Ghost Rider is a fucking badass.
I could end the blog post right there. The end. Drop the mic. Walk away.
But that wouldn’t be enough, would it? Not for a character with a horrible movie reputation. Not for a character whose glory days are seemingly gone, like tail lights winking out over the black horizon. Not for a character who, despite all adversity, keeps shrieking back to the comics like a phoenix of fury, and vengeance.
Not for a character who is deeply, irrevocably, bonded to my soul.
So why is Ghost Rider such a fucking badass? Read on.
1. Ghost Rider Kicks Ass
Let’s start with the basics.
Ghost Rider once single-handedly beat the Hulk.
And the Avengers.
And the Guardians of the Galaxy.
And an X-Men/Avengers/mystical heroes team-up.
HOW ABOUT ONE-HIT K.O-ING MOTHERFUCKING GALACTUS?
Seriously, Ghost Rider kicked the shit out of him so hard that the Fantastic Four had to put Galactus, The Devourer of Worlds –THE SINGLE MOST POWERFUL BEING IN THE MARVEL UNIVERSE- on life support.
Think about that.
He also ruled Hell for awhile, until he got bored of it.
…and there was that time saved Heaven from renegade archangels, but he had a little help.
2. So who is this hardcore son of a bitch?
That’s a tougher question than you’d think. Ghost Rider’s got
an over-complicated a rich history, and he doesn’t make a lot of sense with the typical superhero costume/secret identity set up. Because Ghost Rider isn’t a superhero.
He’s the Spirit of Vengeance.
What that means has changed a lot over the years. Sometimes, he’s a demon forged in the fires of hell, to wreak destruction upon the world. Other times, he’s the tormented soul of an ex-slave who’s clawed beyond the grave for revenge. Still other times, he’s a flaming chainsaw-wielding robot from the future.
In the best of times, he’s a fallen angel, cloaked in flame, and obsessed with avenging the innocent. This is divine wrath incarnate, able to detect, at a glance, good from evil. He’s not a persona like Batman, but an entity entire. He overtakes the wicked on a roaring hellfire motorcycle, binds them with the cold chains of hell, and subjects them to the mental agony of all the pain they’ve ever caused in their lives.
Just ask Galactus how that feels.
Why the motorcycle? All tied to the human host.
Just like the Spirit of Vengeance itself, the human hosts have just as
stupidly overcomplicated rich a history. One of the hosts was a delivery boy whose sister was gunned down before his eyes. Another was a girl who’d lived the first 18 years of her life in monastic isolation. Another still was a high schooler in East L.A.
But Johnny Blaze, circus stunt biker, is the most iconic for all the right reasons. His story could be boiled down to “sold his soul to the Devil to save someone he loved,” but the full breadth of his story is one of Shakespearean intricacy, summed up by abandonment issues and family woes, and all the conflicting emotions those bring.
And after losing everything, the Devil shackled the Spirit of Vengeance to Johnny’s soul and cast him out upon America in an endless quest for absolution. The journey rendered Johnny’s passion for the road into his darkest nightmare.
This ain’t your standard superhero story. No Spider-Man great power and great responsibility; no Iron Man imperialistic rude awakening; no X-Men perseverance and tolerance story… Just the tale of a man trying to collect the pieces of his soul before the forces driving him leave them in the dust.
3. Which of his stories rock hardest?
SO MANY. My faves, though, in no particular order…
GHOST RIDER #68 (1981), By Roger Sterns and Bob Budiansky
A super atmospheric retelling of the Johnny Blaze/Zarathos Ghost Rider’s origin story, fraught with all the Shakespearean intricacy I mentioned earlier. And the horror. Did I mention the horror?
Johnny Blaze seeks shelter from a thunderstorm in a church where, in a confessional, he reveals his long, terrifying history to a Priest, who’s panicking more and more by the second.
Issue 68 of the 70s-80s Ghost Rider signaled the series’s high watermark, cresting finally with its final issue, #81. Thankfully, all of these excellent issues are collected in Essential Ghost Rider #4.
AVENGERS #214, By Jim Shooter & Bob Hall (1981)
You got the gist of this earlier, but let me break it down for you. The Zarathos Ghost Rider (the megalomaniacal evil one) decides he’s not a fan of “happy” super heroes, and proceeds to burn the souls of Angel, Captain America, and Tigra. He does the same to Iron Man by burning him through his eye-slits, and concludes this by (nearly) BEATING THOR WITH HIS OWN HAMMER.
Take that, uninteresting Asgardian!
ALL-NEW GHOST RIDER (2014), By Felipe Smith & Tradd Moore
The most unique take on Ghost Rider yet: Robbie Reyes, a high schooler and mechanic in East L.A., is killed by a cartel and resurrects as Ghost Rider, whose vehicle of choice is a 1969 Dodge Charger. A car.
My first reaction was “A CAR?! Where the hell does this comic get off?” Upon reading it, my next reaction was “Where the hell did this comic get this goddamn good?”
5 issues in, Smith & Moore aren’t screwing around, portraying Robbie Reyes as a talented student with the capacity to improve his bad neighborhood. Murdered, his resurrection sucks him into the cycle of gang violence, spurred on by Eli Morrow, the mysterious spirit who inhabits his car and fuels his Ghost Rider abilities. It’s the small details that make this comic, the greatest being Robbie’s steady change in appearance from collected high schooler to tattooed punk as Eli’s influence on him grows, not to mention the graffiti-inspired art breathing even more life into Smith’s diverse cast.
With each issue addressing the systemic societal issues in East L.A., this is a fresh, crafty, ass-kicking take on Ghost Rider.
UNCANNY AVENGERS ANNUAL #1, By Rick Remender & Paul Renaud
Funny thing about Ghost Rider: Ghost Rider tends to be at his best when he’s kicking somebody’s ass. In this case, an Avengers/X-Men/Mystical heroes team up, and a race of spineless hedonists.
Probably THE best-written single issue on this list, Remender uses the X-Men villain Mojo as a proxy for coping with corporatized storytelling, for fickle fans, and for indulgent writing in a magnificent display of scathing satire and meta-narrative. This is among the greatest examples of American comics thus far this decade.
GHOST RIDER 1-78 By Howard Mackie, Ivan Velez Jr., Javier Saltares, Mark Texeira, and co. (1990-1996)
This is the run the epic run that got me into Ghost Rider, and outside of the Ghost Rider: Resurrected graphic novel containing issues 1-7, it’s never been re-released in a collection.
Describing this run would quickly devolve into a list of favorite issues, all revolving around the best combination of horror/action and worldbuilding in the character’s history. Understand that in its day, this wasn’t a comic, it was a REVOLUTION.
Mackie’s take on Ghost Rider was so powerful and so popular that it single-handedly kickstarted Marvel’s 90s wave of horror comics; garnered its own toy line; got two cameos in concurrent Spider-Man video games; made significant appearances in the Hulk’s and the Fantastic Four’s animated series; was planned to appear in Spider-Man’s popular show; and set the visual standard for nearly all future iterations of the character.
…it also paved the way for the movies that I’d have to address sooner or later.
4. The Second One Was OK.
You Heard Me Right. Ghost Rider: Spirits of Vengeance (2011) is a better movie than anyone gave it credit for. It’s not a transcendent movie, nor even a great movie, but an OK movie.
Yeah, it’s got problems. It starred Nicholas Cage, who by that point was more meme than man; his performance was too ‘unchained’ for its own good in places; there are some odd music video-looking moments; Christopher Lambert’s character makes no sense; the whole thing’s blanketed with a campiness not seen since Tim Burton’s Batman (1989); and everyone knew, going in, that the movie was made purely for Sony to hold onto the rights just a little longer.
Even still, this was a raw, mean little movie that was, in every way, a triumph over its predecessor. It centered on a washed up Johnny Blaze having to guard a 12 year old antichrist and his mother from his demon father who’s bent on ruling the world. It’s a tale of broken families; being haunted by bad decisions; surrogate parentage; and ultimately making the best of bad things. Strong thematic undercurrents driven by realized characters in a decent structure and with some pretty hardcore action. It’s not elegant, it’s not pretty, it’s not as smart as the Avengers (2012), but that’s not what it is. It’s lowdown, dirty, rough-around the edges, and goddamn proud to be what it is.
And it had Idris Elba, for God’s sake.
Unfortunately, the first movie did NOT have Ibris Elba.
5. That Goddamn Movie
Ghost Rider (2007) is an awful mess of a movie, but its heart was in the right place. I think. I’m not sure. Film Crit Hulk tweeted “ZACK SNYDER STRIKES HULK AS SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T FULLY UNDERSTAND THEIR ATTRACTIONS,” and honestly, I think the same can be said about Mark Stephen Johnson.
Ghost Rider (2007) is a fan movie. It crams as much of the character’s history and iconography as possible into two hours without regard for character, coherency, structure, pacing, or really anything else beyond cinematography. Not, “here’s a good story,” but “here’s a bunch of stuff I really like!” It displays, in every way, as shallow an understanding of its characters as Man of Steel (2013) did.
Honestly, the only beat in the movie that really works is Sam Elliot’s character revealing that he’s an ancient Ghost Rider before riding off with Cage’s Ghost Rider into the desert.
It’s a powerful beat and makes you think the movie is suddenly going to have a kickass ending, but the moment flickers out like flashpaper when Elliot’s character just gives up for no reason after this and the movie descends into one of the genre’s silliest fight scenes. Seriously. Ghost Rider and the plastic bag guy from American Beauty have a hellfire snowball fight.
…and yet, Mark Stephen Johnson’s fan film is the reason I moved out to California.
5. A Rebirth in Flames
Ghost Rider debuted on February 16th, 2007, and I’d barely recognize the teenager I’d been. At the time, I was a strict Catholic with rigid dogmatic beliefs, and I thought quaint little mid-Michigan was all I’d ever need. I was enrolled in the local community college’s creative writing program, with middling hopes of majoring in English and Creative Writing, and honestly, I had no further plans or aspirations than that. I could only see as far as tomorrow, and tomorrow didn’t look too bad, never mind that I was poignantly aware of my lonerhood.
I was a Ghost Rider fanboy, if there ever was one. I’d started my Ghost Rider comic collection in my freshman year of high school, and by my freshman year of college, it was nearly complete. I lived and breathed the character, and seemingly, everything about him fit my insular little morality and worldview.
I woke up on February 16th, 2007 stoked out of my mind. Ghost Rider was premiering! By the same director who’d done such an awesome job on Daredevil (long before I knew anything about film criticism)! This was a director who knew what he was doing with an amazing actor (I told myself) who had a passion for the character. I gunned down to the local mall, picked up the orchestral soundtrack, and roared into the parking lot of the theater with the earliest matinee, and for the first 10 minutes, it wasn’t too bad…
…and then the whole weight of the world came crashing down on me. I didn’t want to believe it. I willed myself not to believe it. I felt like the Star Wars nerds who’d camped out for The Phantom Menace, who’d watched, in mounting horror, as all they knew proved a lie, and how, in a futile attempt to preserve their fandom, denied themselves how they really felt.
I brooded on it the rest of the day, all the way through my late shift at work. Even stillt, I changed into all-blacks with my favorite Ghost Rider T-shirt, before heading out to see the movie again with my friends.
“Maybe I’ll like it this time,” I told myself as the lights dimmed. “Maybe I missed something. Maybe it was just too smart for me.” But the movie was just as banal, silly, and broken as before. I can’t tell you if it was when Nicholas Cage was drinking jelly beans from a martini glass; if it was when Ghost Rider whistled (HE HAS NO LIPS!!!) for his motorcycle; or even if it was during the cringe-inducing climax, but six fateful words spilled from my lips.
“I can do better than this.”
Arrogant, huh? I knew nothing about screenwriting, so I found a website to teach me formatting. I didn’t know a damn thing about structure, tone, or themes, but goddammit, I knew Ghost Rider, I knew character, I knew pacing, and I knew fight scenes. I wrote, what was quite possibly the worst feature script ever wrought, but I was riding high on my laurels. I sent this monstrosity, complete with three monologues too many, and MASSIVE blocks of text to Nicholas Cage, along with a manifesto of how Ghost Rider should be done. The script was sent back to me, unread, containing a letter politely suggesting going through a literary agency. From there, my track was clear: I had to become a screenwriter.
That obsession drove me to the University of Michigan, to California, and ultimately to jobs in and around the industry. What’ve I got to show for it? Half a dozen scripts and shorts, a few pilots, and a novel, all in various states of rewriting. Hell, I didn’t say the road was going to be easy, but I’ve definitely grown from it.
And really, that road, literal and figurative, sums up my relationship with Ghost Rider, from my earliest interest to my current fandom. My Catholic zeal turned to religious shame as my horizons broadened and I abandoned the Church’s regressive dogma. I keep my faith, but I often look back, seeing only a monster -even if that monster had the best of intentions. In a literal sense, I’ve traded the free, open roads of Michigan that never fail to make me feel alive for the gridlock of L.A., making every drive, no matter the destination, an exercise in monotony. And yet, this only strengthens my resolve. The harder I work, the more I listen to criticism, the more I honestly appraise myself, the closer my dream appears, even if I’ve still got a long, rocky way to go. Or even if it’s the sweetest mirage.
But then, that’s Ghost Rider in a nutshell, isn’t it?