When most people think of superhero movies nowadays, it’s either the juggernaut MCU or the periodically entertaining DCEU, but the resurgence of such films began several years prior to big budget shared universes. Non-X-Men titles that came out in the decade between the releases of Blade and Iron Man often get forgotten about, unfortunately, but two of these, Superman Returns and Ghost Rider, are now available on Netflix.
Although 2006’s Superman Returns cast the then-unknown Brandon Routh as the Last Son of Krypton, it was intended as a direct sequel to 1980’s Superman II. As such, Routh got the part partially due to his resemblance to Christopher Reeve, displaying the same fusion of humble charm and superpowered indomitability.
As far as the plot goes, during a five year absence when Kal-El was off-world in a failed attempt to locate any more surviving Kryptonians, Lex Luthor was released from prison with another scheme in his obsessive quest to render the Big Blue Boy Scout powerless. Now that everyone has moved on without him, Superman must once again defeat his nemesis and prove that his message of hope and optimism is still relevant in a world swiftly descending into cynicism and darkness.
2007’s Ghost Rider, meanwhile, casts Nicolas Cage as the eponymous damned antihero, playing at about a 6 or 7 on the 1-10 scale of Cage Rage. The pic sees stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze reluctantly recruited as a bounty hunter for Mephistopheles, granted powers of strength and hellfire as his body is transformed into a flaming skeleton. He’s then sent to defeat the demonic Blackheart, who wants to unleash Hell on earth and is promised the return of his soul if he’s successful.
The disappointing box office business of Superman Returns resulted in the cancelling of plans for a follow up, and while the more profitable Ghost Rider led to the demented sequel Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance four years later, it was the last stop on Johnny Blaze’s cinematic adventures. Neither film was especially successful by Hollywood standards, but in the development of comic book movies, they provide an interesting snapshot of the kind of fare we were offered in the mid-‘00s before their very concept was transformed into box office gold.