4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“We’re not going to have a meaningful conversation, are we?” — Ghost Rider

Marvel’s first character called Ghost Rider, appearing in 1967, was a cowboy in the Old West named Carter Slade who rode a horse and wore a costume that made him appear to be a ghost. It was actually based on a 1940s comic on which the copyright had lapsed, and Marvel jumped on it.

A few years later, Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich, and Mike Ploog all collaborated to create a new contemporary Ghost Rider. Originally conceived as a Daredevil villain, Thomas decided he needed his own storyline, and the character—this time riding a motorcycle, inspired by the popularity of Evel Knievel and his ilk—debuted in Marvel Spotlight in 1972, later getting his own title.

The character was hugely popular for a while before flaming out (sorry), and his title was cancelled. But a guy named Nicolas Cage was a big fan…

A flaming skeleton riding a motorcycle with flaming wheels and who wreaked vengeance on people was very popular in the horror-crazed 1970s, but had become less so by the early 1980s, and the book was cancelled in 1983. But in the violence-drenched 1990s, interest in a spirit of vengeance increased, and a new Ghost Rider comic was debuted in 1990, this time starring a different character named Danny Ketch. Wanting to do something different after years of the blond-haired white dude Johnny Blaze, Howard Mackie and Javier Saltares gave us a brown-haired white dude instead. Okay then. (A fourth Ghost Rider debuted in the 2010s, this time a Latino fella named Robbie Reyes driving a Dodge Charger. That version of the character has also been seen in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., played by Gabriel Luna.)

The third Ghost Rider proved to be hugely popular throughout the 1990s, also appearing in Midnight Sons and Secret Defenders, as well as an amusing Fantastic Four story arc when Hulk, Wolverine, Ghost Rider, and Spider-Man took over temporarily as the new FF. His book ended in 1998 on a cliffhanger, which was finally resolved in 2007 when Marvel released a bunch of Ghost Rider trade paperbacks because there was this movie…

Said movie, like so many of Marvel’s properties, was optioned in the 1980s or 1990s (1992 in this case, when the Ketch version of the character was at the height of his popularity) but not actually produced until the post-X-Men / Spider-Man boom of Marvel movies. As with the other properties, Ghost Rider went through eighty bajillion different studios (Crystal Sky, Dimension, Columbia Pictures), stars (Johnny Depp, Eric Bana), and writers (the ubiquitous David S. Goyer, Jonathan Hensleigh, Shane Salerno), before Columbia finally settled on it in 2003, hiring Mark Steven Johnson to write and direct, fresh off the release of the Ben Affleck Daredevil, which Johnson also wrote and directed. Despite the movie being optioned due to the popularity of the Ketch Ghost Rider, the movie itself uses the Blaze iteration, as well as the original Carter Slade Ghost Rider (who was renamed the Phantom Rider by Marvel to avoid confusion with the modern hero).

Cage, an avowed comics fan, lobbied for the role (he was attached at one point and then quit before being lured back by Columbia and Johnson). In fact, the actor’s stage name (his birth name is Coppola) is comics-derived, from Luke Cage. He had been cast as Superman for the abortive Superman Lives! movie, but this wound up being his first comic book role. Surrounding him were other familiar faces from this rewatch: Eva Mendes (who would later co-star in The Spirit), Sam Elliott (The Hulk), and Donal Logue (Blade, as well as currently starring on Gotham), as well as Easy Rider co-star Peter Fonda classing up the joint as the devil.

Various production delays, including Cage starring in The Weather Man, led to the movie not even starting filming until 2005, with the picture’s release delayed twice out of 2006 and into February 2007.

 

“Thank you for telling me I’m the devil’s bounty hunter”

 Ghost Rider
Written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson
Produced by Avi Arad and Steven Paul and Michael De Luca and Gary Foster
Original release date: February 16, 2007

A voiceover tells us about how the devil has a rider, a human whose soul he purchases and forces to become his bounty hunter. One such in the Old West fetched a contract for many sinners’ souls, but instead of giving it to the devil, the rider hid it.

Jump ahead to the late 20th century, and we see two stunt cyclists, Barton Blaze and his teenaged son Johnny. Barton has lung cancer—he hasn’t told Johnny, but Johnny has found out on his own—and the devil approaches Johnny with an offer. He’ll cure Barton’s cancer, but the devil will own his soul. Johnny agrees, Barton’s fully cured—and then he dies the next day on a stunt.

Johnny was going to run away with a girl named Roxanne Simpson, but after his father dies, he leaves her behind.

Years later, Blaze is a world-famous stunt rider. Since the devil owns his soul and hasn’t collected on his end of the bargain yet, he figures he’s indestructible, which allows him to do crazier and crazier stunts without getting hurt. His pit boss, Mack, is worried about him, especially since Blaze also keeps reading about demons and deals with devils and other weird occult books.

Before his latest stunt, a local news show wants to interview him—and while Blaze normally doesn’t do interviews, he is willing to do this one, because it’s Simpson doing the interview. He winds up not actually answering her questions, mostly using the interview to try to catch up with her, and after the stunt ends, he chases after her news van, trying to get her to go out with him. She reluctantly agrees to dinner (after he stops his cycle in the middle of the road, forcing a backup).

A demon named Blackheart, who is the son of the devil, summons three other demons to a biker bar (after massacring everyone in the bar). The demons—Gressil, Wallow, and Abigor, who are elementals—have been gathered by Blackheart to track down the contract. The devil cautions Blackheart against it, but the devil can’t affect Blackheart or his minions on the mortal plane. The devil points out that the rider can and buggers off.

That night, as Blaze is psyching himself up for his date, the devil shows up and turns him into Ghost Rider, a flaming skeleton with a motorcycle that also is on fire. He sends the rider to go after Blackheart; Blaze tries to resist, but fails, thus missing his date. Ghost Rider fights Blackheart and his minions at a truck depot, with Ghost Rider destroying Gressil. Blackheart and the other two demons get away. After riding off, Ghost Rider encounters a mugger and forces him to confront all his sins, which makes him catatonic.

The next day, Blaze wakes up at a cemetery, where the caretaker explains what has happened: he’s the latest in a series of riders who serve the devil. He urges Blaze to stay in the cemetery, as it’s consecrated ground, and demons can’t come here. But Blaze needs to explain to Simpson why he missed their date.

He discovers that the streets of the town have been torn up by his ride through, and the truck depot is a crime scene. He tries to explain to Simpson, who blows him off. Later, she comes to his loft to talk to him, as she’s about to leave town, and she doesn’t want her nasty words to be the last ones between them. They seem set to fall into bed together, but Blaze pushes her away and tells her the truth as to why. Naturally, she doesn’t believe him, and leaves in a huff. Shortly thereafter, the cops show up, as the license plate on his motorcycle fell off when he was Ghost Rider, and they find it on the street and trace it to him.

Interrogating him proves useless, but Ghost Rider comes out at night when in the presence of sinners, so putting him in a holding cell after dark proves to be a spectacularly bad idea, as he transforms and lays waste to the criminals in the holding cell (except for one guy who happens to be innocent).

Ghost Rider then goes off to seek out Blackheart, this time taking out Abigor. He tries the penance stare on Blackheart, but the demon has no actual soul so it has no effect. The cops show up and start shooting, but Ghost Rider is unaffected by bullets. Simpson also sees Ghost Rider and realizes that Blaze told her the truth. Ghost Rider, Blackheart, and Wallow all get away.

Blaze returns to the cemetery, where the caretaker tells him of a previous rider, Carter Slade, and how he hid the contract that Blackheart is now after. The caretaker also warns Blaze that Blackheart will go after anyone Blaze cares about. Worried about Simpson and Mack, Blaze heads to his place.

He’s too late, however. Simpson arrives at Blaze’s place to find Mack there, both worried about him. Mack shows Simpson the occult books Blaze has been reading. Blackheart then shows up and kills Mack and comes close to doing the same to Simpson, but instead he takes her hostage. He’ll spare her if Blaze brings him the contract to the church in San Venganza where it was originally written.

Blaze goes to the caretaker for the contract, and he gives it to him—and also reveals that he’s Slade, the previous rider. Slade goes skeletal and the pair of them ride through the desert to San Venganza.

They arrive, and Slade explains that he had one last ride in him, and that’s it. So he hands Blaze his shotgun and buggers off, er, somewhere. Why he couldn’t just hand him the rifle in the cemetery is left as an exercise for the viewer, though we did get a cool ride through the desert…

After being delayed by Wallow, whom he burns away, Ghost Rider gets Blackheart to free Simpson, then hands him the contract—and then punches him in the face. He tries fighting him, but it doesn’t work, and then Blackheart opens the contract and absorbs tons of souls into himself. Ghost Rider tries to fight him, and Simpson even helps, using Slade’s rifle. But the rifle proves ineffective, even after Ghost Rider supercharges it with his flame.

Then it occurs to Blaze that Blackheart has absorbed a ton of souls into himself—which means the penance stare works now, as Blackheart is overwhelmed by the evil and sorrow of the sinners’ souls.

With Blackheart disposed of, the devil appears, and offers to remove the curse, letting Blaze live a normal life. But he wants to continue to fight for justice using these demonic powers in the name of his father. Simpson isn’t thrilled at losing him again, but she understands why he’s doing what he’s doing, and he rides off into the night.

 

“Human sacrifice makes me uncomfortable”

I had forgotten that Mark Steven Johnson, the person responsible for the disastrous Daredevil movie, also wrote and directed Ghost Rider, and when I realized that, I started the Blu-Ray with a due sense of dread. I had basically no memory of watching this movie the first time, and Johnson’s heretofore forgotten involvement worried me.

As it turns out, Johnson did a much better job here. The film is visually well done, with some great cinematography and imagery and stuff. Johnson’s script actually is pretty strong, making good use of both of the first two people to go by Ghost Rider.

Well, mostly strong. The lead-up to the climax is head-scratching. First Slade says he has one last ride in him, and every Western cliché dictates that he’s riding into battle. Yet, after the really cool sequence of two Ghost Riders riding across the desert to Spiderbait, Slade just hands off the rifle and leaves. It’s incredibly disappointing and makes the whole ride pointless.

He also got a good number of strong actors in this, starting with the great Sam Elliott, who is his usual superlative self. My primary thought upon finishing this movie was that I wanted to see Elliott star in a Phantom Rider movie as he rides through the Old West dispensing wisdom and kicking ass.

We’ve also got Donal Logue, who is never not wonderful (he’s one of the reasons why I still endure Gotham every week), and Eva Mendes being delightfully radiant and more complex than she really needs to be as Simpson. (The scene where she drinks a great deal of wine waiting for Blaze at the restaurant is comedy gold, as is her banter with her camera operator, played delightfully by Gibson Nolte.) Raquel Alessi also deserves credit for playing the younger Simpson (as does whoever cast her, as she’s a dead ringer for Mendes). As for Peter Fonda, well, he only sometimes looks like he’s checking his watch and hoping the check clears.

Noticeably absent from that list of good actors in the above two paragraphs are the two male leads, which is kind of a problem. Wes Bentley is truly dreadful as Blackheart, giving a smarmy, all-surface performance that has all the menace of a high school actor trying to play a bad guy by smirking and hoping for the best. This is a performance that makes me long for the nuance of Hayden Christensen in Revenge of the Sith, that’s how awful he is.

Still, while a strong villain is a good thing to have in a superhero film, you can survive a weak one if your hero is strong enough. However, that is most assuredly not the case here.

Nicolas Cage is an interesting case. Sometimes he’s magnificent. (He absolutely deserved his Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, and his loopy performances in Raising Arizona and Amos and Andrew remain personal favorites.) Sometimes he’s terrible but makes it work. (He’s out-acted by every single person in both Moonstruck and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, yet he’s vital to the success of both films.) And sometimes, he’s just terrible. (I still haven’t forgiven my wife and brother-in-law for making me watch Drive Angry.) Ghost Rider is one of the latter, as he gives a surreal, bizarre, utterly ridiculous performance in a role that he was already too old for by the time the film started production. Seriously, there’s a reason why most people in sports aren’t still active at the age of 41, even accounting for his devil-provided invulnerability.

There is no moment in this film when I was convinced that Cage was playing Johnny Blaze. Hell, there were very few moments when I was convinced he was playing a denizen of this planet. I hasten to add that I’m only talking about Blaze here—I had no trouble believing the CGI Ghost Rider. Honestly, the CGI of Zarathos (never called that in the movie, but that was the demon’s name in the comics) was more convincing than Cage.

Despite being critically drubbed, the movie did well enough to green-light a sequel, albeit with only Cage returning. Next week, we’ll look at Spirit of Vengeance.

Keith R.A. DeCandido reminds everyone that he is on Patreon, where he does regular TV and movie reviews, including recent reviews of The Incredibles 2, New Tricks, NCIS, NCIS: New Orleans, and more, plus upcoming reviews of Ant-Man & The Wasp, classic episodes of Doctor Who and M*A*S*H, and looks back at the recently completed seasons of The Alienist, Black Lightning, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Deception. In addition, he posts regular updates on his works in progress and does monthly vignettes featuring his original characters.

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