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Wayback Wednesday: Superheroes

June 20, 2012

I haven’t kept up with this feature, but I still have a ton of reviews from over the years that are no longer available online, so I might as well put them here. Since we’re in the midst of yet another summer of superheroes at the box office, let’s dig into the archives to revisit some earlier, perhaps slightly less successful, attempts at putting superheroes on the screen.


Ghost Rider

114 min., PG-13 (horror violence and disturbing images)
Grade: D

Nicolas Cage has been trying to play a superhero in the movies for more than a decade. He was signed to play Superman in a Tim Burton film that never materialized, pursued the role of Iron Man for a while, and finally settled on Ghost Rider. This is the comic book world’s equivalent of a Shakespearean actor yearning to play Hamlet or Macbeth and settling for Rosencrantz.

It’s clear right from the opening narration that Ghost Rider isn’t aspiring to be much more than a campy cheesefest; Sam Elliott imparts the legend of the title character in the same mock-ponderous tone he employed to describe “the Dude” in The Big Lebowski.

Johnny Blaze (initially played by Matt Long) is the son of a low-rent carnival stuntman who has been diagnosed with lung cancer. Johnny strikes a deal with the devil in order to save his father’s life. In return, Johnny’s soul belongs to Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda, a casting choice that’s one of the movie’s few genuine flashes of wit).

Years later, adult Johnny (Cage) is a neo-Evel Knievel famous for stunts like jumping over five helicopters on his motorcycle. But when the sun goes down, he is transformed into the Ghost Rider – a demon with a flaming skull, supernatural strength, and the ability to turn sinful souls to dust with his penance stare. When the vampiric Blackheart (Wes Bentley) kidnaps his childhood sweetheart Roxanne (Eva Mendes), Ghost Rider must save her or risk unleashing a thousand tortured souls.

Ghost Rider
boasts a few cheap thrills and some unintentional laughs, but mostly it looks like something that should have gone straight to video sometime in the late ’80s. Cage’s performance is a rote collection of Elvis mannerisms that he already exhausted in Wild at Heart more than 15 years ago. He and Mendes have so little chemistry in their scenes together, they seem to be in separate zip codes.


My Super Ex-Girlfriend

95 min., PG-13 (sexual content, crude humor, language and brief nudity)
Grade: C+

Love means never having to say “You threw a shark at me!”

That’s the valuable lesson Luke Wilson learns in My Super Ex-Girlfriend, the new comedy that proves once again that breaking up is hard to do, particularly if your significant other is capable of flinging your car into orbit.

Wilson is New York architect Matt Saunders, a successful single guy whose weakness for neurotic women has led to a series of failed relationships. Egged on by his horndog friend Vaughn (Rainn Wilson, toning down the creepy factor a notch from his roles on The Office and Six Feet Under), Matt chats up attractive librarian-type Jenny Johnson (Uma Thurman) on the subway. Jenny is initially cool to Matt, but after he chivalrously retrieves her purse from a mugger, she agrees to a dinner date.

They hit it off and are soon dating regularly, at which point Jenny makes a startling announcement: she is actually renowned superhero G-Girl. At first Matt is thrilled with this development (particularly after G-Girl introduces him to the plane-free version of the mile-high club), but it soon becomes clear that, despite her superpowers, Jenny is rather high-strung and needy. She also has an insane jealous streak that emerges when she senses a love connection between Matt and his adorable co-worker Hannah (Anna Faris).

When he learns it’s not easy to end a relationship with a woman who can punch through his ceiling and etch a derogatory nickname onto his forehead with her heat-vision, Matt turns to G-Girl’s arch-nemesis Professor Bedlam (Eddie Izzard) for some extreme relationship counseling.

The male-centric viewpoint (Simpsons writer Don Payne penned the screenplay) likely won’t thrill anyone looking for the next feminist heroine, but Wilson’s befuddled everyman quality helps smooth over any misogynistic tendencies in the material. The real heavy lifting (both literal and figurative) is left to Uma Thurman, who commits to the craziness with gusto.

In his ’80s heyday, director Ivan Reitman (Stripes, Ghostbusters) was the McDonald’s of movie comedies – his product was palatable and served millions, but lacked any real spice or surprise. His stock has fallen a bit since then – now he’s more like the Hardee’s of comedy – but My Super Ex-Girlfriend fits in neatly with his body of work. It has a fun, goofy concept, moves along nicely and provides a few laughs along the way. You leave the theater thinking, “Well, that was cute,” and then immediately forget about it. Sometimes, however, that’s all you’re looking for.

The Punisher
124 min., R (pervasive brutal violence, language and brief nudity)
Grade: C-

As a comic book hero, the Punisher never made much sense. Superman had amazing powers, Batman had mystique and cool gadgets, and even a third-stringer like Aquaman at least had gills. The Punisher was the superhero with a lot of big guns. He was the Marvel Comics version of Charles Bronson in Death Wish, and there was nothing particularly interesting about him.

Unfortunately, with big screen incarnations of Spider-Man, X-Men, Daredevil and the Hulk already accounted for, Marvel’s bench is thin, so the Punisher is getting another shot at glory. (He first surfaced in a 1989 Dolph Lundgren vehicle that went straight to video.) With the multiplex already overcrowded with vengeance-seekers (Walking Tall is still in theaters and Kill Bill, Vol. 2 arrives today), his timing may be a little off.

Like many of his comic book brethren, the Punisher was born when his family was killed before his eyes. It is an early indication of co-writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh’s over-the-top approach that his hero, Special Ops agent Frank Castle (Thomas Jane), is attending a family reunion when the attack comes, and thus must witness the violent deaths of dozens of uncles, aunts and cousins in addition to his wife and son. (This sequence features a too-brief appearance by Roy Scheider, looking like a well-worn catcher’s mitt.)

Castle’s family has been wiped out on the orders of Howard Saint (John Travolta), a Tampa crime magnate whose son was killed during a sting operation supervised by Castle. After the massacre, Saint (and the rest of the world) believes Castle to be dead. After tending his wounds, however, Castle is reborn as the black-clad specter of retribution, the Punisher.

The Punisher is at its best when its title character curtails the firepower and instead uses his wits to best his enemies. In such scenes he’s like a low-rent Batman, evading foes in a ramshackle Punisher-mobile and torturing a potential informant with nothing more deadly than a popsicle.

The movie lapses into self-parody at about the halfway point, as Castle fends off cartoonish assailants and bonds with his neighbors, a pair of geeks and a fragile beauty played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. The tone shifts again for the grand finale, a stomach-churning exercise in sadistic violence that obliterates any goodwill the movie had generated. A sequel is hinted at, but this franchise is already out of ammo.

– Scott Von Doviak

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