The Spirit (Movie) Review, Or Should I Say: Frank Miller’s Will Eisner’s The Spirit
It is amazing to me that someone who worships Will Eisner (the genius behind the original Spirit comics) like director Frank Miller could do such an amazingly awful job of adapting The Spirit to film. It fails on two levels: as a film and as an adaptation.
As a film, this is easily the worst thing I’ve seen in 2008. Possibly in the last 5 years (though I did avoid War of the Worlds, so I can’t The Spirit was necessarily worse than that). The only place The Spirit succeeds is in the realm of eye candy (where Scarlett Johansson’s character even self-identifies herself as such). If you want to see Eva Mendes and Paz Vega in skimpy costumes, Frank Miller is happy to accommodate you. Past that, there isn’t much to recommend it.
Some people will talk up the green screen special effects as cutting edge. My take is that while they’re occasionally effective, unlike Sin City or 300 (the other two green screen flicks based on Miller’s work), the green screens don’t have the same impact. The color palette seems less deliberate. The impact of the background varies greatly from sequence to sequence. It too often falls into the absurd at the detriment of the viewer. The action effects are adequate, but they can’t make up their mind what they want to be.
Director Miller seems completely unable to settle on a tone for the film. He draws a noir landscape with the shadows trademark to his drawing style. He has campy henchmen with names on their black t-shirts straight out of an episode of the ’60s version of Batman. He has a lengthy discussion of a character’s Electra Complex, referencing his famous Marvel Comics character Elektra (a Daredevil supporting character who was the basis for the Jennifer Garner box office bomb of the same name) that might have been cute had it not gone on for a couple minutes. He has frequent expository dialogue where you’re not sure if The Spirit is talking to himself or breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience. One fight scene will be a straight forward shooting or stabbing, the next will involve hitting someone with a toilet.
Miller seems to be trying to exert an absurd sense of humor, but the problem is the baseline of the narrative is so all over the place, there’s no sense of normal to contrast the absurdist jokes with. There is no straight man or reaction shot. The net effect is what might conceivably be funny is something you just stare at and wonder what’s going on.
Eva Mendes takes a photocopy of her backside and tells her victim he’s made a perfect ass of himself. Then the Spirit recognizes the photocopy and takes it around the city showing to people and asking if they’ve seen it. Now, this concept could be funny. The film and the acting are stilted to the noir side, emphasizing a death threat, and then treating it as a serious clue, so instead of the humor, so the gag comes off flat and out of place, with the only real chuckle being a sight-gag on who recognizes the photocopy. Shot differently, it could be a hoot.
The whole movie flows (or doesn’t flow) like all the elements are handled wrong and nothing works like it should. Or to put it in more simply: Samuel L. Jackson is in silly costumes, going off on a rant and it ends up being boring and uncomfortable instead of entertaining. If Samuel L. Jackson is boring, then something is wrong with both the script and how he’s being shot.
If Miller had Rodriguez riding shotgun, I don’t think the wires get mixed. I also don’t know if there was any purpose for the green screen effects other than Miller wanted the film to resemble his drawings and that’s the only way he knows to direct.
On the adaptation side, there are so very many things wrong, it’s hard to decide where to start. The most obvious bit is the entire super hero plot. The Spirit has no super powers (he heals super quick in the film). Wolverine is the character who heals quickly. The Octopus was not a villain with healing powers (he does in the film). Sabretooth, Wolverine’s arch-enemy is a villain with healing powers. (Please note, many years ago Miller drew a very good Wolverine mini-series, though it did not involve Sabretooth. More ironically, a trailer for the new Wolverine movie with Sabretooth as a villain preceded my screening of The Spirit.)
Many people have commented over the years that The Spirit comic was as much about the city as it was The Spirit, owing to several excellent stories in which The Spirit, himself, was just a background character. This is presumably where the “my city screams” tagline comes from. Thing is, Miller takes this a step too far. Miller has interpreted this (which is odd, because it’s an interpretation of literary criticism) to mean the the city is literally the love of The Spirit’s life. In the original comic, Ellen Dolan is clearly the love interest. The Spirit runs into a number of lovely femme fatales who have designs on him (though that’s really defined by P’Gell, who isn’t in this film), but he’s definitely running back to Ellen. As part of Miller’s interpretation, The Spirit is true only to the city and hits on every woman he meets like Jack Nicholson with a Viagra overdose, but can’t commit because the city is his one true love. The himbo role is truly a reversal.
In the comics, The Spirit has noir overtones in specific episodes, but largely is more more whimsical thing with cartoon violence that consists mainly of fisticuffs. Miller takes things into cartoon ultraviolence, as in shaking the bullets out of your head after you’ve taken six shots to the forehead at close range. In fairness to intention, Miller may have been trying to keep it light with the exaggeration, but couldn’t remotely pull it off.
Then, as an add-on to the healing super power, you have The Spirit being haunted by Lorelei, some sort of angel of death in a sexy body enticing him to give in and die. Not a clue where that came from.
I’m not going to complain that Miller dresses the Spirit in black and red, instead of the classic blue suit. If you’re going to shoot the film like Sin City, the red and black makes for better contrast. I am going to ask why Miller thought it necessary to turn The Spirit into a science fiction-tinged version of Sin City, though.
Recommendation: Wait for television. And that’s for the morbidly curious.