Marvel’s Ghost Rider has always been a thoroughly transparent, inorganic creation. A corny hybridization of demon and Evil Knievel imagery, hackneyed angst and supernatural powers, and a few Faustian underpinnings (the latter for some “classical” heft), the ’70s superhero seemed, from the outset, a pretentiously brooding tough-guy custom-made for those sullen adolescents prone to smoking on schoolhouse steps, or for Harley Davidson riders in need of a menacing emblem for the backs of their leather jackets. As with so many of Marvel’s new heroes during the era, Ghost Rider felt like an acutely obvious—not to mention poorly conceived and executed—attempt to appeal to specific demographic segments not already adequately served by the comic-book publisher’s established (avenging, fantastic, web-slinging, or mutant) figureheads. He was and remains a Marvel also-ran because he’s a see-through badass whose series always tried too hard to be cool, a designation that will surely never again be uttered in relation to the character after Mark Steven Johnson’s cinematic adaptation, an impressively awful disaster which does little right besides highlighting the vigilante’s primary status as a creaky Hell’s Angels pun.
Cursed to be Satan’s bounty hunter after selling his soul in return for his cancer-stricken father’s life, and then intent on using his unholy powers for good, circus sideshow-turned-celebrity motorcycle daredevil Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) finds that signing on Mephistopheles’s (Captain America himself, Peter Fonda) dotted line means that whenever the moon is bright, his head turns into a flaming CG skull that’s visually faithful to the creature’s print origins—which is to say, it lacks personality and looks ludicrous. Johnny’s cosmetic troubles are married to romantic ones involving spurned childhood love Rosy (Eva Mendes), who resurfaces to complicate his mission to stop pale-faced devil-twerp Blackheart (Wes Bentley) from collecting a batch of über-important souls. Narrative details are of little significance, however, since Johnson’s tale is such a muddled stew of origin story clichés, underwritten dilemmas, and missing plot points that Johnny’s plight—ostensibly about free will and atonement—becomes merely the pretense for embarrassing one-liners, snooze-worthy fights, and countless instances of the Nicolas Cage face: bug-eyes and mouth slightly agape, leading to a look of doofy befuddlement (a companion compilation to this would appear imminent).
That said, it’s somewhat unfair to single out the actor for his idiosyncratically wacky gesticulations (which also include Elvis-style pointing and uh-huhing) when his co-stars are setting world-records for laughable broadness (the unbearable Bentley in particular) and the awful script is forcing him to confront put-downs from Rosy like “You’re still just a carny.” Whereas similar lower-tier Marvel hero Blade received respectful, semi-serious treatment from Stephen Norrington and, later, Guillermo del Toro, Johnson manages only to turn his underworld-trawling do-gooder into a walking punchline who, in the light of day, is primarily notable for being a kook with insanely ripped abs. Johnny’s quest for a second chance to do the right thing is also that of Johnson’s, as Ghost Rider marks the director’s stab at paying penance for 2003’s excruciating Daredevil. Yet seeing as how the filmmaker’s sole skill is shooting everything in a manner ideally suited for a theatrical trailer—his favorite maneuver being the quick zoom into close-up of someone peering over their shoulder—the only recompense Johnson deserves for this latest schlocky comic-book translation is having his DGA card set on fire.