So after months of delay, several unimpressive pieces of promotional material, and an alleged press blackout, tonight (only a few short hours before its release date) we finally got to take a look at Mark Steven Johnson's Ghost Rider -- a Marvel Comics adaptation that, frankly, never should have even made it past the pre-production stage. This is a shapeless, confused and entirely muddle-headed movie, and it's one that got green-lit only because, hey, Spider-Man, Batman and X-Men turn huge profits, and as of a few years back, each movie studio was falling all over one another to get their hands on some of the "secondary" Marvel characters.

And therein lies the basic problem with Ghost Rider: It's not about anything. One could argue that the Spider-Man films are about growing up and learning responsibility; that the X-Men represent the strength of the marginalized, the disenfranchised and the weird; Batman focuses on that inner battle between light and dark that we all have to deal with. Ghost Rider? Well, it's about a skull-faced undead motorcycle rider who wields a chain and whose face is on fire. Beyond that, I give up. I've seen coffee commercials with meatier subtextual elements.

The plot is your standard "hero origin" story: Young biker Johnny Blaze has a sick dad, a cute girlfriend and a real talent for bi-wheeled machinery. But when Johnny's dad gets cancer (and with the girlfriend on her way out of town), up pops Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda, cue-card awful here) with a great deal: Give me your soul and I'll cure your dad's cancer. But then dad goes and drops dead after a bike accident anyway, so poor Johnny just gave up his soul for a whole lot of nothing. So he abandons his chick, hits the highway and slowly morphs into someone who looks a lot like Nicolas Cage doing a Herman Munster impersonation. (Trapped beneath an ebony spider-plant wig, Cage employs an accent that's half Cameron Poe, half H.I. McDunnough and entirely silly.)

Seems that Meph needs Johnny to become his "ghost rider," a magical bounty hunter who must stand in the way of the evil Blackheart (Wes Bentley, so wooden he splinters) and his three elemental sidekicks. Johnny must also woo his old girlfriend (Eva Mendes, counting the beats until her own line deliveries but packing a whole bunch of cleavage-intensive blouses), chuckle briefly with his comic relief (Donal Logue, completely un-comic), and deal with huge volleys of exposition from a wizened old weirdo (Sam Elliott, the only actor in the flick who seems to realize how insipid the whole thing is).

The fact that it took me two medium-sized paragraphs to describe the plot of Ghost Rider is kind of bizarre, considering the flick is about as plotless as a movie can get and still maintain a (long and painful) 114-minute running time. Literally every sequence in the film is one that's been used and re-used in every superhero flick of the last ten years. This is a project built entirely on pure, unadulterated greed. The conception of this movie was not ,"Hey, I have a great idea for a Ghost Rider movie!" More like, "Yeah, we can throw a whole bunch of special effects on the screen, at least enough to warrant a solid opening weekend before word gets out on how stupid the flick actually is."

Allegedly delayed for about nine months so the engineers could work on the special effects, Ghost Rider comes packing an inordinately large amount of really crappy special effects. The actors seem bored, the direction is basic and inert, the leading man looks ridiculous, the pacing is all off, the editing seems to have been done almost at random, pointless flashbacks abound at every turn, the action sequences are short, rare and anemic, and the screenplay is laden with winners like "Your penitence stare will not work on me! I have no soul to burn!" (Seriously, Wes Bentley's dialogue pours of his mouth like it's a court-appointed punishment.) What begins as a standard-yet-watchable superhero adventure slowly congeals into something approaching the caliber of Catwoman. Not as bad, but kinda knocking on the doorstep.

Although he claims to be a huge comic book fanatic, filmmaker Mark Steven Johnson (Elektra, Daredevil) seems to have no good idea on how to create a quality superhero flick. On the page, Ghost Rider might be a dark and dangerous comic book character (or at least a novelty hero who's pretty darn cool-looking) ... but in a live-action medium, he's absolutely ridiculous. From the flaming skull head to the whip-like chain (and the ridiculously fetishistic motorcycle), Cage's Ghost Rider feels like a very sly parody of other superheroes. Unfortunately we're supposed to be taking FlameSkull pretty seriously -- and that's what makes Ghost Rider one of the funniest flicks I've seen in months.