Frank Miller has played fair with his source material in making The Spirit; it's a pity the film doesn't succeed.
He uses the techniques and the look of Sin City, which he made with Robert Rodriguez (2005; a Sin City 2 and Sin City 3 have been announced, tentatively, for 2009 and 2010), and he might have tried to force this film into that mold. But while both are noir and play with noir conventions, and both are based in comics, the differences between them are crucial.
The world of Will Eisner's Spirit is gritty, yes; his hero gives and takes beatings, fights crime in a tough city, and is involved with various femmes fatales. If it's less sexually and violently explicit than Miller's material, that might be ascribed in part to its period and venue: the Spirit was published as a syndicated newspaper supplement in the 1940s and 1950s; Miller's comics were made to be sold in comics shops primarily to adults. Miller's style in the Sin City comics is bleak and striking; he uses contrasting black and white almost as violently as his characters use their fists, with splashes of color at key moments, a use carried over into the Sin City film. But in keeping with Eisner's more cartoony, less-slick style, there is in the Spirit and his world often a sense of humor and always a sense of humanity, two elements lacking in Miller's work.
The roots of characters like the Spirit may be in popular adventure fiction primarily aimed at adults, such as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), pulp adventure stories like those of Zorro (starting 1919), and even older popular fictions, going back at least to masked heroes in 18th- and 19th-century Gothics, including a De Quincey hero called "The Masque," or perhaps even further, to such heroes as Robin Hood. But his immediate predecessors were comics aimed first and foremost at children, or readers at a childlike level of comprehension. One need only look at the early Batman stories to see, from their crudity of drawing, writing, plot, and understanding of how the world works, that they are aimed at an eight-to-twelve-year-old level of sophistication, if that.
To an extent, Eisner was saddled with some of the infantile conventions of comics, which later grew restrictive, as the Spirit's perhaps obligatory sidekick, a painfully stereotyped black boy named Ebony (not included in the film), later became an embarrassment. The Spirit's situation is inherently ridiculous—a man whose tiny mask, which he always wears (sometimes to comic effect), hardly hides his identity from anyone, living beneath a cemetery and fighting crime in league with the police but outside the law.
But Eisner's work was superior partly because of his innate talent and intelligence, partly because his medium was aimed at an "all ages" audience—adult newspaper buyers, first and foremost, but with the understanding that kids read the comics.
While Eisner's work was saddled with a premise suitable for children, it is not, however, adolescent, not self-important, self-pitying, and dramatic in the way that noir often is. There's something almost inevitably immature about the romanticism of the noir and hardboiled sensibility, no matter how attractive and sophisticated the presentation, from Raymond Chandler to William Gibson. Chandler's Marlowe and his short story precursors, even if sexually active, live in the kind of pre-relationship sphere of unconnectedness to others inhabited by the heroes and heroines of fairy tales; so much so that when a weary and lonely Chandler finally gave Marlowe a relationship, it was the abortive end of the series. So despite the enjoyable virtues of Robert B. Parker's Spenser books, the fact of Spenser's long-term, intimate relationship with Susan (a character cordially hated by many mystery fans) is one reason they will never be of exactly the same sort as Chandler's, and one indication of why his Chandler pastiches fail. Gibson's early cyberpunk tales operate in an almost painfully adolescent world, all pose and flash and taking oneself very seriously.
Miller's own comics, especially the Sin City series, are fully noir in that adolescent sense: self-dramatically gloomy, exaggerated, full of self-pity, of showy self-sacrifice, grandstanding, and pretensions his fictional world takes seriously. A little bright light, a touch of banality, or the right kind of laughter, would burst the whole bubble. He projects all that through a graphic screen of highly stylized and completely unfeeling sex and violence, to make a striking, sadistic, and romantically seductive pornography that is so well done technically that one is willing, for the duration, to set aside its vileness.
Some of Miller's taste for violence comes through in The Spirit, but there were plenty of fights in the original, and the Spirit's ability to come back from a beating fell somewhere between the supernatural and the comically exaggerated. Miller has enhanced that invulnerability, given it a science fictional basis (albeit a vague, handwavy one), and tied it in to the Spirit's origin in a way that makes sense. Even though his explanation employs an element of the fantastic not in the source material, it paradoxically works to make the character more believable, to make his living in a cemetery and his ability to absorb punishment seem more reasonable and less like conventions of a comic book for kiddies.
Eisner's splash pages were famous for spelling out "THE SPIRIT" using elements of the background in elaborate, sometimes semi-comic ways, so Miller is again playing fair giving us his own version of Eisner's Central City with a certain amount of stylization. Of course, he brings his own sensibility to bear, and the methods he used in Sin City: a mixture of the hyperreal and cartoony; of strong visual contrasts; muted colors, where there are colors (similar to the coloring in 300, another Miller project, based on his own comic series); and partial animation, generally rotoscoped, which gives the viewer a sense of reality and animation mixed. All these various means work to combine one strain of the noir sensibility—intense emotions, heightened reality, and unreality all mixed—with Miller's similar style and Eisner's gritty and comical take.
Unfortunately, the film's sense of style is only visual; it doesn't extend to either the writing or the acting. The dialogue is, one supposes, meant to enhance the noir sense of heightened drama and self-consciously poetic emotion, and at the same time to share in a sense of overt stylization and even slight goofiness, all of which the film tries to pull off at once. But unlike the visual presentation, it merely seems stilted, unconvincing, or even stupidly silly. Gabriel Macht's voice-over narration as the Spirit, especially a few set pieces in which he speaks of the city as his true love, and of himself as its Spirit, is lame in all senses; it limps, the speeches are embarrassing, one simply wishes them over.
Macht looks right for the role, but his talent ends there. His emotional range and ability to project it seem to end at "vehemence," which means speaking loudly and looking irritated. Up until now he seems mostly to have had supporting roles, and perhaps that was for the best. His readings are wooden, he projects no charisma or interest.
But better actors than he seem all at sea here. Scarlett Johansson has little to work with playing the Octopus's sidekick, Silken Floss (trying to finance her way through grad school!), and does even less. She comes across as a more colorless Frau Farbissina, of the Austin Powers films, and in most scenes is out-acted by her cleavage.
Dan Lauria lurches from one cliché to another in his portrayal of tough, fatherly, and good-hearted Police Commissioner Dolan. Sarah Paulson, as his daughter Ellen, here a surgeon who tends the Spirit's wounds, rather than the comic's marriage-minded good girl trying to rope him in, at times seems tenderly affected, but can't do much with what's given her. Eva Mendes does a bit more as femme fatale and Spirit love interest Sand Saref, but also seems lost, at times, in uncomfortable lines and embarrassing moments, such as one where she photocopies her posterior.
Only the redoubtable Samuel L. Jackson comes close to carrying off his role as the criminal superman, the Octopus, and even he doesn't quite manage, especially in one Nazi-themed scene that seems gratuitously offensive. If even Jackson fails, it's time to look to the writing and direction.
A major problem is that Miller, attempting to be true to his source, seems to have had no real grasp on how to convey the sometimes kidding, goofy, silly side of the Spirit comics, and seems to have fallen back on models such as the Austin Powers films, the Batman TV series (1966-68), and to a lesser extent, perhaps, Warren Beatty's ill-conceived Dick Tracy (1990). The Octopus is served by a series of cloned henchmen whose names all end in "-os": Ethos, Pathos, Logos, but also Huevos, Rancheros, Bozos, and, possibly, Dildos, all of whom have their names printed on their shirts in large letters. They're played by Louis Lombardi as genially murderous idiots in a way that strongly evokes the 1960s Batman (one waits for the "POW" balloons) and also the Beagle Boys, dog villains in Disney's Scrooge McDuck comics, who are identified by the prison numbers prominently displayed on their shirts.
Miller also doesn't seem to know what to do about period. He has material from the 1940s but for some reason didn't want to set the film in that time, so he gives us an uncomfortable mix of contemporary and period piece: the Spirit wears a fedora but carries a cell phone.
Of course, the film takes place in a physics-free zone, but that seems true of every action movie, even those pretending to be based in reality. If you're hit by bullets but are wearing bullet-proof clothing, the bullets have no real effect—no broken bones, for instance. If you fall hundreds of feet and are caught on something by a piece of clothing, you don't, say, have your arms ripped out, or at least dislocated; if you don't actually hit the ground, you're home free.
To work—if a film trying to do so many things could work—The Spirit would have needed dialogue and acting that made its characters seem larger-than-life. Because neither made the grade, the result is spoofy rather than impressive, stylized without being stylish. We're left with a set-up for sequels, but it's doubtful that even the Spirit can come back from the blow this film deals him.
Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published seventeen short stories, with more forthcoming, and more than two hundred nonfiction pieces, including reviews in Publishers Weekly. He currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book-export business.
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