Even in the Morbid Curiosity Files, where the acknowledged purpose is to watch films that I expect to be bad, there are sometimes different viewing reasons that come into play. In the case of 2008’s The Spirit, it comes down to a form of self-imposed obligation. I may have long since stopped reading comics, but I remain a comic book fan in principle. I enjoy superhero movies as a genre. I like discussing them with other fans of the genre. This means that even if I don’t expect greatness out of a film in the genre, I usually want to see it anyway just so I can participate in the discussions.
In the case of The Spirit, there’s an extra wrinkle in the form of intellectual honesty. As I have made clear more than once in the past, I am not a fan of Frank Miller; I dislike him as a comic book writer, and I have disliked everything of his I’ve seen on film. He wrote the Sin City graphic novels, which I disliked, and co-directed the first movie adaptation (and its upcoming sequel) with Robert Rodriguez. I didn’t think the change in medium improved it. He wrote the graphic novel 300, which Zack Snyder adapted into a movie that I found hysterically funny even though it wasn’t meant to be. He wrote The Dark Knight Returns, a Batman story that I’m in the minority of disliking severely, both on its own merits and for the long-term damage it did to the character’s portrayal.
So when I learned he would be writing the screenplay for The Spirit, and that it would be his first solo directorial effort, I was concerned.
I’m half-surprised he didn’t put him in leather armor.
A little background, for those who don’t read comics: The Spirit was one of the earliest costumed crimefighter comics, created in 1940; not quite as old as Batman and Superman, but only by a handful of months. He belongs to the same generation of characters as The Shadow and The Phantom, with a similar nature: Somebody who is mostly a human crimefighter, but with just a hint of something more. In the case of The Spirit, it was only a hint, with Denny Colt surviving what should have been a fatal shooting thanks to a mad scientist’s experiment. Beyond that, he was simply a guy in a fedora and mask, fighting the good fight just slightly outside of the law. He was the creation of Will Eisner, who wrote and drew all the original stories. It’s been referred to as the “Citizen Kane of comics”; a grandiose nickname, perhaps, but Eisner’s writing was a cut above the teen-oriented superhero comics of the day, and his artwork was done with a great attention to detail and film-style imagery. It’s one of the most lauded creations of the medium and genre. I admit I have read only a small portion of it, a “best of” trade paperback, but it was enough to see the high quality of the work.
Eisner died in 2005, and one of his last acts was to preserve his character by selling it to DC Comics, and thus to Warner Brothers. DC wasted little time in producing new The Spirit comics, initially by Darwin Cooke, who approached it with respect to Eisner’s original storytelling and style. Had Cooke been in charge of the film it may have turned out better. But Frank Miller was reportedly keen on it from the beginning, and at the time he had the clout at Warner Brothers to get the job. Now, as stated above, this gave me considerable doubt as to the quality of the film. I decided to avoid paying for it, and gave serious thought to skipping it entirely (and have for a little more than five years now). Negative reviews reinforced this decision. What got me to eventually view it — besides it briefly being up on Crackle and Hulu for free — is the desire to actually be able to say what I suspected. If I haven’t seen a film, I can say it looks bad, but I cannot say it is bad. I can’t truly know until I’ve seen it. So, even though I expected it to be terrible, I resolved to watch it and hope that it surprised me.
Surprised? Yes. Pleasantly? No.
The film is a mess in just about every way imaginable. Miller’s writing bears little resemblance to Eisner’s; where the comic was witty, the film is pure cornball. There are times when it seems he’s writing a deliberate parody of the original property, but if so it’s an indecisive parody; there are many more times when he appears to be completely serious about the ludicrous nature of the story. The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) is haunted by the spectre of death, here depicted as a woman named Lorelei played by Jaime King. His resurrection is more explicitly supernatural, and the central story revolves around the arch-villain Octopus trying to get ahold of the blood of Hercules to achieve immortality.
Miller demonstrates once again that while he enjoys film noir, he does not understand how to create it. The dialogue here is essentially one cliche or cornball quip delivered after another in either rapid fire succession or dramatic shouting, as apparently directed by Miller. Macht grumbles about how his city bleeds, and Samuel L. Jackson yells from the rooftops on stealth operations. While I was previously unfamiliar with Macht’s work, the other actors include Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johannson, and Jackson, all of whom I have seen better delivery from. Here, everybody is either constipated or screaming, sometimes switching from one to the other from one sentence to the next.
Visually, the film is striking, but not in an impressive way. It is merely strange. It bears some similarity to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and 300 in that some colors are desaturated and others are blown out. The effect is that nearly everything is either blue-grey or a strangely intense shade of brown, with the occasional bit of red added as spot color. Scientists in the past few years have amended the old claim of dogs being colorblind to say that they see in a spectrum from yellow to blue; here, then, is a rare film where a pet owner can finally see the world through Fido’s eyes. Eisner’s comics used stark contrasts and noir-like effects, but everything was still visually clear. Most of the film is murky and difficult to see, with a few exceptions such as when Miller inexplicably decides to put all the villains into feudal Japanese outfits with a Rising Sun flag behind them. Later on Miller decides, just as inexplicably, to put them in Nazi outfits. It may be worth noting at this point that Will Eisner never actually showed the Octopus in his comics; his very appearance was a mystery. It may be presumptuous of me, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that an African-American Nazi was not what he had in mind.
There must be a thought process that leads here, but I can only assume it involves intoxication, insanity, senility, or some combination of all three.
There is nothing that is redeemable about this film, not one thing that I can point to and say that it was well done. Everything from the dialogue to the delivery and from the action to the color is so over-the-top it almost has to be meant as a parody. But if so, it is an inept parody, incapable of either skewering whatever its target was or expressing affection for its source material. And if not, it is merely a supremely inept film.