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April 9, 20247 Mins Read

Younger comic-book fans might be surprised to learn that there was once a time when Marvel Comics was on its last legs and willing to do anything to keep the company afloat. Before underdog blockbusters like the X-Men and Blade films put Marvel heroes back on the map, they were desperately trying to experiment with their comics in order to attract a wider audience.

One such experiment was the Marvel Knights imprint, a collection of stand-alone stories that initially focused on less-marketable heroes and gave artists free-reign to tell unique and more adult-oriented stories unshackled by decades of garbled continuity issues. While these stories didn’t always succeed in revitalizing characters for a new generation (and often contained the worst kind of late-90s/early 2000s edge), they were almost always incredibly stylish and memorable.

That’s why I think it’s very appropriate that Neveldine & Taylor’s film Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance opens on a Marvel Knights logo instead of the traditional red intro that we’ve seen since the ’90s – almost as if the film itself is trying to let viewers know that this is meant to be a different take on a familiar property. And while the completed project wasn’t anything groundbreaking, I do think that the filmmakers having the guts to try something different makes this 2011 sequel worth revisiting.

Despite the first Ghost Rider’s middling critical reception, Nicolas Cage’s memorable performance and the character’s popular appeal basically guaranteed a sequel to the 2007 adaptation. However, Spirit of Vengeance was originally meant to be an R-rated thriller that would address complaints about the first movie’s goofy tone and put our favorite flaming skull in a high-octane story. That’s why the studio looked towards Crank directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor to helm the sequel and take it in a darker direction.

However, like many Sony projects about horror-adjacent comic-book characters, producers inevitably got cold feet after having already commissioned the script (which was penned and reworked by Scott M. Gimple, Seth Hoffman and David S. Goyer) and ended up scrapping many of the flick’s edgier elements while also slashing the budget to about half that of the original. Thankfully, they didn’t completely get rid of the edge, with the finished film still following a haunted Johnny Blaze (Cage) in Eastern Europe as he reluctantly partners with alcoholic French priest Moreau (Idris Elba) in order to protect a child from the latest incarnation of the devil, “Roarke” (with Ciarán Hinds replacing Peter Fonda).


With such a rocky road towards the big screen, it’s easy to assume that Spirit of Vengeance became yet another Marvel-based misstep in Sony’s catalogue (and you wouldn’t be completely wrong, judging by the flick’s 19% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes), but while I admit that a large part of the sequel’s negative reception is likely due to a half-baked script filled with embarrassing dialogue, I also think that 2011 simply wasn’t a great time to be a unorthodox comic-book movie. With the Dark Knight films redefining what audiences wanted from adaptations and The Avengers looming on the horizon with promises of comic-accurate fun, a horror-inspired standalone B-movie was never going to be a critical darling.

This is a huge shame, as there’s a lot to love about this incarnation of Ghost Rider even if it’s not a revolutionary thriller or a faithful love-letter to the comics. For starters, the flick is absolutely bursting with style, making frequent use of odd angles, humorous cutaways, exaggerated split-screen effects and even bizarre Mortal-Kombat-Fatality-inspired shots where we focus on certain action-heavy moments against a black background. It doesn’t always work or even feel coherent (especially when it comes to the humor), but it is consistently interesting to look at.

Obviously, the cool visuals also extend to the film’s action scenes. While there’s a recurring issue where both the main hero and main villain are so ridiculously overpowered that some of the so-called “fights” become awkward (which was also a recurring problem in the comics), the imagery almost always kicks ass and I appreciate the use of practical effects-work during vehicle chases – especially that last one.

And while Spirit of Vengeance benefits greatly from its cast, with Elba, Johnny Whitworth and an unexpected Christopher Lambert standing out as exaggerated yet fun caricatures, we all know that the real star of the show here is Nicolas Cage. The filmmakers really decided to let the man loose here as he portrays Blaze as a traumatized maniac desperately trying to contain an eldritch force that’s burning him alive from the inside. From his over-the-top line delivery to his cartoon-like mannerisms once the flaming skull takes over (you can easily tell that it’s still Cage during the motion-capture sequences), I can’t imagine not being entertained by this wild performance.


Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance may have been billed as a superhero flick, but you only need to watch a few minutes of it to realize that this is really a monster movie disguised as an action-heavy thriller. I mean, the first half of the film presents the Rider as an unstoppable killing machine striking fear into the hearts of criminals, with Whitworth’s Carrigan even going so far as to quote Bruce Campbell before shooting at the demon with a shotgun.

And though it’s a shame that Sony ended up neutering the film’s gore and more overt horror elements, there’ still plenty of genuinely horrific imagery to be found here – and almost all of it revolves around the titular character and his grisly transformations. In fact, Cage actually seems to be channeling The Wolfman throughout the flick, with Blaze knowing that an uncontrollable dark force lurks inside of him and could escape at any moment to hurt those he cares about the most.

Blackout’s decay powers are genuinely terrifying even if the film decides to mostly play them for laughs, and the idea that Blaze is actually protecting the possible antichrist is a fun horror-adjacent premise. Plus, I’m a big fan of the reveal that the “demon” inside the Ghost Rider is actually an angel that was driven mad after being exposed to hell.

Ultimately, Spirit of Vengeance is a midnight B-movie in every sense of the word. The script may be about as deep as a kiddie pool and only Cage really gets the chance to shine, but the stylish presentation and a handful of poignant moments like Blaze confessing his sins to Moreau or bonding with Danny make this a much better experience than you might initially expect.

And while I’m still waiting on a proper Robbie Reyes Ghost Rider movie where Cage returns as an older Blaze to pass the proverbial torch onto the younger hero, I’m glad that there’s at least one fun Ghost Rider adaptation out there. I can’t exactly call Spirit of Vengeance a great movie, but if you ask me if it’s worth experiencing at least once, my answer is yes. Hell, yes.

There’s no understating the importance of a balanced media diet, and since bloody and disgusting entertainment isn’t exclusive to the horror genre, we’ve come up with Horror Adjacent – a recurring column where we recommend non-horror movies that horror fans might enjoy.

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