With all the hype surrounding Luke Cage and Doctor Strange, it’s easy to forget that there’s another major character making his entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ghost Rider was announced to make his long-awaited entrance into the franchise at Comic-Con earlier this year, but when the way he would be entering was revealed, the fanbase’s reaction was a long, protruded sigh. The 4th season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.—a show regarded by many to be the dead weight of the MCU—is subtitled Ghost Rider in a pretty clear attempt to save a show plagued by flagging ratings and muted critical response. This comes on the heels of Agent Carter’s cancellation and Marvel’s Most Wanted, a planned Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spinoff, getting the red light. It’s getting clearer and clearer that Marvel’s ABC offerings are a sinking ship.
This stands in stark contrast to their streaming prospects, particularly on Netflix. Beginning with Daredevil in April of last year, the partnership between Netflix and the MCU has been a constant hot streak of groundbreaking superhero television. The three series that have premiered so far—Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage—tackle themes of morality, sexuality and race in ways that the blockbuster main films could never do. Their focus on street-level heroism was a welcome breather from the constant barrage of extinction-level threats in the films, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for that matter. With Iron Fist, The Defenders and The Punisher coming in 2017 as well as continuations of Daredevil and Jessica Jones coming down the pipe, it seems Netflix is upping their MCU output, and for good reason.
So why is one half of Marvel’s television offering doing gangbusters while the other half is tanking? In a word: proximity. The ABC shows are built to tie into the films much more strongly, to the point that the entire second half of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s first season was essentially a tie-in to Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This means that the writers’ hands are tied to whatever is currently happening in the MCU films, making it difficult for them to branch out into their own unique stories. By the time the show got around to introducing the Inhumans in season two, the damage had already been done.
The Netflix series have no such obligation. As they follow street-level heroes, their characters are disconnected from the billion-dollar machinations of Tony Stark & Friends. This gives the writers an opportunity to go into the different aspects of the MCU not covered by the films, imbuing them with a sense of purpose and coherence that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. lacks. With each MCU Netflix series, there was a sense that, even if the films did not exist, these would work perfectly well as standalone series with a few adjustments. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does not function without The Avengers.
Another prominent factor is character. The main characters of the Netflix series, while not necessarily household names, have a following and establishment from the comics that the writers can easily riff off of. The writers of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were faced with the difficult task of creating interesting characters from scratch, and clearly buckled under the pressure. Aside from headliner Phil Coulson, naming any of the show’s main team without looking them up is a challenge. The only task more difficult would be watching the show without wanting at least one of them to die.
How can Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. be fixed? Simple, it can’t, despite Marvel’s desperate attempts to do so by bringing in a major character. If a show is on its 4th season and still lacks a good focus, then it’s probably time to consider pulling the plug. Ghost Rider was an unfortunate casualty, but it’s not too late to save others such as Blade and Moon Knight who were most likely also considered. The best thing for Marvel to do would be accept fate, cut their losses and move on.
The good news is that Marvel’s network TV efforts may not be entirely moot. Earlier this year, it was announced that a Cloak & Dagger TV series would be coming to Freeform, formerly known as ABC Family. Based on a comic with a cult following about two super-powered teenagers, Cloak & Dagger is a recognizable enough property among Marvel fans to be welcomed with open arms, while also not fitting among the gritty street-hardened heroes of Netflix. This is what Marvel should’ve done from the start: use each avenue at their disposal to focus on different aspects of the MCU, instead of the pointless, confused mess that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ended up being. Hopefully, Cloak & Dagger will be a step in the right direction.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was an experiment in TV for the MCU, and it’s a failed one. While this experiment arguably led to the Netflix series being as good as they are, the question of why the obsolete prototype is still kicking around remains unanswered. Like the unlucky schmuck they brought in boost ratings, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a ghost. Not fully dead, but it really, really needs to be.