WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for director Peter Berg’s Mile 22, in theaters now.
Initially hobbled, rather than helped, by its connections to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. stumbled out of the gate in 2013, as it waited for the status quo-altering events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and only truly found its footing with the fourth and fifth seasons. Although a shortened sixth season will air next summer on ABC, and the network seems confident in its prospects, even the most devoted viewers have to wonder about the drama's future, and what might have been.
While Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has blended action-adventure, sci-fi and fantasy, it's never been the high-octane espionage thriller some fans might have initially expected. Of course, given the constraints of network television, both in terms of budget and depictions of violence, that vision for the super-spies of the MCU may be restricted to a Winter Soldier-style feature or else a series on a streaming service. But if fans want an idea of what Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could have looked like, they may find it in director Peter Berg's Mile 22.
Set in a fictional Southeast Asian country (a very comic book-like touch), the action thriller follows a special-ops unit led by James Silva (Mark Wahlberg) that performs off-the-books missions around the globe. It's a setup similar to S.H.I.E.L.D., except that Silva's team operates on the orders of the CIA. Building upon that comparison, Silva's unit has access to a group of remote handlers, called Overwatch, that oversees each mission. That "brain of the operation," as Silva puts it, doesn't only deal with logistics, but seeks out intelligence through hacking, and controls drones that can take out targets at significant distances, drawing a parallel to Project Insight from The Winter Soldier. Add to that Silva's head of operations is a Nick Fury-esque figure called Mother (John Malkovich).
Wahlberg's no-nonsense Silva has a mentor-like relationship with his partner Alice (The Walking Dead's Lauren Cohan) that's similar to the dynamic between Fury and Maria Hill. The other two members of the unit, Sam (Ronda Rousey) and William (Carlo Alban), do most of the dirty work, reminiscent of how Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) once operated in the MCU. These are the soldiers who operate off the books, traveling to fictional Indocarr in search of stolen nuclear material and helping to destabilize a country that supports terrorists. Their stealth missions come off a lot like what Fury encouraged in Marvel Comics' Secret War. when he invaded fictional Latveria.
The way Silva's unit transports purported informant Li (The Raid's Iko Uwais), slips in and out of countries, and extracts intelligence can also be compared to such comic stories as 2014's "Original Sin," in which the focus is on the mission -- in that case, the investigation of the murder of The Watcher -- and nothing else.
That's what many fans wanted from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: hard-hitting, grimy, political and provocative, because diluting the spy game, even within a world populated by superheroes and supervillains, simply doesn't work. Instead of small-budget action sequences and fight choreography that plays it safe, Agent Coulson, Mockingbird and Quake could have been part of something grounded, tense and gritty, like Mile 22.
Imagine using Mile 22 as a template, and swapping out Berg's covert-opes unit for Hawkeye, Black Widow, Nick Fury (or Phil Coulson) and Maria Hill, and using them to hunt A.I.M. and the remnants of Hydra. That certainly would have upped the ante and made this corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe a grounded yet thoroughly enjoyable action spectacle.
In theaters now, director Peter Berg’s Mile 22 stars Mark Wahlberg, John Malkovich, Lauren Cohan, Iko Uwais and Ronda Rousey.