the spirit

Frank Miller 2008

‘Comic book movie’ can mean two things: a movie based on a comic book, or a movie that follows the kind of broad entertainment value, gravity-free logic and near-slapstick violence most people associate with comics. Some movies, like Ghost World, A History of Violence or Road to Perdition, fall into the first category but not the second. Some fall into the second, like Con Air (or just about any action movie that involves people shooting oil drums to make them blow up, then walking away from the explosion in slow-motion) without any evidence that they’re working from a printed script, let alone a printed comic. Some movies, especially in the superhero genre, fall into both. The Spirit is both, and takes the concept of a comic book movie to the extreme.

We’re launched straight into the story of Central City’s masked crimefighter the Spirit (Gabriel Macht) as he takes on mad scientist and drug-peddling villain the Octopus (Samuel L Jackson). Our hero is Denny Colt, a rookie cop presumed dead but still capable of charming the ladies, including his boss’ daughter Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson) and old flame-turned master-thief Sand Seraf (Eva Mendes).

In the Spirit comic, Will Eisner pushed the boundaries of what was possible with the comic book form, and invented many sophisticated techniques still used today. Director Frank Miller shoots for this kind of invention, crafting the film from digital elements, his high-powered cast placed on a green-screen background and echoing many of the comic’s iconic shots.

It’s a bold approach, bringing the live-action film-making process of the comic book movie (the first kind) as close as possible to comic creation, where the only special effects budget is the creator’s imagination. Robert Rodriguez made it work in his shot-for-panel adaptation of Miller’s Sin City. Sadly, in this case it just doesn’t work.

The reason Sin City worked is because, per the title, the location was a character itself. The brick walls framed the chiselled granite toughness of the men, the stark chiaroscuro lighting echoed the beauty and darkness of the women, with everybody mixed up like cats in a sack in that crazy burg. It’s a trick honed from Eisner’s trailblazing use of the location as part of the framework of his comic, and vice versa. Where Sin City‘s location and look defined the book and the film, The Spirit fails to repeat the trick. For all of the lead’s tortured voiceover about ‘his city’ we never get a sense of the place. Apart from generic (if exhilarating) rooftop-jumping, the backgrounds are often unclear and open. With greenscreen providing an option to place the characters anywhere that can be conceived, all too often the cast feel like they’re standing on a soundstage accompanied only by a smoke machine.

The film also takes the anti-logic of the comic book movie (the second kind) to extremes. Eisner’s Spirit was an ordinary joe, unlike Superman’s superpowered alien or Batman’s millionaire gadget-fetishist. Eisner’s Spirit’s only crime-fighting equipment were his fists, yet he seemed capable of taking regular beatings that should have seen him in a (second) early grave. Miller latches onto this, adding a superhuman element to the Spirit’s toughness, and making a plot point of the extended scraps between hero and similarly-endowed villain. Miller has thankfully toned down some of the excesses he apparently had in mind, and the conflict between Spirit and Octopus actually works well, with Sand Seraf’s subplot intertwining nicely.

But once again a lack of context hamstrings the story: we know the Octopus is a drug dealer from a throwaway line, rather than a visit to the seedy side of town that would have both established his villainy and given us a glimpse of the city’s character and texture. Miller seems more interested in giving the Octopus a series of non-sequitur costume changes, which are fun but overly long and talky, and ring hollow in the absence of context. Is the Octopus a Nazi? No, he just likes the uniform.

Macht does reasonably well with his square-jawed milk-and-cookies hero, his compulsive womanising staying the right side of innocence in his wide-eyed expression. Miller is willing to have fun with the character (“Somebody bring me a tie… and it better be red!“) but gives Jackson too much rope without any really killer lines to shout (instead barking tosh like “C’mon… Toilets are always funny!”). The highlight is another entrancing turn from Eva Mendes, whose ruthless yet smoulderingly fragile thief deserves her own movie.