This review includes spoilers for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 4×01, “The Ghost.”
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a show that can best be described as a sci-fi law enforcement drama, is embracing Marvel‘s Doctor Strange era by introducing Ghost Rider. Possessed by the vengeful spirit of a serial killer who transforms his head into a flaming skull, Robbie Reyes is about as far from science fiction as you can get. He’s also not as intimidating as we had hoped.
Season 4 marks yet another new era for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., both thematically (hello, supernatural villains) and for S.H.I.E.L.D. itself. However, there are still some familiar formulas at play. With Coulson demoted to Agent and his team split into different departments, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new director is framed as an antagonist to Coulson’s ragtag team. The problem is, this plays into the show’s habit of unintentionally highlighting how bad Coulson was at his job. Coulson’s leadership style involved weird loyalty tests, personal vendettas and zero legal oversight, so S.H.I.E.L.D.’s newly strict security is probably an improvement.
With Daisy “Quake” Johnson on the run, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new director wisely forbade her friends from joining the mission to track her down. So, inevitably, they conspire to find her first. This brings everyone to L.A., where Quake and Ghost Rider meet while hunting down the same criminal gang—Ghost Rider because he wants to clean up his neighborhood like Daredevil, and Quake because she’s trying to eradicate the Watchdogs. (Remember them? They’re the anti-Inhuman terrorist gang from last season. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. also has a bad habit of hanging onto its second-tier villains for too long.)
Marvel has been hyping Ghost Rider for months, marketing him as the highlight of season 4. This backfired a little, because the episode tries to build suspense by keeping Ghost Rider as a background figure between Quake’s storyline and all the S.H.I.E.L.D.-related exposition.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to feel suspenseful for something we’ve already seen in every trailer for the show. He should have been the best part of the episode, but that actually turned out to be the title; “The Ghost” has a quadruple meaning, referring to Ghost Rider, Quake, the Ex Machina-esque android Ada, and a ghostly entity that teases further forays into supernatural territory.
As ever, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is buffeted by the tides of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Sokovia Accords are still in effect, straining credulity after the fallout of Civil War, where everyone already flouted the rulebook before the ink had a chance to dry. The Accords had zero impact on the Netflix franchise and will likely be ignored by some of the upcoming movies, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is still shackled to this canonical detail—even as the show launches headfirst into the supernatural world of Doctor Strange. And all this is happening with the Inhumans still playing an integral part in the show, despite their movie being dropped from Marvel’s release schedule.
This one-sided relationship with the MCU means that in the end, introducing Ghost Rider may be a smart strategic decision. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is clearly aiming to have more in common with Marvel’s Netflix shows, but this doesn’t just mean a darker tone and more blood during the fight scenes. It should also mean deeper characterization, which is exactly what they can do by focusing on one new character instead of an interchangeable crowd like HYDRA or the Inhumans.