Frank Miller generally performs well at the drafting table. He performed well as Robert Rodriguez’ sidekick, clapping in delight each time he saw one of his panels come to life via green-screen. He doesn’t perform so well when he’s left alone in the studio with a passel of actors and techs staring at him with raised eyebrows, waiting for direction. Miller’s adaptation of The Spirit flails onscreen, and its death throes can’t even be mined for entertainment value. At best, The Spirit may find half-life some day as a novelty movie — something along the lines of the Star Wars Holiday Special or Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD. It’s the kind of movie that might be a howl to watch in a drunken group setting but makes you want to claw your eyes out if you watch it alone. The novelty factor will be especially bright if Miller’s never given a solo film project again, which looks likely; it’ll be something for next-generation mega-fans to fondle ironically some day. As it stands, The Spirit is so underwhelming that it could put fans of Sin City off the (upcoming?) sequels, the way a moldy crouton puts you off not just the entire salad but also the main course wending its way to your table. Miller’s handling of The Spirit is so pokey, in other words, that it threatens to tank the graphic panel stylization which until now looked as if it might become its own particular film genre.
You can’t fault someone like Miller for wanting to take a stab at the project. The Millers and Moores of the comic world admit to the impact of Will Eisner’s influence on their work. When Eisner launched The Spirit series in 1940 (with the help of a handful of co-writers), the grit that still informs today’s graphic novels was all over movie screens but rarely located in newsprint panels. Eisner helped bring real noir to the black backgrounds of the comic strip, along with half-hearted social conscience. He played with genres, turning The Spirit into a cocked fusion that proved popular enough to keep the strip going for over a decade and to inspire graphic artists on both sides of the pond years on. Eisner’s series, however flawed, is a classic, and its fans demand that the strip be treated not just with care but with extreme competence. Miller, working out of his depth in a medium he seems to understand only vicariously, has let those fans, and Eisner, down. But detaching The Spirit from its history and looking at the movie as a stand-alone piece of film doesn’t elevate the product in the least, either. Amateur direction almost always leaves a particular sheen that congeals over a work. In efforts like The Spirit, that sheen is the only thing that holds an otherwise incoherent scramble together, and it coats the acting, the line delivery and even the blocking a certain sour way. Miller is either very tentative or very reckless behind the helm; he’s certainly not schooled enough in filmmaking to pull off the deliberate camp he aims for, which almost always fizzles even in more experienced hands.
The basic elements of Eisner’s vision remain intact in movie form. The Spirit tells the story of Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht), a cop who remains suspended somewhere between life and death after catching a bullet. Rather than rotting underground, the Spirit fights crime in a domino mask and fedora. He works in the shadows for Central City’s Commissioner Dolan (Dan Lauria) and he’s generally useful, except when he gets addled by women; every woman in Central City is beautiful, and only a handful aren’t the far end of deadly. Apart from Dolan’s daughter Ellen (Sarah Paulson) and the odd damsel in distress, the Spirit can’t trust anything with tits. There’s his childhood sweetheart Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), a femme fatale characterized by her lust for money and gems; Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), a scientist on an arch-villain’s payroll; Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega), an assassin who belly dances up to her victims; Morgenstern (Stana Katic), a goofball rookie cop who shoots off a little too much friendly fire; and Lorelei Rox (Jaime King), the angel of death who’s eager to claim Colt for her side. Like Miller seems to be himself, the Spirit exists in a world gendered black and white, where women are always soft in all the right places, where they’re dressed in various fuck-fantasy costumes, and where they’re almost always looking for ways to mess with the penis. The Spirit also has to contend with the Octopus, motherfucked by Samuel L. Jackson dialed to his most outrageous — again. Miller’s version is a hybrid of the original Octopus — a master of disguise — and Dr. Cobra, the villain who mucked with Colt’s system in the original series and made him immortal. We don’t see Dr. Cobra in the movie. Instead we see pretty much all we’ll ever want to see of Jackson in over-the-top mode, stuffed into a parade of costumes more desperate to get a laugh than Gilbert Gottfried.
Miller has tried to reproduce the strip’s mash-up of noir, slapstick, fantasy, and social reportage, but his mix doesn’t cohere. His comedy falls flat and his bizarre tableaux waft that stink of desperation mentioned above, which is usually attached to poor Jackson. The Octopus and his hench-persons soup it up on fantasy stages that include a seppuku world and a Nazi Germany world, which almost almost almost work in their oddness. Johannson’s wooden shtick helps to forgive Jackson’s stink-bomb lines and places them on the edge of brilliant — but we can’t help being aware that her woodenness is partly due to an absence of talent (thespian and directorial), and that Miller probably considers those lines uncritically clever. It’s either that, or he believes he’s made a rollicking cult hit of the so-bad-it’s-good variety, but that takes a certain kind of gift, just as making a convincing film takes a certain kind of gift. Miller gives us neither; he can only give us something half-formed that time — and lots of it — may be able to knead into cult substance, but for now we’re forced to eat a bucketful of starter rather than honest to god comedic bread. The humor rings hollow, and the false notes are compounded by the lackluster story (forgivable in better films) and the meaningless allusions to all things Greek: Elektra complexes, the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece, Herakles, and Disney-humor winks n’ nudges at Hellenic vocab.
The sputtering plot follows Sand Saref’s quest for the Golden Fleece and the Octopus’ quest for the blood of Herakles, whose demi-god juice will somehow transform the Octopus into a full-blown divine. Sand and the Octopus are at odds over the same two treasure chests, and the Spirit winds up in the middle of the showdown. It’s too bad that Macht is rudderless in the lead role, because he might have otherwise given the story something to gel around, or given the movie a shot of character. The Spirit’s player should be charismatic — he should be the centerpiece, but that honor is left to the look of the film. Like the movie versions of Sin City and 300, The Spirit’s visuals are faithful to the sequential-art formula and to many of the source material’s original panels. The movie’s world shifts between monochromatic grays and browns — dotted by a single spot of red — and splintering black-and-white contrast. The effect is, of course, eye-candy for fans of graphic novels, who may or may not have had their fill yet of seeing static loved ones animated on a screen. But while Rodriguez was able to bolster Sin City’s dazzling comic-come-to-life effects with an adequate enough tension (even if he failed to direct the actors well), solo Miller is forced to rely on visuals completely and lets all other aspects of filmmaking slide. The actors rush through their lines and look a little lost onscreen, especially Macht, Johansson, and Lombardi, who plays several versions of a lunkhead cloned to infinity. Paulson holds her own, and Jackson no question gives his role everything he’s got, and Mendes is 80% steady and only 20% crap, but no one gives their character even the illusion of depth, which Sin City’s actors by and large managed to pull out of their archetypes.
Given the inevitable comparisons to Sin City, and given the affection many have for Eisner’s source material, turning The Spirit into a film would have been a risky proposition even for someone like Rodriguez or Del Toro or Raimi or any other director who knows his way around a set and appreciates the comic book’s influence on his own craft. The odds were stacked against anyone game enough to try; the camp approach to Chandleresque noir has been done, undone, and done again, and the slapstick that would have been accepted as natural (and probably always funny) in the 1940s is becoming harder and harder to pull off. The Spirit is tenderly dated and could only have been revived by a more nuanced thinker. Miller has never been nuanced or (dare I say it) much of a thinker’s thinker, however wonderful and troubling his graphic novels, and however deeply his paper worlds penetrate our bulks. Opening up ideas of love, loyalty, and protection demands a storymaker’s full attention, however “shallow” those ideas may appear as they play out in the comic genre. Onscreen, they bring the illusion of life with them — the distance closes and the audience expects the director’s full support. Miller delivers a half-formed result, as if his attention span gave out midway through the project. His cinematic world looks about as deep as a page. How he manages to give a degree of depth to mere paper in his graphic novels, yet make a “living” screen look so insubstantial, is this week’s peanut-gallery poser. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on December 28, 2008.)