When Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was released this past Friday, I couldn’t help but think this of Nicolas Cage: “Wasn’t this guy supposed to play Superman?”
Follow my train of logic, please: as a fan of the Ghost Rider comic book character, the poor reviews for Spirit of Vengeance, a title that seemed like a shoe-in for Crank boys Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, were truly, er, dispiriting. I mean, if the guys that made Jason Statham a living cartoon character can’t do much with a film where Nicolas Cage plays an antihero with a flaming skull head, who can? I haven’t seen Spirit of Vengeance but I still want to enjoy it, and I hope that I’ll take away something from it other than abject despondence, which was what I got from the 2007 Ghost Rider.
Hold on, before you call me a troll or a contrarian, let me back up a moment: the reason I fantasize about a Tim Burton-directed, Nicolas Cage-starring Superman movie isn’t because I think it’d be a huge success. In fact, I think it’d be crazy and dysfunctional but possibly exciting and frequently dazzling. It’d be different, is what I’m trying to say, and different is what I want from comic book movies. I am, after all, writing in an age of drab Marvel comic book adaptations like Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger and Christopher Nolan’s frequently exciting but pointedly anti-flamboyant Batman movies.
Ahem. I dream of superhero movies where guys that wear four-colored outfits are allowed to be simultaneously human and ridiculous. This is admittedly a reactive stance after having only really been impressed by Iron Man 2, a character-driven mess that is mostly pretty entertaining but is also very much a film made by fans that felt like they could cut loose and just tell a story that they really wanted to tell after doing their due diligence in the first Iron Man. I want a comic book film that doesn’t pander to first-time audiences and also doesn’t deny the fact that these characters live in worlds where death rays and super-powers are commonplace. Is that so much to ask?
I guess so. In my recent search for comic book movies that are out there and exciting and yes, maybe consistently engaging enough to be worth seeking out, I focused primarily on the Marvel Comics movies that time forgot, by which I mean that I sought out made-for-TV projects that have been buried by Marvel and have yet to surface on DVD or Blu-ray. This didn’t require much skullduggery: many of these titles are available via YouTube and will likely continue to circulate on another medium after a Marvel rep reads this article and tries to pull down the titles listed below. I wish I had more time to watch more of these weird objects of cult worship, because you can say what you want about how “good” these made-for-TV films and episodes are, but hot damn, they look downright outré when compared to fairly recent Marvel movies. These older adaptations suck, but they’re a different kind of suck.
With that in mind, if you’re willing and interested, take a little trip with me down memory lane and remember comic book films that never were – released, that is. These are all Marvel properties, folks, so you won’t see me tackling equally tempting stuff like the 1997 Justice League pilot (though it is, uh, available). And you won’t see me talking about The Man-Thing or Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher. You can either Netflix those last two titles or buy them off of Amazon. Think more along the lines of the Roger Corman-produced Fantastic Four and bam, we’re on the same page.
Bear in mind: these are movies that aren’t necessarily superior to contemporary Marvel movies. In fact, if you’re still with me, you’ll soon find that these films are actually often worse. But they’re different and they at least attempt things that today’s Marvel titles don’t, and I find that’s almost always worth getting excited about. So face front, True Believers, we’re heading into the wonderful world of made-for-TV live-action comic book adaptations! Excelsior!
Worse still, once he’s suited up, Spider-Man spends a lot of time climbing up green-screened walls, skulking atop rooftops and backing away slowly from boring-looking villains. (Spidey fights a bunch of brainwashed thugs with wooden swords in this movie; meh.) He doesn’t talk much, mostly because he looks like he’s going to poop in his tights after backing up onto a banana peel.
But hey, at least this isn’t a boilerplate “Who is Spider-Man?” story like Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man. The impulse to reintroduce new audiences to one of the most famous superheroes has always struck me as an odd impulse. So it’s nice to see a film where Spidey gets bit by a spider, then fights some brainwashed dudes, and saves the day without said day-saving meaning much in the grand scheme of things. This is not an event film, in other words; it’s a big installment in a serial and it doesn’t even look like a definitive first installment! Which isn’t great for a TV pilot, but hey, it’s certainly different.
Eh, not so much. Brown’s a walking black hole and this made-for-TV film’s plot meanders like a mother. The scenes where Brown is painting in a park and is interrupted by local toughs is especially laughable. Then again, so is much of everything else in this film, right down to the cheap production values on the motorcycle that Brown drives as Captain America. Cap’s signature stars-and-stripes shield, which looks like it was bought from a nearby 99-cent store, serves as his bike’s windscreen, too (!?!?!), and is so small that when the motorbike launches out of Cap’s battle van (?!?!?!?!) accompanied by several fire extinguishers’ worth of smoke, it looks like Cap’s riding a colorful, rocking horse-sized missile of doom. Unless you really want to see a rapidly aging Lee fight Brown, you can probably skip this one.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.