Written by David Holland
If “Fantastic Four” taught us anything, it’s that you can create a so-so movie based on a comic book property, and you can expect to do well enough to earn a sequel. That is the model “Ghost Rider” followed, including ending the franchise after only two movies. By its release in 2011, it’s not enough to just put a comic book character on the big screen anymore, you have to earn the audiences’ trust. “Spirit of Vengeance” made some improvements over the original, but fell short of earning a full trilogy.
Thirty minutes into this movie I was really on board. The sequel seemed to embrace Ghost Rider’s fundamental darkness. It eschewed the silly stunt rider antics of the first film, told a condensed origin story in flashy comic style to catch everyone up, and leaned into the religious-horror elements of the Ghost Rider tale. We don’t get Sam Elliot in this one, but we do get Idris Elba as an alcoholic French priest. I’m sure there are actual French actors who could have done a more convincing accent, but come on. It’s Idris Elba.
Ghost Rider as a character has a slightly updated look, which is a little bit more convincing than the original, thanks to slightly more advanced CGI. When Moreau pulls Blaze out of hiding, he has been alone for months. But getting to know Nadya and Danny, choosing to put them under his protection, compels Blaze to begin treating them like family. It’s a refreshing bit of depth for a character who didn’t get a ton in the first movie. Johnny Blaze undergoes a ritual to remove the Ghost Rider, which means that when the climactic battle starts he is just an ordinary human. This is a bit of a trope for superhero movies, but it functions well enough to raise the stakes, since by this point in the movie Ghost Rider has been shown to be virtually impossible to kill. The fight scene in the arena is pretty cool, and of course Johnny gets the Ghost Rider back and banishes the devil back to hell. I like the darker tone to this movie, and the idea of the cosmic battle in which Ghost Rider is sort of trapped on both sides.
Like I said, I was on board thirty minutes in. Then, somewhere around the second act, it lost me a little bit. When interrogating a suspect Nicholas Cage goes into a sort of manic state, including some giggling that was an odd choice to say the least. The middle forty minutes or so feel like they belong in a different movie, one much closer in tone to the first film. Cage acts the same way at the very end when he feels the “angel of justice” instead of the “spirit of vengeance”, and his delivery turns a moment of catharsis into silly camp.
Sometimes I don’t properly contextualize comic book movies in the time they were released. I tend to think of everything that isn’t MCU as “old”. But “Spirit of Vengeance” came out in 2011. By the time it released, “The Dark Knight” was the gold standard for dark, gritty comic book movies. The MCU had also pumped out Iron Man 1&2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger. The MCU as a concept was still experimental and definitely finding its footing, but “Spirit of Vengeance” just doesn’t hold up against this competition. If it had been released in the early 2000s it would have done fine, but given its strange choices by actors and directors, it is understandable that a planned sequel was cancelled and character rights were turned over to the MCU.
The “Ghost Rider” franchise could never fully make up its mind about whether its main character is silly, Joker-style crazy for vengeful, serious crazy. Instead it tried to do both, and that indecision is a glaring flaw. The sequel is better than the original, but I trust the MCU with the character’s future.