The Spirit

cast: Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, and Paz Vega

writer and director: Frank Miller

98 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.40:1
Lions Gate DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley

Oh Frank, where did it all go wrong? Was it when you started wearing a hat indoors? Sin City and 300 convinced you that getting an artistic vision to the screen didn’t have to be as troublesome as RoboCop, but clearly there’s more to this auteur business than meets the eye.

Cast and crew interviewed in the extras featurettes are confident of Miller’s ability to realise his vision of Will Eisner’s Spirit, and the ground-breaking use of digital technology that will make it a reality, but there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip. The Spirit is one of those comic-book heroes looming larger in the consciousness of the comics’ creators than in the affections of the comic-reading public. Eisner developed cinematic techniques in panel construction, and opened up the possibilities of graphic storytelling, paving the way for the innovations of Jack Kirby, Neal Adams and Jim Steranko, and ultimately the ‘widescreen’ illustration of today. The Spirit was a costumed superhero insofar as he wore a domino mask, a ‘uniform’ of suit and tie, trench-coat and fedora, and had a superpower in that he had come back from the dead after a period in suspended animation. The stories were classic noir racked up with villains like Dr Cobra and the Octopus, and heavily seasoned with various femmes fatale. The irony and wit of the original, and the sometimes cartoonish realisation, obviously made it difficult to know where to pitch this version. It is possible to see what Miller was aiming for, something timeless, self-aware, both homage and a daring creative feat in its own right. This film unfortunately falls between a multitude of stools, and I’m desperately trying to avoid an obvious pun.

I have seen it suggested that this film is best enjoyed after a night down the pub with a few cans left to consume. This suggests it is already moving towards cult status. The film should work now; it doesn’t. Watch The Shadow (1994) a flop that deserved better, The Phantom (1996), another flop that garnered a reputation after VHS release, and Danger: Diabolik, a film I first watched and enjoyed after consuming psychoactive drugs. Clearly, if a film is best enjoyed after the consumption of booze or drugs, something is missing in the final cut. Believe me The Shadow, The Phantom, and Diabolik are all perfectly enjoyable straight!

Denny Colt, a rookie cop is killed and mysteriously returns to life. Lorelei, an otherworldly character, craves his soul. The Octopus seems to know a bit about the process that has re-created Denny as the Spirit. The Octopus attempts to gain access to a vase containing the blood of Heracles which will turn him into a god. The vase is mixed up with the armour of Jason (he of the Argonauts), craved by Denny’s childhood sweetheart Sand Saref. There is no plot to speak of.

It is obvious with hindsight that Tim Burton’s Batman had much of the camp of the original TV series still lingering about it. Camp is the great leveller. Unfortunately, Miller cannot draw a distinctive line between camp and the other thing. Perhaps this film suffers in the way that Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990) did; too knowingly aware of its origins, too precious about its irony to be homage, too committed to be spoof.

As I said, it is possible to glean what Miller was attempting; it is all too easy to say that he got it wrong. Tim Burton’s Batman seems precociously camp alongside our Dark Knight, and yet there is much about it that is true to the original comic. If Miller was attempting homage, a self-aware piece of irony, a tongue-in-cheek noir thriller, he forgot to make us care. I listened to some of the dialogue and imagined it in comic-strip word balloons; it works! But this is a film. To paraphrase Harrison Ford to George Lucas about Star Wars, ‘You can maybe write this stuff Frank, but you sure as hell can’t say it.’

The DVD extras offer us a commentary by Frank Miller and his producer. A making-of called Green World, which gives a lot of background about Eisner and The Spirit; and a brief run-down of the career of Frank Miller. And an alternative ending story-boarded by Miller and read by Samuel L. Jackson and Gabriel Macht. This grim and gory alternative ending suggests that the whole film might have worked better if imagined as a serious noir instead of as this piece of comic-book marshmallow.

Nice try Frank. This film offers a great many roles for women, unfortunately it’s just the same role duplicated.

I do think Frank Miller will make a brilliant movie eventually, just at the moment his rising star seems under a cloud. He has launched a tirade against Islamic culture post-9/11, his All-Star Batman And Robin has been much derided, and the negative reaction to his Batman vs. Al-Qaeda story, Holy Terror, Batman, has done much to remind us that the American people are not the rednecks we would like to imagine but people of taste and restraint much like ourselves.