I’ve been rooting for this show for a while now. Probably since its entire premise got obliterated thanks to The Winter Soldier, which somehow only made things better. Thing is, this show is smart. Or, well, it can be. All of the pieces are in place for Agents of SHIELD to go from just plain “mostly good” to “actually great”. They have been for quite some time, but rarely has it realized this about itself.
But, Season 3 dumped a ton of baggage that just needed to go, so going in on the premiere, I was hopeful. I hadn’t seen any of the preview material, aside from a few images of Gabriel Luna’s Robbie Reyes (Ghost Rider) and his badass ‘69 Charger, but with Ward finally gone, I thought, you know what? This can work.
Cutting off that last remnant of the Hydra take-over could be the shot in the arm Agents of SHIELD needed. And boy howdy, oh man. Pretty damn sure I was right, because Season 4 started strong as hell.
The opening sequence, which starts as a very “Batman” scenario with Daisy suiting up— with an ass-shot because obviously that had to be in there— and the Aryan Brotherhood freaking out due to an “unknown assailant” following them. Tires burst, and at first I thought Daisy had learned to snipe with her vibration powers, but that is not the case. Be cool if it was, though.
No, it’s the Ghost Rider who flips the genre from Action to Monster Movie. One moment, his car is hit with an RPG-7 and it does a flaming flip— something that is cleverly lampshaded later in the episode by that guy talking about how Hollywood always trashes those classic cars in the Fast and Furious films— and the next he’s t-boned an SUV and starts mimicking a xenomorph.Blood splashing everywhere, bad dudes screaming, corpse dragging like some sort of alpha predator; did not see that angle coming, but I really liked it. This makes Ghost Rider out to be this force of nature, which he basically is. Look, murder is bad, but I’ll be frank: A latino calling himself the Spirit of Vengeance, who sold his soul to the devil, killing Nazis makes it impossible not to love this guy. Even the MCU’s devil hates Nazis!
Anyway, the momentum that’s built in the cold open never drags, despite the fact that the very next scene has Mack and Coulson playing a game of backgammon. Yes. Backgammon. That game my dad loves for reasons I honestly cannot comprehend. Somehow, Agents of SHIELD made backgammon interesting to watch.
Curiously, May and Coulson also play a game of it at the end of the episode. With all this talk about super-lie-detectors and WIMP— Widespread Information Monitoring Program; never change Fitz— I’m starting to think that our core cast members are passing along messages using backgammon as a cipher. Or maybe the tiles are weird flash drives, whichever.
Women Do Important Things
Moving away from backgammon, there’s something very notable about how this season starts. The entire plot is driven by Daisy, May, and to a lesser extent Jemma. Though in all fairness it really feels like she’s got her hands in a lot of places, especially since she outranks May on the “Spectrum of Security”.
So, yeah. The three main female leads are the ones who make everything happen. May gives Coulson and Mack their lead on Daisy, who is hunting Ghost Rider. Jemma finds out, orders May to go back Coulson up and pull him out of LA since he’s not technically supposed to be there. Even Yo-yo, who I was so happy to see return, gets to play a pretty important role in supporting Daisy and gives us some much needed context on exactly how much the Sokovia Accords require an “enhanced” individual to be tracked thanks to her attempt at forging a closer relationship with Mack.
The answer is…like, about as much as a caseworker? Seriously, she can go to other countries whenever she wants and apparently doesn’t have to get permission. She can just live her life, but if she goes out of line, or they need her help, they know where to find her. So, again, not a lot of surveillance going on there.
This may not seem like the most important of changes, but keep in mind that the second half of Season 3 had a not-so-tiny “Men Act, Women Are” problem because Ward killed Coulson’s girlfriend because…I guess he wanted to piss him off for more man-pain. But that was not at all what happened here! Progress!
That’s Totally A Sex-Robot
Speaking of progress and the most perfect segue in human history: How about that totally-not-a-sex-robot thing Radcliffe made! Setting aside the fact that Mallory Jansen’s performance as a Terminator was spot-on (it’s far more difficult than it looks, trust me) I just…why? Sure, it’s great and all that AIDA’s body is designed to be a “shield” but c’mon.
Did she really have to be naked? Wouldn’t it be creepier if she’s in a dress or something and she starts glitching mid introduction with Fitz?
Still, you upgrade her body with better bones and unbreakable skin and boom, she’s a weapon. Everything is a weapon. If she can shrug off automatic weapons fire, just tell her to run into people and they’ll probably die. Also there’s that whole “totally not an AI” thing which absolutely won’t evolve into a full-blown AI by mid-season because how could that ever happen? Though I do find it hilarious that she can’t pass the Turing Test. Less complicated programs have done that, so Radcliffe must be a terrible programmer.
Or he was just, y’know, “testing all of her parts”.
I’m also not entirely sure as to why Fitz thinks this is a good idea? Besides the whole “no more dead friends” angle, of course. He can be onboard with that, sure, but keeping that secret from Jemma will obviously come back to bite him. And probably everyone. When AIDA goes rogue and tries to nuke everything.
Agents of SHIELD, now with federal funding!
But that’s what SHIELD is for, right? Sort of? Well, it seems like it is now, after about two and a half seasons of barely scraping by and not officially existing. One of the coolest things this episode did was establish a status-quo. Agents of SHIELD hasn’t really had one of those since the Hydra take-over in Season 1. Even after they got their old SSR bunker up and running, it still felt temporary. Now, though…
There’s a new Director. SHIELD is back under the arm of the Department of Defense, and they’re all legit with everything that implies. Tons and tons and tons and tons of bureaucracy! Which isn’t actually a bad thing, here. It gives our said agents of SHIELD a sense of stability and routine that they haven’t had in years, and it really breathes new life into the show as a whole. The sheer fact that Fitz and Radcliffe can just watch a football game without checking for Hydra under the couch is kind of amazing.
Oh, and the tech! The gadgets! Fitz and Simmons already served as Q, but X-Ray prosthetic hands? An exploding pen? Augmented Reality glasses for maximum situational awareness? Total immersion VR gear for simulated live-fire training scenarios that seems reaaaaaally similar to the one of the major ideas of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty? Go look up what I’m talking about if you’re not sure what I mean. Let’s just say it’d be damned amazing if they went that route.
Right, so, point is: SHIELD has funding! They have toys! And the soundtrack, which was nothing notable beforehand, actually reflects this. It’s got a very cyberpunk/tech noir edge to it now, which makes it a very intriguing contrast to Ghost Rider and his obvious magic based abilities. And it sounds…good. Not just background noise that you stop hearing after about four minutes.
…and also network funding!
I’d be remiss not to point out the fantastic camera work during that brief sequence where Jemma is in the VR simulation. Floating above the ground, with Fitz adjusting the Y-axis (I laughed out loud at that) in real-time. And when she takes the mask off— bam. The lab is full of activity, and it’s this stellar POV shot that quite effectively highlights just how different things are now. The lab being deserted was something we’d seen a lot of in previous seasons, as most of the time it was only staffed by Fitz, Simmons and sometimes Mack. But now they’ve got multiple teams working on tons of projects in the same space.
And it’s not just SHIELD that’s gotten a bigger budget. The CGI looks on-par, finally, with CW’s The Flash, and the uninterrupted transformation sequence Robbie Reyes undertakes to become the Ghost Rider was fantastic. His flaming skull even floats!
Now, Robbie Reyes, the Ghost Rider, as a whole, though…yeah. Yeah, he was already about ten thousand times cooler than Nic Cage’s version the second that ‘69 charger started revving up at the end of the street. Not that anyone’s surprised by this, of course, but I still wanted to point it out.
Like how I completely forgot that Hunter and Bobbi were written out of the show last season— which made no sense— until this second. And I really liked those two! So, damn, Agents of SHIELD, way to step up your game. A game which includes some sort of weaponized ghost that’s living inside May (watch Ghost Rider try and fail to kill her) which causes people to turn into cannibal-zombies, Daisy suffering from repeated microfractures in her bones from using her powers as a hacktivist vigilante who can amplify her strike power with vibration-blasts, Lola still existing, and a rather clever way of establishing Ghost Rider’s healing factor.
Daisy slaps Robbie in the face with her ring hand, cuts his cheek. The next day, he scratches where the cut was, but it has since vanished. It’s the little things like this that really builds my confidence for Season 4 going forward. Small moment, but an important one they could have easily skipped. But they didn’t, so I’ve got a good feeling about this one, folks!
Even still, I do have one caveat: The episode just sort of…ends? I feel like this is meant to be a two-parter season opener, but they just didn’t schedule it like that for some reason. Guess we’ll find out next week.
Theme of the season is clearly “secrets tie you down”, or some variation on that, and I’m all for it. Agents of SHIELD has been on the move for almost its entire run, so having SHIELD itself lay down roots is, as I’ve said, a very welcome change of pace.
Just gonna throw a big ol’ prediction out there: AIDA evolves so much that she gains sentience, and thus a soul. She gets “blood on her hands”, and Ghost Rider burns the soul of an AI and kills her. With magic. How freaking cool would that be?!
Love that little thing Robbie Reyes does with his car keys. It’s such a neat visual cue.
Ghost Rider getting named by a local mural and his kill count being displayed was surprisingly organic.
Oh, and one really weird fun fact: The guy they got to play the new SHIELD Director is Jason O’Mara. Jason O’Mara has also voiced Batman in every main DC Animated Movie for the past three years. So, Not-As-Perfect-As-Kevin-Conroy Batman is the Director of SHIELD.
Images courtesy of ABC