Marvel Movie Madness! Part 15: Ghost Rider

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by | June 10, 2011 | Comments

Enter Marvel Movie Madness, wherein Rotten Tomatoes watches all of the significant Marvel movies ever made. Full Marvel Movie Madness list here. Tune in! We give you our thoughts, and you give us yours.

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Part 15: Ghost Rider (2007, 27% @ 131 reviews)

Directed by Mark Steven Johnson, starring Nicolas Cage, Wes Bentley, Eva Mendes, Sam Elliot

Ryan: Over my lifetime, my feelings on Nic Cage have gone from apathy to distaste to befuddlement to acceptance and, finally, amusement. Nowadays, I tend to enjoy the way he throws himself into every role, primarily because I get a kick out of his wild antics and hilarious facial expressions. With that in mind, I was actually prepared to give Ghost Rider the benefit of the doubt; I kind of wanted to like it, and was half expecting that I would.

Unfortunately, despite the abundance of Nic Cage freakouts, some surprisingly effective (at times) CGI, and the unexpected presence of Sam Elliott, the film is simply plagued by too many little issues to earn even a begrudging seal of approval from me. The three things I had the most trouble accepting? 1) Ghost Rider suffers from tonal schizophrenia, melding silly gags (a motorcycle that comes when you whistle for it) with demonic imagery a bit too intense for younger audiences; 2) Wes Bentley, while certainly creepy, is not menacing at all, and he thus makes for a poor central villain; and 3) little details go unexplained, resulting in either confusion or too great a suspension of disbelief (how exactly does one “outrun the devil,” and why is it apparently so damn easy to do?). But let me emphasize again that those are just three of the problems; there’s lots to talk about here.

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Jeff: There’s a certain cheese factor built into every superhero movie — what looks awesome on the page doesn’t automatically translate well on screen, and that includes dudes in costumes battling it out while the fate of the world/universe hangs in the balance. There are two main ways of dealing with this: you either treat these struggles as one part of an otherwise ordinary framework, and ask your audience to suspend disbelief as little as possible, or you embrace the campy humor of it all.

Ghost Rider chose the latter option (most of the time, anyway), and it sort of undermines the entire movie’s reason to exist. In the comics, Ghost Rider isn’t cheesy at all — in the ’70s and ’80s, when I read the books, he might have been the most badass Marvel hero of them all. But on the screen…well, he’s a flaming CG skeleton in a biker jacket. It’s hard to pull off with a straight face, so Ghost Rider doesn’t even try.

This is a shame for a lot of reasons, chief among them the presence of Nicolas Cage, one of the few actors who really seems nuts enough to go Method as a messenger of Hell. Cage is trying here, and although his decision to make Johnny Blaze a quirky guy doesn’t always pay off, he’s far from the worst thing about the movie. Ghost Rider is the type of film where the devil shows up with thunder, lightning, and a skull on the handle of his cane, and where a renegade demon wanders into a biker bar (helpfully named “Saloon”) and is stopped by a biker named Killer who growls, “Angels only.” Without getting overly precious about a comic book character, this is a needlessly silly film that wavers between disrespectful and outright hostile to its protagonist’s mythology. The only way to enjoy it is with a heavy dose of irony — and that’s only if you don’t care about Ghost Rider at all.

Ryan: You know, Jeff, when I heard they’d cast Nic Cage in the role, I did wonder exactly what kind of movie it was going to be, because, like you mentioned, I had always remembered Ghost Rider to be a pretty no-nonsense kind of character. Casting Cage sort of automatically undermines that. And what was with the strange finger-pointing thing he did throughout the movie? Was that a reference to some signature pose of his in the comics that I’m not aware of? If so, it might have worked on the page, but on screen it came off looking rather goofy.

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Tim: You know, I’ve never been a big fan of the auteur theory — given the number of people involved in the making of a movie, it seems reductionist to say that any film is the product of an individual’s singular vision (apologies to Andrew Sarris for my simplistic description). However, watching Ghost Rider forced me to consider another possibility: what if an actor, by sheer force of personality, puts his stamp on a film so thoroughly that virtually every other element is consigned to the background? Ghost Rider may not be much of a comic book movie, but as an unintentional argument for Cage’s auteurism, it’s priceless.

Remember when Magic Johnson said, “There will never, ever be another Larry Bird?” There will never, ever be another Nicolas Cage. What other actor could possibly deliver the following lines of dialogue like he means it?

“Mack, you touch the Carpenters or that chimp video again and we got a scrap on our hands.”

“Thanks for the info. I feel much better knowing I’m the devil’s bounty hunter.”

“You’re both good cops. And you provide a very, very important civil service. In fact, when I finish my stunt career, I intend to apply my skills to being a motorcycle policeman.”

The answer, in short, is no one. In her outstanding essay, “The Heat-Seeking Panther,” Slate critic Dana Stevens wrote, “When Cage takes on these outsize B-movie roles, I don’t believe for a moment that he is just nodding wearily to his agent (and his accountant). I think he’s fulfilling a vision, albeit one that looks inscrutable from the outside, of choosing roles in the kind of movies he himself loves.” When Cage is howling maniacally while his skin burns, or drinking cup after cup of water and tossing each on the floor (in a church, no less), or writhing on the ground at his father’s gravesite, he displays such insane commitment to his performance that your first instinct is to chuckle, and your second is to shake your head in slack jawed appreciation.

I know we’re supposed to be talking about Ghost Rider, but I can’t muster enough enthusiasm for the movie to take our task seriously. If this was made in the 1970s by Roger Corman as a low-rent knockoff of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia or something, I would have liked it a lot better. It’s most interesting as a tale of a cocksure stuntman, the sweet gal who loves him, and a deal with the devil. It wouldn’t be the Ghost Rider of the comics, but it might be a better movie. Good for us that it is what it is, since we get to see Nicolas Cage do his thing. God love him.

Jeff: I agree with you, Tim — that’s kind of what I was getting at with the last sentence of my writeup. This is the only way to enjoy the movie: as glorious schlock, untethered from the source material. But if it doesn’t work as a Ghost Rider movie, then why involve the character at all? Why not just make a movie about Nicolas Cage as a guy who’s tormented by the devil and bursts into flame against his will?

One reason and one reason only: Because the Ghost Rider brand has built-in commercial value. Every franchise is built to make money, but I felt like Ghost Rider was more flippant about it than most. All of Cage’s insanity isn’t enough to keep the movie from ringing hollow.


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