Dir. Mark Steven Johnson
Premiered January 15, 2007
In 2017, it’s weird to look back at a time before superhero movies existed. And when they finally did, they were mostly DC comics adaptations– Superman and Batman. For the longest time, DC’s competitor Marvel was nowhere to be found.
After 1989’s Batman, superhero movies were all the rage, and Marvel’s staggering unwillingness to play ball was bad for everyone. The comic publisher’s carefully guarded licensing left major studios to fill the gap by adapting several kid–unfriendly indie comics, with predictably dire results. Finally, when Marvel went bankrupt in 1996, it was snatched up by toy magnate Avi Arad and given a film division. “Marvel Studios” wasn’t an actual studio, but it finally gave Hollywood what it wanted, and it worked out really well. Usually.
The first license, 1998’s Blade, did way better than expected, and things seemed only to improve, with the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises setting new records and new goals, both commercially and critically. The first critical misstep, 20th Century Fox’s Daredevil, was a punching bag for the press. However, and quite unfortunately, it was also commercially successful enough to convince rival studio Sony to bring writer-director Mark Steven Johnson aboard to work on their own latest Marvel acquisition, Ghost Rider.
The movie opens with an introductory monologue by character actor Sam Elliot that blatantly rips off the intro from The Big Lebowski, and has very little to do with the story until much later, followed by a 20-minute origin story sequence that feels way, way longer. Back in 1986, or a version of 1986 that makes no attempt to look like anything other than the 2000s, Matt Long plays teenage motorcycle stuntman Johnny Blaze (not to be confused with “Average Homeboy” Denny Blaze), who plans to steal away with his girlfriend Roxanne (Raquel Alessi). After discovering that his father (Brett Cullen) is dying of cancer, Johnny takes up a faustian offer from Mephistopheles himself (Peter Fonda, because motorcycles) to cure him. Naturally, dad dies the next day in an accident, but Mephistopheles appears to have made Johnny immortal for some future purpose. Orphaned and literally soulless, Blaze leaves Roxanne.
You can imagine how that felt way longer than twenty minutes.
Twenty years later, Johnny (Nicolas Cage) is…basically a different person. He’s still a daredevil, making good use of his satanic immortality, but avoids thinking about work at all costs, indulging a litany of adolescent quirks that he never had before, like watching nature documentaries, eating jelly beans out of a martini glass, listening obsessively to The Carpenters, and living in the constant suspicion that his deal with the devil is the only thing keeping him alive, much to the dismay of his friend and crewmate Mack (Donal Logue, attempting to do for this movie what T.J. Miller eventually did for Deadpool).
At this point, a lot of typical superhero tropes come in that give the appearance of a story, but don’t actually have anything to do with each other. First, Johnny runs into Roxanne (Eva Mendes), who is now a reporter. She isn’t a reporter in the comics, it was just easier for Johnson to rip off Lois Lane than try to write a strong female character who isn’t damaged in some way, even when the comic already did. Anyway, Johnny asks her out, she accepts, and when Johnny doesn’t show, she consults the Magic 8-Ball that she apparently keeps in her purse.
Keep this in mind, because while it isn’t strictly relevant to the rest of the movie, it is not pointless, and will help illustrate the main way in which Ghost Rider fails.
The next thing that happens is that Mephistopheles’ demon-seed Blackheart (Wes Bentley) suddenly shows up to…well, it’s not clear at first what he wants. Mostly he seems to enjoy killing randos by turning them into a cross between Violet Beauregarde and Sonny from I, Robot. At this, Mephistopheles tasks Johnny with defeating Blackheart and his cronies, at which point Johnny discovers the ability to turn into a flaming skeleton in the dark of night and kill the wicked by looking into their souls. Of course he fails, leaves enough collateral damage to become public enemy #1, and is taken in by another soul-selling demon, a 150-year-old Texas Ranger/gravedigger, played of course by Sam Elliot, which sets in motion an utterly half-assed macguffin chase at the last minute.
But it’s not just the illusory plot. Wes Bentley is awful, playing Blackheart as a (slightly) more evil version of the plastic bag douche from American Beauty, and tries to match Cage for crazy expressions, but fails laughably and is never threatening; and he’s defeated using a strategy that, in the interest of creating drama, was explicitly shown not to work earlier on. There are other chintzy little things, like Mack watching a highlight reel that just consists of film footage from the previous scene. And these, and even the story, are secondary to Ghost Rider’s core failing.
Contrary to what you might expect, Ghost Rider does not suffer the least from Nicolas Cage’s involvement– he’s a perfect fit for the campy, surreal tone the movie tries to set. Emphasis on “tries:” there’s a total disconnect regarding the tone. Appropriately, the various sets, vehicles, and costumes go for a sort of satanic/biker/heavy metal aesthetic. But cinematography and editing are far more important to creating a mood and identity that sticks with the viewer, and the crew of Ghost Rider apparently didn’t get the memo. Nor did the film’s composer Christopher Young, whose work here seems more suited to be used as filler on a slightly upmarket police procedural.
And holy fuck, the CGI certainly doesn’t help, splattering the picture with random photoshop effects, jump scares, phony vehicles, and sub-1990s morphing effects. Seriously, Johnny Blaze as Ghost Rider makes the T-2000 look like Gollum. It’s not so much the texture as they way everything moves and is lit. Effects of this quality do not belong in 2007, and certainly not in a movie rooted in the very tangible, tactile world of asphalt, steel, and leather.
This is the killer. Without an effective tone, all the goofy weirdness– the jelly beans, The Carpenters, the Magic 8-Ball, the anarchic pileup of inert story clichés– that might actually have worked instead falls flat, so flat that despite its myriad flaws, I cannot summon enough emotion to outright hate it.
How Did It Do?
Ghost Rider earned $228.7 million against a $110 million budget. That’s right: this piece of movie concentrate cost nine figures, overcame the odds to become a worldwide hit, and still barely broke even. The studio ominously withheld the movie from critics until a day before its US premiere, and true to form it got trashed. Four years later, the movie managed to get a sequel with half the budget but vastly improved effects, helmed by Neveldine & Taylor, the absurdist-exploitation team behind Crank. It did even worse.
Next Time: Rocket Science