Friday, February 24, 2012

Evil Against Evil: Ghost Rider 2 Spirit Of Vengeance

In 1981, a film called Dragonslayer taught us what the phrase "Fighting fire with fire" means: it takes the fires of purgation to put out the fires of damnation. Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vengeance does a really great job of presenting second-class theology so that we can re-explore the ins and outs of first-class theology and re-examine our own soul's progress towards salvation.
Ghost Rider on his iconic motorcycle. In the film, Johnny says that basically any vehicle he gets on becomes engulfed in flames. Why? The flaming motorcycle combines two important symbols of the Holy Spirit: fire and vehicles. Fire is of the Holy Spirit because of the Fire which came down upon the Apostles and Mary at Pentecost, instilling in them the Gifts they required to spread the Gospel, but fire is also the symbol used in the perfection of the soul for trials we endure to remove from our soul impurities and imperfections (as gold is tried by fire). In terms of Ghost Rider and how it relates to hell, fire is a punishment because the soul that is damned refused to be perfected by the Fire of the Holy Spirit, so that which could have become the means of salvation, but was refused by the damned soul, is now the eternal punishment for mis-using their free will to choose the easy road of life, instead of the narrow path to heaven. Vehicles (cars, boats, airplanes, horses, chariots, motorcycles) can all be likened to the guidance of the soul by the Holy Spirit, the "vehicle" of redemption and salvation is our destiny, the specific journey God has created for our soul to gain eternal life. The motorcycle, for Johnny, becomes the vehicle of his damnation, rather than salvation.
There are some things the film does really well, such as expand the visual vocabulary of Johnny Blaze (Nicholas Cage) so by a comic book aesthetic, we have a better understanding of his understanding of what is happening to him and why he has made the decisions he has made: he looks at the world like a comic book. That communicates to the audience, when, for example, we have a flashback in the comic book style, of Johnny doing his stunts on the motorcycle, bearing his rear-end for all to see, and the whole while, it's in large, "blocky" drawing (little detail), primary colors (no real shading) and the action is like one frame of a comic strip to the next frame (dislocated, discontinuous, things are left out; the style invokes pop artist Roy Lichtenstein) we are seeing Johnny as he sees himself: comical.
Johnny Blaze discovers towards the end of the film that he is really an angel, God's Angel of Justice (I think it was) who was tricked by the devil and ended up in hell although he loves God and wants to do good... that's utterly absurd, that's as ridiculous as Kevin Smith's Dogma. Angels are a higher being than humans, and do not have the same lower passions that we do which causes us to make mistakes and sin; angels have perfect intelligence for their duties and nature, so the idea of an angel being tricked is another non-existent scenario the film delivers, a way of trying to bring out the good in evil that just doesn't exist.
The employment of the comic book aesthetic to represent Johnny Blaze lets the audience know that this is how Johnny sees the world and that which is above the world, the supernatural and his soul. His simplistic understanding of the battle against evil is naught more than a child's and caught up in a earthly, fading priority: style. Ultimately, Ghost Rider 2 is about a "cool" scenario where a human gets to beat the devil at the devil's own game; should we be concerned about this? Absolutely.
When Johnny Blaze transforms into the Ghost Rider, an identity he got from a bad deal with the devil, he turns into a flaming walking skeleton who wears a riding suit with melting tar all over it. Why? Pitch is often associated with hell, not only because of the awful, toxic smell, but because of the black color (symbolizing death). In our day, tar is used to pave roads, so the outfit becomes a theological statement about Johnny's soul: he's chosen the "road to hell."
The film situates itself within an impossible scenario.
First, when Johnny supposedly sold his soul to the devil (in the first film), Johnny accidentally got a paper cut which dropped blood on the deed that he didn't intentionally sign but inadvertently signed. This situation undermines the theology of free will: the devil can possess a soul only if the soul invites the devil in (please see, for example, The Exorcist: Absent Fathers). Secondly, Ghost Rider falls prey to a definite ill-conceived notion about the devil's power: the devil can create life. Like Rosemary's Baby of 1968, or Constantine of 2005, there is the idea that the devil can procreate which is impossible, and basically comes from a (pro-abortion) view that not all life is an absolute good because God is not the Author of Life but life is merely a biological occurrence which has no connections to a metaphysical universe (a Darwinistic view of life rather than a Divine Plan of Life).
At the Catholic graduate philosophy program  where I did some of my studies, a favorite intellectual puzzle was, if you knew that a baby was going to be the anti-Christ, would you kill it or let it live (as in the film The Omen).  In the picture above, a group of "monks" (though it is questionable as to what religion they practice) are going to kill Danny to save the world. The large rocks and circular formation in this area suggests the Druids more than anything, but it's very simple that we cannot achieve any good by committing a sin, and murder--even if one thinks it is in a good cause--is still a sin (just as in abortion) because it is taking on God's role of being the Author of Life and Death, instead of permitting the Omnipotent One the power to decide.
Why is this an important point?
The purpose of the film is that Ghost Rider has to find Danny (Fergus Riordan) because Danny's mother Nadya (Violante Placido) made a deal with the devil similar to Johnny Blaze: when she was about to die, the devil Roarke (Ciaran Hinds) approached her and said he would save her if she would father his child and she agreed, now, according to the story, Roarke wants his son Danny to pass on his power to him. Again, this is an impossible scenario, the devil cannot create life because all human life is endowed with an immortal soul in the image of God and with the gift of free will that Ghost Rider is denying.
This is one of the things the film does well: chains. As in Immortals, chains are a great weapon because it shows how the sin that chains and binds us, lets us be controlled by it. When people generally think of things that are considered sinful (sex outside of marriage, drugs and alcohol, getting an abortion, foul language, "putting people in their place," etc.) they think those are things which give them freedom and the Church and Christ are trying to take those freedoms away; by having Ghost Rider use chains to trap people, it demonstrates how sin enslaves us, sin doesn't free us, and we can be controlled by our addictions and sins, rather than control them.
This two-fold denial, the soul in the image of God and our free will, is precisely the reason why only good can overcome evil. Originally, Johnny Blaze's "conversion" to free his soul from the devil's contract, was written with a bit more orthodoxy (note that I said only a bit): " Tony Isabella wrote a Ghost Rider story arc where Johnny Blaze became a Christian and thereby freed himself of the curse. Isabella said that 'Johnny Blaze accepts Jesus Christ into his life. This gives him the strength to overcome Satan, though with more pyrotechnics than most of us can muster. He retains the Ghost Rider powers he had been given by Satan, but they are his to use as his new faith directs him.' However, the story was apparently rewritten at the last moment (Marvel Spotlight, 1979)."
Ghost Rider using his second power, The Penance Stare. Whenever he looks into someone's eyes, he has the ability to make them experience all the pain that person has ever inflicted on others, resulting in the "burning of their soul" that is worse than death because it's a taste of damnation. The eyes are the window of the soul, when Ghost Rider, as a skeleton without eyes, looks into the eyes of a person who still has life in them, who still has their soul and can still make the choice to do good instead evil, sees a being without a soul, it's also the pain of being without their soul (you don't appreciate it until it's gone).
Why would they take out the part about Johnny Blaze becoming a Christian?
Jesus Christ isn't cool by secular standards.
Far more people believe in hell than they do in heaven, and everyone can agree that the devil is evil, but not everyone would agree that Jesus Christ is good, so instead of Ghost Rider saving Danny from becoming the anti-Christ, Ghost Rider himself, Johnny Blaze, becomes the anti-Christ because he does not rely upon God, but upon the devil for his soul's power (even after his "conversion" and regaining his soul from the devil's contract, Johnny enters into another contract with Danny to overcome his father, the devil). This denial of Christ presents a self-reliant salvation rather than salvation as a gift from God, and re-enforces people's belief that they do not need God to overcome the devil, the devil can be tricked.
One of the monks that is going to kill Danny to save the world. They have writing all over their faces, which is a typical film technique to indicate a zealot or religious fanatic (think of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or The Mummy). The writing invokes "the Word" and it being on their face means that they identify with The Word of God, but we can know this isn't the Word of God because the Word of God doesn't exist anywhere in this film. For example, to free Johnny Blaze from the devil's contract, Moreau (Idris Elba) tells him that he needs to confess that which he doesn't want to talk about, and this is good, Johnny Blaze makes a good, humble confession when he says that he didn't make the contract with the devil to save his dad but because he wasn't ready to let go of his dad, he did it for himself, not his father. But Moreau isn't a priest who can absolve Johnny of this sin on behalf of God, and the bread that Moreau gives to Johnny, saying, "The Lamb of God," isn't the body of Christ, it's bread, and mistakes like these throughout the film are revealing, because the "theology" Ghost Rider presents is just as misleading as claiming a loaf of bread from the Wal-Mart bakery is the Body of Christ.
To be fair to the film, we can say, and this is a traditional aspect of the soul's progress, that we have to go through all the evil within us before we can get to God; a perfect example is Dante and The Divine Comedy: Dante can't go straight to Heaven, he can't even go straight to Purgatory, he has to go through Hell first, then through Purgatory. How is this different than Ghost Rider? Dante can only make this journey by the Grace of God, and his trip into hell is an illustration of spiritual poverty: as the soul is purified, it becomes clean and gains power as a result of being freed from sin and impurity; however, to keep us humble and on the path to salvation, the Lord keeps us poor--we don't have that power that comes with freedom--we rely, instead, on His Grace to continue the trip through spiritual perfection, as we get closer and closer to Heaven. The more freedom from sin we gain, the more powerful we become, but this side of heaven, we never feel that way because we would then be tempted to pride and leaving God.
This is a good example of how we can give only what we have first received. Since Johnny Blaze has not received grace from God, he can't give grace, he can't give anything that is good because he hasn't received anything that is good, hence, why he spits out hell fire in the picture above, that is all that he has received.
The place where the devil is supposed to pass on his powers to his son Danny is in Turkey, and it's an interesting choice because Turkey has long been rumored to the be place where Noah's Ark is. Just as the Ark saved men from sin in Noah's day, so Danny is supposed to be the Flood of Evil that damns all men. This isn't the real point that the film makes, however, because it's too busy trying to take the most complicated and intricate wisdom there is, that of the soul and its relationship to its maker, God, and turn it into something for cheap entertainment that's easily digested and non-offensive.
Am I asking too much, that only a good character can overcome evil? No, and that's why I reviewed Safe House before Ghost Rider, because that same thesis exists in the story of a thoroughly bad rogue CIA agent who is unable to bring others to justice because he is outside the bounds of justice himself (please see Safe House & Death In Art). When Johnny Blaze tells Danny, "The power that we have comes from a dark place, but it's not who we are, we can use it for good," he reveals that he doesn't know himself and therefore, he doesn't know the difference between good and evil, and not knowing God, not knowing Jesus Christ and His Teachings, condemns him to ignorance and damnation.