Sunday, November 19, 2017

Ghost Rider (2007) and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011)

With the release of X-Men, Blade, and Spider-Man in the late 1990s and early 2000s, superheroes became a big force in movies.  Everyone wanted to get into working on superhero projects.  One actor who wanted to get into the superhero stuff was Nicolas Cage.  His stage name was even taken from Marvel’s Luke Cage.  At one point, he was set to play Superman.  That project fell through, but it wouldn’t be the last of Nicolas Cage’s work in superhero film.

2007 saw the release of Ghost Rider.  Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) was a motorcycle stunt performer.  He sold his soul to a demon named Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) so that his father could be healed of cancer.  This led the demon to turn Blaze into his bounty hunter, The Ghost Rider.  Blaze was tasked with taking down Blackheart (Wes Bentley), a demon who planned to take over Hell using Legion.

Nicolas Cage returned to the role of Johnny Blaze in 2011 for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.  Moreau (Idris Elba) came to Johnny Blaze for help saving a boy named Danny (Fergus Riordan) from being used as a vessel for Mephistopheles (now played by Ciaran Hinds).  Along the way, they encountered some monks led by Methodius (Christopher Lambert) and a bounty hunter named Blackout (Johnny Whitworth) who could black out a person’s surroundings.

The two movies did not feel like they were part of the same series at all.  Nicolas Cage played Johnny Blaze in both films, yet his motivations in the sequel made it feel like a complete reboot.  Ghost Rider ended with Johnny Blaze deciding that he wanted to keep the curse of his powers because he could use them to take down the demon that gave them to him.  The sequel saw him wanting to get rid of the powers even though Mephistopheles was still running around.  It was like the end of the first movie didn’t exist and he had to go through another adventure to realize that he should keep the powers.  The stories made no sense together, if they were meant to be connected.

One thing was common between both Ghost Rider movies, outside of the Nicolas Cage leading role.  The only thing that might make them seem like sequels, while at the same time making them seem like entirely different franchises, was that both movies were tonal messes.  Both entries in the Ghost Rider series tried to blends different tones together, leading to inconsistent movies that never quite knew what they were.  There were sparks of genius in both films, yet the tonal problems kept them from being good at all.
Let’s begin with Ghost Rider, the 2007 movie that kicked off the franchise.  It was going for that mid-2000s pre-MCU superhero vibe.  It was in that area where Daredevil, the Spider-Man movies, and the Fantastic Four movies found a place for themselves.  It was that argument where all of the Marvel movies feel the same, except before the cinematic universe that had so many of the movies feeling the same.  That was where Ghost Rider tried to place itself.

There were things that put it into that territory.  The effects were on par with the other licensed Marvel properties, giving it a similar look.  The biggest difference in that respect was that Ghost Rider needed more effects than some of the others because the character was a flaming skull head guy with a flaming motorcycle.  The effects were necessary for the character to be on screen.  They were the cartoony style that Marvel movies had been using for their effects.  It wasn’t about bringing the comics to life, so much as simply putting them in movie form.

A romantic subplot was also a large part of the movie.  It wasn’t a realistic romantic subplot.  It was one of those situations where the characters had been in love since they were teenagers, and now that they were in their 30s (even though Cage was in his 40s), they still loved each other.  They had been apart for fifteenish years and were still in love.  The curse of the Ghost Rider wouldn’t break them up.

It all seemed like the standard superhero family fun, and that’s because the movie was targeted at that audience.  That demographic does not feel right for the character of Ghost Rider.  One reason is the obvious.  He was brought about through a deal with the devil.  That alone is a dark enough conception that the movie should be a little darker.  The bad guy was a demon who was killing people to steal their souls.  Again, that’s a darker concept than the family demographic allowed the movie to explore to its fullest extent.  The target audience was completely wrong for the character.

Other things that could have been explored throughout Ghost Rider were either completely dropped, or strangely changed into something else.  The most notable of the changes was a clear desire for the filmmakers to delve into Johnny Blaze being an alcoholic.  They didn’t want to leave that addiction out of the movie, but they couldn’t include it if they wanted to have the same family audience that other superhero movies had.  As a strange sort of compromise, instead of dropping it completely, the movie changed the alcohol into jelly beans.  Johnny Blaze drank jellies out of martini glasses.  It was weird and distracting and pointed out that everything should have been more geared towards adults.  The tone of the movie was not right for the character.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance at least tried to be adult.  The directors of the sequel were Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, a team known for directing crazy R-rated action movies like Crank, Crank: High Voltage, and Gamer.  Their material tends to be adult.  They seemed like the right picks to direct and adult version of the Ghost Rider tale, and it almost worked out with Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.  Almost.

What worked in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was the combination of Neveldine/Taylor and Nicolas Cage.  The trio fit together like peanut butter, jelly, and bread.  That’s a solid, dependable sandwich.  However, there were issues that kept the movie from reaching its potential.  To keep the analogy of the sandwich going, it was like the studio wanted to remove the crust so that more people would enjoy the sandwich, but ended up removing half of the sandwich with the crust.

Let me elaborate on that point.  Surely, the hiring of Neveldine/Taylor was a sign that the movie was supposed to be R-rated.  The fact that it was under the Marvel Knights banner meant that they were going for something darker.  The only other movie released under that banner was Punisher: War Zone, a gratuitously violent take on The Punisher.  Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was probably going to fill the screen up with as much gratuitous violence until the studio decided that it would be more profitable to go the PG-13 route.

Imagine that the crust of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was the deleted scenes.  There were definitely a few scenes originally in the movie that were taken out in an attempt to make it flow better, or to give a shorter runtime.  That happens with most movies.  When those were cut, there was a decision to also cut back on a lot of the violence that was in the movie.  People still got shot, explosions still happened, but it felt like they were holding back on how much violence there should have been.  In a dark story where the Ghost Rider was killing a bunch of mercenaries while being shot and blown up, there should have been more shots of the violence.  Yet the movie shied away from showing too much.  For an over-the-top movie from Neveldine/Taylor, this felt like a disservice to the material.
Much like the first Ghost Rider film, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance had tonal problems.  The difference was that the first movie was trying to be a family friendly movie while trying to incorporate some of the adult themes that came along with the character.  The sequel tried to tell an adult story with adult violence, but sell it to teenagers who weren’t allowed to see that level of violence in theaters.  Neither of them nailed a single tone and instead felt like competing stories fighting with each other throughout each movie.

There could be something good with the Ghost Rider character.  There was potential in each movie to be something great.  Yet they both tried to be different things than they were intended to be and it ended up hurting the final products.  A consistent tone is important to a movie’s success.  If the people making it don’t know what it is, that will come through.  The audience will pick up on it.  They will see how much of a mess it is.  The Ghost Rider movies were messy.  It’s easy to see that.  That’s why people say they are bad.  The tone wasn’t consistent in either movie, which made for a lesser viewing experience.

All we can do when looking at movies like Ghost Rider and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is learn from the mistakes that were made.  If a movie is shot with an R-rating in mind, cutting it back to PG-13 isn’t going to help.  It’s going to feel wrong.  The same could be said about trying to bring adult themes into a family movie while keeping those themes family.  Don’t do that kind of stuff.  Make better movies.  Learn from the problems and make something better.
It’s time for some notes:

  • I’ll begin with the Neveldine/Taylor connections.  They wrote Jonah Hex.  Mark Neveldine also had a hand in Officer Downe.
  • Sam Elliott was in Ghost Rider.  It was his third appearance in the Sunday “Bad” Movies.  He was already in Frogs and Road House.
  • Nic Cage made appearances two and three in the Sunday “Bad” Movies this week.  He was in a movie called Outcast that was featured a couple years ago.
  • Three actors from Ghost Rider were also in Son of the Mask.  They were Peter Callan, Ryan Johnson, and Duncan Young.
  • Wes Bentley, who played the bad guy in Ghost Rider, was also in Jonah Hex.
  • Eva Mendes was in Ghost Rider as Johnny Blaze’s love interest.  She was previously in the Sunday “Bad” Movies when I covered Exit Wounds.
  • Julia Perri made a return to the Sunday “Bad” Movies in Ghost Rider, after being in Jack and Jill.
  • Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance featured Spencer Wilding, an actor from The Legend of Hercules.
  • Finally, Christopher Lambert played the leader of some badass monks in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.  You might remember him from Mortal Kombat.
  • Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was suggested by @Deggsy, who has suggested a few other movies for the Sunday “Bad” Movies.  They were The Summer of Massacre, Area 407, and 7 Below.
  • Have you seen the Ghost Rider movies?  Do you think my post is as much a tonal mess as those were?  What did you think of the movies?  Let me know in the comments.
  • I’m always on the lookout for suggestions about what to watch for the Sunday “Bad” Movies.  If there are any movies you think would be good for me to cover for the blog, let me know in the comments or on my Twitter.
  • If you haven’t added me on snapchat, you’re probably not missing out on much.  I post clips of the bad movies I see, and sometimes share other things there too.  My username is jurassicgriffin.  Add me if you want.
  • Next week is the final week before the big fifth anniversary celebration.  There’s one more movie until the fifth anniversary rewatch.  That movie is American Ultra, an action movie from the mind of Max Landis.  If you want to see my thoughts, come back next week and I’ll share them.  See you then.

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