Two episodes into its soft reboot fourth season, and Marvel’s ABC drama “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” still hasn’t delivered a moment or idea strong enough to carry along another year of adventures for Phil Coulson and crew. Yet with “Meet The New Boss,” the series at least cranked up the Z-List Marvel reference factor, adding a layer of enjoyable Easter Egg hunting to an otherwise boilerplate hour of action.
In a lot of ways, the ideas being thrown at the audience have grown out of what’s come before in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and this show in particular – starting with the tepid opening scene. Like so many pieces of this current arc, the episode kicks off with a ghost story. A young boy is woken in the night by a phantom lady. His father assures him there’s nothing to fear. But wait! There is something to fear! And soon the woman has infected the father with her touch and made the man see his son as a rotting ghoul.
It’s a rote bit, but the ball the scene gets rolling forms the spine of the show’s new “spookier at 10:00 PM” storyline. The ghost woman is Lucy – some sort of research scientist set free from a technological prison box last week. Lucy’s touch has already started driving the gangsters who thought to use her as a weapon mad, and it’s slowly infecting the mind of the steely Agent May as well. But the twist in this common haunting plot comes in the lab of Agents Fitz and Simmons who identify Lucy’s former prison as some kind of bizarre technology beyond anything they’ve seen. Their investigation offers up shades of the Thor movies’ “Magic is just science you don’t yet understand” bit – slightly nudging the show’s sci-fi status quo towards the incoming wave of weirdness that “Doctor Strange” will undoubtedly unleash on the MCU. But for the most part, the entire idea of a scientist insisting “These can’t be ghosts! There must be some other explanation!” is a narrative dead end.
More compelling if still a bit flat is the introduction of new S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Jeffrey Mace. Those looking for Marvel U connections will be quick to point out that the smiling, PR-focused leader is a TV reinvention of The Patriot – a sometimes Captain America stand-in whose four-color footnote existence is followed only by Roy Thomas-level obsessives. Here, the square-jawed hero type is recast as an Inhuman – the kind of superpowered figurehead who can instill new faith in S.H.I.E.L.D. after practically everything that’s happened since “Captain America: The Winter Solider” has shot the organization’s rep to Hell. Mace’s internal slogan is “a team that Trusts is a team that Triumphs,” but trust seems to be in short supply as he cuts Coulson off from any and all information regarding his former team member Daisy. This story could be bland in the wrong hands, but the show’s general focus on cleverness combined with the charm of actor Jason O’Mara (where is this when he voices Batman, huh?) make for an entertaining addition to the canon.
The main thrust of this episode is all about the ghostiness, however, starting with our headlining Marvel guest star the Ghost Rider. Rogue agent Daisy confronts the midnight driver at his day job for answers as to why the flaming skull is out there killing his way through hate groups and mafiosos, but despite some playful banter, answers are short in coming. More momentum is found at…er…Momentum: Alternative Energy Lab. This abandoned research facility in the heart of Los Angeles (comics!) is the spot where Lucy and her team were converted into science ghosts, and now she’s returned to release her fellows. Alongside her righthand man Hugo and the muted but rage-filled Vincent is a nameless researcher who’s bent on destroying every trace of the ghost’s existence. Of course, his self-destructive plan doesn’t take shape until The Book of Darkhold has been name dropped two or three times. Another piece of Marvel Universe lore best remembered by people who bought all sorts of crazy ’90s variant covers, Darkhold is something like “Evil Dead’s” Necromonicon – an immensely powerful MacGuffin whose name opens all sorts of guest star potential. But for now, the idea does little more than add mystery to Lucy’s ever expanding crew.
In classic “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” fashion, every character collides at the perfect moment by happenstance. This time out, the unfortunate arrival tango is danced by Fitz and Mack as they chase a lead from their own mystery box. The pair are confronted by Lucy’s deranged coworker. He doesn’t manage to infect them with ghoul visions, but he does trap Mack in the conveniently left behind reactor that for some reason has never been depowered. The ghost has set the reactor to blow, but just when all seems lost, Daisy and the Rider appear so the latter can fry the ghost from existence and the former can be confronted for abandoning her old teammates.
For a show that works best when its plotting is intricate and surprising, this whole affair feels too “monster of the week” to be memorable. Even Fitz’s strong character work confronting Daisy doesn’t quite justify the new nonsensical status quo, and everyone else in the story feels like they’ve just had some kind of horror story thrown on their shoulders rather than watching a new arc unique to these characters and this world grow organically. Not even the last minute reveals that May is being shipped off to an undisclosed location by Mace as she loses her mind nor the implication that the Ghost Rider somehow is tied to the science ghosts can spark any real energy.
But for now, those who have stuck with “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” through three previous seasons are likely willing to give this new direction time to grow. The Marvel Easter Eggs are certainly helping give us something to enjoy, but the series better find its new direction soon or no amount of dark wizard cameos can save it.
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