Thursday, September 22, 2016

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4, Episode 1, "The Ghost" REVIEW (SPOILERS)

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 Note:  Sorry this is about 2 days late.  I had a meeting that night and was really busy yesterday.  Hopefully I will get reviews published a little sooner in the future!

Wow!  I mean, WOW!  The season 4 premiere for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was pretty much incredible!  Somehow this show manages to continue improving, even making up for earlier rough patches with the introduction of two new bona fide superheroes.  The characters that we have learned to care about over the course of 2-3 seasons are all back and look to be on new, creative arcs.  The series has expanded to the point that it feels a lot more like “S.H.I.E.L.D.”—a global peacekeeping organization with facilities across the globe, virtually-unlimited resources, and its fingers in just about everything.  These two factors—superhero conflict (in which the heroes aren’t S.H.I.E.L.D. agents) and S.H.I.E.L.D. as a massive organization—make the series feel like a better version of season 1.  Having said that, the premise of this series from the beginning was that it would focus on normal humans living in a world of super-humans, and season 1 did deliver on that premise.  But seeing actual heroes fight up close—and seeing regular human agents caught up in events dealing with people and objects they can’t understand—is a good continuation of that original premise.

I think for my review I need to start from the element which I was most concerned about going into the episode and which I was looking at the most closely:  the effects.  After all, Ghost Rider is a very effects-heavy character who needs to be generated with a lot of CGI, and this is a television budget!  And all things considered, I was largely pleased with the effects for this episode.  The car itself looks absolutely amazing in motion.  Ghost Rider’s flaming skull—the biggest concern—was surprisingly good, particularly in motion.  When he wasn’t moving the skull lost something, but I think that if they use it sparingly—and keep him in motion as much as possible—they can easily sell this level of effects.  The effects for Quake’s powers were as good as ever (they’ve pretty much got that down to a science after 2½ seasons!), and those two were the biggest special effects needs.

However, there was one effect which I wasn’t very happy with:  the Zephyr landing.  In the promo video of that scene on YouTube it just looked like Ming Na Wen was standing in front of a green-screen and the Zephyr looked obviously fake.  I thought they did fix that some for the episode itself, but it still wasn’t quite up to par.  Considering that they could throw a car in the air and set a dude’s head on fire, I was a bit disappointed that they couldn’t land a plane convincingly!

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Moving on to the characters themselves, I was very happy with how they introduced and developed Ghost Rider in this episode.  Robbie Reyes was front-and-center from the beginning of the episode up until the end, but they did not spoil any of the mystery regarding who he is.  His introduction as part of the opening fight sequence was handled very well:  the criminals are terrified of him, and we quickly see why when he attacks them.  The rocket launcher explosion propelling the car into the air and then getting transformed into the Ghost Rider car in midair was an awesome sequence and a great introduction to the car.  Holding off on showing the full Ghost Rider transformation until later in the episode—and only showing the reaction to his brutal murder of the white supremacists—was a good decision since it maintained the mystery.  Even when they did start delving more into the mystery of Ghost Rider they did it in a way that simply raised more questions:  why does Robbie say he’s not the one deciding who dies when he’s the Rider?

Honestly, I think Ghost Rider is easily the best part of this episode.

Quake also receives a good reintroduction in this episode:  as we saw in the season 3 finale she is off on her own fighting crime.  I really liked seeing the new ways that she applies her powers, such as flight and using her kicks to manipulate her power.  Near the end of season 3 I remember that she used punches to channel her powers against Hive, so seeing the development, especially now that she is on her own, is really cool.  I also thought it was smart for them to avoid having Daisy actually spell out what she is doing and why, considering that she’s been doing it for months and doesn’t really have anyone to lay it out to.  Instead, Coulson and Mack bumble their way through a defense of what Daisy is doing:  she is systematically dismantling the Watchdogs by stopping their weapons deliveries and stealing their money.  Considering that season 2 teased Daisy becoming the new leader of the Inhumans after Jiaying, I am curious if this mission is going to get tied into Raina’s prophecy in some way.  I do think they could have done a better job explaining why Daisy latched onto this particular mission to fill up her time while she studiously ignores the fact that Lincoln died, but I suspect that will come out at some point in the near future.  For now, I really like the new, darker version of Daisy while she is a lone vigilante on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D. and I hope that they will stick with it for a little longer.

Speaking of the inter-season time jump, I thought that they did a very good job of subtly filling in some of that gap in explaining how the characters got to where they are at the beginning of season 4.  Coulson is no longer the Director (for reasons that aren’t explained) and is instead busy doing about the same thing the team was doing at the beginning of the series.  May is responsible for training and leading a STRIKE Team.  Fitz is working with Dr. Radcliffe, who though he was exonerated for his part in Hive’s plan is still under strict monitoring to make sure he doesn’t take another “mad scientist” turn.  Simmons is the new Director’s “S.A.D.I.S.T.”—“Special Advisor to the Director In Science and Technology.”  All of this is revealed in a very subtle manner over the course of the episode, and that works very well.

At the same time, it may be a little too subtle for anyone who hadn’t already read the synopsis to figure out exactly what is going on.  Hopefully next week’s episode will answer some of these questions and fill in a little more information, particularly with regard to the new Director that no one seems to trust.

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I was definitely a fan of the way they built up the tension between the members of the team (regarding Simmons’ favored position with the Director), as well as the intrigue and mystery surrounding this unknown character.  It’s pretty clear that none of the original Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. trust the Director; it is less clear why this is.  Are they upset because they put in all the work to revive S.H.I.E.L.D. and an outsider is getting the glory now that the agency has been relegitimized?  Are they suspicious of his motivations?  Do they even have cause to distrust him?  Those questions have not been answered and will definitely need to be answered eventually.  For now we have a character we are encouraged to mistrust but whom we still have not seen.  And this actually makes him more interesting for having been built up so much.

One other positive that I noted in this episode is with the character of Aida.  I thought that the actress did a very good job of portraying her robotically, and the audio distortion was a good added touch.  I am extremely curious to see where this story is going to go from here.  I remember talking over the summer some time about the different types of Life Model Decoys:  those which are designed to look like an agent and serve as body doubles (c.f. Fury, Nicholas J.) and those which are designed to actually be agents and go into dangerous situations so that they get destroyed instead of living agents.  It sounds like Aida is designed to be more like the latter, but the Asimov’s Law of Robotics twist (she can’t kill) makes it sound more like the first one.  It does seem like a safe bet that something is going to go wrong and she will turn into Ultron 2.0 or SkyNet or something, but I think it’s just as possible that she won’t go that obvious route!  Either way, the addition of a robotic artificial semi-intelligence to the series is quite intriguing.

At the end of the day, the only other major negative for this episode in my opinion is that I am concerned about the level of “shipping.”  Is this series going to set it up to where everyone has to have a love interest and they all have to be in trouble?  I do not have anything against exploring romance and romantic relationships in media.  Love is an important part of life, and a show without some exploration of it feels incomplete.  At the same time, life is about much more than romance, and any show where romance is used as a primary plot-mover no longer interests me.  Hopefully this show will manage to strike the proper balance between exploring character relationships (including romantic ones) and exploring all the other interesting things about their characters!

So there’s my late review of the season 4 premiere!  For the most part, this was an awesome episode and one which really set a good tone for the upcoming season.  I am excited about the exploration of magic.  Ghost Rider is a great addition to the cast.  The effects are largely good (though not movie-quality, of course).  Ultimately, everything works well to make me excited for the rest of the season.  And that’s pretty much what a season premiere is supposed to do!

What did you think of “The Ghost”?  Do you like the direction this show is going?  What magical characters and elements do you want to see in the future?  Let me know in the comments!

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