Marvel movies can be divided into two camps.
The first: movies within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, like Iron Man and Thor: Ragnarok, which move in concert with one another. While the various merits of each individual entry will likely be debated until the end of time, no one can deny the MCU’s ambition: 26 movies and counting, all telling parts of a greater story.
Then there’s the second kind of Marvel film, which lacks an official stamp. The cinematic equivalent of the Guardians of the Galaxy, these movies exist on the fringes. Before Disney purchased the brand, Marvel needed cash, and so scattered some of its properties to competing studios throughout the ‘90s.
Some of these, like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and James Mangold’s The Wolverine, have managed to showcase certain strengths outside of the Marvel template. But other less official films don’t stick the landing. Some of them, like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, are bizarre messes.
Co-directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank), Spirit of Vengeance is an extremely weird movie that has only grown weirder since its debut in 2011. Now that it’s on HBO Max, here’s why it’s worth a look.
Ghost Rider first emerged as a Marvel character in 1972. Mixing elements of Evel Knievel, Elvis Presley, and an earlier comic book character with the same name, Ghost Rider emerged as a tormented daredevil. Once a carefree motorcycle stuntman, Johnny Blaze entered into a Faustian bargain with Mephisto, the devil himself, becoming a demonic entity who fed on the souls of the wicked.
A spirit of vengeance by night, complete with a flaming skull for a head, Ghost Rider fit the rebellious spirit of Marvel in the ‘70s, an era that popularized other gritty, tormented characters like Luke Cage and Wolverine. However, after the seismic culture shift brought about by 9/11, the archetype of the antihero seemed out of step with the times, and Marvel struggled to find an audience for him.
Enter Nicolas Cage. The Oscar-winning actor’s overriding weirdness seemed a natural fit for the character, and the first Ghost Rider movie, released in 2007, was such a commercial hit that a sequel was a no-brainer. Neveldine and Taylor, who had made their name with the hyperactive Crank series, similarly appeared a perfect fit for the franchise, if you could envision Ghost Rider movies as rude, crude, and totally over-the-top.
And, in part, the directors delivered a sequel that lived up to that promise. There’s a good movie buried within Spirit of Vengeance. This is a movie featuring Nicolas Cage as Johnny Blaze and Idris Elba as an alcoholic warrior monk named Moreau, who for some reason has a bizarre French accent. When the two of them are on-screen, their oddball chemistry is undeniable.
Unfortunately, Moreau only tracks down Johnny Blaze to help him save Danny Ketch (Fergus Riordan), a young boy who has only his mother Nadya (Violante Placido) to protect him from demonic forces. Why must Johnny Blaze save Danny? It’s unclear, but Mephistopheles (Ciarán Hinds), the demon who alternately goes by Roarke, clearly wants the boy.
A few years before Spirit of Vengeance arrived in 2009, James Cameron’s Avatar triggered an avalanche of movies with 3D elements. These quickly became the realm of cliché, with movie after movie featuring scenes in which objects are thrown directly at the camera. Spirit of Vengeance is one of those movies.
Now that the 3D craze has mostly passed, parts of this movie look incredibly strange in hindsight. During key moments in Spirit of Vengeance, the screen goes completely black, save for a single character. Some of these moments are transformational, as when mercenary Ray Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth) transforms into Blackout, and others are more comedic, such as Ghost Rider urinating as if wielding a flamethrower. These moments feel like they were meant for audiences watching them with 3D glasses, but seeing them in standard 2D on HBO Max makes them feel almost surreal.
When Spirit of Vengeance plays into the giddy weirdness of its principal characters, it works. There’s a scene where Johnny Blaze tries to intimidate a thug while also keeping the soul-sucking Ghost Rider at bay that is classic Cage, on par with anything from Face/Off or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. But the movie doesn’t sustain itself with this rich intensity often enough.
Anyone watching Spirit of Vengeance frame-by-frame, looking for a comic book masterpiece, will probably not have a great time. But it’s enjoyable as a movie just to have on in the background while you’re doing something else. You’re texting with your friend, and suddenly you look up at the screen and there’s a guy with a flaming skull peeing fire. That’s cinema, baby.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is now streaming on HBO Max.