Who Is The Ghost Rider?

Ghost Rider is one of Marvel’s most mishandled heavy hitters.

Certainly in their TOP 5 of all-time coolest looking characters on the comic page, the Ghost Rider has undergone several incarnations, from white-clad horse-riding gunslinger Carter Slade to Hell-struck stunt biker Johnny Blaze to fellow hothead Danny Ketch (Blaze’s lost kid brother) in 1990, followed by the Dodge Charger-driving Robbie Reyes in 2014.

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There is nothing wrong with any of these iterations; the problem is, which one should we recognize as Ghost Rider?

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If we ask, who is Superman, you say Clarke Kent. Who is Captain America? Steve Rogers. You have continuity; decades of continuity. That’s what it takes to great a legend.

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That is what Ghost Rider is sorely missing.

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Two ill-fated motion pictures were produced, staring Nic Cage as the classic Johnny Blaze character (but with a starring role for Sam Elliot as the grave digging Slade). Neither film was made by Marvel Studios, but now the character is back home where it belongs—under Marvel.

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However, rather than introduce a new cinematic version they’ve re-launched Ghost Rider on the television series Agents of SHIELD. This was a needed infusion of heat for the beleaguered series, however—one thing Marvel hasn’t pinned down yet is whether or not they will utilize their TV version characters in upcoming big screen releases. Television actors don’t have a great track record shifting to film; it is a very different medium.

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Meanwhile Reyes, the current iteration comic version of Ghost Rider as well as the TV version, has recently had his own backstory shown for the audiences to puzzle over.

Was Johnny Blaze the one who gave Reyes the Spirit of Vengeance? It really looks that way! Meaning…yes, there are two Ghost Riders lurking around Agents of SHIELD…

While this does seem exciting, it brings me back to my main point—that the character is mishandled. At some point, most superheroes will have another person take up their mantel, at least temporarily. We’ve seen this with virtually all the major players. But there have been four Ghost Riders (unless you want to discount Carter Slade, since he was really a very different character who just happened to have the same name. Fair enough, since his name was later changed to Phantom Rider).

The point is, Marvel needs to pick one and stick to that character so they can develop it more thoroughly. Look at cinematic Iron Man; we see more of Tony Stark than we do of Stark in one of his Iron Man suits. We get to know the man behind the mask, at least in the films. Christopher Nolan made damn sure to develop Bruce Wayne as the driving force of his Batman trilogy. Not the hero, but the man. And everybody knows Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man! We know Peter, his home life with Aunt May, his relationships with Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson.

But what about Johnny Blaze, or Robbie Reyes or Danny Ketch (who starred as the young boy in Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vengeance)? We deserve a strong actor who can take that character to the next level, as Christian Bale did with Bruce Wayne, as Robert Downey Jr. did with Tony Stark. We deserve a truly kickass Ghost Rider.

The TV version will do for now, but frankly that CGI skull won’t work in the MCU. Ghost Rider 2’s smoky-flamed bike was a hit, but the burnt-to-a-crisp costume and the skinny skull were a little off. And the TV version looks a bit too squeaky clean and metrosexual. Ghost Rider is supposed to be scary; not Halloween for kids scary, but genuinely freaky frightening, a nightmare from Hell come to punish the guilty by banishing their souls into a pit of fire.

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And what of Zarathos, the demon which is entangled with the rider? Should we not delve into his story as well? Marvel did write up a backstory for him, in Ghost Rider #77. And of course there would BE no Ghost Rider without Zarathos… Ghost Rider 2 also told a version of Zarathos’ tale, but I feel pretty strongly that they need to strike that version off the record and go again.

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But back to the continuity. Marvel needs to peg this down and get it right before they (inevitably) kick off a new movie. Don’t tell me it won’t happen; it will! Phase 4 of the MCU is unlikely to feature Chris Evans or Robert Downey, Jr. Therefore either newer MCU characters will move in to fill the void, like Falcon, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Spider-Man, etc, or existing, foundational characters like Black Widow, Thor, or Hawkeye will. And when this characters start to shift, newer ones will need to be introduced. Daredevil, Punisher, and Ghost Rider all have debuted in films and on TV, but each of these heroes is worthy of a new major movie at any time.

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I’m hoping for a full-on remake of Johnny Blaze as Ghost Rider, but with tie-ins to the TV show. And I think that may indeed be the reason that Agents of SHIELD introduced the Robbie Reyes version instead of Blaze. Blaze is the legend from 1972, launched shortly after the biker phenomenon of 1969’s counter-culture Easy Rider. It’s no coincidence Peter Fonda, the star of Easy Rider, was featured in 2007’s Ghost Rider (as Mephistopheles).

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Reyes was a spin-off launched a mere two years ago under Marvel NOW!, as part of what has become a widespread remaking of the Marvel Comics universe, reimaging classic characters as female or with an ethic-minority background, or both. Thus fans were treated with a more diverse range of characters: Hispanic versions of Spider-Man and Ghost Rider, a female Thor, a black female teenaged Iron Man (well, Iron Heart). There is nothing wrong with these changes; changes are and always have been a huge part of the trade. But again, we are confronted with the issue of continuity.

 

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If a character is introduced one way, and we live with that version for decades, then that becomes the definitive version of the character. Change is inevitable; change is welcome. But many times, change dilutes the core of the creation. It takes time to build familiarity, and Reyes hasn’t been around long enough to be familiar yet.

And frankly, I want the bike back. Ghost Rider is a biker. Hence Ghost “Rider,” not Ghost “Driver.” Well, we’ll see what Marvel has in store for us. Maybe I just need to expand my mind enough so I can appreciate Ghost Rider in all his fiery forms…

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