The one superhero movie you need to watch before it leaves Netflix tomorrow
In an era before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Nicholas Cage brought one C-list superhero to the big screen.
Nicholas Cage lives with a few regrets. One of them is a 2007 Marvel superhero movie you'll never find streaming on Disney+.
Ghost Rider, a dark PG-13 superhero movie directed by Mark Steven Johnson, epitomizes the era it arrived in. Loaded with dated special effects and an unusual lead in Nicholas Cage — who at 43 was just barely convincing in his role as a celebrity stunt rider — the movie exists as a novel anomaly in the first wave of 21st-century superhero movies. A year before Marvel Studios raised the bar with Iron Man, Ghost Rider just barely cleared.
But you still need to watch Ghost Rider for one reason before it leaves Netflix on June 30. Here's why.
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Released in February 2007 and earning a worldwide gross of $228.7 million, Ghost Rider adapts the Marvel Comics anti-hero created by Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich, and Mike Ploog. Johnny Blaze (Cage), a famous motorcyclist reminiscent of Evel Knievel, makes a deal with the devil to cure his father of cancer. When his father dies anyway in an "accident," Johnny grows up aloof and eccentric despite fame and fortune. But when the devil forces Johnny to the terms of their deal, he becomes the demonic bounty hunter, Ghost Rider, to hunt the devil's son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley).
The film also stars Eva Mendes as Johnny's first true love turned TV reporter, Donal Logue as Johnny's best friend, and Sam Elliot as the "Caretaker," Johnny's predecessor in the Ghost Rider role. Rebel Wilson, early in her career, appears as a girl in an alley who is saved by Johnny.
For a movie starring a carnival superstar, Ghost Rider is hardly spectacular. There's not one exceptional set-piece that cements the movie's identity. The climax, set in an abandoned church, is drab and dreary with uninspired action and rigor mortis choreography.
You almost have to respect the audacity of sticking to Ghost Rider's comic book finisher. Known as the "Penance Stare," Ghost Rider redirects the agony of a person's lifetime of sins back onto them. It looks neat in comic books. But in movies, what you have is a protagonist glaring the bad guy to death. That can only be so riveting.
Ghost Rider is a clunker of a movie that has just one true saving grace: Nicholas Cage. In opposition to Johnny Blaze's handsome, chiseled blonde look in the comics (at least when his skull isn't on fire), Cage's labored speaking voice, darker hair, and crow's feet eyes all show a man who truly has dealt with the devil. His eccentricities define him as someone allergic to a rock star lifestyle. He abstains from alcohol, he reads religious literature, and he'd rather watch monkey documentaries than glowing coverage of his latest stunts. A scene later in his garage, where Cage sits virtually brain dead before the warming glow of an old TV playing 1929's "The Skeleton Dance" (before it got meme'd) is both hilarious and eerily revealing of a troubled existence.
Though Cage isn't an easy actor to imagine in the role, the film star grew up a dedicated comic book reader and especially loved Ghost Rider. "I grew up reading The Incredible Hulk and Ghost Rider, because I could understand how these horrifying characters were also meant to be good," he told Yahoo! in 2018.
"Ghost Rider took it to even another level, in that he was a superhero who had sold his soul to the devil. So it was philosophical; it was complex. I don’t think [director] Mark Steven Johnson appreciated it when I said the first one was kind of like a fairy tale, but I meant it in the highest way. Whether it’s Grimm’s Fairy Tales or Doctor Faustus — it was almost like if Walt Disney had taken the story of Faust and made one of his animated features out of that story."
Another reason to watch Ghost Rider is simply that it exists in a different time of superhero movies. Standalone comic book films are a prologue to the shared cinematic universes of the 2010s. Movies like Blade (1998), Daredevil (2003), Hulk (2003), and Fantastic Four (2005), though all flawed in different ways, excelled in their exclusive concentration on a specific hero (or heroes). There wasn't a big universe to clumsily fit characters into. They lived in their own worlds and consequently had their own identities, while a casual viewer of the MCU may admit they can't tell Avengers movies apart.
Finally, for very obvious reasons, you won't ever get to stream Ghost Rider on Disney+. Though the movie is only PG-13 — Cage insists it would have done better with an R rating — a haunted motorcycle rider in a pact with the devil is a bit much for the Disney platform (and the film's few jump scares may be traumatizing for the little ones). It's for that reason that Ghost Rider, while not a great movie, needs to be seen while you can.
Ghost Rider is streaming on Netflix until June 30.