The following article contains spoilers for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Let it never be said that Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can't pull off a suprise when it wants to. The series arguably hit a high watermark in season 2 by revealing that a season and a half of seemingly unrelated weekly misdirection had actually been a stealth reveal of The Inhumans mythos into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and in many ways the show has been chasing that high ever since - particularly with season 4's multiple questions surrounding the origins of Robbie Reyes, a.k.a. "Ghost Rider."
Now, as of the season's sixth episode, we finally know where Ghost Rider got his powers. The answer? From a previous Ghost Rider.
The best known version of Marvel Comics' Ghost Rider character is, of course, the (contemporary - more on that in a bit) original: Johnny Blaze, a motorcycle stuntman who makes a deal with The Devil to save the life of his mentor and finds himself cursed to become a flaming skeleton and exact Hell's judgement on sinners often against his will. Retcons have made it all a bit more complicated than that (it wasn't "really" Satan but rather a demon named Mephisto who looks and functions exactly like Satan, and Blaze is technically possessed by Zarathos, "The Spirit of Vengeance"); but Johnny Blaze still tends to be who people think of when they hear the words "Ghost Rider" - especially after an infamously bizarre turn by Nicolas Cage in a pair of movies based on the character.
However, there have been others. Technically, the 1940s Western hero Phantom Rider was originally billed as Ghost Rider and has been retconned into the Blaze-era Rider's mythos along with a dozen or so other retcons. There was also a second modern-day Rider named Danny Ketch, a female Rider from Nicaragua named Alejandra Jones and multiple other characters manifesting similar powers/appearances in the character's extended family.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, however, led off its much-hyped fourth season by introducing Ghost Rider to Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity in the form of Mexican-American Los Angeles youth Robbie Reyes, the third modern/supernatural Rider and the only one who does his "riding" via a modified 1969 Dodge Charger rather than the traditional motorcycle. And for six episodes, as far as anyone knew he was the first Rider to exist in the MCU - which made a certain amount of sense, especially considering that the only details he'd offer of his origin ("I sold my soul to The Devil.") sounded a lot more like Johnny Blaze's than the "possessed by a ghost haunting his car that's actually his serial-killer uncle" backstory Reyes' got stuck with in the comics. Plus, a car is more manageable than a motorcycle as a TV prop, and S.H.I.E.L.D's producers have taken notable pride in leading the way for diversity in the MCU. So there it seemed to be: Robbie Reyes was the first and only Ghost Rider in this universe... But now, maybe he's not.
In Episode 6, "The Good Samaritan," Robbie and his wheelchair-bound younger brother Gabriel are trapped together under circumstances where Robbie can no longer hide the truth of his secret identity and opts to come clean about everything - starting with the violent car wreck that partially-crippled Gabe in the first place. At first, Robbie and Gabe's recollection of the event are identical: They went out to enter a street race using their uncle's prized muscle car, but instead found themselves riddled with bullets and run off the road into a fiery crash by a gangland hit intended for their uncle ordered by his mad scientist colleagues to remove him from a dispute over a magical book of evil spells (long story.)
As Gabe remembers, Robbie was thrown from the car while his legs were crushed, but they were both rescued by the timely intervention of an unseen "Good Samaritan;" but Robbie tells it different: He wasn't just thrown from the car and injured... he was killed, but not before he could beg God to somehow save them both. According to Robbie, the guy who showed up was no heaven-sent Good Samaritan, but rather the person Robbie has been describing as The Devil himself: another Ghost Rider! - one who rode a motorcycle and whose flaming head looked more like a "normal" human skull than the stylized helmet-esque look Robbie has in his transformed state.
And just like that, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. joins Doctor Strange in really opening up the supernatural side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: It seems there's already been a Ghost Rider active in the world for who knows how long, and he transferred some or all of his powers into Robbie Reyes. But who this Rider actually is, where he's been before now, why he showed up when he did and why he was willing/able to pass his curse along? That's all yet to be discovered.
Obviously viewers - especially devoted Marvel fans - are meant to infer that this is either Johnny Blaze or some variation thereof. The buildup and reveal ("Wait, did he say motorcycle?") feel directly targeted at viewers who, however they feel about Robbie Reyes, are disappointed that a more traditional Ghost Rider isn't cruising the same streets as the Avengers and company. Just about the only thing that can be certain is that, even if that was Johnny Blaze riding to the Reyes Brothers' rescue, he probably won't look like Castor Troy (or Sean Archer?) when the flames go out: Marvel has strenuously avoided retroactively declaring earlier movies part of the MCU continuity, and it'd be pretty odd to break that streak with Nicolas Cage showing up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. rather than, say, Tobey Maguire suiting back up for Civil War.
WHO THE DEVIL?
It's not 100% certain that this Robbie's savior was Johnny Blaze. He's certainly the most likely candidate if the function of his appearance does turn out to be little more than a fan-service easter egg (no one who's that annoyed about the MCU "leading off" with Reyes is aching for Danny Ketch to show up), and eagle-eyed fans have already noted posters advertising carnival stunt-shows of the type Blaze traditionally performed in having been conspicuously placed in the background of the basement where The Darkhold was being hidden. But Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is somewhat notorious for using "big ticket" Marvel ephemera as the lead in for unexpected digressions, i.e. the Inhumans reveal leading to a riff on X-Men's "Mutant Rights" storyline, rather than Black Bolt and company showing up.
It's likely worth noting that, whoever this prior Rider is, his skull has an extremely prominent bullet hole above his left eye (see the screenshot below). Cage's Blaze had a wound-mark in a similar place in the second film, Spirit of Vengeance, but this is definitely from a bullet - suggesting that this Ghost Rider has an origin of his own that wouldn't precisely line up with any of the comics' versions.
— Agents of SHIELD (@AgentsofSHIELD) November 2, 2016
More broadly: The episode also revealed that the research season 4's mad science baddies (of whom Robbie's uncle turned out to be the main heavy - not the victim) had been using The Darkhold to muck around with the interdimensional Darkforce/"Zero Matter" material from Season 2 of Agent Carter; which also took place in Los Angeles fifty years ago. It's wholly possible that future episodes will reveal that the origin (and maybe the "mission") of this Rider is somehow bound directly to The Darkhold and those who get involved with it.
Another possibility already being tossed around by fans? That wasn't a Ghost Rider at all, but rather a disguised Mephisto. That kind of double fake-out would be hard to swallow on most shows, but given Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D's tendency to upend its entire status-quo at multiple points throughout each season it would practically be par for the course here. For now, only one thing is for certain: Robbie Reyes doesn't look to be the only Rider stalking the Marvel Cinematic Universe - which means S.H.I.E.L.D's exploits and fans' suspicions that the character is being tested-out for a series of his own just got a lot more complicated.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 returns Tuesday November 29 at 10pm on ABC.
- Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. release date: Sep 23, 2018