The Spirit

Posted on April 14, 2009 at 8:00 am

If there is ever an Oscar category for best performance by an article of clothing, the red tie worn by the title character in this film would be the clear winner and the rain coat would most likely be the runner-up.

This film version of the innovative and influential comic book owes much more to writer/director Frank Miller than to the man who created the character, Will Eisner. Miller, who revitalized Batman as The Dark Knight and co-directed “Sin City,” based on his own comic book series, itself in part inspired by Eisner’s subversive noir stories.

The Spirit is is something more than a man but something less than a superhero. Once he was Denny Colt, a cop, but something has happened that gives him special power and special responsibility. His great love is the city and he serves as its masked and mysterious protector. But there are also women, many of them and all utterly captivating and utterly captivated by him — his childhood sweetheart, the doctor who patches him up, a rookie cop. And there is a super villain, Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), a guy who has developed a potion for giving him something on the brink of immortality. He has the same kind of special powers of healing that The Spirit does. And he wants something that will give him everything he needs to become all-powerful but it was in a box that got mixed up with something also very valuable but much more mundane.

Miller misses the forest for the trees here with luscious, insouciant images that sizzle and tantalize but finally detract from any sense of story, purpose, or character. I’ve seen lava lamps with more of a plot. And for an action movie it all seems very posed and static. Comic books, with their panel-bound drawings, provide a more muscular sense of motion than Miller does here. He pays more attention to the sole of The Spirit’s shoe than he does to anything that would connect us with the character or even connect the characters do each other. Everyone is arch. Everyone just poses. They might as well be trying out for “America’s Next Top Model.”

And Jackson is not just over the top. He is over whatever is over the top. As his sidekick, Scarlett Johansson is completely out of her depth and it is uncomfortable to see her floundering to try to look predatory. In the title role, Gabriel Macht is outdone by his clothes. The only watchable performance is from Eva Mendes as Sand Serif, the bad girl who could only have a heart of gold if she stole one.

Eye candy can only go so far. Archness is not the same as irony. Style is not the same as substance. Miller captures the letter, but what this film is lacking, in every sense of the word, is the Spirit.

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Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel Crime Drama Fantasy

5 Replies to “The Spirit”

  1. I actually think you come down a bit easy on this film, including on aspects of it’s violence.
    First of all, as a point of fact, it’s not even in any way close to Will Eisner’s conception of the character, who was pointedly not a superhero in any way, shape, or form. He is simply a “criminologist” who is mistaken for dead and decides to go undercover — it was basically an excuse to give the character a mask for more or less strictly commercial reasons. In any case, Eisner’s worldview was far gentler, and more upbeat and humanistic than Miller, an occasionally outspoken neoconservative who owes a lot to Eisner in terms of visuals as a cartoonist but a lot more to Mickey Spillane in terms of storylines, content, and, increasingly, politics.
    As for the violence, while it certainly is cartoonish, there is a vicious, brutal, even fascistic streak here as the Spirit — who rarely used anything more lethal than his fists during the comic’s prime — decides to assassinate the Octopus because he is mean to a kitty. (I’m wondering if this is some sort of offhand tribute to Robert Altman brilliantly strange version of Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye.”)
    In any case, the worst violence on screen is being done to Will Eisner’s memory. It was inevitable that changes were going to be made to the Spirit, of course, but, apart from a brief and actually sweet and romantic interlude involving the young Denny Colt and his teen girlfriend, Sand Sared, taken surprisingly directly from the comic, Miller has left not even a hint of what the made this great comic book so special and singular. Not in the slightest.

  2. Bob, thanks so much for a wonderful comment. I am thrilled to hear from another fan of Will Eisner and the original Spirit comics. And I think your comparison of the Miller version to Spillane is very apt. I still hope that some day someone will make a Spirit movie true to Eisner’s version. I remember in the 70’s there was some speculation James Garner might star — he would have been great.

  3. I am crushed and dispirited. I have been looking froward to this movie for a long time. To learn that there has been a violation of the very core of Eisner’s work disturbs me! The humor (I love the puns in the names like “Sands Serif” or “Legs Akimbo”) and the energy of the relationships between the Spirit and the people he sought to help were the best parts of the books – aside from the visuals (he could really draw women!) and creative titles. I will see the movie – but perhpas I will not pay the premium price. Perhpas I will wait – sadly – for it to appear at the cheap theater – which may not take long given these reviews. This is making me all the more concerned for what may happen with “The Watchmen”. Will that get butchered, too? Stay tuned and see!

  4. The people who didn’t like this film made the mistake of taking it seriously. This is not a serious superhero film. It’s a parody of the cliches of the genre and it is hilarious (Samuel L. Jackson is especially funny and you can tell he had a lot of fun). I hope that in the years to come, this film will be reevaluated and perhaps become a cult classic.

  5. Thanks, Vince! I took another look at it on cable recently. I’m always glad to hear from someone who sees more in a movie than I do, but even as a parody (which would have been true to the Eisner comic), it didn’t work for me. I did love the visuals!

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