These days it seems like any project with the Marvel name on it is destined for success. Well, not counting The Inhumans. With Black Panther cruising over the billion-dollar box office mark and Infinity War coming close to two billion, they dominate the movie industry. But fans know that there was a darker time. Even after failures like Howard the Duck and that awful Matt Salinger Captain America film were ancient history, times were still tough for them initially.
For every X-Men film’s success there was a Daredevil or Elektra film that bombed. For every Spider-Man there was a Punisher or Spider-Man 3, and for every average Fantastic Four film there was… well, an average Fantastic Four film. Yet no films proved that making a good Marvel movie wasn’t easy more than the Ghost Rider films. Johnny Depp apparently wanted the role of Johnny Blaze, such were the high expectations of the first one, but instead we got Nicolas Cage and things didn’t go as fans had hoped. But were they really that bad?
The first Ghost Rider film was your basic origin story. Johnny Blaze, a carnival stunt-biker, sells his soul to Mephisto in exchange for his dad’s cancer to be cured… except, naturally, Mephisto then kills Johnny’s dad in another way. Johnny, locked into the contract, spends years trying to avoid having to pay it back. However, when Mephisto’s twisted son Blackheart tries to overthrow him from ruling Hell, Mephisto calls on Johnny to be his soldier in this war – as the Ghost Rider.
That all sounds pretty good, except the battle mostly revolves around Blackheart trying to find the Contract of San Venganza in a scavenger hunt. Basically, it’s the power of a thousand corrupt souls. Why that would be enough to depose Mephisto, who’s presumably accumulated the souls of billions of evil people throughout history, is never explained. But that’s just a formality. Ghost Rider’s grand plan is to defeat Blackheart’s henchmen in a series of brief Boss Battles, while poor Johnny juggles an ex-girlfriend he still loves and a police investigation because the cops suspect him of… something.
It’s all pretty underwhelming.
The effects aren’t bad, and there’s a certain wicked joy in seeing Ghost Rider in action. However, the plot is boring and potentially great moments like seeing Johnny team up with The Caretaker – the original Ghost Rider – are wasted. The villains are as bland as the hero, and the cowboy theme of the production comes across as lacking imagination. It’s a nice idea, but it fails badly.
Spirit of Vengeance was the second attempt to make Ghost Rider cool to filmgoers and, after the lukewarm response to the original, Marvel realised that some of their characters like The Punisher and Ghost Rider didn’t fit in the family-friendly superhero picture. The directing is fast-paced, stylish and uses vast open roads to give it a sense of scope. They also went far more hardcore than the first film, with Nicolas Cage going gonzo and Ghost Rider truly being something from your nightmares. The gloss of the first film was done away with, replaced with a rough and sleazy style, a high body count and twisted jokes so funny you can’t help but laugh.
Ghost Rider – Spirit of Vengeance, jettisons most of the original film but it’s not a total reboot either. Opening with a bizarrely cool animated sequence that draws more heavily from the comic books, Johnny Blaze fills us in on his backstory… with a few tweaks. However, this time Johnny’s in Eastern Europe for some reason and gets dragged into a quest to protect a young boy called Danny. Danny has the potential to be the new host body for the source of all evil, Mephisto…pheles, who’s now also called Roarke for some reason. Hooking up with some weird monks, Johnny thinks he’s done the job he had to and has Ghost Rider exorcised from his body. Except, of course, he’s wrong.
Stripped of his powers, Johnny needs to get his act together and reclaim what he gave up, condemning himself once more. It’s the only way to defeat the Devil and save the kid, which leads to one of the few genuine action sequences of the film as Ghost Rider plays leap-frog with a convoy of vehicles in a race against the clock. One underwhelming boss fight later, and Johnny’s riding off to into the distance as some clanging alternative music blares about.
Neither of these films are classics in any way. They’re two films that require your brain to be switched off, asking you to succumb to a couple of unremarkable action scenes punctuated with long stretches of bland exposition. Strangely though, both also have elements that work. The first film, despite its mundane script and bizarrely looking more low-budget in quality than it was, seems more formulaic as a comic book movie. The concept of Johnny living the life of a puritanical daredevil is intriguing and fun, although sadly there’s little of the Johnny Blaze from the comics here.
The sequel went in the opposite direction, creating a far more hardcore Ghost Rider vibe which actually works for the source material. It’s a bleak, moody film which could have worked when looking at the Netflix/Marvel Knights shows of today. However, the shift in tone from the previous film and another weak script both hurt the finished product. Plus, there are plenty of unlikable and completely forgettable characters in both films… but more so in this one.
The first film ranks up there with the first two Fantastic Four films as being briefly entertaining and nothing more. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, by contrast, strangely gets better the more times you watch it and if you fancy some Crank-style comic book mayhem then it’s worth a look. For Marvel fans, there’s enough in the Ghost Rider franchise to justify a place in their DVD collections… but only down the lower end, next to Punisher: War Zone.