The Good: Acting is fine, Some of the character leaps are interesting
The Bad: Plot is derivative and does not suck the viewer in, Shaky special effects, Emotionally unsatisfying character directions.
The Basics: "The Ghost" fractures the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. yet again to put them up against the first major (possibly supernatural) villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
When it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, arguably one of the things that made the comic book-based universe so popular was that it surprisingly grounded in reality. Outside the Thor faction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there has been a pretty strong sense of reality to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in that the works try to justify everything with science and real-world concerns (like profit motive, war, and international boundaries preventing characters from having jurisdiction in territories). When Doctor Strange was announced as a project that would be pursued as a major cinematic work, that fundamental principle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was going to be altered. Arguably to soften the market up for Doctor Strange, much as it had for other Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbusters, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. introduced the first major supernatural character to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the season four premiere, "The Ghost." The fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. picks up after major shifts in the MCU from the end of the third season (reviewed here!) and "The Ghost" forces some sense of change to Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D..
"The Ghost" is an episode that forces a sense of redefining for Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. "The Ghost" picks up after the six month leap that capped off "Ascension" (reviewed here!) and it is impossible to discuss the the season premiere without some revelations of where the third season ended. After all, "Ascension" saw the end of two main cast members and the show then leapt ahead months in order to set up a sense of consequence and redefine S.H.I.E.L.D.
Ostensibly, the purpose of "The Ghost" is to introduce the supernatural character Ghost Rider to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Putting Ghost Rider in the MCU is an odd choice given that the character was licensed to Sony (at least in the United States) for its two cinematic outings. But more than that, Ghost Rider is a character more frequently associated with the "street level heroes" that Netflix has licensed, like Daredevil and Luke Cage, as opposed to the Inhumans, which have preoccupied the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. for the last two seasons. "The Ghost" puts Ghost Rider in play before Doctor Strange, softening the MCU up for the forthcoming surreal adventure. Ghost Rider is also an odd choice for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as neither of the two cinematic renditions of Ghost Rider have been particularly popular or successful; with all of the Marvel Comics character not yet added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, picking one that has not found its base in film is a weird choice. Of course, if Disney were to assert its authority over the property, it makes sense that Ghost Rider would appear on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. as opposed to getting its own feature film, given that the film route has been proven somewhat inviolable.
Opening with members of Aryan Brotherhood out on a hunt, presumably to do violence, Daisy encounters one, who begs her for help. The white supremacist shoot at an oncoming car, whose driver survives a rocket hitting the car and takes ones of the Watchdogs away in his car. Coulson and Mack are recalled to base to investigate the new super-powered individual, with May letting them know that the new Director believes that they are letting Quake, as the media has dubbed Daisy, go free. Daisy visits the surviving racist in the hospital to get information on what it was that attacked the men and he references "the Rider" before he lets himself die. While one of the mobs gets what is supposed to be a weapon of great power - and appears to be a spirit in a box - Daisy comes face to face with The Rider, who is unphased by her powers. The Rider makes a bat light on fire and he squares off with Daisy while Coulson tries to take down the gang in Los Angeles that just released a spirit.
Simmons and Fitz are working on a virtual reality headset when Mack and Coulson come for a visit to get new tech. As Daisy follows the trail of The Rider, who threatens his prison with violence if he won't give up the information he wants. Elena Rodriguez meets Mack and Coulson as "official mission" cover before they head to Los Angeles, while Fitz meets Aida (Radcliffe's android) while visiting the scientist. After leaving S.H.I.E.L.D., Rodriquez visits Daisy and she gives the fugitive information and pills to help her regenerate her bones. Daisy encounters a man in Los Angeles who clues her into the idea that the man she is looking for is the Ghost Rider and that he has killed many people in that neighborhood.
"The Ghost" opens at a somewhat awkward storytelling position. While opening six months after Hive and Lincoln appeared to blow up allows some measure of reset, which allows Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. to redefine itself. But, having two flash forward scenes - Daisy/Quake eluding Colson and Mac and Dr. Radcliffe building an android body for his AI - puts some burden on "The Ghost" because it forces viewers to accept something that has seldom been true in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; that the casualties from "Ascension" were real. It is hard for fans not to have some doubt that Hive was truly, irrevocably, killed and watch "The Ghost" waiting for Brett Dalton to pop up.
As one might expect, "The Ghost" bears the responsibility of setting up the new season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the initial antagonist does appear to be Ghost Rider with a side of Quake. "The Ghost" has the S.H.I.E.L.D. team that was once Coulson's fractured yet again and with Coulson working in the field, Daisy gone, May teaching the new recruits and Fitz and Simmons working away from all of them. Given that the prior two seasons have had essentially the same set-up, "The Ghost" feels derivative.
"The Ghost" starts off at an odd place in having the adversaries being "Aryan Brotherhood," when director Billy Gierhart has one of them holding a mask that is virtually identical to one work by The Watchdogs last season. Why Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. adds another hate group to the show when there was a very relevant one in the past season - especially in an episode that has what appears to be a supernatural character (so they are not that worried about being grounded in reality) - is something of a mystery at the episode's outset (though it does sell Mack's line about "brothers" amusingly enough).
Because "The Ghost" is so busy laying out a new framework for the season's plot, there is minimal character development in the episode. Jemma Simmons is given the greatest sense of character redefinition from the prior seasons as the medical doctor is put in a position of authority within the new S.H.I.E.L.D., which has her isolated from her prior team in a way that makes her interactions with people like May very tense. Simmons seems to be a character that the writers don't quite know how to make interesting, so this is the third major recharacterization of Simmons since Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. began. The problem with redefining Simmons as a leader in the way that she is in "The Ghost" is that it is such a character leap for the introverted scientist that it feels instantly inorganic. In "The Ghost," viewers are not given the emotional payoff for how and why Simmons would leave working so closely with Fitz behind after years of the two having an incredibly satisfying working relationship. In fact, Simmons pined for Fitz when she was in a hopeless situation stranded on the far side of the universe, so her being willing to leave him to take a more management-style role within S.H.I.E.L.D. requires a lot of explanation to make the leap satisfying or believable.
The only character who has been redefined more from the main characters is Daisy. In "The Ghost," Daisy is rogue who is not truly hunted by Coulson, though he is supposed to recover the fugitive. Like Simmons, Daisy is supposed to have made a believable leap between who she was and who she is now and the viewer is supposed to believe that she went all Goth and rogue because she lost Lincoln Campbell. Daisy searched her whole life for her family, lost them and came back to work the next day; the viewer is supposed to believe that the half-assed romantic relationship that was a c- or d-plot throughout parts of the prior two seasons of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. were enough to set her off.
The c-plot in "The Ghost" features the introduction of Aida, who fans of Marvel Comics will recognize as, essentially, a Life Model Decoy. Aida is the scientific foil to the supernatural Ghost Rider and she is presented as a lithe young woman untouched by special effects. Her introduction is not particularly compelling - her not being seen in the prior season's finale was quite simply the result of the part not yet being cast.
The special effects in "The Ghost" are decidedly mixed. When Ghost Rider is revealed in the final act, the effect is impressive, but the blue-screen shot for Simmons's introduction is painfully obvious. The initial car flip in "The Ghost" is not overly impressive or believable, but it is not terrible.
Ultimately, though, the goal of a season premiere is to make viewers want to tune in to the next week's episode and the season that follows. "The Ghost" is, to be fair, an ambitious premiere, but I kept waiting for the episode to pop, for there to be some hook that made me care. Instead, "The Ghost" contradicts the notions of Lash (that Inhumans ultimately change permanently), seems like a redundant adversary (the Inhuman Hive made last season appears to have essentially the same abilities) and implies a past that seems virtually impossible to retcon. If the Ghost Rider has been active for long enough to have the whole wall in tribute in Los Angeles, he has been doing his thing for a while . . . entirely under the radar of every superhero in the MCU. "The Ghost" asks the viewer to swallow a lot and it never quite makes the viewer want to . . . or want to come back next week.
For other season premieres from Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., be sure to check out my reviews of:
"Laws Of Nature"
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - The Complete Fourth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the fourth season here!
For other reviews of elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, please check out my Marvel Cinematic Universe Review Index Page for a listing of all those reviews!
© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.