Rebellious Teens (Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015)

Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-PosterAs with every sequel, things must get bigger and louder.  Unlike the first film, the danger really comes from within.  Tony is obsessed with changing the way things are done by building a peace keeping for that will put an end to the need for the Avengers.  He has been working on an A.I. to watch over the world and prevent tragedy.  Even as the Avengers are in action, he has Iron Man like robots trying to do crowd control.  But the people are not as confident.

When Tony gets access to some Asgardian technology, he recklessly uses it to try and jump a hurdle with his A.I.’s processing power.  Of course it goes wrong, resulting in a mad child called Ultron.  Ultron constantly works to better himself.  And one goal is to put an end to the Avengers.  Not quite in the way Tony anticipated…he was thinking retirement.  Ultron is thinking annihilation.  To better reach those ends, he brings brother and sister Pietro and Wanda Maximoff.  The orphans consented to Hydra experiments that have given them super-powers.  Pietro is the super-fast Quicksilver and Wanda has reality warping powers.

In a confrontation with Ultron, the Scarlet Witch manipulates several Avengers, including the Hulk who goes on a rampage.  Eventually the reveal of Ultron’s plans (including wiping out the human race) horrifies his cohorts.  His continuing evolution actually leads to the introduction of a new character for the MCU.  The Vision is introduced when the Mind Stone and lightening (along with the Jarvis AI) are combined to create the Vision.

Age of Ultron tries to be the Empire Strikes back, and is certainly loaded with darker themes than the previous films.  The performances are strong, and when the Scarlet Witch exposes Iron, Cap, Black Widow, Thor and the Hulk to their greatest fears of their past or potential futures, it threatens to break their bond apart.

The action is top notch.  There are several excellent and memorable fight sequences.  The jokes mostly land (but who thought it was a good idea for Tony to suggest if he can lift Thor’s hammer that he would reinstate the practice of kings sleeping with new brides on their wedding night).  There are a couple running jokes that can be particularly entertain.  The running gag about lifting Thor’s Hammer (which has a very good payoff) is especially fun.

The movie gives more attention to Hawkeye.  There was talk that Renner was very frustrated with the path the character took in the first Avengers.  This may be Whedon’s way of saying “sorry” to Renner.  It also establishes firmly the friendship with Natasha.

The effects are very good.  Vision looks very close to his comic book counterpart, without looking to fake.  Yet he is slightly unnatural.  Which is kind of the point.  Bettany gives life to the role.  It only took his seven years to be more than a voice-over (now he is a motion capture voice-over).

The film faced some criticism over Natasha calling herself a monster to Bruce Banner.  Some viewers felt the takeaway was that Natasha saw herself as a monster due to being sterilized.  I don’t know that I accept it was that clear cut.  Because the film is quite direct that it is the idea that she was a cold and efficient killer, and the folks who sterilized her believed this would make her that cold and efficient killer.  But I will agree it was somewhat clumsy in the writing, and Whedon deserves the credit for that.

In the end, I enjoyed this second outing with the Avengers.  It has some weak points, but nothing that ruined the overall enjoyment.

I Will Avenge Thee (the Avengers, 2012)

Avengers-Movie_PosterThe Avengers was the culmination of four years of effort on the part of Marvel Studios.  They worked to establish their interconnected Universe building up to this.  People were excited and the Marvel Machine had primarily seen success with their films leading up to this.  The first hiccup was losing Edward Norton.  Ed and Marvel could not come to an agreement for the Avengers.  So Marvel brought in the likable Mark Ruffalo.  The other big announcement was that Joss Whedon would direct.  He did not have that many movies under his belt, but he did have a few beloved television series, so as an overseer for the Cinematic Universe, he seemed well suited.

Loki is the central villain of the film, working with an alien race called the Chitari.  The film moves quickly to introduce the core members to each other, with a brief but exciting “Heroes meet, misunderstand the situation and fight” sequence.  This is an old comic book trope, and Whedon makes it work, and does not drag it out.

Once the heroes are brought together, they capture Loki who has a devious plan.  His escape leaves the team in shambles and a supporting character dead (but don’t worry, he got better for the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series).  This, of course, encourages the heroes to band together and defeat Loki and stop the alien invasion.

Whedon proves himself to be quite skilled with both small moments and spectacle.  The final battle is exciting and full of grand heroics as Captain America takes charge.  We see him as a wise strategist.  When a police officer questions why they should listen to his instruction, he takes out an alien assault, no questions as the officer starts telling his men to implement Cap’s plan.

The introduction of Black Widow is pretty classic.  It is one of those “damsel in Distress” sequences where you realize the bad guys never had a chance.  The cast has an amazing amount of chemistry.  Even their bickering is engaging.  The film has the rapid quippy dialog Whedon is known for in shows like Buffy and Firefly.  Ruffalo fits in to the crew seamlessly.  As much as I like Norton and his Bruce Banner, Ruffalo manages to make the character all his own.  It is all quite engaging.

I feel the biggest lapse in judgement is having Hawkeye spend the first half of the film as a possessed lackey of Loki.  It just feels like the character deserves better than that.

While there is weight of imminent destruction, the film never gets too dark.  You have lighter moments to even it all out.  The Avengers was overall a great success that is a lot of fun to watch.

In From the Cold (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2014)

TCaptain_America_Winter_Soldier_Posterhe success of both the first film and the Avengers, Captain America was bound to return.  While the First Avenger had a straight forward black and white approach (not to hard when your villains are Nazis) the Winter Soldier is about how far the world has fallen.  Steve’s values are clashing with even the good guys.  He is starting to doubt his missions and his teammates.

The one bright spot is his meeting Sam Wilson, who works with vets in dealing with their experiences and return to civilian life.  Steve is also trying to keep the trust with Natasha (Black Widow).  Meanwhile, Nick Fury seems to be hiding secrets from Cap and the government to boot.

When Alexander Peirce calls for Captain America to be arrested for Treason, the movie shifts into hero on the run trying expose a conspiracy.

This film shakes up the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe* with it’s deep dark conspiracy based plot line.  The primary heme is “Who can you trust?”  And overall it it is handled pretty well.  There are some spectacular action sequences, especially the close quarters of an elevator.  The film has a lot of humor, considering the plot.

The cast is full of charm.  Anthony Mackie’s Falcon is a blast (and off-screen comments indicate Mackie has had a blast playing the character).  Of course, Chris Evans makes a noble and heroic man out of time.  As Black Widow, Johansson is getting a change to build on the role from the Avengers.  Robert Redford brings a  certain gravitas of an elder statesman.

This is a strong and exciting entry in the franchise, and is a nice companion to the First Avenger.

*well, it did for ten minutes.  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pretty much put S.H.I.E.L.D. back in play.

Marvel Begins (Captain America: The First Avenger, 2011)

Captain-America-First-Avenger-PosterCaptain America was a hotly debated character for the Marvel Films.  Could a character so tied to American Nationalism be a hero the world loved?  Joe Johnston (who directed Disney’s fun comic book movie the Rocketeer 20 years earlier) was brought in and found a way to make that answer be yes.  Among the choices made were to set the film in World War 2, rather than begin in Present day.  Chris Evans was hired on to play Steve Rogers.  This was not his first foray into a Marvel Property, He was Johnny Storm (the Human Torch) in the 2005 and 2007 Fantastic Four Films.  He was also one of the Evil Exes in Edgar Wright’s adaption of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim graphic novels.

The film quickly establishes Steve Rogers as heroic, in spite of his physical weakness.  He will take a beating.  Standing up for him is his buddy ‘Bucky’ Barnes.  This is one of the film’s biggest deviations.  In the comics, Bucky was a teen sidekick to Captain America.  The filmmakers (rightly) realized that may not play so well.  And there is a twist to having Bucky go from Steve’s savior to needing saving by Steve.  Steve’s multiple rejections by the military catch the attention of a part of our military that is looking for someone to be a part of an experiment.  While many try, scrawny Steve Rogers keeps managing to stand out, not by his physical prowess, but by ingenuity.  This catches the eye of British officer Peggy Carter.

One of the things the movie does so well is that they avoid tropes.  Peggy and Steve are smitten before his transformation.  She is impressed by who he is, not what he is.  It would have been easy to make her yet another obstacle for her to notice only after he is physically altered.  And yet, due to a terror incident that destroys the remaining Super Soldier serum, Steve is still unable to see combat.  Instead, he is reduced to a promoter of War Bonds and propaganda.

Evans really sells Roger’s frustration and even feelings of humiliation.  But while on a USO tour, he ends up making a big save, convincing the military they need him.  This leads to crossing paths with the Red Skull, who is determined to rule the world through Hydra.  Hydra begins as an arm of the Nazis, but has it’s own goals.

The film ultimately hangs on Evans to sell the character of Captain America, and boy does he sell it.  He comes off as kind, dedicated to justice and most of all, simply heroic.  He is supported but a great cast of actors.  Tommy Lee Jones is perfectly cast as Colonel Phillips.  Hugo Weaving got one of the better villain roles, since he gets to simply be Nazi Evil Incarnate.  The movie makes the choice to introduce the Howling Commandos (Sans Nick Fury) as the team that works with Cap.  They are an entertaining bunch.

But the standout is Haley Atwell.  She is more than Cap’s love interest.  She is a tough and clever military officer.  But at the same time?  She and Evans have a real solid chemistry, and when the film reaches it’s inevitable conclusion, their exchange (certain Steve is heading to his death) is heartbreaking.

Johnston gives us a terrific film that stands on it’s own, even if part of it’s purpose is to set up the first Avengers film.

Elves! But DARK Elves (Thor: The Dark World, 2013)

thor_the_dark_world_posterThor’s post Avengers story stays outside of the world of S.H.I.E.L.D., Iron Man and Captain America.  It focuses squarely on Thor, Jane Foster and Asgard.

The story opens with Odin telling the tale of how the universe had once been in darkness, and after a time, the dark elves sought to plunge the universe back into the darkness.  They were stopped by Odin’s father who had their weapon (the Aether) hidden deep below the ground of…somewhere.  Jane Foster is doing the whole “Chasing Anomalies” thing and stumbles on the Aether which she absorbs.  Thor shows up because suddenly the Bifrost Bridge has been restored.  He brings her to Asgard, the Dark Elves show up, things go very badly and Thor is forbidden from heading out of Asgard.  So Thor frees the imprisoned Loki for help in slipping out “unnoticed”.  This is one of the film’s big set pieces.  Eventually Thor tries to destroy the Aether and is unsuccessful, and the dark elf Malekith gets hold of it.

There is a battle on earth which nearly succeeds in destroying everything.  But Thor saves the day (with help from none of the Avengers) and the universe does not blink out of existence.

Thor: the Dark World is not terrible.  It has some real fun moments, mostly provided by Loki.  And the action scenes are very well done.  Taylor is a pretty accomplished television director, including Game of Thrones.  He is able to frame exciting battle sequences.  Hemsworth is likeable as Thor, Hiddleston’s Loki is entertaining as usual.

The film attempts to really show Jane Foster is a scientist.  There is a cute moment where Jane asks if a magical piece of Asgardian equipment is a quantum field generator.  The person working it states it is a “Soul Forge”.  Jane asks if the Soul Forge transfers molecular energy from one place to another.  The person responds, “yes”…and Jane  quietly tells Thor proudly that it is a Quantum Field Generator.

Loki gets most of the best character moments, both in humor and drama.  But the story has holes.  Why do the Elves want to erase the universe?  Why not bring in the Hulk to fight the nearly indestructible Berserkers?  If it is not Odin on the Throne towards the end…just where is Odin. It is pretty average, especially in comparison to Captain America: the Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy.  It also does nothing to advance the characters beyond where they already were.  It is primarily to introduce the Aether, which will be part of the third Avengers film.

Hammer Time (Thor, 2011)

thor-posterAs Marvel worked their way to the Avengers, they had a bit of an issue.  Thor is supposedly a god, as are all his friends and family.  How does this fit into the Marvel world?  Their resolution was that they are mistaken for gods, but really their magic is just science we do not understand yet.

Thor is introduced as a brash young man, a drunkard who cares more for fun than responsibility. This frustrates his father Odin to no end.  On the other hand, his brother Loki is a schemer who wants to rule.  All of this leads to Thor being cast from Asgaad and his powerful hammer being taken from him.  Thor discovers he cannot wield the hammer until he proves himself worthy.  After being found by scientist Jane Foster and her team Darcy and Erik Selvig, they find themselves being watched by S.H.I.E.L.D., specifically, Agent Colson.  They have found the hammer, which nobody can move.

The film is a fish out of water story.  And Hemsworth, who was not a name brand actor at the time, had a certain charm he brought to the role.  Of course, eventually Thor must get his hammer and put an end to Loki’s plan.

The human characters suffer in this film.  Clark Gregg knows his role backwards and forwards.  And Kat Dennings has a lot of fun as Darcy.  Stellan Skarsgård is entertaining as father/scientist figure.  kay, it seems like it is mostly Jane Foster.  The film tried to set her up as the smart scientist, but she really spends hr time mooning over Thor.

The Asgardians are a fun lot of both character actors and name talent.  Anthony Hopkins brings a regal presence to Odin, while Renee Russo brings wisdom and motherly compassion to both her sons.  The Warriors Three and Sif are strong warriors, but also know celebration.  Tom Hiddleston plays a Loki who is both very likeable and duplicitous.

The film makes some choices that seem rather counter intuitive.  Supposedly the destruction of the Bi-Frost severs the connection from Asgard to earth, but that does not last long.  Nor is it really ever explained.  In addition, a big plot whole is…if Thor has never been to Earth before this…how are there legends of his exploits??  Unlike Captain America: the First Avenger, Thor feels more like it is busy setting things up for the Avengers than being it’s own story.  It is an enjoyable film overall, but it feels like it could have been stronger, especially considering the talent at the directorial helm of Kenneth Branagh.

Going To War (Punisher: War Zone, 2008)

Punisher_War_Zone_PosterThird times the charm!  While I enjoyed the second shot at the Punisher starring Thomas Jane, it appears a lot of people did not agree.  The Punisher is one of those tough characters.  He is brutally violent and (in large part) that is where his entertainment comes from…how far will he go to take out the underworld?  So, for the next attempt at the Punisher, much like the Hulk, they tossed aside the prior film.  They dumped Director Jonathan Hensleigh and lead Thomas Jane.  They replaced them with Director Lexi Alexander (Green Street Hooligans) and the new Punisher Ray Stevenson (Rome).

Like the Jane version, they draw from a variety of eras of the Punisher.  While the plot feels very Garth Ennis, the choice of villain is a character he never used.  That being the Len Wein/Ross Andru creation Jigsaw (Dominic West, 300 and the Wire).  But they do borrower characters he brought to the series, like the Punisher Task Force-Detective Martin Soap (Dash Mihok, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and the Day After Tomorrow) and Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon, Resident Evil & Strikeback).

The film opens with Punisher playing with some adorable kittens…just kidding.






Just kidding..we meet mobster types meeting at a nice looking mansion.  Billy (West) steps out of a limo and check himself in the mirror…he is a pretty boy who wants to climb higher in the mob, but he is given no respect by the local “Godfather”.  As everyone sits down for dinner, the lights go out.  Suddenly a flare is lit and the Punisher runs across the table and chops off the “godfather’s” head.  And then the carnage starts… the Punisher takes out the entire house of mobsters, while Detective Soap and his partner are stumbling into the yard…his partner comes across the Punisher…Castle puts his hands over his head and turns around.  The officer gives Frank the keys his car.

A chase after Billy results in his apparent death.  Martin Soap.  Soap is the master of exposition and gets us from Frank’s “origin” to the current scene in about three minutes…giving the viewer everything they need to know.

I won’t lie…this is about as good of a Punisher movie as you will get.  It is true to character, completely violent with absurd and over the top villains.  Jigsaw gives a huge speech to recruit the gang members in front of screen with a giant American flag projected on it.  Hutchison is terrific in the role of Looney Bin Jim…he is uncomfortably menacing…not quite Heath Ledger’s Joker-but still scary all the same.  It is a shame Hutchison will be remembered more as the “Old Guy who Married a Teenage Girl”.  And you cannot get more over the top in a movie like this than cannibalism.  Well, the Punisher does kill 81 people.

Dominic West is no slouch either.  He plays Jigsaw and a man gone over the edge, flamboyant in his new-found skin.  West brings an appropriate amount of the absurd to the film.  Wayne Knight, on the other hand, draws it back.  Instead of going for broad humor, he plays Micro as a dedicated soldier trying to provide backup.  One of the things that is interesting here is that the filmmakers are clearly using Garth Ennis as a template.  Yet Jigsaw is not a villain Ennis ever used.Nor did Micro appear in his work (havibg been dead since the 1990’s.  I am always sympathetic to Julie Benz, though her accent seems to slip at times.  And hey, what’s not to like about Colin Salmon?  Dash Mihok makes a terrific Martin Soap…ineffectual and bumbling, but ultimately in Frank’s corner.

And Stevenson?  Wow.  He looks like Frank walked out of the comics.  He is really imposing, and able to make Frank work in the quieter moments.

The movie works really quite well.  Smartly, they put Frank in the role of protecting a family, and it is the interactions with Grace that humanize him.  As villains go, they played it smart.  In some comics, relate-able villains, or at least villains who see themselves as the heroes are great.  But for the Punisher?  You need remarkably un-sympathetic villains.  At no point can you look at Jigsaw and his men as misunderstood.  They are just terrible people and you want Frank to do his job and end them.

There are nice little touches, such as the The Bradstreet Hotel-named for long time Punisher cover artist Tim Bradstreet.  The visuals are really nice, with great use of the landscape, and the colors are very vibrant.

The film ends with Frank standing at the top of a set of stairs, behind him a neon cross that says Jesus Saves…the J,E,U & S all flicker out to just leave the word Saves and the screen goes black except for the neon “Saves”.  I am not really sure what the director is trying to do with the image.  But it looks kind of nifty.

Lexi Alexander did a great job with this interpretation of the character, making a film that effectively captures it’s source material.

Marvel set Punisher aside for film.  There was talk a few years back, which I felt seemed like a terrible idea.  The only way I saw it working was if you put it on HBO, Starz or Showtime.  On the networks there is no way it would be unrecognizable.  Of course this was before Netflix and the Daredevil series.

Doling Out the Punishment (The Punisher, 2004)

Punisher_2004_PosterThere is a lot to like…and yeeet…

Created in the early 1970’s by Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru, he debuted in Amazing Spider-man # 129,  the first attempt at the Punisher was in the 80’s.  It starred Dolph Lundgren.  At the time the casting seemed like an obvious choice.  But then the movie came out.  It was really more like they had a Dolph Lundgren action movie and decided they should market it as the Punisher because…hey, why not?  He did not even have the skull as part of his outfit.

The Punisher was enjoying a resurgence thanks to the immensely popular series being handled by Garth Ennis.  Ennis brought a wicked sense of humor to the character combined with an over the top approach to the violence (certainly not a new formula for Ennis, but rather his stock and trade).

Certainly, the Punisher seems like an obvious character to adapt.  He is not special effects intensive and his costume is not that complex.  To accommodate the age of the actor (Thomas Jane) they opted to make him an Iraq War vet who is now in the FBI.  After a drug bust results in the death of drug lord Howard Saint’s (John Travolta) youngest son, Frank Castle finds his entire family dead.  In the comics, it is his wife and kids…in the film?  It’s at a family reunion.  So, like, the entire extended family is slaughtered.  Talk about raising the stakes.

Frank survives the attack, because boy would this be a short movie if he died… and goes out for revenge.  Frank hides out in a shabby apartment complex that also is inhabited by Joan the Mouse (Rebecca Romijn), Spacker Dave (Ben Foster) and Bumpo (John Pinette).  Joan is a nervous woman, hassled by an abusive boyfriend, while Bumpo is an overweight guy with a grand love of cooking.  Spacker Dave is just kind of a strange dude.  They are curious about their new occupant, who never seems to interact with them.

Frank has converted his apartment to an armory.  He kidnaps low-level employee of Howard Saint Mickey (Eddie Jemison).   In an odd torture sequence (done more to show how clever the Punisher is-as he never actually hurts Mickey) he coerces Mickey to be his eyes and ears and his informant.

Castle works his way through Saint’s men working up to Saint himself.  In the end, the Punisher leaves Joan, Spacker Dave and Bumpo behind (but leaves them a little gift) and gets ready for the Punisher 2.

I said there is a lot to like.  For one thing, the film has a terrific cast.  Jane is a credible Frank Castle and is able to make the character dark and brooding-while finding the humor.  Frank doesn’t crack jokes, but his actions can border on the comical.  During his torture of Mickey, he explains how a blowtorch flame is so hot, it feels cold as it cooks the skin… he then presses a popsicle to the sufficiently freaked out Mickey’s back.  When the session is done, he shoves the popsicle in Mickey’s mouth (causing Mickey to realize he was played).  The fight with the Russian follows the comic closely, with Frank taking a beating while his neighbor obliviously prepare a meal.

The film touches on the quirkiness in the Ennis Punisher run.  The inclusion of Joan, Spacker Dave and Bumpo was good, as it gives the Punisher some human interaction that is not fighting or killing.  The Punisher is a smart and clever man in the film, which is an important aspect of the character.

Romaijn is kind of odd choice for Joan.  In the comic, Joan is pretty plain… Romaijn is/was a Super model.  They end up making her Hollywood Plain.  She does a good enough job…but still…

The flaw of the film is Howard Saint.  Not because Travolta is bad in the role.  He chews the scenery in an entertaining way.  But he really is “generic mob villain.”  Welcome Back Frank (the clear inspiration for much of the film) featured a memorable mobster in Ma Gnucci and her sons… Ma survives an attack from the Punisher and is just as dangerous with no arms or legs.

To include over the top stuff like the Russian (Kevin Nash) and Harry Heck (country singer Mark Collie-the character is the answer to “What if Johnny Cash was a mob assassin?”) but then not go as over the top with the main villain?  It just keeps the film from being as good as it could have been.  The issue with the Russian is that he is silent.  In the comics he is ridiculously talkative.  Plus, they never use Detective Soap from the comics, who played for strong comic relief throughout Ennis’ run.

And in the comics, the Punisher punches a bear.  Why wasn’t that in this film?!

Summon the Spirit (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, 2011)

ghost-rider-sov-posterIt was a little surprising that Ghost Rider got a sequel.  Or is it a reboot.  The film is never really clear.  It simply ignores the previous film, yet stars Nicolas Cage again.  This time it is directed by the guys behind Crank.  The trailer showed Ghost Rider pissing fire.  Which just seems so crazy that it sets high expectations for hilariously absurd action.

Considering the movie has gun toting monks protecting the son of Satan from Satan, it seem like the film will be all kinds of crazy.

And yet…for being a movie from the the guys who made Crank and Crank 2?  It is remarkably tame.  Oh, there are things about the film that work.   There are jokes that land, action scenes that are exciting to watch.

The story is not very complex, a young mother is trying to keep her son out of the hands of his father…the devil.  The kid could be the Anti-Christ, so along with the help of some monks, she is keeping him hidden.  But the devil’s henchmen are closing in, until Johnny Blaze shows up.  He gets into all sorts of battles with the henchman and starts to bond with the kid.  Idris Elba shows up to be bad-ass with the promise of curing Blaze of his curse.  Guess what happens when he is cured?

If you suggested he realized it was a mistake and gets his power back…you would be right.

The effects are good and there is even some creative uses of the Ghost Rider’s abilities.  The Ghost Rider actually looks really cool in the film.  As I said, there are jokes that land, for example, the devil resurrects a henchman, but gives him the power to cause things he touches to decay.  Which becomes a problem when he tries to eat food…until he finds a Twinkie.

And yet, the film gets too slow at times, and the characters are very stock types.  The story is not compelling enough to give you concern for where it is going.  There are no real points where the film gives us a surprise, it is in fact quite a by the books tale with no twists or turns.

It Burns! (Ghost Rider, 2007)

Ghost-Rider-PosterNick Cage huh?  Well, that seems like a marginally less odd choice than playing Superman.  Tim Burton tried to make that happen.  Do you also remember a time when Cage was a highly praised actor from quirky Cohen Brothers films?  If not, you probably were born after Michael Bay’s seminal the Rock.  That is the film that altered the trajectory of Nick’s career that careened out of control resulting in…

Ghost Rider.  Ghost Rider is both a supremely odd and obvious choice and for a film.  As any thirteen year old boy can tell you…drawing a biker with a flaming skull for a head is really cool.  On the other hand…live action could render such an image rather…goofy.  The end result though is that, for Nick Cage’s career?  This was a major step up from the Wicker Man remake.

Written and directed by the man who brought us Daredevil four years earlier, the film opens with young Johnny Blaze (who looks nothing like Nick Cage), a circus stunt performer.  He discovers his father has cancer.  To save his father, he makes a deal with Wyatt from Easy Rider (Peter Fonda) who is actually the devil.  His father is miraculously cured of cancer-only to die the next day in a fiery motorcycle crash.  That wily devil.  At this point, the nature of Blaze’s end of the deal is not quite known.  He meets with his one true love Roxanne Simpson (the younger version played by Raquel Alessi, who actually looks like she could grow up to be Eva Mendez) and tells her he must leave.

Blaze becomes a famous traveling stunt cyclist, Evil Keneivel style.  Which as apt, because I am pretty sure, motorcycle stunt daredevils have not been in fashion since the 1970s…when, you know…Ghost Rider was created.  Anyways, he rides in a big tour bus with his crew which includes Marvel Movie Veteran Donal Logue (Blade).   I like Donal…this is a good sign.

Johnny is tormented by an alter ego nobody else is aware of, so they think he is just kind of going crazy.  But when he feels the presence of Evil, he bursts into flames and gets a bad-ass motorcycle.  His superpowers include tentacle like chains, a fiery skull head and the Penance Stare.  Basically, he looks deep in your soul and if your soul is bad?  You are tormented with the emotions of your victims or something.  And your eyes turn to stone.  Or something.

Meanwhile, Blackheart-the Son of Satan, y’all- comes to our plane of reality with a few elemental themed demons (as in earth, water and air).    They start killing bikers, cuz that is what demons do.  But Blackheart has a plan, he wants to upset the throne of hell and rule the world.  The devil is not keen on this, so he calls on the Ghost Rider-who it turns out is actually the Devil’s Bounty Hunter… DUM DUM DUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUM!!!!!

Roxanne shows up in a tight dress to wow Johnny as she is now a reporter.  They share the typical “I have not seen you for years!” stare.  Johnny, tortured as he is, causes all the warm and fuzzy feelings to return to Roxanne.

Johnny gets into a fight with Blackheart’s demon thugs, and then causes all sorts of havok downtown, riding his motorcycle up the side of buildings and such.  This is, admittedly a pretty awesome sequence.  Roxanne, intrepid reporter realizes the Ghost Rider is Johnny Blaze.  Meanwhile, Blaze seeks out sacred soil-a cemetery.  There he meets another Marvel Movie Veteran-Sam Elliot (last seen in Ang Lee’s the Hulk).  He is the mysterious caretaker who seems to know a whole lot about Johnny’s curse.  This is beautiful stunt casting.

He reveals the specifics of Blackheart’s plan and provides an important artifact that both the devil and Blackheart need or want.  They ride off together, and we discover Sam was also a Ghost Rider.  Johnny finds out that Blackheart has kidnapped Roxanne (dammit…this is why you don’t fall in love, people!).  He finds an old city in Mexico that apparently holds the worst souls-because this was the most evil town in the world or some other.  After dispatching of the henchmen, Johnny finds that Blackheart is absorbing the souls into himself(?).  Johnny needs to stop him by sunrise.  Johnny realizes that he has the ability to beat Blackheart now, since Blackheart finally has a soul.  He performs the Penance Stare and destroys Blackheart.  The Devil shows up and Johnny declares he will use his curse to fight the devil, he will own his curse.  The devil gets mad and Johnny rides away.

As previously noted, this was directed by the same guy who directed Daredevil, Ghost Rider’s biggest setback is…well…it does not feel nearly as crazy as it should.  You have a guy in black leather, chains and has a flaming skull for a noggin.  That just screams for insane and crazy action.  Own the goofy stuff, don’t be so serious.  And there are moments that seem to reach for the brass ring, like the Ghost Rider speeding up the side of a tall building.

And it wastes some good talent in dull by the book roles.  Logue’s Mack is a typical “concerned friend” whose real duty is to be tragically killed by the villain.  Mendez’s Roxanne lacks much personality (and I suspect -along with Mendez herself-she was chosen as much for her comic book babe proportions as anything else).  The script presents a character who is like a blander Lois Lane.   In spite of a great casting choice, Elliot is given a thankless task.  He is nothing more than the needed exposition mystery man.

Really, Peter Fonda seems to be the only one having any fun.  And what a great choice to play the devil.  And that is where the film really falls short.  It is simply is not much fun.  It stars Nick Cage, and has every opportunity to let him cut loose…and they don’t.

I think it is worth noting that this came out around Valentines weekend…like Daredevil, it was promoted as a date movie.  Like Daredevil, it was not really that romantic.  When it comes down to it, Ghost Rider is guilty of one of the worst sins of a comic book movie.  It holds back and keeps it’s heroes and villains tamed.

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