Frank Miller’s cinematic adaptation of the newspaper comic strip by Will Eisner might be visually striking but lacks substance and, crucially, heart. Ryan Pollard takes a closer look…
It had all gone so swimmingly well for comic book movies in 2008: Robert Downey Jr. making a huge comeback in Iron Man, Heath Ledger causing anarchy and chaos in The Dark Knight, and Ron Perlman slaying demons and monsters in Hellboy II. But then, The Spirit materialized.
Adapted from Will Eisner’s comic book series, The Spirit is an action-adventure-romance genre-twister written for the screen and directed by Frank Miller (creator of 300 and Sin City). It is the story of a former rookie cop who returns mysteriously from the dead as the Spirit (Gabriel Macht) to fight crime from the shadows of Central City. His archenemy, the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) has a different mission: he’s going to wipe out Spirit’s beloved city as he pursues his own version of immortality, with the aid of his assistant, Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), a punk secretary and frigid vixen. The Spirit tracks this cold-hearted killer from Central City’s rundown warehouses, to the damp catacombs, to the windswept waterfront…all the while facing a bevy of beautiful women who either want to seduce, love or kill our masked crusader. Surrounding him at every turn are Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson), the whip-smart surgeon and daughter of the gruff Commissioner Dolan (Dan Lauria); Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega), a murderous French nightclub dancer; Lorelei (Jaime King), a phantom siren; and Morgenstern (Stana Katic), a sexy young cop. Then of course, there’s Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), the jewel thief with dangerous curves. She’s the love of his life turned bad. Will he save her or will she kill him? In the vein of Batman Begins and Sin City, The Spirit takes us on a sinister, gut-wrenching ride with a hero who is born, murdered and born again.
Promising premise, great actors, talented artist, talented DP’s, fantastic comic-book source material, so what could possibly go wrong? Well, everything, actually. Oh, dear… I had such high hopes for this film: Frank Miller is a tremendous artist that has produced many astonishing works, from his Daredevil series to Sin City to 300. He even changed the face of comic books with his universally acclaimed graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, in the same way Alan Moore did with Watchmen. The film adaptations of Sin City (co-directed) and 300 (produced) were brilliant pieces of cinema, and with Frank Miller making his debut as a solo director, expectations on his own adaptation of Will Eisner’s acclaimed comic series were bound to be high. Plus, the trailers and the marketing campaign both looked great and terrific. But The Spirit is a colossal mess of a film.
It’s like as if the film is suffering from a multiple personality disorder, constantly shifts and veers wildly across the tonal spectrum. The film simply doesn’t know what it wants to be. Part neo-Noir, part acid trip, and part wacky screwball comedy, The Spirit is like Dick Tracy, The Phantom, The Shadow, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and the 1960’s Batman TV series all rolled into one into one twisted amalgam… but without any of their respective charms (what few many of them had). Had Miller committed to making either a full-on, hard-boiled Sin City-esque Noir or an absurd parody of comic book conventions like Kick-Ass, then The Spirit might have worked, if only on a purely enjoyable visceral level. However, as it is, the film fails as a Film Noir, a black comedy, and as a comic book movie, and that’s a major disappointment
The one best thing The Spirit does have going for is it’s visual style. Sure, we’ve seen the green screen world done now superbly with the other two Miller adaptations – Sin City and 300 – but it’s a format that completely suits Miller’s stories, allowing the filmmakers the ability to mix the fantastical with the gritty hyperrealism. Sure, Miller and his brilliant cinematographer Bill Pope (Spider-Man 2 and Scott Pilgrim) create many visually arresting and gorgeous images that are easy on the eye, but, unfortunately, there is simply no story to serve them. Scenes simply happen, often with no clear beginning or ending, looking like a jarred collection of sketchy ideas that have been scattered across the floor and knitted into a confusing pattern. One minute, Jackson and Johansson are dressed as samurai, then the next minute, they’re Nazi’s. Why? Who knows? Who cares?
As previously pointed out, the film’s events shift abruptly, and the tone constantly transitions into many different personas, from brooding mystery to swashbuckling adventure and then to slapstick comedy with many fight scenes as zany as anything you might’ve see in a Tom and Jerry or Looney Tunes cartoon. Characters beat each other up with giant wrenches, and then get shot at in the head and yet come back to life and shake the bullets out like as if it was nothing serious. But the biggest problem is that you never care about any of the characters; much less understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Whilst the characters in Sin City and 300 were fleshed-out and had depth, the characters in The Spirit have the depth of a cardboard cut-out, and are as laughably bad and cartoony as the characters in Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin.
Gabriel Macht’s performance as the titular hero, like the film’s tone, is all over the place, but the blame should lay with the director rather than the actor in this case. Macht is clearly tries his best and gives the part his all, but one moment he’s a dark avenger, then a snappy-talking Raymond Chandler-type character the next, and constantly monologuing to himself. Miller apparently does this on purpose, bringing those comic book thought balloons to life, which, even though worked in Sin City, gets really tired real fast here. The femme fatales are all ridiculously hot to look at and, in the words of Johansson’s character, “great eye candy”, but they are so vapidly performed, they end up leaving you cold and Johansson, in particular, looks seemingly embarrassed. And Samuel L. Jackson has never been hammier if he tried, seemingly channelling the ghosts of both Cesar Romero’s Joker and Frank Gorshin’s Riddler from the 60’s Batman series in his attempt to outdo Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger and Al Pacino in the category of supervillain performance that chews the most scenery.
As an exercise in visual imagery, The Spirit is artfully rendered and beautiful to look at, but as everything else that a movie needs to be, it’s a regrettable mess. Miller simply lacks the chops as a solo filmmaker to handle a movie that wants to be so many different things at once, he needed a Robert Rodriguez or a Zack Snyder to help him out, and one gets the feeling that those around him were too preoccupied telling him what a genius he is that they dared not tell him his ideas simply weren’t working. If you are a fan of the comic, it’s not the comic. If you are not a fan of the comics and have no knowledge of them whatsoever, you’ll just sit there thinking, “What is all this about?” If The Dark Knight raised the bar for seriousness, ambition and dramatic realism in the comic book-based superhero genre, then The Spirit reps its antithesis: all style and no substance, all surface and no depth, and ultimately, no heart. When you come to love an artist, you start putting expectations on their work very high, and when they fall below those expectations, the disappointment can be heartbreaking.