Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Season 4, Episode 1 - "Ghost"
Ghost Rider shifts Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. from sci-fi to supernatural; will the series survive the transition?
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.Airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm
Cast: Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge, Henry Simmons, Gabriel Luna
Subtitle: Season 4, Episode 1 - "Ghost"
Air date: 2016-09-20
While the forces that face S.H.I.E.L.D. often prove otherworldly, they typically have some basis in science fiction rather than the occult. With season four, however, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. jumps the shark in a way by integrating Ghost Rider Robbie Reyes (Gabriel Luna) into the show.
Crossing over into the occult may be a simple ploy to play off the popularity and longevity of other supernatural shows like Supernatural, True Blood, and Whedon properties Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, but with the seasoned writing crew, they'll likely find hooks that elevate it above its initial motivations, even if it provides the creative team with familiar unhallowed ground.
Ghost Rider does deliver other positives, such bringing another strong ethnic character to the show, as well as building upon the anti-hero popularity found in Daredevil's Punisher (Jon Bernthal). It also fits into the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that's delving deeply into mysticism and magic -- Doctor Strange is out in theaters later this year -- but that's thin conjuring on which to hang a season.
Like it or not, the Ghost Rider arrived in this side junction of the MCU with all of his fire and brimstone, so we better get to know him.
Who is Ghost Rider?
Like most long-time Marvel characters, there’s no single answer to that question. The better question to ask is: "Who is this Ghost Rider?"
Let's back up and answer the first question. Stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze offer his soul to Mephisto in order to save his father, thus giving birth to Ghost Rider. At night and in the presence of evil, Blaze transforms into hellfire; his head becomes a blazing skull. This manifestation derives from a bonding between Blaze and the demon Zarathos. Blaze's own family tree derives its powers from a shard from the Medallion of Power, home to the Spirits of Vengeance. According to Marvel lore, the first manifestation of Ghost Rider actually took place in the 18th century.
This Ghost Rider, Robbie Reyes, debuted in 2014 as a Mexican-American muscle car aficionado. Robbie lives with a developmentally disabled brother. In an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. twist, Robbie enters a race in order to get the money to leave Los Angeles, when he's the victim of an attack. Apparently, Calvin Zabo/Mr. Hyde (Skye/Daisy's father) left some of his transformation pills in the trunk of the Reyes' car. Robbie is saved by Eli Morrow -- a ghost in the machine -- who imbues Reyes with his powers. Eli turns out to be Reyes' not-so-nice uncle, who apparently tossed Reyes's then-pregnant mother down the stairs, causing the developmental issues with his brother Gabe. Eli was also a serial killer.
Blaze also finds Reyes, and the two supernatural beings vie for his soul, with Eli bonding to Reyes, but Reyes permitting this only if the serial murder will be satisfied with killing evil people. Unlike earlier incarnations of the character, the backstory involves a kind of human, even familial, possession rather than a wrath of demons and medallion shards. The simplification, however, makes Reyes no less supernatural than his predecessors.
Those truncated notes provide a hint at the convoluted origin of the Ghost Rider character. As with all MCU origin stories on both the big and the small screen, it represents the outline of a story that'll likely be rewritten by Whedon and crew as they bend the MCU to fit their wills (and their narrative needs).
It's highly likely that vengeance -- and ambiguous evil -- triumphing over pure evil will emerge as the theme for season four, which aligns with the moral dilemmas faced by the Inhumans. If the Inhuman line was seen as gassed, moral ambiguity still seems to sell.
The Ghost Rider risk
Ghost Rider fundamentally changes the dynamics of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. No longer will this be a show about humans trying to figure out the science of alien races that may look like magic, but isn't. Ghost Rider introduces actual supernatural forces. Robbie Reyes may still be human, but part of him isn't. Further, the characters who monitor the Ghost Rider legacy are purely supernatural, which leads S.H.I.E.L.D. into the night, into the dark, and much closer to Sunnydale than to New York.
One of the most supernatural of characters to date, Jessica Jones' nemesis Kilgrave, derives his powers from "scientific" processes. Red Skull even admonishes Hitler in Captain America for going after the occult when it’s advanced alien science, not mystical forces, that'll prove to be the Allies undoing. This is a big divergence for hard sci-fi fans. Of course, comic book fans are more open to the convoluted interconnections that cross the graphic narratives, but many people who watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. do so because of the films they’ve seen or want to see, not the books they’ve read. The lack of continuity -- perhaps even a loss of connection between S.H.I.E.L.D. and the MCU -- may not play well.
A show with already middling ratings is taking a chance on a story arc, perhaps an entire season, betting on a demon-infused muscle car enthusiast from East LA. They'll need solid character development, strong stories, and outstanding effects to make this work. As the team showed in the middle of last season, they're capable of delivering near poetic stories with huge emotional punch; they'll definitely need to wield those literary weapons for this season to thrive.
With the Inhuman film in limbo, perhaps Disney decided further development of the Inhuman story would end up confusing filmgoers, given the huge divergence of the televised S.H.I.E.L.D. story from those of the comic books. It may be that we're all in the middle of an Inhuman regroup that may or may not result in a film. The Inhumans remain part of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s cast, but it isn't clear if they're becoming a vehicle for relationships and emotion, or a target for Ghost Rider’s vehicle.
This divergence from the path of comic book sci-fi leaves Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. exposed. Fans who know S.H.I.E.L.D. from the MCU might feel betrayed by the divergence; the narrative thread is now even more tenuous between this show and Marvel films like Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther and The Avengers: Infinity War. It's easy enough to toss in a reference to a film, but the question is: will it feel authentic? As Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. drifts from its roots, it's already found itself carved completely out of Captain America: Civil War, a story in the comic books to which S.H.I.E.L.D. was essential. The Ghost Rider trip takes them down even more out-of-the-way narrative passages and alleyways.
Then again, these are the paths less traveled by. We’ll see if they make all the difference.