3. In the finale, May (Ming-Na Wen) was fatally wounded and placed in a stasis pod, as an upgraded, time-traveling version of their ship, the Zephyr One, zapped them several decades into the past, where they were trapped going into S7. Meanwhile, Simmons built a Life Model Decoy of Coulson, replete with knowledge about the entire history of S.H.I.E.L.D., to help them navigate through history and hopefully save the future once and for all.
Per the official S7 premise: “Coulson and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are thrust backward in time and stranded in 1931 New York City. With the all-new Zephyr set to time-jump at any moment, the team must hurry to find out exactly what happened. If they fail, it would mean disaster for the past, present and future of the world.” And time-jump they do. This season finds the team visiting the 1950s, the 1970s, and the 1980s, giving fans the pleasure of revisiting the history of the agency since its inception, as well as revisiting the far future featured in S5 and S6. Much of the arc touches back on events from the first two seasons, too, so the showrunners brought everything full circle for the series’ final bow.
Blasts from the past
The main cast members from S6 all returned for this final season: not just Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Henstridge, and De Caestecker, but also Chloe Bennet (Daisy, aka Quake), Henry Simmons (Mack), Natalia Cordova-Buckley (Yo-Yo), and Jeff Ward (Deke). Agent Carter‘s Hayley Atwell was rumored to have a cameo, but that proved to be false. However Enver Gjokaj reprises his role as her former colleague and love interest, Daniel Sousa, joining the team in this season’s time-traveling adventures. And Patrick Warburton makes another brief cameo as Rick Stoner, the first director of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the comics, before Nick Fury replaced him. (He appeared briefly in hologram form in S5.)
All that time-jumping proved challenging from a production standpoint, since the production team had to recreate multiple historical time periods, beginning with 1931—including hair, makeup, wardrobe, and recreating cityscapes and accurate geographical layouts. According to VFX Supervisor Mark Kolpack, the Warner Bros. backlot has a New York street that fit the bill, and period details were added based on the time period of a given episode.
One scene required the Zephyr One to land in the south end of Manhattan along the harbor where boats would moor, with a view across the water to New Brunswick, New Jersey. “The Zephyr is 280 feet long, it’s almost a football field in length,” Kolpack told Ars. He quickly realized they would have to do a digital ground extension in order for the shot to make sense. “We did a fantastic matte painting with a period ship that you would never suspect were visual effects.” The same was true for many other scenes set in historical time periods. “We just had to adjust certain areas of the landscape to fit the time period, removing the modern-day elements and reverting it,” he said.
The attention to period detail carries over to the title cards for each episode. For the first two episodes, the cards reflect the 1930s aesthetic, while the 1950s title cards are done in a film noir style. (One of those episodes was filmed entirely in black-and-white with Coulson narrating via internal monologue, apparently due to a glitch in his software. It even features an homage to the famous opening scene from the Oscar-winning 1950 classic noir film Sunset Boulevard.) There are also ’70s themed cards, as well as title cards that reference 1980s hacker films Tron and Back to the Future.
The visual effects were scaled down a bit in earlier episodes, according to Kolpack, in part because of the storyline and also to save the big-budget effects for the two-part series finale. But there were key elements that required considerable digital finessing, such as the time-jumping effect introduced in the S6 finale’s final shot, which had to be redone, according to Digital Effects Supervisor Kevin Yuille. “It was a pretty wide shot and a simple set up,” he told Ars. “By the new season, we had to redo everything to support a resolution you could almost walk up to.”
One final mission
The Lighthouse headquarters for S.H.I.E.L.D. posed a different challenge, since it required complicated simulations to create the image of a 300-foot submerged base rising out of the water—including a giant waterfall all around the tower as it rises. “The first time that was done, it kept crashing the SIM,” said Kolpack. “It was a very complicated shot. We traveled from a high bird’s-eye view down to the actual 300-foot valance. And all that water had to churn and interact with the CG geometry of the actual opening.”
The 1970s Project Insight rocket launch scene—a callback to Captain America: The Winter Soldier—required another complicated simulation. “The biggest challenge was the missile launch itself, figuring out the characteristics of the fire and smoke that emerged from beneath the water, because of the pyroclastic qualities of the smoke trail itself,” said Yuille. “There’s a lot of detail in that explosion.”
According to Kolpack, the design was originally based on a Saturn-V launch pad, just modified a bit because that design was copyrighted. “I was pulling up video of rockets launching out of silos and trying to get the character of the fire shooting back out, hitting the ground, and shooting up,” he said. While there is “a bit of a cheat” when the rocket is shot down—a doubling up of the action that meant the timing was just a bit off—”It plays just fine, emotionally.”
There were many such tradeoffs that had to be made, as the VFX team sought to find creative, budget-friendly compromises to accommodate the episode directors’ visions. “We usually have way too many creative ideas in a script than the budget can sustain,” said Kolpack. Scripts were submitted, Kolpack and his team would crunch out the numbers, “and then we would have a very sad meeting to talk about the realities,” he said. “We chose our battles carefully. More is not better, sometimes more is just more.” By focusing just on those elements that were integral to the story, they could come up with creative workarounds. That said, “It’s still the best visual effects of broadcast television, period,” said Kolpack.
The two-part series finale pulled out all the VFX stops, as our agents faced off against a fleet of Chronicom ships in a final showdown to restore the original timeline to keep Earth from becoming Chronyca-3. If there’s a flaw in this final season, it’s the pronounced absence of Fitz—a necessity because De Caestecker had a scheduling conflict with another project when shooting began. The showrunners wrote around the character, explaining that his absence is due to the necessity of he and Simmons remaining apart if they are to foil Sibyl’s master plan and preserve the timeline. Simmons has a brain implant that suppresses her memories of Fitz’s whereabouts (and/or whenabouts), lest the Chronicoms try to forcibly extract that information from her.
As a narrative device, it mostly works in the context of the season as a whole. But Fitz and Simmons are the show’s great love story, and having them separated for so long—he doesn’t show up until the finale—was deeply frustrating for fans. Fortunately, there were plenty of other emotional stakes and character-driven drama to go around, mostly centered on the complicated family dynamics that is a thematic mainstay of the series. We’re sorry to say goodbye to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but the show went out strong, and frankly, the team deserves a break after seven seasons of saving the Earth.