Dr Mike Robinson ~ LC Communication Studies Professor
Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” returned for its fourth season last week by highlighting one of the weirder characters out there, Ghost Rider. By focusing on the Spirit of Vengeance, the show may finally be living up to its potential as a gateway to the various corners of the Marvel Universe (MU).
Ghost Rider is an excellent example of the way that the MU embraces all genres, stirring things up in crazy and unexpected combinations. Back in the early 1970s, Marvel Comics started having success with characters that were very different from their more typical superhero fare. Man-Thing, Werewolf by Night, Dracula and others leaped out of our nightmares and into their own series.
Nothing could be more 1970s than Johnny Blaze, a motorcycle daredevil who sold his soul to the devil in order to save his mentor, also the father of Blaze’s girlfriend, from a terrible disease. Of course the Devil is a double-crosser, so the mentor died after his next stunt and Blaze was cursed to become a horrifying supernatural force with a burning skeletal head.
All of the horror characters were integrated in the shared universe. It seems like any superhero that went to the swamps of Florida ran into Man-Thing. Moon Knight, a roof-running superhero, was first introduced as a werewolf hunter. And Dracula once famously smacked the snot out of the Silver Surfer.
Of all of those characters, Ghost Rider seemed to move most fluidly between genres. Maybe this means the writers were never quite sure what to do with him, but I’d like to think they were having fun. So, in his own series, Blaze might fight anything from devil worshipping cultists to standard supervillains like theme baddies in the Zodiac.
Ghost Rider would even become a founding member of the Champions, an attempt to create Los Angeles’ own version of the Avengers. Nothing quite encapsulates the true weirdness of Marvel like a demon-powered motorcyclist joining a team of spandex clad do-gooders as they battle a former Nazi scientist whose body is made of living killer bee swarms (see “Champions” #14-15 – no, really, see them; they’re crazy fun).
In the 1990s, the Blaze version would give way to a more vengeful Ghost Rider who possessed Danny Ketch. Still superheroes and villains abounded, as this new vigilante exacted two-wheeled, fiery justice on the streets. And more recently, another has arrived in the form of Robbie Reyes, who this time drives a suped-up 1969 Charger.
This is the version that “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” is running. . . or maybe racing with, probably because the special effects are less expensive, the character is more diverse, and a car distances the concept a bit from those crazy Nicholas Cage “Ghost Rider” movies.
However, it’s also just nice to see Agents playing with all corners of the MU. Compared to the DC Comics-inspired series on the CW, Agents has been downright stingy about bringing lesser known characters to television. Even when exploring Marvel mainstays like the Inhumans, Agents seemed more interested in making new characters. Ghost Rider also forces scenes on the show to be filmed at night, so every place on Agents might finally stop looking like an obvious studio backlot.
So welcome to ABC Ghost Rider. May you blaze strange trails into those darker corners. After all, there are swamps in Florida that are overdue for a visit.