(Spoilers ahead for Agents of SHIELD season 4)
It’s Halloween and so far Agents of SHIELD has been bringing the spooky. If you haven’t been watching, there are ghosts, possessions, people going mad with fear, oh, and also, there is a certain flamey skullhead guy. The first 3 seasons of SHIELD were very cosmic/sci-fi heavy. There was a ton of focus on the Kree, on Inhumans and Inhuman biology, on interplanetary travel and ancient alien civilizations, also cyborgs and cybernetics. Up to this season, SHIELD has been grounded in technology; fantastic technology, to be sure, but still technology. Now that season 4 is here, we have taken a dramatic left turn into the spiritual.
Agents of SHIELD has always tried to stay relevant to the MCU Films. Over the course of the show, they have referenced events from the cinematic universe, and even participated in clean-up operations after the Avengers get shooty and break stuff in their movies (Thor, I’m looking at you). When SHIELD fell to HYDRA in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, those effects were felt tenfold in the show. In season 2, with the announcement of an Inhumans movie coming to the MCU, SHIELD doubled down on Inhumans. Now, that project seems to be on indefinite hold. With the upcoming release of Doctor Strange, Marvel’s first cinematic foray into the mystical and magical, it’s no surprise that SHIELD is following suit with its own brand of mysticism and spookiness, most notably with the introduction of Robbie Reyes, the Ghost Rider.
Robbie Reyes is not the first character to take the name of Ghost Rider. Ghost Rider has a long history with Marvel comics, almost as long as some of its more popular Avengers. The first Marvel Ghost Rider was a 1960s western hero by the name of Carter Slade. This Ghost Rider was not a supernatural hero, but an old west gunfighter with a special cloak that made him glow or become invisible depending on how he used it. Carter Slade Ghost Rider had typical silver age western-style adventures full of cattle rustlers, shoot-outs, and problematic run-ins with Native Americans.
Later, other heroes would take the name Ghost Rider, but Carter Slade still rode the prairie in his ghostly white costume. His comic title was changed to Night Rider. But, as it turns out, “Night Rider” has some rather unfortunate association with a racist hate group, so it was changed again to Phantom Rider. Despite the decline in popularity of westerns, the Phantom Rider has continued to be a part of Marvel Comics, and descendants of Carter Slade’s have at times taken on the Phantom Rider persona in more contemporary comics.
In 1972, a new Ghost Rider appeared in Marvel Comics, this time atop a “steel horse” (Cue Bon Jovi). Johnny Blaze, a motorcycle stunt rider, struck a deal with Mephisto to spare the life of his adopted father, Crash Simpson, who was dying of cancer. (Johnny Blaze and Crash Simpson, who comes up with this stuff?) Of course, as one can imagine, deals with Mephisto never work out in favor of the deal maker. (Johnny should have read more). Crash, thinking he’s on borrowed time, performs an insanely risky stunt as a final farewell, and fails. Hard. Betrayed, (Did he really not see this coming?) Johnny is forced to host the demon Zarathos within him and become the Ghost Rider, a flaming skull-headed “hero” who rides a fiery motorcycle reaping damned souls for Mephisto.
This new Ghost Rider, being a classic anti-hero, doesn’t care who gets in his way when he’s on a mission, and Johnny has no control over the demon when he’s transformed. Often, as Ghost Rider, he butts heads with other comic heroes, though he will occasionally team up with a hero if they share a common enemy. Eventually, Blaze is able to take control of the Ghost Rider persona, and uses his demonic powers for good. Johnny Blaze is perhaps the best-known Ghost Rider, and has been the protagonist of two movies; Ghost Rider in 2007, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance in 2011. In both films, Nicholas Cage stars as the titular hero. Both films are also, sadly, less than stellar. (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is particularly bananas, and I recommend it for “WTF” value alone, but don’t get me wrong, it is NOT a good film).
In the 1990s, Marvel introduced a new Ghost Rider, Danny Ketch. This young man didn’t sell his soul as much as stumbled upon a motorcycle with a glowing amulet embedded in it. When he touched it, he became the Ghost Rider. This Ghost Rider doesn’t kill, but finds ne’er-do-wells and gives them a dose of his “Penance Stare” which inflicts his victims with all the pain that they’ve caused others over a matter of seconds. This generally leaves them a blubbering pile of jelly.
Unfortunately, despite his good intentions, he still looks like a flaming-headed demon. Johnny Blaze, now free of the Ghost Rider demon Zarathos, believes that this new fellow is indwelt by the same demon, and attacks Danny. As it turns out, this new Ghost Rider, despite looking nearly identical to the previous one, has nothing to do with the aforementioned demon Zarathos, and is actually “The Spirit of Vengeance” dedicated to avenging the innocent.
Johnny Blaze and Ghost Rider team up for some supernatural adventures, but they eventually run afoul of an ancient evil being named Lilith. This mother of demons plans to bring her “Lilin” into the world and rule over it as supervillains tend to do. Of course, this is comics, so there is a major crossover story line that brings some new titles into the frey, one of which is called Darkhold (but more on that later). Ghost Rider and friends (Now called the Midnight Sons) do battle with Lilith and her brood through a handful of comic series until the bad guys are joined by the real Big Bad, Zarathos. Oh, and Johnny Blaze becomes a cyborg because 90’s.
The Midnight Sons
It is at this point, sometime in late 1992, that Marvel decided to dedicate an entire line of comics to the supernatural, the magical, and the demonic. They called this sub-line of comics Midnight Sons and even developed a unique corner graphic and everything. They added Dr. Strange, Blade (yes, that Blade) with his team of Nightstalkers, Morbius the Living Vampire, and the Scarlet Witch to the already robust stable of Ghost Rider spin-offs. This marketing direction never really caught on, but it resulted in some pretty weird stories, and gave Dr. Strange a new totally awesome 90’s superhero outfit.
So where am I going with all of this? Relax, I’ll get to it.
If you’ve been watching season 4 of SHIELD, then you’ve heard a couple of allusions to a mystical book called the “Darkhold”. During all of this Midnight Sons madness (Which only lasted about a year, by the way. By September of 1993 they went back to just being Marvel Comics) there was an offshoot of Ghost Rider called Darkhold: Pages from the Book of Sins. In this comic, a weird little man begins handing black envelopes to people. These people develop supernatural powers, or become full-blown monsters. Turns out, these black envelopes contain pages out of an ancient tome called the Darkhold.
This book contains parchments written by an ancient Lovecraftian demon, and they possess unspeakable power and evil. A group of people named the “Darkhold Redeemers” attempt to discover the source of these pages and find the Darkhold itself so they can stop the spread of evil. Ghost Rider and pals become wrapped up in helping the redeemers, and the redeemers in turn help Ghost Rider to fight Zarathos, the original demon who possessed Johnny Blaze. (Ah, comics) The Darkhold series doesn’t last too long, only 16 issues, but during their run, it is mentioned that Doctor Strange was at one time in possession of the book, and is even briefly thought to be responsible for the pages finding their way into people’s hands. Of course, the Doctor is wrapped up in the events of Midnight Sons as well, which leads to him getting his new costume, and changing his name from Doctor Strange, to just “Strange”. 90s comics, you so crazy.
Introduced in comics in 2013, Robbie Reyes is the most recent character to use the name Ghost Rider. In his comic, All New Ghost Rider, Reyes set himself apart from the two previous characters to use that name. Danny Ketch and Johnny Blaze were both avid cyclists, and were, in fact, long lost brothers (Ah, comics). By contrast, Robbie Reyes drives a muscle car. Additionally, where Danny Ketch refused to take lives, Robbie Reyes is a throwback to the older, more brutal Johnny Blaze Ghost Rider in that he takes lives left and right.
Robbie in the comics is shot full of holes by drug dealers, but is saved via possession by the Ghost Rider, who actually turns out to be the spirit of his evil uncle Eli, who was also a serial killer and satan worshipper. There’s one in every family. This version of Ghost Rider is also set in East L.A. and features a largely Hispanic cast, which was something of a first for Marvel. In recent years, Marvel Comics are very scatterbrained. Ongoing titles are canceled if they aren’t doing great, or they are constantly being renumbered and repackaged to fit with whatever the latest big crossover event is doing.
Unfortunately, the series only lasted 12 issues, and there were a couple of different artists, some of whom fit the series better than others. In the line-wide Secret Wars event of 2015, Robbie returned in Ghost Racers, which featured all the old Ghost Riders dukeing it out death-race style. Since then, there hasn’t been a Ghost Rider in comics. Maybe Agents of SHIELD will bring some renewed interest in the print character.
Isn’t it interesting that Agents of SHIELD is investigating the Darkhold, with the help of Ghost Rider, at the same time that Doctor Strange is about to come out in theaters? Could there be a relationship there? So far, Agents of SHIELD has alluded to the events of the MCU films, but the only characters to cross over have been minor: Maria Hill, Nick Fury, Lady Sif, and of course Phil Coulson just to name a few. We have yet to see any main characters from the films show up on the show, or likewise, see any SHIELD agents appear in the films. Maybe Doctor Strange will be the first big name hero to show up in Agents of SHIELD. The Darkhold is a pretty nasty bit of business. Maybe Ghost Rider can’t handle it alone. Maybe they need the good Doctor’s help.
As much as I would love to see this, I’m not so sure. For one thing, there are politics within Marvel to consider. The television wing and the cinematic wing reportedly don’t seem to get along very well. I’m not sure we would ever see a direct crossover. What’s more, this is the first time that Marvel is exploring the supernatural, and to plan that type of a crossover while at the same time taking a new thematic direction seems like a risky move. That doesn’t make it impossible, however. Marvel is known for taking risks, and they have largely paid off. Look at Guardians of the Galaxy.
At any rate, this new direction has breathed new life into an Agents of SHIELD show that was beginning to wear us out with all the Inhumans gobbledygook. This new direction has room to explore some interesting new themes. When you combine the supernatural elements of the Darkhold and of Ghost Rider with the mystical magic of Doctor Strange, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities for SHIELD’s showrunners. Inhumans aren’t gone from the picture either. In fact, this new season is still worried about Inhumans being hunted down by the Watch Dogs, however that focus is being gently shifted away to new uncharted territory full of ghosts and goblins, and maybe, just maybe, a Sorcerer Supreme?
Images courtesy of Marvel, Marvel Comics, and ABC Television.