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I was pleasantly surprised to return from a long weekend away to see that Ghost Rider was a huge hit for Marvel (MVL) and its star, Nick Cage.

I've owned Marvel shares for some time, and even bought a few more recently as it began to become more and more clear that their self-financed movies, beginning with Iron Man in 2008, would be made with great stars and great chances for success.

But to be honest, I expected Ghost Rider to bomb.
ghost rider
Sure, there are fans of every comic book - and Johnny Blaze's satanic alter ego is no exception - so a decent outing seemed likely. But flaming skulls don't necessarily conjure up the same fan base as strapping heroes in tights and capes.

And this is the best film opening Nick Cage has ever had - over $50 million, which is a President's Day weekend record, and certainly impressive even though Ghost Rider didn't exactly have huge competition (the latest Hugh Grant flick, a Disney coming of age story, and Lion Gate's (NYSE:LGF) newest Tyler Perry film were the other big newcomers).

Clearly, the market noticed - in a time when we're all trying to handicap the value of Marvel's stable of thousands of superheros and comic book characters, and guesstimating whether Marvel can make a profitable movie starring a niche character like Namor the Sub-mariner in a few years, they're offering us some proof: Ghost Rider, far from being a top-ten comic book superhero like Superman, Spiderman, the X-Men, and even probably a step down from the other leading lights like Thor and Iron Man, can still carry a successful movie.

Even if the movie stinks. Oh, yes, that's the other part of the story - the critics were almost unanimous in throwing rotten tomatoes at the screen, contrary to the huzzahs that they showered upon the latest Batman and Spiderman movies. So Ghost Rider has a well-respected but not guaranteed blockbuster star in Nicholas Cage (his latest few movies have bombed, including one for portfolio holding Lion Gate).

And it isn't a typical superhero flick, starring as it does a possessed motorcycle stunt rider who turns into an angel of vengeance of sorts, including a nice flaming skull for effect.
Marvel - Iron Man (2)
And the critics hated it.

But it was still an opening weekend hit. That means Iron Man, Thor, the next Hulk, Ant Man and Captain America have a solid chance to do better, in my book, and that explains Marvel's very nice pop in share price today.

Of course, now the expectations are higher as well, so if Spiderman fails to set box office records this summer, or if Iron Man opens poorly next year, look out below. Hey, even a big dropoff from the opening weekend performance might return the shares to last week's levels, but it's still a nice start.

Disclosure: I own shares in both Lions Gate and Marvel and have no plans to buy or sell them in the near future.

MVL 1-yr chart

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Source: Marvel Rides High with Ghost Rider