SAN DIEGO — When you hear the word "superhero," you're probably more inclined to envision a flowing cape and square jaw than a leather jacket and flaming skull.

Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes and their "Ghost Rider" director, however, are gambling that movie audiences are ready to start thinking outside the box. While offering up a preview of the flick recently, they insisted that imperiled audiences will soon wish that Superman and Spider-Man would take a day off and hand their rescue duties over to a supernatural demon burdened by hellfire.

"It's a great choice for Halloween," Cage chuckled, offering a reason why both the uninitiated and devoted alike should be excited that the 34-year-old comic book oddity is getting his own flick. "It is respectful of the original comic book; it's pretty traditional. I think the traditionalists of the original comic book will be very happy."

"I always felt like Ghost Rider was the most visual of all the superheroes," insisted director Mark Steven Johnson, the self-professed comic nut who also had a hand in the "Daredevil" and "Elektra" movies. "To me, it's almost more like a classic horror movie than it is just a classic comic book. When the moon comes out, and he changes — it's rare. You don't have to put on spandex and jump out a window to save the day; it's much more about a curse, the excitement and the romance."

For those unaware of Marvel Comics' most cultish of characters, "Ghost Rider" first set readers' imaginations aflame in 1972, when motorcycle stunt performer Johnny Blaze (Cage in the film) sold his soul to the demon Mephisto to save the life of a friend. For decades since, Blaze and subsequent Ghost Riders have transformed into the hideous highway monster while navigating the blurry line between good and evil.

"I didn't know anything [about Ghost Rider], and then actually Mark Steven Johnson and Nic Cage were giving me comic books and going, 'This is what happens here, and here and here,' " laughed Mendes, the "Hitch" actress who takes on the role of Roxanne Simpson for the film. "I was like, 'Oh cool,' and I got into [the comics] a bit. But it was interesting, because my character, in the original comic, was [Ghost Rider's] step-sister and they were in love! I mean, I'm open to new things, but that's kind of weird! So Mark changed it, and obviously we don't play siblings."

According to Cage, such minor updates were necessary as the filmmakers attempted to make Ghost Rider accessible to mainstream audiences while remaining true to the strangeness of the source material. "All of us together added on to and built up the character," the Oscar-winner revealed. "To make him a little more humorous, I added different fetishes — he loves jelly beans and Karen Carpenter — and these things weren't in the comic book. But I think if you follow it, in the movie, it makes sense. He's trying to relax, knowing that he's got something very scary following him around."

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"[The movie] is only about the actual character, because the stories of 'Ghost Rider' kept getting picked up and dropped [in the comics]," Johnson explained. "They'd reinvent the character in a lot of interesting ways, but it didn't have the steady legacy that a 'Spider-Man' would have, for instance. That gave us more freedom, and it really became, 'What would Johnny Blaze, what would Ghost Rider, do?' That became the big thing; that's what we had to be honest to." In the film — which also stars "Easy Rider" legend Peter Fonda as Mephisto and "American Beauty" actor Wes Bentley as his evil son, Blackheart — that question is answered in a variety of eye-dazzling sequences.

One of the film's breakout scenes is an underwater battle with Cage's head aglow. "What we wanted to do is show that hellfire — the Ghost Rider's fire — is not like normal fire; it's got its own special properties, so it can burn under water," Johnson explained. "It's cold to the touch, and it's got all these different properties that can give expression to the flaming skull. That is a fight scene between Ghost Rider and one of the demons who's a water demon, and as they fight under water and Johnny Blaze is getting choked out, he transforms under water. Basically, it's an atomic blast, which cooks this demon underwater."

Mendes insisted that her favorite day of filming revolved around the moment when all these over-the-top demons and devils finally meet flaming face-to-flaming face. "It's probably the ending," she said, picking her favorite scene. "There's this huge battle between Ghost Rider and the devil, being played by Peter Fonda, which was kind of interesting because there's Peter Fonda, and he's Satan! It's kind of just fun and chaotic, and crazy."

Johnson was fully aware that with Cage he had landed one of Hollywood's most quirkily charismatic stars, however, and he was determined to utilize the actor's skills in some quieter moments. "My favorite scene is between Nic and Eva, when he tells her who he is," the director revealed. "That's a classic moment in comic books and comic book movies, when the hero wants to tell the girl who he really is but he can't. So we thought, 'Let's just do the opposite; let's just blurt out everything and have it just go horribly south!" Grinning, he added, "That scene reminds you how funny Nic is, and it's just a real comic tour de force as he tries to explain what he turns into, while she's thinking that he's either crazy or using it as an excuse to blow her off."

During such moments, Mendes had to concentrate on the intensity in Cage's eyes; for other moments, however, she was more concerned about the heat that was supposed to be coming off his noggin. "The biggest challenges was having to think, 'Oh wait, it's not Nic — his head's in flames now,' " she laughed. "It was fun, because that's when your imagination kicks in and you're like, All right! Your skull's on fire!"

"[Cage] has been a fan of this character forever; he's got a flaming skull on his arm!" Johnson said, insisting that "Ghost Rider" is a film that will hopefully please fans as hard-core as his leading man. "He named his son after Superman, and he's got the best comic book collection you'll ever see."

"You don't want to scare people away," Cage cautioned after being asked if the flick will be the darkest from Marvel yet. "You want to find the right balance where children can enjoy the movie as well. I think with the movie 'Ghost Rider,' you can still take your whole family to it."

" 'Blade' was pretty dark," Johnson agreed. "Let's just say that this is going to be the coolest Marvel movie yet."

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