It was the best of comics. It was the worst of films.
The Spirit Movie: A Tale of Two Storytellers
Early in The Spirit, there’s a no-holds-barred, over-the-top slug fest between the Spirit and his long-time nemesis, the Octopus. As they pound on each other with toilets and ridiculously oversized wrenches, it’s impossible not to notice the industrial sludge they are covered with, which disturbingly looks like some kind of excrement. Sadly, this would be entirely appropriate since the one thing Frank Miller’s film succeeds in doing is taking a giant dump on Will Eisner’s creation.
Frank Miller, the comic book artist, had nothing but respect for Will Eisner’s genius as a graphic storyteller (the two men were actually good friends), but Frank Miller, the film director, seems to have little or no faith in Eisner’s innovative and influential comic. The humor, humanity, and sheer joy of visual storytelling have all been stripped away, and Miller, in a desperate attempt to give The Spirit movie a kind of “edge cred,” has retrofitted the comic with a contemporary “attitude,” pumped it up with exaggerated, over-the-top action, and injected it with a terminal dose of “irony” steroids.
From the picture’s first frame, Miller’s Spirit is at odds with Eisner’s comic. This is a film that cries out to be set in the late ’40s, but instead is set in some kind of yester-today, a place where Miller can pick and choose the elements he wants: cell phones and high-tech weaponry from the present, classic cars and tough-guy dialogue from the ’40s. It isn’t the past, and it isn’t the present but instead an unexplained mix of the two, with only one real purpose: to make life easy for a filmmaker who can’t decide how to tell his story.
Then there’s the look of the film. In the comic, the Spirit’s adventures were never genre specific and ranged from noir to sci-fi, gothic to comedy, and fantasy to drama, with Eisner adapting and changing the style, tone, and storytelling techniques he used to create each comic. Frank Miller, on the other hand, seems trapped within a single cinematic approach and is incapable of modifying or even altering it. His style is graphic (both in film and comics), embracing the two-dimensionality of the image, often eliminating backgrounds altogether, depending on bold, striking compositions. This approach works fine for something that is cold and kinetic like Miller’s Sin City but is inappropriate for The Spirit, which depends on pacing, atmosphere, and character nuance.
Another difference is the “cartoony” look of The Spirit comic. Will Eisner chose this style because he wanted to emphasize the “acting” and show, not just the expressions of his characters, but the range of their reactions. In contrast, the characters in Miller’s Spirit are exaggerated freaks: one-dimensional, one-note stereotypes stuck in a single emotion without the ability or need to express anything except their one defining characteristic (e.g., maniacal bad guy, sexy love interest, and idiotic henchman). As for the character of the Spirit, Miller has turned him into a kind of Batman/Wolverine hybrid, super strong and with the ability to self-regenerate after being mortally wounded. The comic book Spirit, by contrast, was a smart, funny detective, and the only concession made to the superhero genre was to give him a secret identity. Other than that, he was just another guy.
Even putting aside whether the movie is a faithful adaptation of the comic or not, taken on its own, the script for the Spirit is hamstrung and bogged down by lazy writing. The Spirit and the Octopus go mono-o-monologue in scene after scene, breaking into either a full-blown rant or sharing a telling memory, providing unasked for character motivation and backstory. Samuel L. Jackson as the Octopus can almost get away with his maniacal tirades since this is tried-and-true (if not particularly original) evil madman behavior. Gabriel Macht as the Spirit isn’t so lucky. He comes off as slightly addled when the Spirit unexpectedly reveals his deepest secrets to a stray cat or, even worse, simply talks to himself.
Late in the film, the pointless appearance of Nazi iconography signals the moment the story is completely out of ideas. A stone eagle and a swastika provide the background for the Octopus as he struts around in SS drag, carrying on about how he and the Spirit really aren’t all that different from one another. But why the Nazi paraphernalia? Is it to help distract from yet another backstory filibuster? Or maybe it’s a ham-fisted attempt to comment on the Octopus’s plan to become not just a superman but a god. More than likely, the black uniforms and swastikas are there simply because they look sinister and cool.
Frank Miller can be forgiven many wrongs: unintentionally trashing a great character, directing a film that seems designed to disappoint both Sin City and Spirit fans, and even killing the possibility of someone else ever making a Spirit film. But here’s the real problem: it’s difficult to imagine anyone seeking out Eisner’s creation on the printed page after seeing this film, and that would be unforgivable.
Fortunately, every Spirit story Will Eisner ever drew is collected in a set of 26 hardback books. The Spirit Archives contain some of the best visual storytelling ever done by anyone in any medium. Maybe Frank Miller should take another look at it.