Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4, episode 1
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. launched with the promise of telling stories set in the murkier margins of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While plenty of connections and references have indeed been made, fans are divided over just how much difference it's made. Often blamed on a now well-known schism between the TV and film branches of the studio, the situation has largely been that Agents is able to make only passing reference to the events of each most-recent Marvel movie. Meanwhile, the films barely mention that their TV cousins exist at all.
Regardless, with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. supernaturally-tinged fourth season having now launched mere months ahead of Doctor Strange's theatrical release, the showrunners on the former are once again teasing connections between the TV and movie corners of the MCU.
While both the film and TV sides of the MCU have featured supernatural-themed plot details before, thus far they've all had explanations grounded in Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law ("Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic") - i.e. Thor, Loki and the other Asgardians are technically interdimensional aliens, not actual gods and/or magic-users. But Doctor Strange has been confirmed to introduce "real" magic into the Marvel realm, and now Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D's reveal-packed fourth season premiere has Agent May being haunted by what appears to be a literal ghost and Daisy Johnson (formerly Agent Skye, now the vigilante "Quake") encountering Ghost Rider; a Marvel superhero who claims to draw his powers from The Devil himself.
Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, showrunners Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon downplayed the idea of direct explicit connections between the series and the film; at the same time, confirming that the two will be covering some of the same ground. Said Tancharoen:
“The same questions that our team is exploring leading up to the premiere of Doctor Strange, perhaps some of those concepts will be reflected in the movie and then carried through."
As part of the same interview, Whedon elaborated:
“The tie this year will feel more of a reflection of the movie, less an interweaving plot. As that movie hits the world, it comes at the right time in our show, and you will see some of those same ideas being explored. Hopefully some of the questions that we’re asking will be answered by it and then pose some new themes and ideas for us to explore.”
In other words: Ghost Rider and Doctor Strange both hail from the "actual magic" side of the Marvel Universe, but don't expect them to pass each other on the street any time soon. Still, it does raise intriguing questions about the nature of the supernatural realm itself: Marvel has avoided religious and spiritual themes in their films to this point in part because of differing attitudes towards supernatural storylines in varying international markets; and while Doctor Strange typically traffics in its own fictional mythologies, Ghost Rider is almost always connected to specifically Christian conceptions of Hell and Satan. With Thor set to deal with his own version of the afterlife soon enough, it seems like Marvel is gearing up to play around with potentially controversial story elements - the end result of which are yet unclear.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues with “Meet the New Boss” Tuesday, September 27 at 10:00 pm on ABC.
Doctor Strange opens November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man: Homecoming– July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel– March 8, 2019; Untitled Avengers – May 3, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on July 12, 2019, and on May 1, July 10, and November 6 in 2020.