Friday, September 23, 2016

Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4, Episode 1: The Ghost

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is back, for its fourth, and most likely last season!

What's that? "But Bob," I hear you say. "Whatever do you mean? What could possibly make you think this'll be the show's final season?" 

Welp, because ABC, in its infinite wisdom, moved the series from 9pm to 10pm (8pm to 9pm to me, here in the middle of the country). 10pm has traditionally been considered "The Death Slot," the place where networks send put shows out to pasture. They limp along for a few months in that time slot until they start to wither, their audience dries up and they're ultimately cancelled. 

There are many series that have been quite successful in that time slot, of course. But they generally started out at 10pm. It's when a series is moved there that their days become numbered.

Naturally ABC's trying to put a positive spin on the move, assuring the public that the move to a later hour will allow Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. to "go darker" and feature more violence. Jesus Christ, how much darker can the show get? The Season 3 episode Failed Experiments featured a horrifying scene of a character's head melting, which was worse than anything I've seen on The Walking Dead. And in Ascension, the Season 3 finale, Yo-yo caught a bullet in her side (despite the fact that she has super-speed) and Mack cauterized her wound with a goddamned blowtorch! Holy crap! And they want to go even darker?

I can certainly understand ABC and Marvel's reasoning here. After all, going dark, grim and violent has worked out so well for the DC movie universe.

Of course the really big news this season is that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is adding Ghost Rider to the show. Yeah, you heard right. Ghost Rider. The guy with a flaming skull for a head, famously played by batsh*t insane actor Nicolas Cage in 2, count 'em two theatrical films from Sony.

I don't know... adding Ghost Rider to the mix seems like a very, very weird addition to what is ostensibly a spy series. They don't go together. There's no commonality there; they just don't mix or mesh. It feels as odd as if the cast of Sleepy Hollow suddenly appeared on Bones. Oh, wait...

On the other hand, it's not like this is the first bizarre turn 
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has taken. Agent Coulson came back from the dead, Skye developed superpowers and insisted on being called Daisy, we met a low-budget Hulk (aka Calvin Zabo) and the Inhumans, Simmons was stranded on an alien planet for several months, and Grant Ward died but was possess by a squid-faced alien god. Now that I think about it, a vengeance demon with a flaming skull head isn't so strange after all.


The Plot:

We begin six weeks after the Season 3 finale (which featured a six month time-jump
 confused yet?). Daisy's still doing her best Lisbeth Salander impression, but instead of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor like she had been doing, she's switched to tracking a white supremacist group that's running guns or something. Just as she's about ready to use her quake powers against them, a tricked-out '69 Dodge Charger appears. 

The car revs its engine and roars toward the gun runners. They fire a bazooka or rocket launcher or something at it, which blows it sky high. It flips end over end, lands on the feet, er, I mean wheels, bursts into supernatural flames and continues on its path. It smashes into the skinheads' truck, killing all but two of them. A figure with a flaming skull head emerges from the car. It's Ghost Rider! Not the lame one from the movies, but a cool new non-Cage version. He grabs one of the skinheads and drives off. A stunned Daisy mouths "WTF?"

Meanwhile Coulson and Mack are cooling their heels at S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters. There've been lots of changes since the season finale. The biggest one is that Coulson is no longer the Director. There's a brand new sheriff in town, one who's fond of terrible acronyms and goes unseen in this episode. This new Director has decided to split up the old team and give them all separate assignments. Coulson and Mack are determined to intercept Daisy and bring her back to S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent May is now training her own strike force. Fitz is still in the science lab, but Simmons has been promoted, and now reports to the Director. Yo-yo is apparently a part time agent, who's called in from time to time.

May intercepts a report on Daisy's whereabouts, and secretly shares the info with Coulson. Against orders from the Director, he and Mack set out to find her.

Cut to Ghost Rider interrogating his skinhead prisoner. When he refuses to cooperate, Ghost Rider kills him with his car. Daisy goes to visit the other skinhead in the hospital. He tells her that no one survives an encounter with the Ghost Rider for long, and promptly drops dead. Daisy then has a secret meeting with Yo-yo, who's supplying her with bone healing medication from S.H.I.E.L.D. Daisy needs the meds, because despite the fact that she freely used her quake power as much as she wanted with no ill effects last season, suddenly it's damaging the bones in her arms. Yo-yo also tells her that Coulson and Mack are close to finding her.

Back at S.H.I.E.L.D., May and Simmons argue. May thinks Simmons is kissing up to the new Director and betraying her former teammates. Simmons assures her she doesn't trust this new Director (hmmm...) and is doing everything in her power to gain his confidence so she can protect her friends. She then orders May to bring in Coulson and Mack.

Meanwhile, Fitz goes to Dr. Radcliffe's (remember him from last season?) place to watch the soccer, er, I mean football 
match. Radcliffe's Life Model Decoy AIDA wanders into the living room, much to Fitz's surprise and embarrassment (she's nekkid, dontcha know). Radcliffe says he invented AIDA to act as a "shield" for human agents (wah-wah), so they don't have to risk their lives in dangerous situations. Fitz reminds Radcliffe that that's pretty much how Ultron was born in Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Fitz says they have to report AIDA to Simmons immediately, but then changes his mind and says they should keep her a secret until she's perfected. Uh-oh. Keeping secrets from your girlfriend ain't cool, Fitz!

Daisy uses some impressive detective skills to track down Ghost Rider's Charger to an auto yard. She meets Robbie Reyes, who works there. He becomes suspicious of her, turns into Ghost Rider and attacks. She fights back with her quake powers, but is eventually pinned under heavy rubble by Ghost Rider. Feeling guilty for all the blood on her hands, she begs him to go ahead and kill her. He stares at her for a few seconds, then turns, gets in his car and roars off. Why, I have no idea.

Coulson and Mack show up at a warehouse, hoping to catch Daisy. Instead they witness an odd exchange, as two thugs are apparently selling an old chest to a group of Asian mobsters. The head mobster opens the chest, and some kind of mystical energy explodes from it, bathing everyone in glowy sparkles. A ghostly woman then walks past the mobster. Suddenly he sees his underlings transform into withered, black-eyed demons. He freaks out, grabs a gun and starts cutting them down.

May then appears and she and her team take out the rest of the mobsters. She orders her team to load up the Ark Of The Covenant, er, I mean the chest and take it back to S.H.I.E.L.D. Before she leaves the ghostly woman reappears and walks past her. May looks around in confusion, unsure of what just happened.

Later Daisy spies on Robbie, and sees him meet his younger brother (who's in a wheelchair) after school. Awwww. The supernatural vengeance demon has a disabled little brother he supports.

Back at S.H.I.E.L.D., Coulson plays backgammon with May, and they reminisce about the good old days. As May looks at Coulson, she sees him momentarily transform into one of the withered, black-eyed demons before he returns to normal... Uh-oh!

• If nothing else, so far this Ghost Rider is miles above the Nicolas Cage version.

• Wondering why Ghost Rider suddenly drives around in a cool '69 Dodge Charger instead of his traditional motorcycle? Me too. Apparently this is the version that's in the comics these days.

There've been many different Ghost Riders over the years. Most people know the original, Johhny Blaze. He was a stunt rider who gave his soul to Mephisto in order to save his dying father. Every night or whenever he was encountered evil, he transformed into Ghost Rider, and drove a flaming motorcycle. He could also shots blasts of hellfire from his hands. This was the version (more or less) played by Nicholas Cage in Ghost Rider and Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance.

In the 1990s, Danny Ketch became the Ghost Rider after acquiring a motorcycle that was possessed by a Spirit Of Vengeance (!). 

Robbie Reyes is the newest incarnation of Ghost Rider, and debuted in 2014. Reyes works at an auto body shop, and takes care of his developmentally disabled brother Gabe. He entered a street race to earn money to move himself and his brother out of his gang-ridden neighborhood, but was gunned down by mercenaries. He's then resurrected as a demon with a flaming, helmet-like skull head. He drives a '69 Dodge Charger that also has supernatural powers. There's a LOT more to his story, but that'll do for now. 

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is using a modified version of the Robbie Reyes character.

 Ghost Rider's debut— in which his car is hit by a bazooka, flies into the air, flips over a couple of times and lands unscathed—  is taken directly from the comics.

 The Ghost Rider transformation effects were pretty cool, and very well done. Especially on a TV budget. I kind of like that this particular Ghost Rider's head looks more like a stylized helmet than a realistic skull.

 After Ghost Rider's big debut, there's a scene in the S.H.I.E.L.D. lab in which Simmons is walking around inside some sort of elaborate holographic simulation, invented by Fitz. He calls it "The Framework."

This scene has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. It looked expensive though, so there's no way they filmed it just as filler. I'm betting this was all set up, and The Framework is going to become really important later on in the season.

• At one point Simmons makes a comment about "absent friends we'll never see again." She's obviously talking about Mockingbird and Hunter here. As we all know, they were written out last season, so they could star in the Marvel's Most Wanted series. Now that ABC passed on the show (twice!), that's obviously not going to happen. So will they be returning to Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. sometime this season?

Yes, they said Mockingbird and Hunter were now discommendated or something and could absolutely, positively, never, ever, EVER return. But as we all know, this is a comic book series, and the world "never" doesn't apply. Not even to Coulson, who was killed by Loki in The Avengers and later got better.

• The new S.H.I.E.L.D. Director, who was unseen in this episode but will supposedly appear next week, is fond of horrible acronyms. He comes up with "Special Advisor to the Director in Science and Technology," or S.A.D.I.S.T. for short, as well as "Widespread Infiltration Monitoring Program," or W.I.M.P.

Expect this to be a running joke all season.

 Fitz is shocked and disturbed when he meets AIDA, Dr. Radcliffe's Life Model Decoy. He says creating artificial intelligence is how Ultron was born. Radcliffe says, "But this is not A.I. A.I. is banned. This is mimicry of human behavior."

Um... what the hell's the difference? Aren't they the same thing? Doesn't artificial intelligence mimic the human mind?

• Now that FitzSimmons are finally a couple, expect the writers to immediately begin working on breaking them up. I have a feeling the fact that Fitz is keeping the existence of AIDA a secret from Simmons will end up driving quite a wedge between them.

• Something I'm wondering about Robbie. So far every time he's turned into Ghost Rider, he's been wearing his cool black leather jacket and jeans. The clothes obviously aren't a part of the vengeance demon's body. So what would happen if Robby is dressed for the beach when he transforms? Would Ghost Rider appear as a flaming skeleton wearing a tank top, cargo shorts and sandals? I'd pay to see that!

I need to get started on a drawing of that right away.

• Daisy and Ghost Rider have a big fight in the auto yard. Daisy's pinned under rubble, and even though he could easily kill her, for some reason Ghost Rider simply walks away. Why? Surely she has just as much blood on her hands as the white supremacists he killed.

In the comics, one of Ghost Rider's powers is his "Penance Stare." When he locks eyes with a victim, they feel every pain they've ever inflicted on anyone throughout their life, which causes great physical and mental discomfort.

Was that what was going on when GR had Daisy pinned under the wreckage? He was definitely staring at her, and she looked like she was in pain. If so, it wasn't made very clear. If they're going to use the Penance Stare, then it definitely needs some sort of special effect to show he's using it. An eye glow or something.

• I have no idea what the weird ghost in the chest is about. You know, the one that makes its victim see people as demons, or look like Bilbo Baggins momentarily possessed by the One Ring. I don't remember anything like that from the comics, but then again I stopped buying them when the cover price passed three bucks, sometime around 2000. So I've missed a lot of plotlines.

The S.H.I.E.L.D. producers have stated that this season will have some kind of tenuous connection with the upcoming Doctor Strange movie, so maybe it has something to do with him or his world. Some form of magic?

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