It’s one of the core superhero comic book tropes. Right up there with secret identities and bending steal bars. The origin story. But even though ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” drama is set firmly within the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the show has shown a scant few true superhero origins. From Deathlok to Daisy Quake and beyond, the series has only indulged in the practice three, maybe four times depending on what you count. And even in those cases, most of the show’s “baptism by fire” moments stretch over multi-episode arcs if not entire seasons.
That’s why “Agents” promise to deliver the origin of Ghost Rider Robbie Reyes with this week’s “The Good Samaritan” installment drew so much heat. It’s not just the fact that the hero is the biggest comic book name to ever appear on the series or that the mystery behind Reyes’ powers has taken up a central place in “Agents” Season 4 plot. No, the real creative challenge for the series with this episode is whether they can not only improve up on the origin explorations that other hero shows traffic in almost weekly – and by extension revive their own reason for being.
In the end, the evidence isn’t conclusive, but at least the Rider’s origin is one Hell of a ride fueled in large part by a string of shared universe Easter eggs.
Spinning around the orbit of Robbie’s personal tale of fiery rebirth are a number of ticking time bombs. The episode opens with a flashback to the early days of the lab experiment that created this season’s ghostly villains. Back then, it was Robbie’s uncle who was dabbling in the occult – seeing through the flimsy excuse of the chief scientist who used the mystic Book of Darkhold to create an experiment that could generate matter from nothing. All season, the show has been toying with the question over what strange circumstance allows for magic in the MCU alongside its super science standards. And this flashback offers one compelling theory for that: magic is what happens when the laws of nature are tragically broken.
In the present, the fight is less philosophical if no less deadly. New S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Jeffrey Mace is bringing down the hammer on Agent Coulson’s team just when they’re on the cusp of stopping the most deranged of the modern ghosts, Lucy. For one, Mace literally disappears Agent Simmons as part of whatever side deal he’s cut with an Inhuman-hating senator. And then he comes into Coulson’s floating fortress guns ablazing in order to arrest Reyes and Daisy for their technically illegal if generally heroic activities. To complicate things, Daisy has just brought aboard Robbie’s brother Gabriel for protection from Lucy, AND Fitz is about to crack how the ghost gal and the boys’ uncle Eli will try to recreate their original experiment on a massive, potentially catastrophic scale. Mace’s entrance forces the former group to go into hiding while Fitz and company push the limits of their life-saving mission.
The most talked about aspect of the episode will doubtlessly be the origin story Robbie is forced to tell his brother while they and Daisy hang in hiding beneath the jet. We already knew that Robbie blamed himself when Gabriel was gunned down and confined to a wheelchair by the LA gang the Fifth Street Locos, but here we see the particulars in their terrifying completeness. The boys were attacked after the stole Uncle Eli’s hotrod for a drag race, a moment that had them musing on the road less taken since Gabe lived life hard at work to educate his way out of their neighborhood. Robbie meanwhile plays the part of rebel slacker – the kind of guy who’s happier to live with a devil may care attitude than a plan for his future.
Back in the now, Robbie says that he knows better now…that life is a matter of decisions and consequences. He decided to take Gabe with him to race, and when the Locos attack, the consequence of his little brother’s injury were on him. So Robbie did the only thing he could: send a prayer above or below to anyone who would save them as the bullets tore through their bodies. The slow-mo work in the scene is full of palpable anguish, and as modern Gabe recalls a so-called Good Samaritan who came to their aid, we already know what comes next. The mysterious biker who arrives at the scene isn’t a friendly hero but the flaming skull of (an unnamed) Johnny Blaze – the original Ghost Rider who passes his cursed Spirit of Vengeance on to Robbie in exchange for Gabriel’s survival.
The moment between the two anti-heroes is brief, and we never fully see the man behind Blaze’s alter-ego (which is strange, because you all know Nicholas Cage would totally have done it, right?). But the ideas behind the scene burn passionately. Robbie learns one lesson in responsibility, but it’s still not enough for him to understand that he’s more responsible for the lives the Rider has taken since it took him over than he’d care to admit. That take’s Gabe’s repudiation that the death of countless gang members is justified by his own state in life. He may have never asked to be crippled, but he’s dealt with it without a thirst for revenge.
Once the stories synch back up, we’re treated to one of the most assured spy ops in the history of a show chock full of them. Robbie breaks out of Mace’s clutches with an unimaginable show of power in a brutal fight scene that makes it clear S.H.I.E.L.D. will have to follow Coulson’s plan for the moment. Meanwhile, Lucy and Eli continue to recreate their experiment as we keep flashing back to the past when Eli fought against her husband to supposedly control the original test’s Darkhold-inspired particulars before the book’s power pushed anyone to literally play god with the world. When S.H.I.E.L.D. finally touches down, it’s a race to stop Lucy…except the Rider’s killing the ghost leave Eli to grab power! Yes, in a late game twist, it was the Reyes’ uncle who thirsted for the evil of the book the whole time. And while his first attempt created a wave of radioactive ghouls, this time out he seems more successful – earning the power to create matter with his own fingertips in a cliffhanger full of dark potential.
Those salient points cover the shape of the story by episode’s end, but the reason this hour proves a winner comes when you look at the episode’s details. Thematically, both stories set in the past synch up beautifully. Just as Robbie denies that the powers in his hands are truly the result of his own actions, Uncle Eli revels in the fact that he’ll kill anyone to get his hands on some satanic science. The idea at the heart of Ghost Rider’s origin – decisions and consequences; justice and vengeance – are on a path towards a head-on collision that may make the hero’s inclusion in the show more than the typical TV stunt casting.
Meanwhile, “Agents” drops hints at another (if less headline-grabbing) tie-in to the legacy of the MCU. As Fitz searches to find where Lucy and Eli will recreate their experiment, his reasoning leads him to Isodyne, a subsidiary of the crooked Roxxon Corporation. A quick nod in the dialogue reminds Marvel completists that this is the same company that factored heavily into the saga of “dark force matter” that had a similarly ghostly effect on cast members of the late, beloved series “Agent Carter.” This may be just a bone thrown to people still burned at ABC’s premature cancellation of Peggy Carter’s dynamic solo series, but there’s the possibility that as Uncle Eli’s quest for godhood rages in the week’s ahead, the show could pivot towards an explanation for the many cliffhangers left at the end of “Agent Carter” Season 2.
Between Johnny Blaze’s appearance and the promise of Agent Carter’s return, this show is riding the razor’s edge. For now, fans will be ecstatic at the inter-connectedness of this fictional playground and dazzled by a very confident hour of spy storytelling. But while the origin of Ghost Rider wowed, this is only the beginning of the story, and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” could easily fall into the trap that other hero-heavy shows have had: focusing on fan service or creative success in the long run. For now, the engine is running hot, but who knows what the next chapter will bring?