The Revenge of the Second-Tier Superhero Film

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Movies like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance scrape the bottom of the comic-book barrel, but often in recent memory that's led to more interesting superhero flicks.

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Stop reading this article and ask the next person you meet to name a superhero. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Was it Superman? Batman? Spider-Man? Maybe (if they were thinking creatively) Wolverine or The Incredible Hulk? Whatever the case, they probably didn't say Ghost Rider. the flaming-skulled stunt motorcyclist played by Nicolas Cage in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which opens in theaters today. But Marvel Studios just bet $75 million dollars that the niche comic character has enough mass appeal to turn a profit.

To be fair, it's a bet they've made before (with the first Ghost Rider, in 2007, for a whopping $110 million)—and a bet they won. How did ­Ghost Rider—the story of a daredevil who traded his soul to a demon, and a second-tier superhero comic at best—become the subject of not just one, but two big-budget, blockbuster superhero films? To find the answer, we need to delve into Hollywood's history of comic-book adaptations and the industry's unrelenting attempts to keep its latest, hottest cinematic trend alive.

The first seven comic-based superhero movies to reach movie theaters were built around DC's two biggest icons: Batman and Superman. (For the record: 1966's Batman, 1978's Superman, 1980's Superman II, 1983's Superman III, 1984's spinoff Supergirl, 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and 1989's Batman). For decades, Batman and Superman have been the "chocolate" and "vanilla" of the superhero world, but for comic book fans, that's like ordering from a Baskin-Robbins that serves just two flavors of ice cream. Hollywood did, admittedly, make occasional attempts to branch out. Early versions of Spider-Man and Watchmen spent decades in development hell, and early stabs at comic-based movies include 1991's The Rocketeer, 1994's The Shadow, and 1996's The Phantom. But these fledgling attempts to build a superhero franchise around a comic-book character that didn't already have a massive mainstream fan base were also, invariably, box-office disappointments.

There were, in the end, two major developments that allowed the superhero genre to conquer the box-office: special effects technology, which reached the point at which superheroes could convincingly be portrayed, and Hollywood's decision to treat comic books as serious source material. The genre's breakthrough was 2000's X-Men, which has since spawned two direct sequels and two spin-offs; 2002's Spider-Man, which spawned two blockbuster sequels of its own, quickly followed. Globally, both movies grossed a total of more than four times their original production budgets—and that's without the additional income from toys, video games, or marketing tie-ins.

In the five years between 2007's Ghost Rider and its new sequel, the superhero genre began to experiment.

In the immediate wake of these back-to-back successes, Hollywood realized that superhero films made for easy cash. The decade after Spider-Man has seen the release of no less than 18 unique movies based on comic-book superheroes, and that's without counting reboots and sequels.And the comic-book bum-rush wasn't without reason: even superhero films that are now commonly cited as flops were box-office successes by a respectable margin, from Hulk (which grossed nearly $250 million on a budget of $137 million) to Superman Returns (which grossed nearly $400 million on a budget of $270 million). Superhero films have been so fruitful that those franchises were rebooted not because their previous entries weren't successful, but because they weren't successful enough.

But the superhero genre—like any of cinema's "magic geese"—has only so many golden eggs to lay. No matter how many times you hit the reboot button, there's only one Batman, one Spider-Man, one Superman, and one Wolverine. As Hollywood recognized the seemingly insatiable demand for superhero blockbusters—despite a dearth of widely known superheroes—they found two ways to respond: creating new heroes for the silver screen, and plumbing the comic-book canon for lesser-known heroes who, given a breakout film, could theoretically join Superman et al. on the A-list. The "new hero" approach has yielded some hits (including 2004's The Incredibles, 2008's Hancock, and this month's Chronicle, which has already earned back more than four times its entire budget). But it also lacks what is arguably the biggest benefit of the superhero genre: the fiercely loyal, built-in audiences that many comic books carry, and the decades of stories rife with possibilities for big-screen adaptation.

It's this desperate, "all hands on deck" approach that has led studios down less conventional paths than the familiar, Saturday morning cartoon-starring heroes that dominated the genre's early years. It's a strategy that has led to some massive hits (Iron Man and its even higher-grossing sequel) and some disappointing misses (last year's Ryan Reynolds-starring fiasco, Green Lantern). But Hollywood's attempts to milk the superhero genre for every cent have also led to big-budget films based on heroes as unlikely as The Punisher, a vigilante who routinely kidnaps, tortures, and murders his foes; Hellboy, a demon originally summoned by Nazi occultists; Jonah Hex, a badly scarred bounty hunter and former confederate soldier; and Ghost Rider, a daredevil biker whose head, a bare skull, is continuously aflame.

Given its unconventionally grim title character, the most surprising thing about 2007's Ghost Rider is how conventional it is. Even the trailer for Ghost Rider takes great pains to establish its adherence to the superhero genre's two most banal conventions: the origin story and the obligatory love interest. "He gave his soul to save the life of his father," says the trailer, boringly, as it tries (and fails) to sell us on a romance between Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes. Despite it myriad flaws, Ghost Rider drew enough of an audience to turn a profit in the cinematic doldrums of February 2007, but the movie's blandness was met, in turn, with a kind of collective ennui: Rotten Tomatoes reports that 56 percent of its users give the movie a positive review, and its audience approval rating from IMDB.com is a middling 5.2 out of 10.

The fact that we're getting a sequel (or a quasi-sequel, part-reboot successor) to a film that received as lukewarm a reception as Ghost Rider at all—albeit a compromised sequel, without leading lady Eva Mendes and produced for $35 million less—is a testament to the enduring performance of superhero films. But something interesting happened in the five years that separate 2007's Ghost Rider from its new sequel: The superhero genre, having quickly established (and just as quickly) exhausted its conventions, began to play with them instead. While the big-budget heroes were using their Great Power with Great Responsibility, their lesser-known relatives were teaming up with crime-fighting middle-schoolers (Kick-Ass), pioneering the superhero-comedy (The Green Hornet), or deconstructing the superhero genre itself (Watchmen).

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance appears, happily, to be what the original always should have been: an unconventional superhero movie. Where Ghost Rider was directed by Mark Steven Johnson (of the equally blah Daredevil), Spirit of Vengeance is directed by a directorial team called Neveldine/Taylor (of the gleefully insane Crank movies). Where the first Ghost Rider's trailer spoke of honor and responsibility, Spirit of Vengeance's trailer features Nicolas Cage urinating fire. There's no promise that Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance will be a good movie—it currently has a 12 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes—but if it's bad, it will almost certainly be bad in a more interesting way than its by-the-numbers predecessor.

Like all cinematic fads, the superhero genre will eventually decline. But as long as its films remain profitable, Hollywood will keep making them—and there's a deep, rich vein of second-tier comic book heroes just waiting to be uncovered. Let's hope that studios are brave enough—and smart enough—to find the right way to mine them.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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