The mere existence of Season 4 of ABC’s Marvel Cinematic Universe drama “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” represents the road more taken. Though the series got off to a somewhat rocky start in its first year, the show eventually rebounded strong and marked out a unique place in the MCU. With last year’s season finale, “Agents” brought all of its major stories to a close. Phil Coulson was fully reestablished and redefined after his “Avengers” death. Skye/Daisy found out everything about her past and a few different options for a surrogate family. Hydra was introduced, destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again. Traitor Grant Ward had a number of major heel turns before dying in a satisfying manner. And every individual team member from Fitz & Simmons to May completed character-changing arcs.
So why even make a Season 4? With a few tweaks to the final scene last year, the show could have easily gone out on the kind of high note we rarely see a network show bow on. But the corporate synergy provided by ABC and Marvel’s respective sides of the Disney empire is just too important to sacrifice, and so what fans are left with is something of a soft reboot of the series – a supposedly darker take on the franchise in its new 10:00 PM timeslot that’s something akin to Marvel publishing’s proclivity for relaunching series with new #1s even without a major creative change.
This “all-new, all-different” take on the S.H.I.E.L.D. franchise opens with something of a thesis statement for what it wants to accomplish in “The Ghost.” It’s hard not to role your eyes when the show’s definition of being more “adult” cross-cutting close-up shots of its female lead putting on a pair of panties with liberal amounts of blood spatter, but that’s what we’re treated to. Daisy “Quake” Johnson has gone rogue with the excessive black eyeliner to prove it. Now the Inhuman vigilante is on the trail of Aryan arms dealers who have also incurred the wrath of Marvel’s hot rod-riding Ghost Rider. This Spirit of Vengeance is a far cry from cackling Nicholas Cage, but gets the job of burning through bad guys just as well.
To cut to the chase: the Rider’s inclusion here is the biggest selling point for the new season and legitimately the most intriguing aspect of the first episode. For years, Marvel has stubbornly kept superhero faces out of this show even as their major caped rivals at DC have flooded their CW shows with masked aliases on a weekly basis. In a way, the strategy made sense. When you only have one live-action fictional universe, you have to be careful to not use a major brand name if it could be saved for a tentpoll movie treatment. But after three years where the best they could offer were rare C-listers like Quake, Deathlok and the Absorbing Man, there was almost no buzz surrounding the series. Ghost Rider gives Marvel a chance to reinvigorate both the flaming skull’s reputation after two failed films at other studios and give “Agents” a fanboy shot in the arm. But does the character make any sense here?
One episode in, it’s hard to tell. Much like Daisy’s opening battle where she only sees the Rider in shadow, the character’s part is mostly style with no substance. His flame-heavy fight scenes are shot in a bit more gritty fashion than the show’s typically straightforward CGI jets and network backlot car chases. It provides a few memorable visuals (the Rider’s muscle car flip provides a decent wow moment), but making a flaming skull look cool isn’t the hardest thing to achieve in general. Kudos to the show for playing with some of the iconography from Felipe Smith and Tradd Moore’s underrated reinvention of the comic, though. Still, the majority of the hour lacks any real character punch as newcomer Gabriel Luna is given little to do with alter ego Robbie Reyes but threaten skinheads to stay one step ahead of Daisy’s investigation.
The flipside of the episode has a bit more character meat on the bone, though it covers much more familiar territory. Our new status quo sees S.H.I.E.L.D. back as a government agency and under the thumb of a new mystery Director who’s a bit paranoid about repeating the mistakes of Nick Fury that let Hydra in back in the day. As a result, now-Agent Coulson is teamed with Mack to fly the globe investigating superhuman threats. May is training new recruits but sneaking around for her own purposes. And Fitz and (particularly) Simmons have been given places of prominence in the new Director’s science division. Meanwhile, bit player Yo-Yo seems to be playing all sides of the conflict by reporting to Daisy and seemingly tying herself to the Rider somehow. Slowly but surely, all our favorites are revealed to be breaking the rules on their own terms, like they always do.
Some of these twist are more interesting than others, of course, but all of them are nudging us towards a “getting the band back together” scenario later this year. May’s striking out feels perfunctory as does Jemma’s revelation that she’s only playing nice to the Director to keep tabs on their organization’s new secretive nature. Fitz’s team-up with apparently on probation Dr. Radcliffe has a few more comedy sparks, but their clandestine plan to build the A.I. Aida into a fully functioning android agent is all set-up at this stage. If the show’s past is any indication, Coulson and Mack’s hunt to save Daisy before S.H.I.E.L.D. has her executed should be the episode’s emotional through-line, but aside from some fun banter between the former Director and his now equal, the love these men share for their jilted hero barely registers as they investigate the same arms ring she’s been after in LA.
In a by the numbers third act, Daisy finds and confronts the Rider in his salvage yard base while Coulson and Mack find the mobsters in town to buy up some kind of weaponized ghost to call their own. The promise of both these showdowns is to say to the audience “Here’s a new chapter of the MCU we’re opening up!” Rather than super spy science action, “Agents” is shifting to a more occult fantasy plot just in time for “Doctor Strange” to hit theaters. But the switch is only half-effective. The scene where Robbie fully turns into the Ghost Rider is effective both for the punch its transformation effects pack and for the insight into the still-broken Daisy it offers when she tries submit herself for judgement and is passed over. But the quick, tootheless wrap-up for Coulson and company’s half of the story feels like more of the same for “Agents” just when they need a lot more to differentiate this year from seasons past.
But all hope is not lost. When a premier like this carries so much set-up and still has a cast with charm to spare, there’s potential for a season that could help define the magic side of the MCU. And in his brief character moments, Luna’s Robbie Reyes is a worthy addition to the legacy of the Rider with his connection to his wheelchair-bound little brother (the welcome addition of “Fear The Walking Dead” actor and comic fan Lorenzo James Henrie) providing some fuel for this story to run on. Let’s hope the producers can super charge Season 4 and prove the effort was worth it beyond keeping the Marvel brand on network life support.
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