The Big Picture

The critics were wrong about the Ghost Rider movies; they are good and underrated, telling a simple and sincere story. Unlike the complex and interconnected MCU, the Ghost Rider movies are self-contained and follow a finite number of characters. The cast of the Ghost Rider franchise is perfect, with Nicolas Cage giving a fearless and captivating performance, and Idris Elba providing much-needed comic relief.

2007’s Ghost Rider and 2011’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance — both starring Nicolas Cage as Johnny Blaze, the titular antihero — have two of the lowest Rotten Tomatoes scores of any Marvel movies, at 27% and a dismal 19%, respectively. Though both were financial successes, bringing in more than twice their budgets at the box office, they were widely panned by critics, who derided the corny dialogue and weak effects. But I am here to tell you that in this case, the critics are wrong. The Ghost Rider movies are good, actually — not just campy fun, but legitimately underrated films that succeed at exactly what they’re trying to do: tell a simple, self-contained story with a level of sincerity that has almost completely eluded other superhero franchises in recent years.

Ghost Rider

When motorcycle rider Johnny Blaze sells his soul to the Devil to save his father’s life, he is transformed into the Ghost Rider, the Devil’s own bounty hunter, and is sent to hunt down sinners.

Mark Steven Johnson‘s original Ghost Rider follows Johnny Blaze (Cage), a young motorcycle stuntman performing alongside his father (Brett Cullen) who, unbeknownst to Johnny, is dying of cancer. When Johnny learns of his father’s illness, he makes a deal with the devil (Peter Fonda), signing over his soul in exchange for his dad’s life. Of course, the devil can’t be trusted: Barton Blaze’s cancer is cured, but he dies in an accident the next day. Years later, the devil comes to collect on Johnny’s promise, granting him the power of the Ghost Rider and ordering him to stop Blackheart (Wes Bentley) — the devil’s demon son — from taking over the world.

The sequel takes place in Eastern Europe a few years later, where Blaze hides from the curse that transforms him into a fiery, vengeful skeleton. In the intervening years, the devil (now played by Ciarán Hinds) has conceived another son (Fergus Riordan) and plans a ritual to transfer his power from his aging, mortal body into the boy’s young, healthy form. Blaze teams up with an alcoholic French priest named Moreau (Idris Elba) to stop him with the promise that Moreau can undo the curse of the Ghost Rider.

Unlike the MCU, the ‘Ghost Rider’ Movies Are Simple and Self-Contained

Self-contained stories became an endangered species in the MCU the moment Nick Fury showed up in Tony Stark’s living room at the conclusion of Iron Man. (And yes, Ghost Rider is part of the MCU: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4, which centers around the Robbie Reyes version of the character, heavily implies that he was gifted his powers by Cage’s Johnny Blaze.) As the cinematic universe grows more complex and unwieldy, every piece of media within it must connect with every other, weaving together outstanding plot threads and setting up future films. Viewers who haven’t kept up with every movie and series are often out of luck since so many elements of any given film have been established or explained somewhere else. It can be exhausting.

Both entries in the Ghost Rider franchise are that rarest of species: standalone superhero movies. They follow a finite number of characters, including a bad guy with simple motivations and a clear goal and a classic tormented antihero. In fact, Ghost Rider hits many of the same story beats as a beloved early Marvel movie, Sam Raimi‘sSpider-Man. The hero has suffered a personal tragedy; he initially finds his powers bewildering, but with a little practice, he quickly masters control of them. Blaze faces off against a villain who threatens the hero’s loved ones (Eva Mendes, in the case of Ghost Rider). He beats the villain and gets the girl, but ultimately chooses his responsibility as a superhero over their relationship. Both films leave open the possibility for future follow-ups without ending on obvious sequel bait. There’s something incredibly satisfying about a simple story with strong themes; it’s the reason Disney has been able to build an empire out of movies based on fairy tales. Simple stories that involve clear stakes, centered around characters whom the audience has grown attached to, are narratively fulfilling.

The Casting of the ‘Ghost Rider’ Franchise is Perfect

Image via Columbia Pictures

Of course, in order for the audience to grow attached to said characters, they have to be compelling, or at least likable. Fortunately, the major players in the Ghost Rider franchise are highly appealing thanks to absolutely pitch-perfect casting. Cage, as usual, is giving 150%, fearlessly leaning into the character’s goofier elements and, as a result, selling the role in a way that no other actor could. He’s at particularly peak Cage in Spirit of Vengeance, where directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor really let him get wacky.

Fonda is clearly having a great time as Mephistopheles, bringing a gravitas to the character reminiscent of Vincent Price, while Blackheart is more cartoonishly evil but still benefits from Wes Bentley’s charm and good looks. Sam Elliott plays Carter Slade, a mentor to Johnny who also carries the Ghost Rider curse and, like Cage, he never turns in a tepid performance. Idris Elba, too, is flawless (except for his French accent); he’s easily the best part of Spirit of Vengeance, where he provides some much-needed comic relief. Even Riordan — who was only around 13 at the time of filming — is solid as the devil’s son, a boy struggling against his own internal evil much like Blaze. The two bond during a quiet but important scene in the middle of the film that motivates Johnny to protect the boy even after his own curse is lifted.

‘Ghost Rider’s Tone Is Sincere

Image via Columbia Pictures

The tone of the Ghost Rider movies — particularly the first one — stands in stark contrast to more recent superhero fare. Most MCU movies are permeated by a jokiness that infects even many serious scenes; major characters like Tony Stark and Peter Quill are defined by their snark, and otherwise solemn moments are constantly punctuated by sarcastic quips. This lack of sincerity is less apparent but still present in many DC movies, though Joss Whedon took it to an extreme in the original release of Justice League, where his reshoots are obvious due not just to Henry Cavill’s rubbery CGI face, but also to the extreme contrast between his comedic tone and Zack Snyder’s darker one.

Ghost Rider suffers from no such problems. It is endearing in its unapologetic sincerity; though it has plenty of humor and a few genuinely good jokes, there’s nary a sarcastic or cynical moment in the franchise. (Like its simple plot and themes, it shares this quality with the first Spider-Man.) A scene late in the first film provides a perfect example: in his quest to stop Blackheart, Blaze must ride his motorcycle to a small town 500 miles away. Just before he departs, Slade reveals that he too is a Ghost Rider and mounts his fiery skeleton horse to join Johnny. The two then ride across the desert to the tune of an extremely rad rock-country score. A scene like this would never make it into a modern Marvel movie; if it somehow did, a character would likely ruin it with a snarky, meta remark about how cheesy it is.

This sincerity wouldn’t work if the actors weren’t all in, if any of them were phoning in their performances, or if the movies were a cynical cash grab. But as we mentioned, everyone in these films is giving it their all – even when uttering the occasional admittedly corny line.

The ‘Ghost Rider’ Movies Aren’t Flawless

All of these factors considered, the franchise is far from perfect. Despite Cage and Elba’s appeal, the second film in particular can be difficult to defend, largely because the cinematography and editing leave something to be desired. The entire movie is shot like a Bourne franchise action scene, with so much close-up, shaky cam and unnecessary quick cuts that it’s actually dizzying to watch at times. The first film also has its weak moments, such as when Johnny barely reacts to the murder of his best friend because moments later he discovers that Mephistopheles has kidnapped his love interest.

But despite their flaws, Ghost Rider and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance are eminently watchable — far better than their reviews indicate and a welcome contrast to the superhero movies we’ve been bombarded with over the last decade. They’re perfect popcorn flicks, and since their combined runtime is barely longer than Avengers: Endgame by itself, you can easily binge them together. Fans of Cage or of the superhero genre should consider them must-sees.

Ghost Rider and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance are available to stream on Tubi in the U.S.


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