Contains spoilers for Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., up to and including season 4 episode 6, The Good Samaritan.
Agents Of SHIELD is on a break for a few weeks, giving us a gap in which to reflect on season 4’s offerings so far. And boy, what a season it’s shaping up to be.
Gabriel Luna has burst onto the scene as Robbie Reyes in spectacular fashion, giving Marvel’s flagship television series an adrenaline shot and reinvigorating public interest in the Ghost Rider mythos for the first time since Nic Cage hung up his leather jacket and extinguished his flaming skull.
The introduction of Luna to the fold has shaken up the show in a variety of ways, and in turn Agents Of SHIELD has put Ghost Rider right back at the center of the superhero conversation. Here’s why this combination is working so well…
A top tier character on TV
This is exactly what Marvel fans have wanted from the very beginning of Agents Of SHIELD: an iconic Marvel Comics hero gracing the small screen, interacting with Phil Coulson and gang, adding new elements to the Marvel Cinematic Universe while simultaneously telling his own story in a striking, unique fashion.
We’ve previously heard plenty of dialogue references to the Avengers, and we’ve seen SHIELD grow its own heroes like Deathlok and Quake, but one thing we’ve never seen is a character from the top shelf of Marvel Comics lore veering violently into the show and coercing it into to serving his own plotline.
Ghost Rider is a character who spawned two movies and countless comics, and here he is in Agents Of SHIELD, giving the series its biggest kick in the ass since Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s huge HYDRA-shaped revelations. It’s a very exciting time to be watching the show, and the execution of Ghost Rider’s introduction has been impressive to say the least.
It took guts not to start with his origin story, but the writers’ decision to swerve past that and get straight to Robbie’s brutal bloodletting on the roads paid off in spades. Ghost Rider’s unique MO, coupled with the show’s later time slot this year, ensured that season 4 kicked off in darkly eye-catching fashion, with fiery car chases, vicious justice, and tense confrontations packed into the opening episode.
The undeniable highlight of the impressive season premiere was Daisy’s face-off with Robbie at the junkyard (embedded above). Never has the show’s effects budget looked quite this good, and it normally takes a whole season to get to a fight this brutal. And then, at the end of the episode, we got a tease of Robbie’s personal life, allowing Luna to begin getting his teeth into the duality of the role – he’s a killer and a caring brother, which makes for an engaging watch.
Giant contrasts to focus on
The two warring sides of Robbie’s life aren’t the only giant contrasts in the show this year, either. Ghost Rider’s arrival hasn’t just improved the visual effects standards and upped the action quota – it’s also given Agents Of SHIELD some of its most effective thematic components to date.
Every chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s overarching mega story has focused on good versus evil in one way or another, but it’s hard to draw to mind another segment that has dealt with shades of grey rather than the black and white quite this effectively.
Ghost Rider appeared in the show at a similar time to Jeffrey Mace, the new SHIELD director played by Jason O’Mara. This has presented some interesting options to Coulson and the gang: do they side with the devil that has relevant knowledge to their mission, or the angel that seems to prefer lie detectors and press conferences to taking action?
So far, they’ve opted for the worrying option of keeping Mace in the dark while using Robbie to get to the bottom of the ghost mystery, turning a blind eye to the killings he’s committed as Ghost Rider.
Using Star Wars parlance, Coulson recently implied that he sees himself as Admiral Ackbar and Mace’s side of SHIELD as the Empire. We’ve seen the organization split into factions before (remember ‘the real SHIELD’?), but this feels more personal. Coulson’s methods have always been questionable, but siding with a known killer over his own boss still manages to be shocking. Put simply, Robbie’s introduction has shaken up the dynamics of the main players in some big ways, creating conflict to keep the show interesting.
The toss-up between team mentality and individual vendettas is bubbling in the background this year, as well, with Daisy’s decision to go solo as Quake to take down the Watchdogs reflecting nicely with Robbie’s reluctance to team up with SHIELD to get to the bottom of the mysteries surrounding his uncle.
A backdrop for character drama
Couldn’t Ghost Rider carry his own series? That’s a thought that crossed my mind when the decision to draft Robbie Reyes into Agents Of SHIELD was first announced. But, actually, the decision to deploy him here ended up working really well for the character.
The strictures of SHIELD’s stuffed story slate and its episodic structure mean that Robbie cannot be given hours upon hours of development. He has to drift in and out, stealing ten minutes here and there to unravel his backstory, his personal life and his motivations to the viewer at home.
This creates an air of mystery that you wouldn’t necessarily get with a solo network series or a Netflix drama. The writers are forced to embrace a ‘less is more’ approach, and this has worked wonderfully for Robbie. It took six episodes to get to his backstory episode, and before that we had to survive on short, tantalizing snippets: the car chase from episode 1; Robbie at work, being covertly grilled by Daisy; the sporadic fight scenes; Robbie begrudgingly agreeing to help SHIELD and take down Hellfire; the prison meet-up between Robbie and his uncle; and, rather touchingly, the scenes between Robbie and his disabled brother Gabe.
The nature of Agents Of SHIELD provides an interesting backdrop for character development: Robbie’s story has to be eked out like this over a period of weeks, giving audiences time to get to know him and embrace this new version of Ghost Rider that hasn’t been seen on screen before (on the flipside, if his entire story had been burned through in a couple of episodes, the intrigue levels wouldn’t have had time to grow and I may not have ended up singing the praises of Agents Of SHIELD season 4 like this).
The chance to catch another glimpse of Robbie’s story is a motivation to keep tuning in every week, meaning that this partnership between character and series is working well for all parties involved.
An overarching narrative to rival Netflix
Everything came to a head in episode 6, The Good Samaritan, with all the plot strands of season 4 converging for the first time. It was here that the strengths of the season so far really hit home for me, along with the realization that Agents Of SHIELD has an impressive overarching narrative this year to rival the 13-episode, high quality, hero-focused Marvel series that Netflix is producing these days.
We know now that Robbie and Gabe’s uncle Eli was obsessed with the Darkhold, and that his colleague Joseph hired the Fifth Street Locos gang to assassinate Eli and stop his dangerous experiments. But because Robbie and Gabe snuck out in Eli’s car, they ended up receiving the barrage of bullets instead. Eli was free to conduct his experiment, which eventually turned his co-workers into creepy ghosts (which kicked off that fun subplot about people coming into contact with the ghosts and being cursed to see the zombie eye thingies), while Robbie was offered an opportunity to survive the shooting by embracing the Spirit Of Vengeance (was that Johnny Blaze?!?) and its fiery skull ways.
This tightly plotted narrative is rooted in one family and their relationships with the dark forces of the universe, making it infinitely more personal than a battle between SHIELD and other sizeable groups such as HYDRA, the Watchdogs, the Inhumans, and Project Centipede. It may just be my personal preference, but I’m more excited to see this personal conflict unfold than I have been about any other SHIELD storyline to date.
A lot of this comes down to the quality of performances and writing on show this year, as well: Gabriel Luna has been bringing a brilliant blend of fierceness, guilt and family loyalty; José Zúñiga did terrific work concealing Eli’s evil urges, before utterly convincing during his heel turn; and Lorenzo James Henrie has brought strength and sincerity to the role of Gabe. It’s rare that three characters turn up and I find them all engaging to watch, so Agents Of SHIELD has certainly some earned some applause with this lot.
Building the universe, echoing the movies
Although Jaime Alexander’s guest spots were a lot of fun and the Winter Soldier episodes were lauded by fans and critics alike, you couldn’t exactly say that tying into the movies has been Agents Of SHIELD’s strongest suit over the years. The fact that namedrops and references have only flowed in one direction, with TV nodding to the films, certainly hasn’t helped.
But these Ghost Rider-centric episodes have paired up rather nicely with this autumn’s big Marvel movie, Doctor Strange. By making the connection thematic rather than rooting it in knowing dialogue, showrunners Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen and Jeffrey Bell have found a very effective way to make the Marvel Cinematic Universe feel connected without the shoehorned references.
In both Agents Of SHIELD season 4 and Doctor Strange we see men using ancient books, we see powers rooted in the unknown, and we see hints at a larger universe just outside of the frame. But while Doctor Strange has the Dark Dimension (and all the rest), Robbie Reyes has a date with the devil in the middle of the road – a mysterious voice offering him a way to defeat death and dish it out to others.
The show stopped just short of putting an actual devil on screen, perhaps because he’s being saved to a future movie, but just knowing that there are evil forces offering this sort of grim redemption in the MCU is a big expansion of the universe. The introduction of Inhumans is the only other thing this big that the series has been allowed to introduce thus far.
And, on top of this stellar fan-pleasing universe expansion, we also got a connection to the sadly lost world of Agent Carter. In the efforts to understand the Darkhold’s mysteries, Fitz decoded an old SSR file referring to Isodyne/Roxxon and their experiments in the 1950s. A nice touch, and a neat way of making this ever-growing universe feel like it’s truly connected.
Setting a precedent
So, Robbie Reyes’ introduction to Agents Of SHIELD has worked wonders for the show and for the character. The series has been re-enlivened in a major way, with shades of grey added to the good versus evil struggle and an overarching narrative rooted in one family offering a serious incentive for viewers to keep tuning in. Meanwhile, the Ghost Rider mythos has been given a really effective reboot, with top performances, special effects and writing. Robbie Reyes now feels like a member of the A-list, and we’re not even halfway through the season.
Also, there’s something to be said about the precedent set with all this: there can be different versions of major characters, since mantles can be handed off or shared. Johnny Blaze isn’t the only Ghost Rider. By getting the fans accustomed to this sort of thing now, Marvel have set a balling rolling that could later benefit the franchises of Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Spider-Man, Hawkeye and many more.
I’m sure you weren’t worrying about the MCU’s longevity, but Agents Of SHIELD’s use of Ghost Rider provides even more proof that this sprawling media empire isn’t going anywhere. And hopefully, Robbie’s brutal brand of justice will be a significant slice of it for years to come…
Marvel’s Agents Of SHIELD season 4 returns to ABC on the 29th of November.