Transformers: Further consideration.

Aside from being a two-hour-plus-long orgy of giant robots, explosions and giant robots exploding, the new Transformers movie offers something very special to its target audience (American men ages 25-34). It offers COMMITMENT.

Ours is a generation that grew up with nothing to rely on. Our parents are all divorced, we have no hope of pensions, we’re forced to rent until we’re in our fifties. Even the goddamn communists couldn’t be bothered to stick it out to give us something concrete to shake our fists at. Our entire lives have been marked by nothing so much as inconstancy, disappointment and change.

That, and Transformers.

Yes, Hasbro and its various partners noticed us in the mid 1980s and saw something special. They saw a need for permanence, for reliability, for something we could COUNT on. And so a bond was formed between our lost tribe of Gen-X castaways and a concerted and far-reaching campaign aimed at selling us things. The Deal was simple:

We would compel our parents to buy us toys and, in return, the cabal of studios, manufacturers and distributors would never, ever leave us.

When we tired of the first toys, they would generate new waves to accommodate us - dinosaurs that turned into robots, bugs that turned into robots, space shuttles that turned into trains that turned into robots. We spent our youths accidentally snapping the legs off of those robots, losing their guns and hands and learning to see the world through the eyes of a six-story high Mack truck with legs.

Eventually, however, we reached our turbulent adolescent years. We were TOO COOL for Transformers. We turned our back on the Deal. But the Deal never gave up on us. Like some wise Old Testament father-figure, it waited patiently for our rebellious stage to pass. And, of course, a generation of Prodigal Sons returned to find that there were remastered DVD collectors sets of the old TV shows available, special edition versions of Transformers: The Movie (1986), re-released versions of the die-cast metal toys of our youth. We purchased them. As always, the Transformers were there.

And now, as we enter our forth decade of life, we are given a new gift - Michael Bay’s Transformers. Yes, it’s a thrill-ride of epic robotic violence that has energized the men of our generation in one, giant, perfect “FUCK YEAH!” moment of fellowship, but more importantly, it’s the Deal - sole provider of boundless, reliable fidelity - telling us in the voice of Peter Cullen:

It’s time to buy a Camaro.

Transformers the movie: A One Line Review

Michael Bay is hereby forgiven for Pearl Harbor.

Ghost Rider

I’ll admit it. I had no intention of seeing Ghost Rider in a theater.

I read the first twenty or so issues of the early-90s revamp of the comic growing up and recall it being - at best - mediocre. Lots of lame vampires and goofy government conspiracies and gibberish and whining from the main character. Its 1970s antecedent always seemed even worse. In short, I have no great love for the character and was having a hard time getting at all excited about seeing it on the Silver Screen.

Still, there was my geek cred to consider.

The only major comic films I’ve not seen are Elektra and Catwoman (which BARELY counts). I’ve sat through the Dolph Lundgren Punisher, the Sci Fi Channel’s version of Man-thing, the 1991 Captain America and even Roger Corman’s ashcan Fantastic Four. I never complained (much). In short, it takes some doing to keep me away from comic-based films.

So I knew I’d see Ghost Rider eventually. My secret plan had been to wait for the DVD to slide into the discount bin later this year and then watch it in the darkest, latest hours of the night when no one was around to bear witness to my humiliating viewing habits. It would then have been hidden away in my DVD Collection of Shame - home to the likes of Last Action Hero and Nothing But Trouble.

But then The Company intervened and treated us all to a late-afternoon showing earlier today. And I am the better for having seen it.

Much to my surprise, Ghost Rider is… well… not that bad. It’s not a Batman Begins, a Spider-man 2 or even a Daredevil (Director’s Cut, of course) for that matter, but it’s a fun movie. Catch a matinée and you won’t have wasted your money. It’s worth the price of daytime admission just to see the crazy special effects.

As for the rest of it, the best way to describe the movie is this:

Ghost Rider is like the most absurdly decadent cheesecake imaginable. 3,000 calories per slice, slathered in six kinds of sugary syrup, topped with a mountain of whipped cream. You shouldn’t spend a ton of time taking in stuff like this, but every now and then it’s okay to let go of all of your better judgment and just chow down on something this ridiculous.

The folks who put this movie together pretty obviously decided that they would not shy away from cliché. In fact, it seems like they decided that they would actively pursue clichés whenever and wherever possible. Intrepid reporter love interest? Check. “Wacky” side kick? Check. Mean cops with hearts of gold? Check. Grizzled old wise man? Check and a HALF. Peter Fonda in a motorcycle film? Check!

The plot deliberately avoids any pretense of cleverness or intrigue. It excavates the inner-fourteen year old in its audience, locks onto what that creature wants and just keeps feeding it exactly that. The movie is so laser-precise in its delivery of juvenile delights, that I actually got chills on a couple of occasions.

At the end of the day, Ghost Rider might be the best B-movie of all time. On top of that considerable achievement, it also deserves applause for having so dramatically improved upon its source material.

The original Ghost Rider started out as a Daredevil villain who was supposed to be called the Stunt-Master:

I had made up a character as a villain in Daredevil - a very lackluster character - called Stunt-Master. I took the name from Simon & Kirby’s Stuntman, but I made him a motorcyclist. Anyway, when Gary Friedrich started writing Daredevil, he said, “Instead of Stunt-Master, I’d like to make the villain a really weird motorcycle-riding character called Ghost Rider.”

- Ghost Rider creator Roy Thomas

The creators decided to give the character a costume similar to the outfit Elvis Presley wore in his 1968 comeback special (which, of course, explains Nicolas Cage’s interest in the character) and a flaming skull.

Ghost Rider debuted in Marvel Spotlight #5 in the summer of 1972:

Marvel Spotlight #5

So we’ve got Elvis Presley with a flaming skull on a motorcycle. Not the WORST start a character could have, but it’s certainly not (despite Marvel’s prediction of the character’s inevitable legendary status) a slam-dunk beginning.

While the Ghost Rider in the film has a fairly sympathetic origin - a hero damned by sorrow and bad luck - the Johnny Blaze of the comics is… well… pretty much an idiot. Faced with the impending death of his adopted father, Blaze comes to the following obvious conclusion:

Wait... SATAN?

Ah yes, SATAN. Superman has our yellow sun. Batman has his free-weights/crippling psychosis. Spider-man has his radioactive spider-bite. And Ghost Rider has his… eh… heroic reliance on the Prince of Darkness in times of need. But let’s just chock all of that up to Stan Lee’s early-70s obsession with getting Satan into comics somehow.

Folks who see the movie may be potentially disappointed by the rather weak and indecipherable rules that seem to dictate the powers and behavior of the metaphysical elements of Ghost Rider’s world. But if you think the end of the film is a tad uninspiring, take a look at what the writers had to work with.

As the comic book Ghost Rider makes his way through his first adventure, he is - of course - double-crossed by the Devil. When Satan subsequently confronts Johnny Blaze with his fate (”walking the earth as Satan’s emissary in the dark hours… and in the light… JOINING HIM IN HADES!!!”), we’re given a delightful deus ex machina in place of any sort of satisfying conclusion:

Never underestimate the Devil-busting power of a Good Woman.

Yes, the purity of the heart of young Roxanne - his romantic interest/ADOPTED SISTER - is more powerful that the Devil’s contract with Blaze. Despite the fact that she’s basically been a turbo-bitch to Johnny through the whole story so far, she manages to dive in just in time to save our hero at the last moment with her surprising knowledge of Satan’s one weakness. And in case you were thinking that there wasn’t a PERFECTLY REASONABLE explanation for this:

Hold me, my beloved plot device!

SEE? She read his… uh… books on Satan. Clearly, there’s an origin story for Johnny Blaze that is WAAAAAY more interesting than the one the writers chose to present us.

So cut the folks who came up with the Ghost Rider screenplay some slack. The version they gave us is Citizen Kane compared to the original. Yes, the film is cheesy. But so is 3,000-calorie-per-slice cheesecake and - like cheesecake - Ghost Rider is a guilty sort of delicious.