Fire Water Burn
Ghost Rider (2007)
In our discussion recently about the DC ComicsOne of the two biggest comic publishing companies in the world (and, depending on what big events are going on, the number one company), DC Comics is the home of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and just about every big superhero introduced in the 1930s and 1940s. adaptation Jonah Hex we noted that Marvel had a very different history when it came to bringing their characters to the big screen. Where DC spent decades farming out adaptations of their characters, over and over again, Marvel had far fewer live-action productions of their heroes. There were a few TV shows and movies (featuring The HulkOnce the brilliant Dr. Bruce Banner had dreams of making the world a better place by building super soldiers to act as a shield for all mankind. Then an accident at his lab bathed him in gamma radiation. Now he has a living nightmare, as a big green guy lives within, just waiting for the rage to take over so he can be free., Captain AmericaCreated by Simon and Kirby in 1941, Captain America was a super soldier created to fight Germany and the evil HYDRA. Then he was lost in the ice, only to be found and reborn decades later as the great symbol of the USA., and SpidermanSure, DC Comics has Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, but among the most popular superheroes stands a guy from Marvel Comics, a younger hero dressed in red and blue who shoots webs and sticks to walls. Introduced in the 1960s, Spider-Man has been a constant presence in comics and more, featured in movies regularly since his big screen debut in 2002.), but when it came to the theater there was just the 1944 Captain America serial, the 1986 Howard the Duck (yes, seriously), and that was it until 1998's Blade.
That vampiric superhero, it should be noted, kicked off a sudden boom of genre films: X-Men, Spider-man, Daredevil, Hulk, The Punisher, and on... Marvel was on a licensing binge, selling the rights to their characters so they could stay afloat. They eventually shifted gears and focused on the characters they could still control in house, building a franchise around those heroes that would become the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe., but for a good decade there the people responsible for Marvel's films wasn't Marvel itself.
Coming near the end of that run, literally one year before 2008's Iron Man would launch Marvel's ambitions, Columbia put out the little-loved Ghost Rider. It's interesting to go back and see this film and compare it to what was just around the corner as, if Marvel needed any lesson in what not to do with their characters, Ghost Rider is an abject lesson just sitting there for them to study. This film completely misunderstands what's cool about the character, fails to find a star that could play him well, goes hard on effects that don't work and fails to rely on practical effects wherever possible, and has a story that barely needs the Ghost Rider at all to resolve anything. It is, frankly, night and day from Iron Man (ironic since the Ghost Rider's powers only work at night).
In the film we're introduced to Johnny Blaze (played as a teen by Matt Long before Nicolas Cage takes over the role as the adult character), son of dare devil (but not Daredevil) Barton Blaze (Brett Cullen). Together the two perform art carnivals, doing their motorcycle stunt show to the amusement of audiences. Johnny loves Roxanne (Raquel Alessi as a teen before Eva Mendes takes over the adult role) and he wants to run off with her so the two can be together. When he finds out, though, that his dad is dying of lung cancer he (sort of) makes a deal with the Devil (Peter Fonda) to save his dad. He signs over his soul, which would be used as an unspecified later date, and the Devil does indeed cure his father of lung cancer... only to then kill him later that day in a stunt accident. Johnny runs off, leaving the carnival, and Roxy, behind, grieving the loss of his father.
Years later we catch up with Johnny who, now, is the biggest stunt performer in the country. After one stunt (jumping a dozen or so school buses) nearly tanks out, he decides not to cool it but to go even bigger, staging a jump across the length of a football field over six running helicopters (because it's cool). When he doesn't die here he takes it as a sign that he's his own man and not just a tool for the Devil. Hell, even Roxy shows up, now working as a TV reporter so she can interview him. But even though he thinks his fate is his own, soon enough the Devil arrives to put him in his place. It seems the Devil's son, Blackheart (Wes Bently) has come to Earth and is looking for a contract filled with 1,000 damned souls. If he gets his hands on it he'll be the most powerful demon ever, so the Devil needs a guardian to fight Blackheart and maintain the balance of power. Thus he makes Johnny into the flaming-skull-bestowed "Ghost Rider" and sends him to kill Blackheart.
There's, well, a lot going on in this film and not all of it amounts to much of anything. The film does a lot of setup to get us to a point where the Ghost Rider can fight some (poorly animated CGI) demons, and it takes almost an hour for the true form of the Ghost Rider to show up (in a two-hour film). Instead of actually giving us the hero in a reasonable amount of time, lettings us learn what he's like, what he can do, and what he's meant to be, all of that is crammed into the back half of the film, along with basically all the villain beats, and all the action. It's a very back-heavy film and that forces anything, like character development, to take a back seat while the film rushes through all of it.
Let's first focus on the fact that the Devil owns Johnny but doesn't do anything with him for twenty years. When he does finally turn Johnny into the Ghost Rider, all of the important details about this spirit of vengeance has to get crammed into last hour. The film should have had young Johnny spend time learning his powers, getting used to being the Spirit of Vengeance, and slowly letting us acclimate to the (anti-)hero so that, when the villains were introduced, they weren't fighting for time against Johnny's own path of self-discovery.
The first act, the part told in flashback, really isn't bad; it's a solid father-son story that actually works decently well. Even the parts set in "modern day" (at least for 2007) work well enough when it's just focused on Johnny, stunt star, and his rekindled love for Roxanne. There's nothing wrong with the character development of Johnny Blaze, the man. All the failings happen when he becomes Johnny Blaze, the Ghost Rider. It's like the film didn't really want to have anything to do with the titular superhero so they tried to bury it under a ton of other stuff. This film is ashamed of its hero and it shows.
The villains, mind you, aren't any better. None of the demons get any kind of character development whatsoever. Blackheart is shown doing evil things (because he's evil) but there's no depth to his character at all. He's at least massive more fleshed out than the three goons he summons, the demonic elementals of Air, Water, and Earth (as Ghost Rider is Fire, and for some reason this is all supposed to make sense). These three losers have absolutely no development and no connection to the story except that we need some goons for the Ghost Rider to fight before he finally takes on Blackheart. That's literally all we know.
The magical McGuffin, too, is criminally under-developed. Blackheart wants it so he can become powerful, but we already see that he's powerful (and, before he gets a contract filled with souls, impervious to all of the Ghost Rider's powers). We don't even know what his powers are (pre-contract) or all the specifics of what he can do so, when he does finally get his hands on that "ultimate power" it doesn't really sink in as to what it means. If anything, the contract seems to make him weaker (as it finally give the Ghost Rider something he can latch on to when fighting the demon). It just doesn't make any sense.
Although, of course, calling anything that happens in the movie an actual "fight" would be overselling things. It more accurate to say that a demon goon would come up to Ghost Rider, the spirit would then use fire against the demon, and it would instantly kill them. Every time. There is no complexity to the fights, nothing that makes them dynamic or interesting to watch. Literally every conflict in this film is resolved by the Ghost Rider grabbing a demon and lighting them on fire. It's the least thrill action I think I've ever seen in a superhero film.
And that doesn't even get into the problems with logic and continuity. We're told that the Ghost Rider can only use his powers during the night, but then late in the film has uses them at day (while in the shadows, sure, but that's s cheat the film drops on us at the last minute). At one point, when Johnny is rolling around in his skeletal form he gets stabbed and when he turns back to human that wound is still there, but later he gets shot, over and over, by a dozen cops and when he awakes in the morning the bullet holes aren't there. The demons are shown to be super-powerful and capable of using their elements to easily squash anyone, but Johnny just shrugs them off like they're nothing. There is no rhyme or reason to anything in the film, start to finish.
The real issue, though, is that there are no stakes for this film. A number of the issues could be brushed off if the film had enough meat to it to actually matter at all and get you invested in the story, but we never get that substance. Simply put, if Blackheart gets his hands on the soul contract, what does that mean for Earth? He'll go around killing people? Well, he's already doing that just for fun and no one could stop him before. He'd be put in charge of Hell? Is that really a bad thing? Does that even matter? We don't know any rules for this film, nor do we understand the true scope of the world of the Ghost Rider. Things just happen and then the movies ends, drifting off like a puff of smoke.
There's a scene in the film that perfectly summarizes the whole of the movie. During the film Johnny gets advice from an "all knowing" character, the Caretaker (Sam Elliot), a guy that has way too much knowledge of the Ghost Rider to not have been a Rider himself in a former life. As it turns out he was, indeed, the past Ghost Rider Carter Slade, and when its time for the climax he dons his own Ghost Rider look so the two can ride off together to the village where the demons are waiting. But then, right before they reach their goal, Carter says, "nope, not fighting, you have fun while I leave this film for no reason at all," and then he rides off into the sunset, fading away like a ghost. Nothing about this makes any sense and it would have been just as logical to never have Carter Slade in the film at all. But instead we get "one last ride" that adds up to nothing for no reason.
That, right there, is 2007's Ghost Rider: a big mess of nothing with a bad story, lackluster development, and not much of a clue how to do anything with its lead superhero. It was a bad film when it came out but considering what was just around the corner in 2008 it seems even worse by comparison. This is the kind of film that shows Marvel was right to keep their films in house and do it themselves; with films like Ghost Rider out there it would have been hard to see how they could have done much worse.