On Feb. 16, 2007, Mark Steven Johnson’s Ghost Rider movie hit theaters. Nicolas Cage starred as Johnny Blaze, a motorcycle stuntman powered by the devil to slay the damned in the form of a man with a flaming skull. It was the perfect vehicle for Nicolas Cage, a comic fan known for his often eccentric screen presence. Cage playing a demonic bounty hunter who spits hellfire is one of those things where it feels more like a documentary that only happens to resemble a Marvel Comics character.
It’s a fun movie on its own that hits just the right level of being over-the-top at the appropriate moments. If anything, it’s hurt by the perfect way it sets up fight scenes like video game boss battles, only for the fights to be over within seconds. While Ghost Rider is ultimately a footnote in the superhero movie pantheon, it’s still worth rewatching every now and then.
Get your martini glass full of jelly beans ready, because it’s time to talk about the legacy of the Ghost Rider movie, 15 years later.
Final Days of the Pre-MCU
The 10 year stretch between the release of Blade and the release of Iron Man was an interesting era for Marvel movies. Back in the ‘90s, a financially strapped Marvel made some quick cash by selling off the movie rights to their characters. While all the DC Comics heroes were under the Warner Bros. umbrella, the various Marvel properties were spread across various studios. Crossovers were a vague pipedream, and fans had to content themselves with . Spider-Man 2‘s Doctor Strange name drop or having a guy who sort of looked like Frank Castle show up in the background in the final scene.
Ghost Rider showed up around the time when superhero movies had shown some early momentum, but hadn’t achieved the level of success and consistency we’re now accustomed to. After the tremendous promise of the early X-Men and Spider-Man films, followed by Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins in 2005, 2006 brought disappointments like X-Men: The Last Stand and Superman Returns. Ghost Rider shared its release year with mediocre franchise entries like Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Spider-Man 3.
Ghost Rider was buried in the mediocre chaos before 2008’s one-two punch of Iron Man and The Dark Knight truly boosted the superhero genre. It still stood on its own, carried by the novelty of Cage’s zany performance. As CGI effects were used more conservatively in these kinds of movies during this era, Ghost Rider couldn’t be in flaming skull mode all the time. Cage more than made up for it by playing to his strengths while in his human form, similar to how Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn showed more deranged menace without his Green Goblin mask on.
THE VILLAIN PROBLEM
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Wes Bentley as Blackheart. Not only did the performance leave a lot to be desired, but he fell into the common trap of the era where movie studios often weren’t up to making certain characters look like their comic book counterparts, whether due to budget or being unable to take the design seriously. The comic version of Blackheart is a sinister, shadowy demon with a mane of porcupine quills. The movie version comes off as a supporting villain from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Although there’s one area where the film got the jump on the MCU. When everyone was trying to figure out what was going on with WandaVision, there was constant speculation that Mephisto – Marvel’s “Not REALLY Satan, but, yeah, he’s Satan” villain – was the big bad behind everything. He had ties to the comics storyline that WandaVision was partially based on and that had people thinking that either Agatha was working for him or even that the fake Quicksilver was him in disguise. Of course, as we all now know, it was “Agatha all along.”
The Mephisto speculation continued when Loki kicked off with literal Devil imagery as a child in a church pointed at a picture of Lucifer, stating that to be the show’s antagonist. That was there to mess with us, as the kid was describing the horned Sylvie, who turned out to be a secondary protagonist in the end.
As a result, “It’s Mephisto!” has become the Boy Who Cried Wolf meme of the MCU. But Ghost Rider features Peter Fonda as Mephistopheles himself, beating the MCU to the punch by 15 years and counting! Good God, making Easy Rider’s Peter Fonda the villain of a motorcycle-based superhero movie is such a brilliant idea.
Ultimately, critics were less than kind to Ghost Rider with a 26% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Financially, it made $229 million internationally against a $110 million budget. This motorcycle had gas in the tank.
The Video Game
Days before the release of Ghost Rider, a video game of the same name was released by 2K Games for the PlayStation 2, PSP, and Game Boy Advance. This God of War clone was a quasi-sequel to the first movie, written by comic scribes Garth Ennis and Jimmy Palmiotti. It featured more characters from the comics and for some reason only retained the actor likeness of Sam Elliot as Caretaker, but it still came with plenty of inspiration from the film.
Mephisto reaches out to Ghost Rider, once again using him as his personal weapon, as he’s losing control of Hell and our hero needs to prevent the apocalypse. Roxanne is put in danger in order to get Johnny to play ball and Blackheart’s fried husk of a body is also brought back as a plot device. Otherwise, Ghost Rider takes on the likes of Vengeance, Lilith, Scarecrow, and so on. Blackout is one of the game’s villains and even though he would be introduced in the movie Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, at least his design stays roughly the same. Ghost Rider even gets to revisit the carnival where Barton Blaze died, though given a malevolent redesign.
The game also came with the ability to unlock Blade. Wolverine was supposed to be in the game, but he was cut out last minute due to some kind of rights issue. The PlayStation 2 version was pretty fun, but it immediately fell into obscurity since it was so late in the console’s lifespan.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
As these things go, movie studios have a time limit before they have to give up the cinematic rights to whatever property they’re holding onto, usually with clauses indicating that if they aren’t actively developing projects featuring a character for a specified period of time, then the characters return to Marvel. That includes sequels, which meant that after the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off, it became a war of cinematic stamina. Fox could keep things going with their successful X-Men franchise and was intent on keeping Fantastic Four out of Disney’s hands for as long as they could, while Sony felt they could keep making Spider-Man movies forever. Sony also had Ghost Rider and kept it in their collection for a little bit longer by making a sequel.
Directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, 2012’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was another middle-of-the-road affair. It had some higher highs than the first film, whether it was Ghost Rider’s creepier appearance, the shot of Ghost Rider peeing fire, a really funny Twinkie gag, or the always-enjoyable Idris Elba. Unfortunately, everything else felt drab and slow. The heart was in the right place, but it needed more grindhouse energy.
Critics didn’t think too highly of Spirit of Vengeance, dishing out an 18% on Rotten Tomatoes. With a budget of $75 million, it only made $52 million domestically and $133 million internationally. Not a terrible box office take, but not the numbers Sony wanted if they ever thought about doing a Ghost Rider 3. Then again, you could always watch Drive Angry as the spiritual sequel. It’s a ridiculous revenge movie about Nicolas Cage escaping Hell to prevent the end of existence. It’s stupid fun if you haven’t seen it and there’s a fantastic subplot about a conflicted cultist woman that has just the best payoff.
Johnny Blaze’s Penance Stare
Interestingly, the Ghost Rider movie influenced the comic in one notable way. While Johnny Blaze is considered the Ghost Rider, or at least the motorcycle-riding Ghost Rider, we have to show some respect to his half-brother Danny Ketch. Ketch was the Ghost Rider of the ‘90s and if there was ever a time when a concept like Ghost Rider would flourish, it’s the goddamn ‘90s. Danny was the first Ghost Rider to use the Penance Stare, Ghost Rider’s ace-in-the-hole ability to force his victim to become overwhelmed by all the horrors they had ever committed. It’s an attack so powerful that in the ‘90s Fantastic Four cartoon, it took down and nearly killed Galactus himself.
Even though the Penance Stare was Danny’s thing, the movie had it as part of Johnny’s repertoire, making it his ultimate weapon to stop Blackheart in the final act. As part of this Ghost Rider streamlining, a couple months before Ghost Rider hit theaters, a new comic run with Johnny as Ghost Rider started up by Daniel Way and Javier Saltares. In an issue that hit the stands right around the movie’s release date, Johnny took on Doctor Strange and busted out the Penance Stare for the first time.
Since then, it’s become a weapon for all the Ghost Riders in the comics. Even Robbie Reyes can pull it off and he isn’t even powered by a Spirit of Vengeance. Johnny does the attack as his level 3 super in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, meaning he can make Viewtiful Joe relive all the sins he had ever committed and all the innocent blood he has spilled.
What? I’m sure the little guy has it coming.
MCU Ghost Rider
Without any more Ghost Rider sequels, the rights reverted to Marvel and they had the ability to stick him in the MCU. This happened via the fourth season of Agents of SHIELD, where Gabriel Luna played the current main Ghost Rider from the comics, Robbie Reyes. Reyes comes with a different take on the mythos, such as his helmet-like skull design and his use of muscle cars over motorcycles. It made sense to use a very different take on the mantle, as Cage’s casting was just too iconic for them to immediately start with Johnny Blaze again.
The intriguing part here is his origin story. Reyes explained that he was given his powers by the Devil, which tracks considering what we know of Ghost Rider in various media. A flashback would eventually show that his life was saved by the more familiar, motorcycle-riding Ghost Rider, who then shared his powers with him. Seeing the flaming skull, of course Reyes thought it was the Devil.
This reveal of the Johnny Blaze version of Ghost Rider has had people speculating since 2016. Luna’s Ghost Rider was intended to get his own Hulu spinoff, which would have given us more answers, I’m sure, but it was nixed at the eleventh hour. Curiously, it was Hulu’s choice to kill the series, with the explanation being due to a “creative impasse that could not be resolved.” Speculation continues that “creative impasse” involved Kevin Feige having his own plans for Ghost Rider, and as the divisions between Marvel Studios and Marvel TV collapsed, it made it harder for Hulu to continue Robbie’s story.
I suppose that until we get an official expansion on that scene, you can simply pretend that the Ghost Rider movie is secretly part of MCU canon!
The Age of Superhero Cage
Nicolas Cage has always been connected to the world of superheroes, even though Ghost Rider ended up being his first true superhero role. As Nicolas Coppola, he didn’t want his famous last name to affect his acting career, so he renamed himself Nicolas Cage after Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. Funny enough, in an unused Luke Cage film script by Ben Ramsey, the hero (born Carl Lucas) got the idea for his assumed name from seeing a nearby sign for a Nicolas Cage film festival. I love that.
The actor not only named his son Kal-El after Superman’s Kryptonian name, but we came so close to seeing Nicolas Cage play Superman on the big screen. For better or for worse, the Tim Burton project got scrapped. Around the same time, Joel Schumacher had Cage in mind to play the Scarecrow in what would have been the follow-up to Batman and Robin.
Once Ghost Rider tore off the band-aid, Cage has become more of a regular in superhero movies. In Kick-Ass, he channeled Adam West’s Batman in the role of Big Daddy, leaving no piece of scenery unchewed. With Teen Titans GO! to the Movies, he finally got to play Superman, albeit in animated form. In the same year, he got to be the delightful Spider-Man Noir in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Yes, in 2018, Nicolas Cage got to be both Clark Kent and Peter Parker. What a world. I wonder who else he can pl–
Wait! I got it! Cast Nick Cage as MCU Mephisto! Then everybody wins!