Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…
Until they end up here.
The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). For this ride around the Rack, we’ll be taking a closer look at one of the last of the big Marvel franchises to launch before the arrival of Marvel Studios (and the only non-Spider-Man superhero Sony ever got their hands on): Ghost Rider!
Nicolas Cage really wanted to play a superhero.
It’s never been a secret that the eccentric actor and world-famous movie star was also a huge comic-book nerd. Born Nicolas Kim Coppola (the nephew of The Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola), he took the stage name “Nicolas Cage” early in his acting career—“Cage” being a reference to Marvel Comics superhero Luke Cage, a.k.a. Power Man. In 1997, Cage purchased a copy of Action Comics #1 (the first appearance of Superman1) for $110,0002, to add to his already-sizable comic book collection. Hell, he named his first-born son Kal-El, for Christ’s sake! This is a man who clearly appreciated superheroes and their four-color adventures LONG before Hollywood would transform them into the pop-culture commodity of the 21st century. So it’s no surprise that Cage would eventually want to bring his love for superheroes together with his passion for performance.
His first swing at it would be a BIG one, when he accepted the title role in Tim Burton’s doomed production, Superman Lives. Cage’s Superman was intended to be a huge departure from traditional depictions of the Man of Steel: insecure, alienated, neurotic, and ultimately more human and vulnerable than the square-jawed hero of past adaptations. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something truly fresh with an American icon! But unfortunately, Cage never got to show us what he could bring to the role; due to financial troubles with the studio3, production shut down just weeks before shooting could begin (right in the middle of a final round of costume tests).
That film may have fallen apart… but as luck would have it, comic book movies were about to EXPLODE back into popularity a few short years later. So it wasn’t long at all before he finally managed to get his second chance—with an offbeat Marvel B-lister who just happened to be one of his favorite characters.
The Ghost Rider (created by Marvel E.I.C. Roy Thomas, writer Gary Fredrich, and artist Mike Ploog) is Marvel Comics’ preeminent supernatural superhero (sorry, Dr. Strange). Though there have been a handful of Riders introduced throughout the years, the first to really catch on was Johnny Blaze: a stunt motorcyclist whose father Barton had died a long time ago, and who’d been taken in as a boy by his dad’s partner, Craig “Crash” Simpson. But when his adoptive father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Johnny skipped right past “medical science” and turned to the DARK ARTS as a way to save his life—ultimately summoning the demon Mephisto4 and bargaining his soul away to cure his surrogate dad. Mephisto agrees, curing Simpson’s cancer… but wouldn’t you know it, the next day “Crash” lives up to his nickname and is killed doing a stunt performance. When Mephisto comes calling for Johnny’s soul, he’s warded off by Roxanne, Blaze’s adoptive sister, whose purity of heart and love for Johnny drives the demon back (she’s, uh, the main romantic interest of the book5); as revenge, Mephisto binds Johnny Blaze’s soul to the demon Zarathos… so from then on, when night falls and Johnny Blaze stumbles across evil, he transforms into a flaming-skulled, motorcycle-riding Spirit of Vengeance!6
A Ghost Rider movie had been in development as early as 1992, when Marvel first started shopping the rights to the character around to producers (and I have to admit, I’d love to see how the hell they would have pulled off a flaming, skeletal superhero in the NINETIES). The project changed hands a bunch of times: first Jonathan Hensleigh (The Punisher) was tapped to write the script; then David S. Goyer took a crack at it (because the man was determined to write EVERY major superhero script commissioned throughout the late ‘90s/early 2000s), and Shane Solerno was later hired to rewrite HIS draft. Stephen Norrington (Blade, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) was going to direct, and Johnny Depp (of all bloody people) had expressed interest in the title role. But eventually those two moved on to other things7, and Ghost Rider’s production moved from Dimension Films to Columbia Pictures (SONY)… where they handed over the reins to our old friend, writer-director Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil, Simon Birch).
Still pitching himself as a fanboy director at a time when studios were desperate to find people who “got” comic books (because the executives sure as hell didn’t), Johnson was apparently a big fan of the character (and a motorcycle enthusiast, to boot); regardless, it took him two years to rework the Goyer/Solerno draft into something shootable (which is definitely a good sign when it comes to writing a screenplay… right?). Finally, when Johnson sought out a leading man to bring Johnny Blaze to life, who should turn up but Nicolas Cage—ANOTHER Ghost Rider fan and motorcycle enthusiast, ready to make his comic-book dreams come true a decade after losing his shot at Superman! Before you know it, Cage had signed on the dotted line…
And just like poor Johnny Blaze’s fateful bargain with the Devil, this deal wasn’t going to turn out quite like he’d hoped.
IN THIS ISSUE: “Spirit Halloween: The Movie”—or, “Faust”, by R.L. Stein.
A dim-witted production that tones down the subject matter to be as palatable to kids as possible (the opening credits sequence looks like the P.O.V. of a Hot Wheel speeding through a play track), Ghost Rider tries to be a pastiche of the Western, horror, and superhero genres, but simplifies them all to the point of cartoonishness. Our hero stops a random street mugging on his first night—the most overused trope in superhero entertainment. The bad guys all have scary monster faces and go “BOO!” (figuratively speaking). The final showdown is in an abandoned Old West ghost town, in the middle of the main drag… and in case the significance of that was too subtle for you, Johnson throws in a ridiculous pair of snap-zooms into the hero and villain’s eyes, to hammer home that this is a classic Western showdown we’re seeing. This kind of cheap genre shorthand wouldn’t be out of place on Spongebob Squarepants.
Mark Steven Johnson remains a mediocre director—assembling awkward shot compositions, “enhancing” half the film with eyesore C.G.I., and possessing no coherent sense of blocking or scene geography. Actors are stuck standing around or holding awkward poses as they deliver stilted dialogue (watch as Nicolas Cage is forced to hold his hand outstretched for a whole minute as Sam Elliot delivers an entire goddamn monologue at him). Characters wander in and out of scenes without rhyme or reason. Johnny Blaze has a signature gesture that he does where he takes a wide-legged stance and slowly points at people—usually Mephisto—and then he just… holds it. Like he’s posed in a diorama that represents a scene from an ACTUAL movie. It’s a broad gesture that symbolically indicates an emotion—in this case, “J’ACCUSE!”—but doesn’t actually embody it… like rubbing your eyes and frowning to suggest that you’re “crying”. You may understand what he’s supposed to be feeling, but you don’t FEEL it.
Though the writer/director may be asleep at the wheel, the film’s star came ready to PLAY—so it’s no surprise that Nicolas Cage’s Johnny Blaze is the most compelling part of the movie. Though Blaze has always been vaguely based on Evel Knievel, Cage’s performance is pure Elvis Presley, with a lazy drawl and a flair for crowd-pleasing theatrics (the giant sunglasses, silver cane, and white jumpsuit help complete the picture). Rather than being a brooding, hard-drinking badass (as you might expect from a movie about a demon biker from Hell), Johnny Blaze is a man desperately seeking to distract himself from his darkness by indulging in superficial pleasantness: he’s addicted to frivolous television (cartoons, nature docs, etc.), he eats jellybeans and candies rather than drinking alcohol, and he’s constantly listening to the Carpenters. Johnny wants to ESCAPE—from his past, from the consequences of his actions, and from the devil that he can feel nipping at his heels. And he finally sees his chance when his teenage sweetheart suddenly drops back into his life.
Eva Mendes plays Roxanne Simpson, a news reporter (of course) and Johnny’s long-lost love8 (don’t worry—in the film, they’re never brother and sister). Mendes brings a sweetly playful charm to a role that’s as thinly written as any superhero-girlfriend character (why yes, she DOES get kidnapped for the third act). But what’s interesting here is the way her romance with Johnny is portrayed. While she gets the big, romantic introduction (wearing the TIGHTEST DRESS in human history—there’s a lot of male gaze getting thrown her way), her scenes with Cage usually see them goofing off each other, making jokes and being silly (“I wanted to talk! I haven’t seen you in fifty-six-thousand years.”). This isn’t Romeo and Juliet—this is two teenagers faffing about like lovesick puppy dogs. Ironically, its low-stakes, childish simplicity makes it endearing in a way that MOST superhero romances, with their heavy-handed portentousness, aren’t.
But you didn’t come to a Ghost Rider movie to see a charmingly silly love story, did you? No, you came for the flaming-skull guy!
As a superhero, Ghost Rider is a lot like Spawn, in that he has all these magic bullsh*t Hellfire powers that are never fully explained and seemingly have no limitations (and also, he really loves using chains). The Rider’s appeal is almost entirely aesthetic and not really very dramatic—which is a roundabout way of saying that he’s only popular because he LOOKS cool. So building a story around this guy was going to be a challenge from the get-go… and Mark Steven Johnson is HILARIOUSLY unprepared for the task.
The main “plot” of the film is that Mephisto/the Devil9’s son, Blackheart, has escaped from Hell and is seeking a lost contract of his father’s—the Contract of San Venganza10—that is worth a thousand damned souls (which will allow him to conquer the world and overthrow his father because… a thousand souls is… a lot?11). To stop him, Mephisto activates Johnny as the Ghost Rider (here described as “the Devil’s bounty hunter”, who can take action on Earth where Mephisto is mostly powerless), promising to return his soul if he destroys Blackheart. Pretty simple.
But here’s where things get flaccid: you see, to accomplish his goal, Blackheart joins forces with the Hidden—a trio of fallen angels who’ve bonded with the elements of earth, air, and water. They have names, but I refuse to learn them; I just call them Dirt Bag, Drippy Boy, and the Human Fart. And the thing about these guys… they don’t DO anything. They don’t kill anyone. They don’t hide in the elements to learn the contract’s location. Hell, they can’t even set foot in two of the places they need to go (being fallen angels, they can’t enter a church or a cemetery because they’re holy ground). They are here for exactly one reason: to give Ghost Rider someone to mindlessly pummel for half the movie.
And worse, all of these fights are basically identical. The Rider shows up (always managing to find them wherever they are, though never willing to CHASE them when the remaining few turn tail and run) and immediately gets knocked on his ass—hit by a Mack truck, blasted into a cop’s windshield, whatever. The Hidden guy has a moment to gloat, we wonder “how will the Rider manage to overcome THIS obstacle?”… and then the very next second Ghost Rider bounces back, seemingly completely unhurt, and just sets the bad guy on fire to win the fight. This happens. EVERY. TIME.
And I mean it: near the end of the movie, Johnny gets pulled into a bog by Drippy Boy, who strangles him under the surface until it seems like Johnny drowns. Drippy ROARS in triumph… and then Johnny’s glowing eyes pop open as he shouts “SURPRISE!”, and he changes into the Ghost Rider under the water, blasting Drippy with a Hellfire blast… that sets him on fire… UNDER… WATER.
While the Hidden are boring and tedious, it’s Wes Bentley’s Blackheart who genuinely irritates the hell out of me. Bentley (American Beauty) plays Blackheart as a pampered trust-fund brat, bubbling over with whiny entitlement that he masks with a shallow pretense of icy ruthlessness. He’s a self-absorbed child playing at being the big dog to get out from Daddy’s shadow and thereby win his respect (which reminds me of a certain OTHER spineless demagogue I could mention…).
Everything about this character pegs him as a try-hard wannabe loser, from his already-dated “black trench coat” ensemble12 to his repeated declarations that he’s “never fallen” like his father (he paraphrases Blade by bragging that he has “all of my father’s strengths, and none of his weaknesses”). Hell, his big, scary superpower is that he can kill people by poking them with his finger, like an overzealous customer demanding to speak to the manager. For being the main antagonist of a horror-themed superhero movie, Blackheart is spectacularly unintimidating, and a lot of that has to do with Bentley’s smarmy blandness. His angrier scenes have the air of a child throwing a temper-tantrum; Johnson regularly has to add a digital monster-face to Bentley just to give us the impression that we should be frightened.
Now, I’m not saying that Cage and Mendes are the ONLY good performances in this movie. A favorite of mine is Peter Fonda’s turn as Mephisto himself (a casting choice inspired by his iconic role in Easy Rider), who plays possibly the most chill, laid-back Beelzebub to grace the screen. His scenes with Johnny are low-key menacing and sadistically playful; he circles Blaze like a cat who’s preparing to pounce, toying with him while playing it smooth and seductive. (It’s worth noting that in this version, Mephisto seeks out Johnny, rather than being summoned by him; it makes Blaze a bit more sympathetic, but it also serves to oversimplify the moral messaging of the movie—making for a bland, mainstream ”good guy/bad guy” dynamic that strips the character of what little complexity he may have had.13)
Sam Elliot is here, too—Sam Elliot-ing the hell out of the role of the Caretaker/Carter Slade, a former Ghost Rider who stole the Contract of San Venganza in the first place14. Slade is a nothing character: an exposition machine who’s mostly there to legitimize the thin Western façade the film is lacquered with. Elliot’s performance is entirely carried by his gravelly voice, sardonic attitude, and a face that’s positively EXPLODING with stubble (emanating like a shock wave from his legendary mustache)… but if you’re going to have a role dedicated to telling campfire stories with as much rough-hewn gravity as possible15, Elliot is your man.
Lastly, there’s Mac—Johnny’s best friend and stunt manager, played by Donal Logue (Gotham, Blade). Mac’s the best character in the whole damn movie. He’s a likable smartass, but he also genuinely cares about his buddy, trying to talk him down from dangerous stunts and rushing to his aid at the first sign of trouble. Mac is a GOOD DUDE—loyal, pragmatic, and considerate. And he’s funny, too! … Which makes it all the more disappointing when he’s unceremoniously killed off at the end of act two, as a cheap ploy to raise the stakes and make Blackheart seem like a genuine threat. Worse, when Johnny arrives and discovers Mac’s horribly desiccated, lifeless corpse, he takes all of TWO SECONDS to mutter “Mac…” before rushing over to check on Roxanne. Then he never brings up Mac again.
Dude! This guy was your best friend. He went on the road with you! He prepped all your stunt shows! He kept you ALIVE! Surely you can muster more than a heartbeat of sadness for the only guy in the world who actually seemed to give a sh*t about you. Mac deserved better!
Ultimately, the good bits are incidental—a great cast trying to make the most of the hand they’ve been dealt. But the creative engine driving the film is a clunker, and nowhere is that clearer than with the title “character” himself.
The big-screen Ghost Rider is a lifeless C.G.I. golem portrayed, on set, by stuntmen. Nicolas Cage never actually plays this character; once Johnny completes his transformation, the Rider emerges as a walking embodiment of glossy, hollow post-production spectacle. His perfect orange flames never seem to effect his environment (his shirt collar remains unblemished throughout); his movements always put him in generic action-hero poses; the few times he opens his mouth, naught but banalities come tumbling out (“You’re going down!” “Time to clear the air!”). More often, he just roars like the Nuclear Man. Ghost Rider is an action figure, propped up by an amateur director in the hopes of thrilling us with his big-budget play time. The guy even comes complete with his own signature accessory: the hideously over-designed Hellcycle, a chrome monstrosity with flaming wheels that’s so visually busy that the undercarriage just dissolves into noise once it’s lit by the tires. He’s less a hero or an anti-hero than a mascot of homogenized edginess, like something you could slap on a box of Satanic breakfast cereal without upsetting too many parents. He’s a product.
On release, Ghost Rider didn’t exactly set the comic-movie scene on fire (heh). The film would go on to moderate success—just barely doubling its budget at the box office. And it did net a sequel down the road, making it a legitimate franchise-starter (even if the next film tanked, and the rights to the character ended up back with Marvel Studios). But the bitter irony of this mediocre production is what it ultimately ended up doing with Nicolas Cage. Because after over a DECADE of trying to play a superhero… after watching the Superman role slip through his fingers… Cage had finally found the perfect character for himself. This was HIS hero, HIS role: complex, tortured, badass, and an embodiment of his major interests. He signed the contracts, he got into phenomenal shape, he showed up ready to go…
… and then they didn’t even let him play Ghost Rider.
IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: Naw. As weirdly fun as Cage is, and as charming as his romance with Eva Mendes can get, the main plot is built on a framework of clichés and genre tropes. Derivative on every level, soulless and stupid—and anchored to an overpowered superhero with all the personality of a heavy-metal CD cover.
DISCOUNT PRICE: $0.25
- That First Transformation: While the majority of the Ghost Rider action feels plastic-y and artificial, the first time Johnny metamorphoses into the Rider is visceral. First, gouts of steam start rising from Johnny’s eyeballs (which—OW), and as he presses his hands against them in agony, he stumbles forward as his FEET catch fire. His skin turns beet red and he HOWLS, and as we see his flesh start to sizzle and pop and melt away, he begins cackling in a maniacal delirium. It’s painful to watch, similar to the werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London, and it’s the most genuinely horrifying beat in the film:
- “THE AMAZING JOHNNY BLAZE STUNT SPECTACULAR!”: The two big stunt scenes in the film are sort of a fun, poppy detour from the rest of the goings-on in the film, and they even have their own tiny little arc! In the first scene, where we meet adult Johnny Blaze, he makes a jump (to the accompaniment of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”) for a crowd of screaming fans, setting a fun, high-energy tone… but as he’s landing, his mind dwells on his deal with the Devil, and he WIPES OUT in spectacular fashion (the stunt work for the shot when he flies over the handlebars is genuinely incredible). The SECOND time around, the stakes are raised when he reveals that he’s jumping over the spinning blades of six Apache helicopters… but he takes the leap while thinking of Roxanne, and lands triumphantly on the other side. They’re a great couple of beats… even if the effects work for the jumps themselves are a bit dodgy.
- One Last Ride: Simultaneously one of the most striking and the most disappointing moments comes when the Caretaker reveals himself to be Carter Slade and rides off with Johnny to San Venganza as a flaming skeletal cowboy. “Holy crap,” you think, “we’re getting TWO Ghost Riders for the finale!” as they thunder across the desert together… but as soon as they reach their destination, Slade turns around, changing back to human again, and delivers a sad speech about how he only had “one change” left in him, and he was saving it for something special. Then he vanishes. (Way to waste your last change on a single horseback ride rather than waiting until you GOT THERE to change so you could help with the fight…) The whole moment’s a lousy, cheap tease. But at least it LOOKS cool.
- A Night in the Tank: Hey, look—a single clever scene idea! Johnny gets arrested halfway through the film because the cops suspect him of killing Blackheart’s brimstone-poisoned victims (… somehow). But when he won’t confess to the crimes, the detectives throw him in the general holding cell… and since Johnny’s transformations are triggered by the presence of evil, Johnny starts flipping out as they lead him to a cell filled with roughneck hardcases and scumbags. Gripping the bars desperately and pleading that he doesn’t want trouble, Johnny gets jumped—cackling madly as he‘s thrown to the floor and dogpiled, only to EXPLODE to his feet as the Ghost Rider (setting off the sprinklers for good measure)! It’s a fun build-up of tension leading to a satisfying (if inevitable) payoff.
- “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky”: The ending credits include a fantastic rendition of perennial country-music favorite “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” by Austrailian alt-rock group Spiderbait—best known for their hard rock take on “Black Betty” in 2004. It’s a driving, percussive, rock performance of the song, with drums that play out like hoofbeats and a pretty gnarly guitar solo; it’s one of the best things to come out of this movie! (And yes, this means that one of the five biggest highlights of the film is the moment that it ENDS.)
NEXT ISSUE: Alright, break time’s over—now that I’ve done an easy review, it’s time to crack open a whole BARREL full of worms as I take a look at Josh Trank’s much-maligned, studio-compromised “gritty and realistic” take on the Fantastic Four in 2015’s Fant4stic!