In the words of Stephanie Meyer, we don't know what we've been missing until it arrives. For the last seven years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been missing something huge, but I didn't realize it until WandaVision Episode 4.
What Marvel's been missing
The most important character in Marvel's first phase of interconnected movies wasn't Iron Man, Captain America, or even Thor. It was Nick Fury.
Samuel L. Jackson's appearance at the end of Iron Man pulled back the curtain to reveal a bigger tapestry, and holding that tapestry together was S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division), a sprawling quasi-governmental organization capable of bringing its full force (or finesse) to any situation.
For the next six years, S.H.I.E.L.D. played a vital role in the burgeoning MCU. They set up an entire compound to contain Thor's hammer. They sent a spy to keep tabs on Tony Stark. In 2012's The Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D. provided one of the main setpieces in the form of the MCU's first Helicarrier. Then came Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Arguably still the best Marvel Studios film (and the first from Avengers: Endgame directors Joe and Anthony Russo), Winter Soldier turned the entire MCU on its head by revealing that S.H.I.E.L.D. was secretly being controlled from within by the Nazi group Hydra. This made for an explosive movie, but it also put an end to S.H.I.E.L.D., with Nick Fury forced to hide in the shadows while the Avengers were left without a big bureaucracy to both help and hinder them (The U.N. tried in Captain America: Civil War, but we know how that went.)
Then came WandaVision.
WandaVision and S.W.O.R.D.
With the introduction of S.W.O.R.D. (Sentient Weapon Observation and Response Division) in WandaVision Episode 4, the MCU finally has a big, shady government organization that can sweep in, investigate unnatural phenomena, attempt to control those phenomena, and ultimately make things worse until a superhero steps in to fix it. (That last part is just speculation, but we all kind of assume it's coming, right?)
I didn't realize how much I missed S.H.I.E.L.D. until S.W.O.R.D. swarmed the New Jersey town of Westview to investigate the hexagon of energy surrounding Wanda, Vision, and dozens of innocent New Jerseyans. But as soon as all those trucks, and soldiers, and scientists arrived with just the perfect mix of discipline and incompetence, something clicked into place.
Marvel needs groups like S.H.I.E.L.D. and S.W.O.R.D. to keep the story moving, to keep the exposition humming along, and to create a playground for superheroes to do what they do best. Now that this missing piece of the MCU puzzle is back, I'm excited to see how S.W.O.R.D. will help and hinder Earth's Mightiest Heroes moving forward — unless the entire thing turns out to be yet another front for Hydra.
WandaVision is streaming now on Disney+.