The Spirit Review
The transfer of classic comic book and superhero material to the screen has never been entirely satisfactory, particularly in recent movie adaptations. By and large the problem is the fact that being primarily a visual medium, the cinema paradoxically tends to be the more “literal” of the art and entertainment forms. What you see is often all you get. The movie viewer consequently expects a perhaps unreasonable degree of realism or at least expects the treatment to go some way towards granting a willingness towards suspension of disbelief that traditionally a comic book wouldn’t have been all that concerned about. This approach gives us films then that adhere closer to the traditional Hollywood cinematic format than to the comics origin and results in grim serious films like Batman Begins that try to make credible the existence of a crimefighter who dresses as a bat with resources of technological hardware in advance of most medium-sized industrial nations.
Of course, it’s Frank Miller, writer and artist on the groundbreaking ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ and ‘Sin City’ who, along with Alan Moore and ‘Watchmen’ is the person in the comic world who is most often credited for the dark post-modern reconstructed and revisionary outlook on the superhero mythos. In reality, dark and violent though Miller’s work might be, his comic work, and much of the attitudes of his creations, is actually quite reactionary. Never does Miller ever forget that his work is comic art – it’s not literature, it’s not movies – and, at its best and most quintessential, in his ‘Daredevil’ and ‘Elektra’ comics, in his earliest ‘Sin City’ work and in freewheeling madness of the likes of ‘Hard Boiled’, it adheres basically to one principle, that through artistic licence and expression, it’s entirely free to forge its own irreverent worldview, far from the playing out of conventional storylines or from having to submit to dated notions of political correctness. Miller never forgets that it’s all just a bit of fun where the creative writer can let his imagination run free.
The problem with that approach is that it doesn’t go down terribly well with some people in the comic world, who find Frank Miller’s work and the attitudes expressed in them towards women and homosexuals somewhat objectionable. Bringing this attitude not only to the screen for the first time solo as a film director, (having been pilloried for his participation in such cinematic horrors as ‘Robocop 3’ and ‘300’) but to an adaptation of the classic creation of one of the founders of the idea of the comicbook as a literary graphic artform, Will Eisner’s ‘The Spirit’, Miller has the potential to upset and offend quite a lot of people. And, judging from the immediate critical reaction, that’s just what he has achieved. What he has also done with The Spirit however is make a true comic book film, a film that reverts back to the intentions of its original medium in a way that we haven’t seen since Superman 1 – 3 (oh yes, like it or not, Superman 3 was indeed true to comic book sensibilities) and Dick Tracy.
We have Robert Rodriguez to thank, or perhaps blame, for this. Miller’s scripting on the Robocop sequels had effectively killed any hope he might have had for a career in the movie industry up until Rodriguez showed the artist how effectively the distinctive visual style of Miller’s hard-boiled comics noir series Sin City could be made to work in a movie context with the latest developments in green-screen and CGI technology. With Miller on the project as co-director the translation from paper to celluloid was as perfect a reproduction of the original source as it was possible to achieve. The problem – if you consider it a problem and personally I don’t – is that ‘Sin City’ was founded on an exaggerated sense of hard-boiled noir that, when exploded back enlarged onto the big screen, could be said to lack something of the edge of its original sources and verge on the caricatural. And that doesn’t go down well in the movie world, or often succeed (ask the Coen’s about some of their earlier screwball comedy pastiches).
Since it did however effectively retain the spirit (if I may be permitted to use the term in this context) of the original source material, and since Eisner’s pulp creation is an acknowledged influence on Miller’s work, an adaptation by Frank Miller of ‘The Spirit’ in the style of Sin City ought to be a great idea. Right? Well, it would seem not. There is very little of Will Eisner’s charming adventurer in The Spirit, rather we have scenes where a battered and bullet-torn Denny Colt walks around at night in the falling snow, ruminating darkly on his relationship with the city in the manner of big lummox Marv out of ‘Sin City’. Eisner’s wondrous gallery of femme fatales likewise are less based on the Hollywood starlets of the 30s and 40s like Veronica Lake and Barbara Stanwick than Miller’s own creations, Sand Serif becoming an ambiguous Elektra figure with a dead father and Plaster of Paris transformed into a deadly sword-wielding and shuriken-throwing warrior in the mould of Miho from Sin City. This is less ‘Will Eisner’s The Spirit’ than Frank Miller’s ‘The Spirit On Vacation in Sin City’.
And if that sounds ridiculous, wait until you get a load of the plot. Mysteriously escaping death having been shot while on duty as a rookie cop in Central City, Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht) is now able to terrorise the criminal underworld as a masked crime-fighter without fear of dying. Here, as The Spirit, he gets caught up on one side in a battle with his nemesis, an arrogant, cackling, neo-Nazi, genetic scientist criminal called The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) and his partner in crime, the glamorous and highly intelligent but morally derelict Silken Floss (Scarlett Johannson), seeking immortality in an ancient artefact; and on the otherside, he reencounters the deadly Sand Serif (Eva Mendes), former childhood sweetheart of Denny Colt gone bad, on a quest for her lost childhood in the shape of an ancient mythological artefact. The fence handling the legendary exhibits is however taken out rather over-enthusiastically by the dumb clones (Louis Lombardi) created The Octopus and the criminals end up with the wrong artefacts in their possession. Needing to exchange them, both have reasons for getting the interfering Spirit out of the way of their transaction.
The best you can say about the plot is that it is extremely silly, but I mean that as a compliment. In a movie industry that is obsessed with making superheroes real people with real feelings, motivations and emotions, striving to show their actions having real consequences, The Spirit comes as a breath of fresh air. That’s not going to please modern cinema audiences, entrenched as it is within Frank Miller’s worldview and littered with comicbook references (a reference to Eisner’s Dropsie Avenue alluded to in a throwaway comment suggests depths in the background of the characters that will be lost on most viewers). The average movie-goer isn’t going to have a clue what this is about, since it isn’t a movie and (thankfully) it doesn’t even try to work as a movie. It’s a comic on the screen. Unfortunately, it’s not going to please Will Eisner fans either, although I wish it would because, even though it looks nothing like Eisner’s style, to my mind it embodies all the craft, invention, sexiness, fluidity, unpredictability, irreverence and just the sheer fun that Eisner showed the medium as being capable of producing. It will please Frank Miller fans (though god knows there are few of those in the movie world), particularly those eagerly waiting for the Sin City sequels, since it’s the best comic work he has done in over a decade (can we just pretend that ‘300’ and ‘DK2’ never happened?). Except it’s meant to be a movie. That’s a brave and wonderfully irreverent thing to do, but it’s also unfortunately the reason why a lot of people are going to have problems with The Spirit.