One man who has won a series of no less than twelve Eisner Awards over his storied career (so far) is Frank Miller, whose creative sensibilities have shaped and reshaped the likes of Daredevil, Wolverine and Batman! His own creations have included Daredevil's love Elektra, 300, Ronin and, of course, Sin City. After bad experiences with his scripts for Robocop 2 and Robocop 3, Miller stopped playing ball with Hollywood. However, after Robert Rodriguez teamed up with Frank to successfully co-direct the film version of Sin City and after the film version of 300 became a hit, Frank Miller was given his chance to solo-direct a comic book film of his own making.
Somewhat surprisingly, the comic book he has adapted (as both director and writer) for the big screen isn't one of his own works. It's The Spirit, as created by Will Eisner!
The resulting film... perhaps is not for everyone. In spite of a good deal of marketing and a Christmas Day opening, the film is already being considered a flop. Critics have been divided on the assets and liabilities of The Spirit upon its release and moviegoers (those who did show up) have been just about equally as kind. Why is this the case? The easiest answer is that it boils down to quite a lot of misunderstanding and misguided expectations either concerning the character (and his source material) or the intent of Frank Miller himself. Defenders of the film have even gone so far as to say "It's supposed to be bad!"
What Miller has done here is create a companion piece to a long-running, popular and influential comic (the he loves dearly) and preserve as much of it as possible while translating it to a new medium with live actors. Is it bad? No, it's really quite good. Is it supposed to be bad? No. It's supposed to be surreal. And it is. Miller constructs a world, not unlike the one seen in Batman: The Animated Series (which was influenced by Miller's The Dark Knight Returns). It's a 1940s reminiscent world with classic cars, fedoras and film noir motifs, but also will cellular phones, laptops and the internet, all done in a primarily black-and-white world, accented by some very Sin City-like computer embellishments. Will everyone buy into that world? No. But why not?
The film noir feel doesn't stop with the costuming and mood. The acting and dialogue both evoke film noir memories (that went into The Spirit comic books) and can both be campy, but in a very, very self-aware way. Miller further chooses to add certain comic-oriented elements, such as asides the characters tend to make, not in thought or word balloons, but in actual speech. This, coupled with certain overly sanctimonious threats, like "I'm gonna kill you all kinds of dead." are decidedly from outside of your garden variety action flick of 2008. My statement is... exactly! And that's one more reason to love this film.
The line "I am the Angel of Death, Denny Colt..." kicks off our film as its speaker, Lorelei Rox (the lovely Jaime King) laments the fact that only one man has ever escaped her. That man lives under the graves of Central City and works over its rooftops. His Oath describes a symbiotic relationship with Central City, illustrating, amongst other things, that "She is my lover, and I am her Spirit." This is our introduction what Denny Colt has become: "The Spirit" (played by Gabriel Macht), a masked crime fighter in a black suit, with a blood-red tie who can take all kinds of punishment and remain uncomfortably alive.
Unfortunately, all heroes have their villains. The Spirit's nemesis is The Octopus (played with gleeful evil by Samuel L. Jackson). This garishly dressed combination of mobster and alchemist is flanked by his beautiful, but bad assistant named Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) and an army of his own goofy clone troopers (based not on Jango Fett, but on Louis Lombardi). While this cadre of corny clones (named things like Pathos, Logos, Huevos and Rancheros) seem to be happy to be expendable, the Octopus himself can take just about as much punishment as The Spirit can and that makes The Spirit wonder why.
Lucky for the battered Spirit, he's got a sexy doctor named Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson) to patch up his hurt when he's injured. I'm not sure what's weirdest, the fact that she was Denny Colt's girlfriend before his death, that her father is Officer Dolan (Dan Lauria), who keeps walking in on them when they're about to get naked or that Dolan himself seems to be the only person who knows that The Spirit is Denny Colt. One way or the other, Ellen spends a lot of her time battling her jealousy over The Spirit's interest in and magnetism toward other women, like such super-hotties like Paz Vega's sexy stripper Plaster of Paris, Stana Katic's hot woman in uniform, Officer Morgenstern and, of course, Denny's own Childhood Sweetheart, who grew into a life of crime: Eva Mendes' delectable Sand Saref!
Sexy Sand and her new, dufus husband (Eric Balfour's Mahmoud) have run afoul of The Octopus' latest plan, a plot to obtain immortality, just as Sand is merely looking for the most coveted of all "BLING"! It may come as no surprise to you fans of 300 that both originated in Ancient Greek Mythology.
The nightmare for The Spirit is that he is right in the middle of all this both as a crime fighter and on some more personal levels that even he hasn't the full scope of.
Through it all you've got that strange, yet fun, combination of ultra-modern special effects, sanctimonious dialogue (and monologues) film noir angst and superhero derring-do. It may not be for everyone, even during that exciting final reel, but for fans of comics come to life (and that little bit of something different), this one is a winner.
Still, the film isn't perfect. Miller wisely focuses on a single story here, rather than the series of fractured vignettes that he and Rodriguez (who receives a "Thanks" credit here) explored in Sin City. However, this does lead to the occasional plot hole or contrivance that appear only to further the plot. The film also has a somewhat muted quality, especially as compared to Sin City. The PG-13 rating is earned, but the story feels a little too hard-boiled to sustain this more marketable designation, at the expense of any nudity or real profanity. To be fair, however, Miller was adapting a series that began in Newspapers, so nudity and profanity would not really have existed there either. Lastly, the dark comedy that creeps into a good bit of the film lessens some of the real emotion one might have found even in the film noir roots of this work. It's not that this is absent, it's just hard not to think that some of it is too close to the played-for-laughs column when the heart-string category might have been a better fit.
SPOILER WARNING STARTS HERE!Although Miller does work to preserve as much accuracy as he can from the Comic Books, he does make the occasional editorialized decision here. For example, in the comics, The Octopus never once showed his face, but in the film, not only do we get a full view of Samuel L. Jackson at his most boisterous (minus the F-Word), but he's actually given facial tattoos to call attention to his face. While this might have been explained away as just one of the faces this "master of disguise" employs, a flashback sequence more than implies that he really does look like Sam Jackson. Further, I don't recall The Octopus being so integrated into the origin of The Spirit, but Miller has The Octopus take on the role that "Dr. Cobra" played in the comics. On this same note, while Miller does explore The Spirit's invulnerability to a much greater extent here, he did not invent the idea of The Spirit's super powers. Though it was not the subject of much discussion or exposition, The Spirit could always take a massive amount of "punishment" and remain the last man standing against all odds. Further, many of these "powers" are mysteries even to him, so what he reveals here is primarily mere speculative musings on his part! And let's face it, folks, the biggest movie of 2008 was The Dark Knight, which took more liberties than The Patriot Act when it came to its source material. The Spirit is vastly more accurate to its inspiration than The Dark Knight was. Anyone who praised The Dark Knight has no business using "accuracy" as a complaint against The Spirit! END SPOILER WARNING!
For all its merits, it's hard to deny that The Spirit isn't going to appeal to the vast majority of its intended audience, fairly or unfairly. This is a true comic book movie, combining the elements of action, horror, romance and comedy that marked and sparked the comic books into one temporally disjointed, yet spectacular whole. It animates the still frame with live actors and preserves the kind of dialogue that worked well on the page back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but is largely avoided in today's films. In short, Frank Miller, one of the world's most revered comic book writers and artists, has worked to translate a classic intact in an avant garde way, much the same way the Wachowskis attempted to do with Speed Racer. The Spirit is its own flick, not Sin City 2, not The Dark Knight and not Speed Racer. But audiences might not be looking for a flick that is all its own.
Yes, it's avant garde, yes, it's campy, yes, it's a mixture of times and genres, yes, it's stylistic and yes, it's surreal, but The Spirit is also well done, entertaining and a treat for the eyes worthy of Four Stars out of Five! Audiences may not be such fans of "pure" adaptations and they may not be ready for things that are highly marketed but turn out to be very much off the beaten path of today's cinema. Often those who don't quite get it will immediately decide that it's "bad". Folks, The Spirit isn't bad, though it may not be for you. Would it be worthy of an Eisner Award? Who knows? Frank Miller might tell you that a 13th Eisner might be bad luck... but until he shows up at the next Comic Con and tells his detractors "I'm gonna kill you all kinds of dead!", I'll see you in the next reel. I'll be the one wearing the Red Tie, Domino Mask and Black on Black Chuck Taylors!
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