superhero films

Ghost Rider 2: Cage is on fire in this decent sequel

It occurs to me that I have spent a lot of my life – over five hours of it in fact – in cinemas watching Nicholas Cage play a demonic character tooling about on a fast vehicle, first in 2007’s pretty bad Ghost Rider, then in last year’s not so bad Drive Angry, and now, finally, in Ghost Rider’s sequel, Spirit of Vengeance. This is a pretty depressing realisation. Luckily however, Ghost Rider 2 is a surprisingly decent follow-up.

Cage reprises his role as Marvel creation Johnny Blaze, the stuntman who, after a Faustian pact with the devil, finds himself transformed into Ghost Rider: a fiery, skull-headed, chopper riding angel of vengeance with a penchant for leather. This time round, his mission is to prevent a young boy (Fergus Riordan) from being used as Satan’s host body, with help from the boy’s mother (Violante Placido) and a gun-toting, wine swigging biker monk (Idris Elba).

And the film certainly hits the ground running, with a frankly mad battle between some hi-tech priests and the gun-toting forces of evil – and that’s before the dude with the flaming skull for a head even shows up. Things tick along nicely for the first hour or so in suitably exciting fashion. The directing team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (who made insane cult classic Crank and its sequel) keep things tongue-in-cheek, as a film with a plot this silly should be. One of the real achievements of Ghost Rider 2 is just how much funnier it is than its predecessor – the film’s best gag sees a demonic villain (Johnny Whitworth) whose touch causes immediate decay coming up against the one foe immune to his powers – the imperishable Twinkie.

Neveldine and Taylor also manage to imbue a sense of style into proceedings that the original never quite managed. There are some nicely animated exposition scenes, and the pair also wisely ratchet up the horror factor. Not that these comic-book ghoulies are likely to scare anyone, but Ghost Rider’s jerky movements and soulless drive at least make him more of a genuine anti-hero and not the rather cuddly character he was last time out, while the gruesome powers of the villains make them suitably creepy foes. The special effects are light years ahead of the original’s cheap-looking graphics – Ghost Rider’s visuals are a particular highlight.

The acting is a mixed bag. The always excellent Idris Elba is clearly having a whale of a time while Ciarán Hinds is on brilliantly sinister form as the satanic Roarke. As for Cage, at least here when he goes batshit crazy it’s meant to be hilarious, unlike in The Wicker Man. Placido, Whitworth and young Riordan meanwhile are never able to step out from the shadows of the big names around them.

The last half hour of Ghost Rider 2 takes the gloss off things, as the pace slows to a relative crawl and we have time to think about just how stupid the whole thing is. But Spirit of Vengeance is a step-up in pretty much every way from the original – funnier, more exciting and mercifully shorter. It’s hardly a classic, but of all the time I’ve spent in a cinema watching Nicholas Cage play a demonic character tooling around on a fast vehicle, I’ve probably enjoyed this ninety minutes the most.

Chronicle: 21st Century Akira

Nearly a year ago, rumours started spreading that Warner Brothers were seeking to adapt the landmark Japanese future-punk anime, Akira, into a Keanu Reeves vehicle, with Albert Hughes set to direct. Yet, after numerous problems with casting, budgets and script rewrites, this live-action remake seemed destined to remain confined to development hell. And then, in the same month that the production had originally been green lit to go into production, a miracle happened; it arrived fully formed on cinema screens, helmed by first time writer director Josh Trank, and no longer with Warner’s backing but independently produced, with a fraction of the budget, and at a break-neck 83 minute run-time. Only, it isn’t called Akira anymore. It’s called Chronicle.

While the set-up differs, at heart it remains a story of friends confronted with the unknown and how it changes them. Andrew, our principle narrator for most of the film, is every bit the socially awkward teenager that Tetsuo was in Akira. Upon the manifestation of his telekinetic powers, he begins to resent his reliance upon his closest friends and seeks to prove himself strong enough to break out from the constrictions that might otherwise have been imposed on him. But, even in his successes, he still finds himself out of place within the world and unaccepted by it. And, just as in Akira, is eventually overcome by the very power which he sought, both mentally and physically, even down to the crippled and bloodied right arm.

Where the films diverge is in the background afforded to the doomed anti-hero. Andrew’s relationship with his alcoholic father and terminally-ill mother may be drawn in broad strokes, but it remains touching and chilling in equal measures, according his arc with a genuine sense of believability. The central tragedy of the film lies in Andrew’s attempts to break away from who he is and where he came from, culminating in a scene where he dons his father’s old fire-fighting uniform, essentially becoming the bully he had grown to loathe. This scene of the birth of an identity hits so hard precisely because it runs counter to the usual fetishistic representation we have grown so accustomed to seeing within the superhero genre.

Chronicle unfortunately finds itself burdened with the misfortune of being ‘yet another’ found footage film.  Whilst I won’t be one to detract from that genre as a whole, the style feels mismatched with this movie. The whole aesthetic rests upon the idea that the central protagonist is someone so ill at ease with the world that he needs to create a barrier between it and himself and, as such, views his whole life through a lens. It’s a shame then that, in doing so, this barrier extends to the audience as well. From the inconsistency of the film quality, to the jumps from CCTV footage to cameras held by characters of varying narrative importance, the audience is constantly reminded of how this is being filmed to such an extent as to be unable to concentrate on what is being filmed.

Overall though, the film works on enough levels that any problems are easily overlooked. The acting is solid, the script genuinely engaging, and the characters sympathetic. It’s not your usual superhero movie but, considering how many of those are released every year, maybe that’s no bad thing.

By Vitor de Magalhaes

Beginner’s Guide To… Superhero films

by Vicky Fryer

Ben, a geek who is hopelessly awkward with girls, really doesn’t seem the world-saving type; that is, until one fateful day when he gains fantastic abilities through Science (biological, technological, or unspecified other). At first he’s happy just having fun with these new powers, but then a tragic event occurs, making him realise they must be used for good. Meanwhile, an acquaintance of Ben’s, the American executive/cultured Brit Mr Steinborn, acquires similar powers and decides to pursue a more `evil` course. The two face each other, with the world in the balance, and at the last moment Ben triumphs – not just because he pushes his powers to the limit, but also because of his heart. Steinborn is vanquished – arrested or killed by irony – and Julie, the love of his life, falls into Ben’s arms. As the music swells triumphantly, Ben states this story’s moral as he poses heroically in costume, but the fight against evil is far from over…

Welcome to the insane world of superheroes, where terrible accidents grant superhuman strength, nothing represents justice quite like a costume, and for every hero there are several villains with a very different perspective on power. Special effects and spandex are all the rage, alongside angst, romance, moral issues, and a few jokes.

Superhero movies began with Superman (“You will believe a man can fly”) in 1978, but since the series, along with its darker successor Batman, declined spectacularly, they only became a familiar presence last decade with X-Men and Spider-Man. Plots actually dwell on the limits of power, as after the first set-pieces the hero encounters more complex issues than showing off. Their focus is generally the importance of being human – free will, emotional strength, refusing to give up – rather than having powers, so that these films take on an epic quality beyond being two hours of glee and pretty effects (although, wonderfully, they can be both).

With the Avengers team-up on the horizon – a culmination of this genre in a manner worthy of, well, a superhero film – superheroes are stronger now than ever before. Nothing could be more appropriate, really.

Superman (1978)

Batman (1989)

Spider-Man (2002)

X-Men 2 (2003)

The Incredibles (2004)

Batman Begins (2005)

Iron Man (2008)