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Director of Nic Cage's 'Ghost Rider' film recalls 'Wild West' era of Marvel movies before the MCU

"It was a very different kind of environment, you really had to fight a lot for your characters."

Ghost Rider (2007)

Long before Iron Man kicked off a shared cinematic universe the likes of which Hollywood had never seen, movies based on classic Marvel properties were quite disconnected from one another. Shocking, we know. With 2007's Ghost Rider streaming on Peacock this month, SYFY WIRE reached out to the film's writer-director, Mark Steven Johnson, for his recollections of the pre-MCU era.

"It was kind of like the Wild West. It was a very different thing," he tells us over Zoom. "We were more scrappy and trying to find a home for characters that I loved as a kid growing up, reading [the comics]. It was a very different kind of environment, you really had to fight a lot for your characters ... But on the plus side, because there wasn't so much pressure of everything fitting into some grand design, you could do some things that were different, which I kind of pushed to the limit with Ghost Rider."

By the late 2000s, future MCU architect Kevin Feige was already on the up-and-up as a leading executive of Marvel Studios, having served as a producer on the X-Men, Spider-Man, and Fantastic Four franchises. Feige also produced 2003's Daredevil, another movie that Johnson wrote and directed that starred Ben Affleck as Matt Murdock and a pre-Iron Man Jon Favreau as Foggy Nelson. "He was always incredibly smart, very kind, very supportive," Johnson remembers of Feige. "But now, he is Marvel. It’s really incredible to see what he's done. I'm so happy for him."

The idea of a skeletal motorcyclist punishing the wicked on behalf of Satan doesn't seem too far-fetched in the current comic book movie landscape, but back in 2007 (a year before Robert Downey Jr.'s indelible performance as Tony Stark changed everything), it was a major gamble for Sony/Columbia, which distributed Ghost Rider.

"I’m a big Harley Davidson fan myself, I’ve been a big motorcycle rider my whole life, and I always thought [Ghost Rider] was the coolest, most underused character," Johnson says. "There was no Ghost Rider comic out at that time and so, when you have to explain these characters, it always takes a moment. Like, ‘Wait, so it's a flaming skull and a Harley Davidson?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, that's correct.’ So that was always tough to explain to people, but the graphic is so strong, the visual is always so powerful for Ghost Rider."

He's not wrong. Despite the fact that 15 years have passed since Ghost Rider's theatrical bow, the CGI for its eponymous hero continues to hold up, more or less. "The fire ended up taking over everything," Johnson reveals. "Now, CG fire is fantastic. When we were doing it, it was very difficult and you realize how tricky fire is. Fire is such an illusion. Even when you look at real fire in a fireplace or a flickering campfire, it doesn't look real. There's something about it that looks almost like a hologram and trying to get that across at 24 frames per second, it was very tough."

Once the studio handed down the green light, Johnson dove headfirst into production, reaching out to "the biggest Ghost Rider fan in the world," Nicolas Cage. "He had the tattoo on his shoulder and then we met and hit it off and both geeked out over it." The filmmaker insists that no one else was considered for the role of Johnny Blaze, a famous stuntman who strikes Faustian bargain with the Devil in his youth. As expected, the actor brought his own unique, shall we say, take on the character.

"Nic always thought, ‘Well, if my character really couldn't die and I keep crashing and walking away all the time, eventually, I’d lose my mind. Eventually, I would start to go a little crazy.’ And so, that would explain some of Nic’s ideas of listening to music that made him feel safe like The Carpenters; or eating jelly beans out of a martini glass; watching monkey karate videos; and all this crazy s***. But somehow, I got it. I thought, ‘That's a really fun way to go.’ Instead of being the big, brooding tough, amazing macho guy, be the guy who's terrified and losing his mind a bit and just trying to hold on."

Johnny struggles to contain the creature within while hoping to rekindle (no pun intended) the romance he left for dead years before. "It kind of became this very expressionistic, Gothic fairy tale in a way," Johnson explains. "This fun, Beauty and the Beast vibe to it. But Nic’s a great partner and as I said, he, he'll try anything. He really will. He will never say, ‘I would never do that.’ [He’ll say] ‘Let's talk about it, let's try it. What could it hurt?’"

The filmmaker also characterizes the movie as "a monster Western," especially once the OG Ghost Rider from the 1800s — Carter Slade (known as the Phantom Rider in the original comics) — becomes a mentor-like figure to Mr. Blaze. "We got to really expand on Carter Slade, because he had a very small story in the comic. So I felt like that was really fun to get to flesh that character out as a sort of caretaker," continues Johnson. His first choice for Slade was Sam Elliott, who graciously accepted, bringing his famous bushy mustache and deeply soothing cowboy voice to the table. "Sam Elliott, he's such a legend and you look smart just having him on screen because everything he does is honest. You believe everything he did."

Ghost Rider (2007)

In another stroke of casting genius, Johnson landed Peter Fonda (an absolute legend in motorcycle circles for his work on 1969's Easy Rider) in the supporting role of Mephistopheles, who calls in his debt to Johnny by transforming him into the titular Spirit of Vengeance once escaped demons from Hell (led by Wes Bentley's Blackheart) start wreaking havoc on the mortal plane.

"Peter was just fantastic," the director recalls of Fonda, who died in 2019 at the age of 79. "He was such an odd duck, God bless him. He was such a fantastically eccentric person. I remember having the whole cast over to my house once and we watched Easy Rider and Peter narrated the entire thing. So it was like the greatest Director's Cut you can imagine. He would just say, ‘Oh, this is when Jack [Nicholson] came in and he was on acid.' Smoking a joint watching himself in Easy Rider, which is pretty incredible."

Ghost Rider, which was released on March 3, 2007, racked up nearly $230 million worldwide against a sizable production budget of $110 million. A direct sequel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, was released five years later in February of 2012 — just three months before the MCU was on the verge of its most ambitious undertaking up to that point: The Avengers.

The follow-up, which saw Cage back as Johnny, brought in a little over $132 million globally against a more modest budget of $57 million. Not a bad showing for a time in which most studios were starting to veer away from the concept of standalone superhero flicks and focusing on how they could replicate the uber-successful Marvel formula. Johnson did not have any involvement with Spirit of Vengeance, which was helmed by the duo of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor and written by comic book movie veteran David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight, Man of Steel) and current Walking Dead brand manager, Scott M. Gimple.

"That was just somebody else getting their take on it. Completely different thing," Johnson admits. "Same with Daredevil when they did the spinoff of Elektra, it was just a completely different thing. They give you a credit because you did the first movie, but that's it. They want to do their own version and that's great. Everybody should."

Ghost Rider returned to the realm of live-action in the fourth season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which introduced the Robbie Reyes iteration of the character (played by Gabriel Luna). While Reyes only appeared in 10 episodes of the ABC show, Luna was slated to reprise the role in a Hulu spinoff series, which received the axe following a spat of creative differences not long after.

This was also around the same time Marvel upped Feige to Chief Creative Officer, effectively bringing all film and television projects under the purview of Marvel Studios. With supernatural heroes and antiheroes like Moon Knight, Blade, Werewolf by Night, and Black Knight arriving on the scene, it's probably safe to assume that Ghost Rider is not far behind (a Midnight Sons project seems more and more likely with the passing of each title in Phase 4). 

"I think he's gonna come back in a big way," Johnson says. "I was seeing an interview the other day that Keanu Reeves was saying he'd loved to play Ghost Rider and I was like, ‘Yes!’ He’d be fantastic." Ryan Gosling and Norman Reedus have also expressed interest in tackling the part, though Johnson has his money on the Constantine actor

"I never know how serious these are, but Keanu would be amazing because he lives it," the filmmaker adds. "He eats and breathes and sleeps motorcycles. He has his own motorcycle company. But yeah, it's it's exciting … you get a chance to steward these characters for a couple years and then you got to step back and let other people do it. And as a fan, you're excited to see different interpretations. There's so many interpretations of Batman. I loved the new one and I can't wait to see where that goes. I would love to see different versions of Ghost Rider come along."

When we ask what he'd like to see out of Ghost Rider's MCU debut, Johnson pitches the idea of "a really fun, scary, almost Halloween episode, or movie version" featuring Marvel's Scarecrow whom he wanted to feature as the main antagonist in the 2007 film. The idea never materialized and understandably so, given that the studio feared confusion with the more well-known member of the Caped Crusader rogues gallery bearing the same monicker.

"Scarecrow was always about fear and I’ve always said that was such an interesting thing to get into Johnny's head, to see what what that would do to him and do the character of Ghost Rider. That was that was just the first one off the top of my head. But I'd also like to see him team up because he's such a rogue. He's such an isolated person. And to see him get this big dysfunctional family, which is what you love about these team-ups, that would be really fun. So I hope that we do get to see him and Midnight Sons or some of these other [teams]. I thought Werewolf by Night great. I thought that was super fun. So I like what they're doing and I'm curious to see where it's all headed."

But even as the Spirit of Vengeance stands on the precipice of a fresh interpretation on the silver screen, moviegoers haven't forgotten the 2007 film that first brought Johnny Blaze to the big screen. Moviegoers like comedian Marc Calderaro, whose one-man show — Ghost Rider: My Favorite Film — has turned the movie into a cult classic for the ages.

"He did it in Austin for years and it was kind of a Rocky Horror Picture Show thing," Johnson explains. "Everybody would come, they all knew the movie, and they'd all watch it together, make it a drinking game and make fun of it and have a laugh with it. But [Marc] really did love it. Even though he was making fun of it and making fun of me, I’m glad he was. I had my Ghost Rider gloves from the movie, and I dropped them off ... with a little note to him and just said, 'I've had these long enough, I want you to have them to complete your outfit. I don't care if you're laughing at me or with me, as long as you're laughing and having a good time with the movie.’ People like him keep it going and it's just fun that people look back and find it and they just have a hoot with it."

Ghost Rider is now streaming on Peacock.

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