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Marvel Movies Project: Ghost Rider (and Half-Way Roundup!)

Movie poster for Ghost Rider (2007).

Ghost Rider (2007) is the story of stunt motorcycle rider and monkey documentary devotee Johnny Blaze, who sells his soul to the devil, here named Mephistopheles, in order to cure his father’s cancer. To work off his debt, Johnny is forced to become the “Ghost Rider,” which involves being the devil’s bounty hunter. Then there is some deal about a contract so evil that another Ghost Rider hid it, and now Mephistopheles’ son, whose name is Blackheart, wants to used it to show his father up … or something. Meanwhile, Johnny reunites with Roxanne, the love of his teen years. Eventually, Blackheart threatens Roxanne and Johnny has to save her.

Nicolas Cage is a fun actor and he seems to enjoy being Johnny Blaze, who is an offbeat character with some absurd quirks. The whole movie, really, is odd and cannot be taken seriously, with its paper thin plot and the cheesetastic delivery of lines like “I am speaking to the fire element within me” and “My name is leeeeeeeeegion. For we are maaaaaaaaaaany.” Most of the cast give silly performances to match the movie’s tone. Peter Fonda hams it up as Mephistopheles. Sam Elliott, making his second Marvel movie appearance after playing General Ross in Hulk, is in full mysterious stranger mode as a former Ghost Rider named Carter Slade.

Eva Mendes plays Roxanne. It’s not much of a role; she wears tight, low-cut clothes and looks pretty — as if to drive home the point, Roxy even desperately asks a waiter at one point if he think she’s pretty — and gets rescued after making ineffectual attempts to help Johnny. Ghost Rider is probably the worst movie so far in terms of female representation.

Ghost Rider also marks the half-way point of this Marvel Movies Project, being the 14th of 27 films! To celebrate this milestone, here’s a quick look back on some of what we’ve seen so far.

Origin Stories

Blade, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Hulk, The Punisher, Fantastic Four, and Ghost Rider all show us how the heroes got their powers. All of these except Blade and Daredevil, which pick up the action with the protagonist already in evil-fighting mode, also show the characters’ transitions from normal person to something more.

In every case but Fantastic Four, the hero’s story involves the death of a parent or loved one — several loved ones in poor Frank Castle’s case. Castle, Matt Murdock, Peter Parker, and Johnny Blaze have all lost their fathers, while Bruce Banner is haunted by the sudden reappearance of his. Castle, Blade, and Banner’s stories are different enough that you almost don’t notice the similarity, but I think Daredevil and Ghost Rider probably suffer from being too similar to Spider-Man, which is the original and still the best dead father figure story in the Marvel Universe.

It’s also worth noting that Daredevil acts as an origin story for Elektra in some ways, and it’s the death of her father that prompts her to put all her martial arts training to use.

Sequels & Spinoffs

Blade, the X-Men, and Spider-Man all feature in more than one film. I’ve watched three sequels and two threequels so far. The X-Men films rely strongly on continuity, with developments that take place in the earlier films affecting the later ones. The Blade movies are less continuity-based: there are very few references to the earlier films in the sequels; it would be pretty easy to follow Blade: Trinity without having seen Blade. Spider-Man 2 most definitely builds on a foundation established in Spider-Man, and in my opinion the two movies work best when seen in relation to each other. The core characters are all the same and many scenes in Spider-Man 2 call back directly to scenes from the first movie.

Elektra is the lone spinoff so far. The link to Daredevil exists but the filmmakers obviously intended Elektra to be a standalone movie.

Villains

Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and the Green Goblin (sort of) are the only villains who appear in sequels. Every other villain appears in one movie only. Most of the main villains have personal connections to their adversaries: either they’ve known each other for a long time, or the villain was involved in the murder of someone close to the hero. The exceptions are the Blade sequels, where the villains want to kill Blade mostly because he’s a pain in the butt.

My picks for standout villains are probably Magneto and Mystique from the X-Men series, as well as Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2. Doctor Doom was unfortunately disappointing; I was all ready for him to be awesome after I saw the first photos of his costume, but then he pretty much just relived Norman Osborn’s arc from Spider-Man.

Romance & Love Interests

Doomed pairings (Bruce and Betty, Daredevil and Elektra), token love interests (Eva Mendes in Ghost Rider, Goran Visnjic in Elektra), some extremely disinterested heroes (The Punisher, Blade — no woman in the Blade trilogy even makes it into more than one film), and one love triangle which turns into a doomed pairing (Wolverine-Jean-Cyclops) add up to not much in the way of heartwarming romance in the Marvel movies. There are a few bright spots, though. In the X-Men trilogy, Bobby and Rogue’s young love is very sweet. In Fantastic Four, Ben Grimm meets the kind-hearted Alicia after being dumped by his horrible wife. Reed’s hilariously inept attempts to woo Sue are also enjoyable, and their story ends well.

The one epic love story to be found is Peter and Mary Jane’s. Their courtship plays out over the course of the first two films and Peter’s love for Mary Jane drives a lot of the action. They’re both fully-developed characters who know each other well and support each other, even though their actual relationship has its fair share of bumps. By the end of Spider-Man 2, Mary Jane is aware of Peter’s secret identity and has made the choice to be with him anyway. The final shot of the movie is a closeup of her worried face, setting up their relationship to continue as a major source of drama in Spider-Man 3.

Best & Worst

Spider-Man 2 is possibly my favourite movie of all-time, so obviously I’m sticking with that as my choice for the best film so far. X2, Spider-Man, and X-Men are also a cut above the rest. Blade and Fantastic Four stand out as very enjoyable, too.

I’d probably place Blade: Trinity, The Punisher, Ghost Rider, Hulk, and Daredevil in the bottom five.

One thing I’ve noticed is that I haven’t found some of the movies I thought were awful the first time around as painful this time. Even Daredevil and Hulk, though I still don’t think they’re good, don’t seem quite as bad now that my expectations are lower. Elektra is probably the movie that benefited most from this “adjusted expectations” effect: I remembered it being terrible, but this time it seemed ok. On the other hand, I remembered thinking Ghost Rider was ok at the time, and when I watched it again I was disappointed.

My opinion of Blade: Trinity hasn’t changed. It sucked then and it still sucks now.

Marvel Movies Project: X2

X2 movie poster

X2 (2003), aka X-Men 2: X-Men United, is a great movie. We’ve got the director of X-Men, Bryan Singer, directing essentially the same cast, playing the same characters we met in that first film: it’s a world we’ve already been introduced to, so X2 is able to dive right into the action — which it does fairly spectacularly, with the amazingly choreographed and CGI-ed opening sequence featuring the attack on the President of the United States by the teleporting German mutant Kurt Wagner (whose circus name is Nightcrawler). This is but the first of many brilliant action setpieces in X2. My favourite is probably the one where soldiers attack Xavier’s school while all the X-Men are away from home and Wolverine is babysitting. Talk about bad timing — for the soldiers, that is.

Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler is one of a few major new additions to the cast. He’s terrific, and I must note what a trip it was to see him in full blue again after having watched him as the forever-suit-and-tie-wearing Eli Gold on The Good Wife for the last three years or so.

Same guy? Same guy.

The other important new castmembers are the always excellent Brian Cox as William Stryker, Aaron Stanford as Pyro, and Kelly Hu as Lady Deathstrike. All the new additions work well; Lady Deathstrike is perhaps less well-used than some, but her fight scene with Wolverine is memorable, as is her horrific death by adamantium.

A couple of characters from the first film also take on larger roles in the sequel: Shawn Ashmore as Bobby “Iceman” Drake, boyfriend of Anna Paquin’s Rogue, and Rebecca Romijn as Mystique. Mystique wasn’t exactly invisible in X-Men, but I feel Rebecca Romijn gets more of a chance to shine in X2 as Mystique is clearly shown to be Magneto’s right-hand woman, and valuable for more than just her mutant power. Iceman, who really only had a cameo in the first film, is much more prominent here; the scenes featuring the “younger generation” — Rogue, Iceman, and Pyro — are integral to the plot, and each gets some good character moments. The scene that takes place at Bobby Drake’s house is classic, as his parents try to deal with the revelation that their son isn’t just really smart. “Have you tried not being a mutant?” his mother asks, calling to mind the real life struggles of GLBQT people (as well as a line from Buffy the Vampire Slayer). According to Bryan Singer, it was this metaphorical element of the story that drew Ian McKellen to the role of Magneto in the first place. From the Los Angeles Times’ Hero Complex blog:

As for Ian, he liked the idea of the movie because of the gay allegory — the allegory of the mutants as outsiders, disenfranchised and alone and coming to all of that at puberty when their ‘difference’ manifests. Ian is activist and he reality responded to the potential of that allegory.

Strangely enough, I sometimes find it harder to write about the movies I really love than the ones I’m not so crazy about. At this point, I’m kind of running out of things to say about X2 other than “it’s awesome,” so I will tell you a little story about the first time I saw this film in theatre. About half way through the movie, I started to feel a need … a need to have peed. Problem: the movie was so good I didn’t want to miss anything. So, I held it. And held it. I really, really had to go. I was just trying not to think about it, but it became a little bit hard to avoid what with the climax of the film featuring a dam bursting. Luckily, the flooding only happened on screen.

Next film in the series is Ang Lee’s take on the enormous green rage monster in Hulk. I didn’t like this movie much at the time, so I’ll be interested to see if my feelings have changed.