A film review by Craig J. Koban





2008, PG-13, 108 mins.

The Spirit: Gabriel Macht / The Octopus: Samuel L. Jackson / Silken Floss: Scarlett Johansson / Sand Saref: Eva Mendes / Ellen: Sarah Paulson / Plaster of Paris: Paz Vega

Written and directed by Frank Miller / Based on the comic book series created by Will Eisner

The tagline on the advertising for the new comic book film THE SPIRIT has the main hero exclaiming, “My City Screams.”  That is only a partially apt descriptor of this film: If anything, THE SPIRIT caused me to scream as I fled the theatre.  It’s one of the crummiest examples of the comic book movie genre that I’ve seen…HOWARD THE DUCK included. 

In the annals of irreproachably bad comic book adaptations, this one takes the cake.  I am not sure what is all the more shocking about this criminally mishandled effort: the fact that it is based on one of the most important comic book creations of the 20th century that was written and drawn by one of the most distinguished pioneers of the art form or that the film is written and directed by another of the medium’s most influential creative forces.  In the natural scheme of things, this should have been a recipe made in cinematic heaven - a win-win -  but the way that Frank Miller so drastically fumbles the ball with THE SPIRIT in so many incalculable ways is almost an accomplishment in itself.  I sincerely believe that a talentless hack could have not had the mad fortitude to make a film this dreadful and dramatically flaccid.   

Miller, at least on an artistic level, is definitely no hack.  In terms of comic book creators, he has more than cemented himself alongside the all-time greats.  His run on Marvel’s DAREDEVIL has always been cherished by fans, and the way he inalterably changed Batman’s image in the 1986 graphic novel series, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, is widely regarded as one of the defining comic books of the last 30 years (alongside THE WATCHMEN – soon to be seeing its way to the cinema – DARK KNIGHT revolutionized the industry and made lay people that considered comics crude children’s entertainment change their perceptions about the art form).  Miller inevitably made his foray into movies by screenwriting two of the ROBOCOP sequels, which were critically maligned.  His experience with Hollywood based on his ROBOCOP days jaded him so much that he swore never to return…that is until Robert Rodriguez came knocking on his door with an offer for him to co-direct Miller’s own SIN CITY graphic novel.  After that film’s success came Zach Synder’s wonderfully stylized 300, and the two films in tandem represented the most pure and faithful comic book adaptations ever committed to celluloid. 

Miller’s newfound clout should have made THE SPIRIT a success for everyone involved.  He considered the late, great Will Eisner a friend and mentor and held the highest respect for his landmark work on THE SPIRIT comics.  Originally appearing as a seven-page insert in 1940, it was quickly evident how Eisner was radically departing from comic book norms and conventions with his use unique panel compositions, playful use of light and shadow, and also aiming the series at a distinctive adult audience.  Eisner himself even coined the much-used terms “graphic novel” in hopes of that more people would begin to consider comics as something beyond kiddie fare.  After recently flipping through some of the best SPIRIT comic reprints in my collection, it’s clear why Eisner’s work is so influential:  It was a brilliant hybrid of film noir, action-adventure, and all punctuated by a healthy balance between humor and dark pathos.  His Spirit never felt like a marginalized character, nor was he ever dumbed down for mass reader consumption. 

Miller’s film version of THE SPIRIT certainly captures the visual flavor of his mentor’s original comic pages.  Using similar techniques that were used to stupendous success on 2005’s SIN CITY, Miller utilizes a digital backlot, filming actors and set pieces in front of gigantic green screens and then filling in everything around them with CGI compositions.  I found this approach was fantastic in SIN CITY and 300 because it perfectly captured the dynamism and almost ethereal, otherworldly appeal of comic book visuals.  Using these high-end tools of digital fakery, alongside lavish cinematography by the always-dependable Bill Pope (who also shot THE MATRIX TRILOGY and a couple of the SPIDER-MAN films), Miller’s real forte in THE SPIRIT is in encapsulating Eisner’s imagery for the silver screen.  There is a lot to look at here and simply drink in and admire. 

Yet, THE SPIRIT is absolutely dead on arrival on a story, character, and performance level.  The whole film is about how substance is all but suffocated by broad stylistic hubris.  Flashy visuals are nothing unless you have a human connection to the underlining material.  Miller’s SPIRIT (not Eisner’s) is painted as the single most disinteresting film comic book hero in any recent film.  He's bland, flavorless, and appallingly lacking in charisma.  He’s the dullest of dull leading men, which is not assisted by the fact that he is surrounded by other characters that give performances more akin to puppets on marionettes than anything flesh and blood personas could muster.  Also factor in a plot that never once gels with any reasonable interest and intrigue and all we are left with is two hours of boring eye candy. 

Gabriel Macht plays THE SPIRIT in question, complete with Robin-styled mask and long trenchcoat (in pure comic book form, no one has the ability to recognize his real identity under that thin mask).  We see his origins in quick flashback where we learn that he was inadvertently granted the power of invulnerability.  Like Wolverine, he can recover and regenerate very quickly.  This, of course, makes the character and the story he occupies egregiously lacking in any tension or intrigue.  If the man can’t be killed, then it’s very hard to feel any apprehension about his exploits.  With suspense utterly drained away, The Spirit becomes a hero that lacks interest altogether.  This is compounded by the fact that he is always appearing in costume.  The best of the comic films knew that the key to making us care about their respective heroes was in developing their alter egos.  Miller does none of that here. 

The Spirit has one main nemesis, named The Octopus (played in a monumentally silly performance that is unalterably all over the emotional map by Samuel L. Jackson) that also has his powers of recuperation too.  This makes their fights really tedious and unexciting.  The Octopus, like all mad villains, has a plan to steal – I kid you not – a vase containing the blood of Hercules in hopes of transforming himself into an immortal.  At Octopus’ side is a chesty scientist named Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson, never more horribly wooden and stiff) and his small army of cloned henchmen (all played by Louis Lombardi, who plays up to every single brainless henchmen cliché in the book…but in the form of three characters on screen at the same time...which means three times more horrible).  

The Spirit does have some allies in the form of a sassy and resourceful doctor named Ellen, (Sarah Paulsen) and her father, Police Chief (Dan Lauria).  Ellen ahs always had eyes for The Spirit, but she is constantly tormented by the fact that he is the single most flirtatious, skirt chasing masked man ever.  Just when The Spirit is about to take his war against The Octopus to the next level, and old flame from his adolescence re-enters his life, Sand Saref (the sexy-as-hell Eva Mendes, very high on seductive energy and spunk here, but categorically low on giving a decent line reading).  Of course, Saref has her hands on the prize that both The Octopus and The Sprit both want to claim, so it’s only a matter of time before all the characters come to ahead in the film’s climatic showdown.  

By the time the film got to that moment, my head started to ache from all of my methodically obsessive watch checking. 

Again, I will say that THE SPIRIT is never boring on a visual level.  It’s nowhere near the polish or has the high-end sheen of 300 or SIN CITY, but Miller does make Eisner’s comic world come vividly to life.  Yet, how could a comic mastermind like Miller – as prominently revered for both his writing and art – make THE SPIRIT just linger there on the screen without a care in the world for an interesting storyline?  Perhaps this is where his skills as a director are abundantly clear – he impeccably knows how to create evocative compositions, but in terms of crafting a good plot and churning out even modestly passable performances from all of his actors seems to have evaded him altogether.  

I rarely wince while watching assemble performances because very few films are terrible enough for me to say that just about everyone is horrendous.  THE SPIRIT occupies that rare spectrum: Aside from Sarah Paulsen and Dan Lauria (the only two to play their respective characters with an earnest and down to earth compassion) there are no other characters in this film that have one iota of humanity to them.  Not a one.  Nadda.  I have never seen actors as unruly, unhinged, undisciplined, and sickeningly mannered as they are here.  Johansson appears to have no clue what she is doing as Floss (she’s totally lost), Samuel Jackson plays his role with such a exasperatingly high, over-the-top tempo (he’s never once scary; he’s just an embarrassingly asinine buffoon), Eva Mendes (looking effortlessly fetching…especially in an all-to-brief shot of her naked derrière) plays her female love interest with the emotional range of a five-year-old child playing dress up, and Gabriel Macht – despite having the right mug and physicality for the role – seems to lack the skills to know whether to play his roles for campy laughs of for straight, dramatic payoffs.  

That latter sentiment goes for the entire film as a whole.  Miller is beyond schizophrenic with his writing in THE SPIRIT, and there has not been a film like this that has suffered from such an improbably inconsistent tone as on display here.  I never got the impression - nor do I believe Miller does either – as to exactly what kind of mood THE SPIRIT is trying to embody.  Is in a comic book farce?  A gritty and violent comic noir?  A semi-satiric jab at comic book noirs?   I just have no clue at all.  Many times characters enunciate with a Raymond Chandler inflection and hard-boiled disposition and in other scenes they banter and bicker endlessly as if the actors believe there are in a Mel Brooks comedy of manners.  Individual moments that are designed to feel serious get unintentional groans and laughter and moments of intended slapstick comedy and would-be uproariously laconic dialogue elicits absolute silence in the theatre.  Miller totally shows no apparent restraint and tact in both directing the actors and writing an engaging screenplay.  He directs like a kid that just got his hands on all of the toys in Hollywood’s treasure trunk without having any clue how to really use them. 

And then some scenes just baffled me in indescribable ways.  In one of the single worst moments in any film of any given year, we see The Spirit captured and tied to a dentist’s chair, ready for a beat down by The Octopus and his goons.  The villain himself emerges, dressed completely in Nazi regalia, alongside Silken Floss, all against the backdrop of large swastika’s and other Third Reich imagery.  Now, as to why The Octopus and company is dressed as Nazis is never once explained (nor did I feel compelled to ask), but my only guess is for cheap, sensationalistic shock value.  Even worse is how this scene goes on and on…and on…with Jackson hysterically reciting one monologue after another about The Spirit’s origins and what he has in store for him.  After several minutes of aggravating monotony, The Spirit, I think, speaks up for the audience by stating how bored he is.  

Never have more truer words been uttered by a character. 

2008 was a masterful year at the movies for comic books.  We initially saw greatness in IRON MAN, which was followed by the very decent film reboot of THE INCREDIBLE HULK and later the genre was transcended by achieving something approaching dark tragedy in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT, the greatest of all comic book films.  Yes, there have been hiccups like HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY and PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, but Frank Miller’s adaptation of Will Eisner’s immortal comic is a regrettable black mark not only on the artistic pioneer’s insurmountable body of work, but also on the solid reputation of the good super hero films released this calendar year.  Miller, to be sure, is a visionary and provocative comic book mind in his own right, but THE SPIRIT is such an alarming failure that you kind of have to wonder whether or not he should just stick to his day job; it shows a talented artist at his most untalented.  

After seeing bad and misguided films I often ask myself, “Who in their right mind would wanna see this?”  After seeing THE SPIRIT I have no answer to that self-imposed query.  Comic books films are supposed to inspire wonder, awe, and giddy, out-of-body exuberance.  To quote one of Roger Ebert’s greatest critical insults he laid out in a bad review, THE SPIRIT is a "film to watch in appalled silence.”

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