RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 24: Frank Miller’s “The Spirit” (2008)


The Players…

Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Dan Lauria and Scarlett Johannson (…again).

The Story…

Rookie cop Denny Colt returns from the beyond as The Spirit, a hero whose mission is to fight against the sinister forces alive in Central City. But what are truly the “bad forces” in his angel, the City? Does he invite them, culture them, or thwart them? Or is it all three? Perhaps it’s all just a memory…

The Rant…

I’ve been a scholar of Will Eisner. So has Frank Miller. I’m a fanboy. Also Miller. I’ve never met Eisner. Miller has. His failure. I still got my fanboy worship imagination goin’ on. Miller has met the god, politely danced on his name with jolly-jollies and carried on. With a laugh. I laugh, with courtesy and respect, as when I page through Eisner’s book in all their guises. I get a chuckle, a wow and a smile. I think Miller cackles in jest. In sum, I dislike Frank Miller. I respect him and his work. But I believe, as a poor-ass fanboy, I respect Eisner more.

Here’s a story. More like a philosophical musing…

When I was in college, one of the quintessential 90’s bands came to town. They were the Mighty Mighty BossTones (quit laughing), an esteemed (at that point in time) ska/rock band that offered big sounds and danceable beats to any dissociated youth that wanted something other than their dad’s Damned albums. At my alma mater, slightly before they broke through, I caught their gig in the most diviest dive bar this side of Nome. The sound quality sucked. Puke drunk frat-heads kept trying to get on stage. When the guitarist drove the neck of his axe into the ceiling, well, the show was over. One by one the band queued out through the back door, like a soup line, shamefaced but not really bummed that the gig had been blown. I of course sought autographs.

Here’s the tale from that fateful night. I had hard time gathering the autos from each of the band members. Before the show kicked, the players were mingling with the bar crowd. Remember, they had already been signed and had a few respectable albums in the can. What rock band does that, even at a club gig? At the time I was dabbling in playing drums. Never went anywhere, but for every show I caught, from Frank Black to Buffalo Tom I always caught the band’s drummer’s scribble as if I would absorb their skills. At the time of the show, and maybe as it still is, one Joe Sirois was the BossTones’ skinsman. He had crucial realm. A nice sharp sound like Topper Headon (I’ve been a big Clash fan since middle school). I had to nick his signature. I watched him not unlike a stalker as he quaffed longnecks and shot pool with the locals to kill time before the show. He was a diminutive fella, looking like a younger, friendlier Joe Pesci from GoodFellas. I recall as watching him play pool that he had the tendency to shake hands with his opponent at every and any opportunity with each shot. I guessed he was feeling buzzed. Nevertheless, the pool games went away and the show had to kick. He shuffled his way towards the dressing room and I cornered him. I tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “Mr. Sirois, can I have your autograph?” I extended the flyer I stripped from a telephone pole. His eyes fluttered. As if by radar, a clutch of drunken patrons encircled us and demanded autographs too.

A guy said, “Yeah! Sign my flyer!”

His friend said, “Mine too!”

Their lady friend turned her back to us and shouted, “Sign my shoulder!” She had a BossTones sticker on the back of her jacket.

Sirois looked at me, aghast, wavering his beer like a censer and exclaimed, “Wow! No one ever asks me for my autograph! Sure, sh*t, I’ll sign anything!” And he proceeded to sign anything that resembled a flat surface with the fervor of a junkie en route to an orange grove.


Don’t pay your respects to your idol without regarding respect of the legacy. In the case of a band, nodding your head to the so-called minor, “unappreciated” elements of the group may result in the best results possible. The lead singer always gets the lions’ share of the attention, but the audience always bounces to the rhythm. The best of the whole may result from the strengths of the few. Minimalism minus ego makes for a purer form. Put your ego aside believing it to be tribute might result in a better art. Another way, Dicky Barrett was an arrogant ass. Frank Miller follows this archetype. And I failed to see what all the hoopla was over The Dark Knight Returns when it was so obvious Batman was heading that way (thanks to Miller’s derisive schism with Marvel after his amazing run on Daredevil) anyway.

So who was Will Eisner? In sum, he created the comic book. An unsung master of the art form, more so a guy who invented the modern comic book format, as we know it today. Before Eisner, it was just pen-paper-words-lather-rinse-repeat. Yawn. Thanks to Will, we have depth of perception and stream of story from panel to panel smacking of the important words-and-images, show-AND-tell function that makes comic books so great. The daily funnies offer lots of bouquets to Eisner. In short, he was the most influential artist in his medium after Walt Disney (C’mon. even he had to have a rival).

Again, what’s my f*cking point, and what does it have to do with comic book movies? Well, if you’d read the aforementioned, and follow with the folderol, you can mend the disconnect…

There’s trouble afoot in Central City. It seems there’s always trouble afoot here. The kind of trouble that the cops can’t handle alone. Whether it be purse-snatchers, killer thugs, gangbangers or the occasional scheming villain with a flair for spectacle, sometimes it’s a little too much for Central City’s Finest to handle.

That’s when you need a man with connections. Or in this case, no more connections.

Officer Denny Colt (Macht) was shot down in the line of duty, protecting the city that he loved. But he didn’t die. Instead he went off the radar, into the shadows, still keeping abreast of all the nefarious deeds going down in the city. He adopted the mantle of “The Spirit,” the guy who could get things done when others can’t. In this case that means the police, who are often hampered with the usual cop things like procedure and paperwork. Not Colt, not as the Spirit. Using his wit, grit and a few helpful hookups with his inside man, Detective Dolan (Lauria), the Spirit defends the city without having to answer to anyone. No bureaucracy. No due process. Nothing but fists and brains to get the job done. Jobs no ordinary cop could tackle.

Jobs like the matter of the Octopus (Jackson).

The Octopus is a jack-of-all trades kind of villain. Relishing violence and power, and always the bane of the tenacious Spirit, the Octopus has cooked up a plan that finally, finally will rid him of his opponent. That and have the city fall right into his hot little hand. More of a fist, and an immortal fist at that.

The Octopus seeks a vital serum called the “Blood of Hercules.” Instead of a mindless ransacking of points on the map to acquire his quarry, his quest becomes more of a business transaction. With his trusty and shrewd femme fatale secretary Silken Floss (Johannson) getting his back (and who very well may be the true boss of the operation), The Octopus makes his way across the city and dell to find the sources of this fabled serum. What is curious is the source of this life-giving elixir may not be at some point afar. Perhaps it may lie in the bowels of Wildwood Cemetery.

Where The Spirit’s not-so-secret lair resides…

A few months back, I was faced with the daunting task of covering a movie that I did not want to do. It was Push, and that sci-fi, espionage, supernatural boondoggle which appeared to have been edited via Cuisinart was so impenetrable, so sloppy, so stupid that I was fool enough to watch it twice in case I didn’t “get it” the first time. I was moron. Not to brag, but I have two and half degrees from esteemed houses of learning. This illustrates that despite a college education, I seem to continuously peck the switch on the right, get shocked and ignore the switch on the left that gives out the alfalfa pellet. The Spirit is one side of this particular test.

Guess which one?

I could not sit still watching this movie. Not that I was arrested by its tension. It more was akin to driving way too long and becoming increasingly aware with each passing mile how much my rear was aching. My eyes kept drifting or rolling up into my head. My attention wandered, only to have it rudely yanked back to the screen to witness another scene of ridiculousness. Unlike the antics in Push, I could follow what was going on in The Spirit. I just didn’t want to.

The Spirit’s execution is an exercise in self-indulgence. It’s a very stylish movie, echoing Miller art and his way with a word. Stylish is the watchword here, not unlike both Miller’s and Eisner’s work. But quite unlike Eisner’s work, Miller plasters this creation with overwrought noir atmosphere, pointless artiness that distracts rather than engages and a goofball plot that would feel more at home in a Hanna-Barbara serial than a crime fiction vehicle. The thing reeks of Miller having his fingers in way too many pies, trying to simultaneously prove his mettle as writer/director and hammer home how vital the legacy of the Spirit is, a comic book hero that only fellow comic book heads care about, let alone have heard about. I understand that Miller is trying to do Eisner’s work some justice, but he overloads it with his ironclad storytelling methods creating a mélange of clichéd crime noir paired with (pointless) supernatural undertones. In short, Miller let himself get carried away.

Not that an artist dabbling in cinema will almost always fail. Although less well known from his painting, Dali was a filmmaker of some repute, so that says something. And although I haven’t seen it, I’ve been told that Miller’s collaboration with pulpy director Robert Rodriguez’s adaption of Sin City is quite the film; proof that the style and execution of a comic book film can be the epitome of art and commerce in the genre if the creator has a direct hand in the making of the movie. For example, think how much better the first Fantastic Four movie might have been if both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were on the sidelines giving orders. It might have worked. However with The Spirit we have two problems in trying to bring the comic the screen in this instance:

  1. Will Eisner is dead; and
  2. Frank Miller has quite the ego.

Well, maybe not so much an ego. Call it hubris. I’m willing to wager that since Miller was a disciple/friend of Eisner—also learning a few things from the master—and Miller’s Sin City was a success, that Hey! I can make a movie too! I already got the go-ahead from the original source, and boy howdy shucks Rodriguez shore made it look eazy!

Bzzzzzt! Wrong. Tell ‘em what he’s lost, Bob.

What makes The Spirit notable is what it’s lacking, rather than what substance it possesses. It’s very hard for me to separate myself from the knowledge and affinity for Eisner’s work on the page and its eventual warping on the silver screen. First and foremost, Eisner’s work was crime noir, yes, rife with femme fatales, gritty street violence and obscure mysteries that only an outsider like the Spirit could tackle. But the Spirit was an average guy, not some supernatural, super-powered vigilante like the movie implies. In fact, adding a lot of mumbo-jumbo robs the character of his appeal. A large facet of the Spirit’s personality was later channeled by another cinematic action hero: John McClane (in the first Die Hard anyway). Bruce Willis’ everyman cop was smart, tough and yet vulnerable. He used his brains as well as his gun to try and rescue his wife, thwart Hans and get the f*ck out of Nakatomi Tower in one piece. And he got the stuffing kicked out of him in the process. In the funny books, the Spirit used his wit, his fists and his cunning to get the job done. He failed almost as often as he succeeded, and he got the snot beat out of him a lot. He lost as many fights as he won. You gotta be down with an underdog hero like that; American audiences practically live for the underdog.

The superhuman claptrap that Miller surrounds the Spirit with in his re-interpretive vision is not only superfluous, but also utterly stupid. The Spirit of the movie is no underdog. He’s the guy that can do anything, always on top of his game, always the hero. And that’s it. He’s the hero. And no one questions it. I wonder if even the majority of movie going audiences questioned it. I sure did, and not just because of my understanding of the comic book character. Any hero, movie or otherwise, who’s the hero just by being the hero isn’t the hero. He’s a cipher. There’s no room for emotional investment with a character like that. Gussying up a blank slate character with fantastical gunk does not an engaging personality make. Ever.

I’ve established that there is the element of Miller’s signature “grim ‘n gritty” style to this film. It’s unnecessary and comes off as kind of campy. The Spirit I recall was measured, shambolic and tongue-in-cheek mixed with police procedural and human drama. The original Spirit had a spritely sense of humor, not an on-the-nose one like Miller’s. Subtlety and nuance? There’s nary any of that here. Not on Miller’s palette. It’s all style and Miller trying to shoehorn in what he thinks the Spirit should be, which appears to be a supernatural cop with a lot of posturing and madcap violence.

The Spirit‘s not all sh*t, though. As with almost all cruddy movies—comic book adaptations or otherwise—there are a few diamonds in the rough. Take our lead, newcomer Gabriel Macht. He has the delivery right. He speaks his lines with perfect conviction. Despite the throwaway lines and bad jokes, Macht nails it. His body language is terrific; Miller’s Spirit, despite his myriad flaws, gets the feel of the dialogue right, even if there are a lot of turkeys. Miller wrote the script after all, and although there was a charming goofiness to the comic, there was never such a broad yet blunt style like we see here. Is this an attempt at irony? Deliberately corny? Self-effacing? Again, Macht had the conviction and magnetism to delivery his lines, verbally as well as physically as the comic hero did (with a few variations reflecting Miller’s id), and was pretty convincing with very few smirks. What I mean is Macht did a very good job of convincing the audience that he was the Spirit, if only hampered by the weight of too much stylistic indulgence I’ve been moping over for the last thousand years.

On the flipside, we have Sam Jackson as the Octopus. Sam Jackson is…Sam Jackson. Riffing on Jules and riding that coattail for the past 20 years (I’ve always enjoyed Jackson in the movie where he played the angry, black guy). His Octopus is a demented, clownish, leave-no-setpiece-unchewed cackling supervillian as mental as the Joker, with even worse one-liners. Note to Jackson: hammy is not synonymous with funny. Jackson throws himself into the role, ranting, raving and frothing as only Sam Jackson can. And always often does. It’s his bread and butter, or at least what his legions of fans expect of his method. Hell, I’m willing to wager shouting and frothing are all they expect. Jackson’s Octopus not menacing as the Spirit’s nemesis, and despite all his wanton murdering and violence, he ain’t terribly fiendish either. Jackson is a one-man Merrie Melody short, and that gig gets tired fast—just like most of his schtick since…ever.

His Octopus is a major left turn from Eisner’s vision, which also robs the Octopus of his menace and mystery. In the comics, the identity of the Octopus was never revealed. Doing so here echoes of my small gripe from the From Hell installment. Giving a face to the menace, ergo “solving the case” robs the potential of mystery, suspense and simply the wonder  fulfilling a sense of imagination. Not everyone wants the curtain to be drawn back. This problem was another product of Miller’s hubris. Either that or the was some glitch in what the test audience reported they wanted to see. I trust neither.

As I was saying, the Octopus of the comics was always a mystery. Not once in over fifty years of regular publication did we ever see his face. All the Octopus ever was was off panel, a pair of gloves and sinister dialogue. That’s it. And it worked. Actually, it’s worked in a lot of movies that make the antagonist all the more wicked by cloaking them in mystery. Perfect example? The shark in Jaws, or Michael Myers for like ninety percent of the first Halloween movie. Sometimes not drawing back said curtain can lend a lot of tension; fear of the unknown and all. I’m thinking Sam could’ve been taken a lot more seriously as a bad guy if he was taken out of spotlight and simply uttering his nefarious schemes and pithy thoughts on revenge behind a veil of shadow. Just a thought.

It’s not just Jackson’s role that’s over the top. About everything here is in your face. Subtlety and nuance are lost on Miller’s script. Everything is too fast-paced. Miller plays fast and loose with the source material, which is his wont. Reinterpreting comics has been his manna, and I’d say half the time it’s been pretty good. But then for certain directors (Kubrick, Hitchcock, Spielberg, Rafelson) there’s a style, a feel that makes it their movies. You know you’re watching a damn Kubrick movie because it exudes this feel of a Kubrick movie. The Spirit has feel for style all right. Right down your gullet. Someone should tell erstwhile auteur Miller that subtlety does not equal weakness and nuance works better than neon signs.

I committed a crime with The Spirit that I have done with maybe two other movies here at RIORI: I didn’t watch…refused to watch the entire thing. I tried. I really tried. About two-thirds of the way through I got up, yanked the disc out of the machine, slapped in the envelope and marched that thing out to the mailbox at 2 in the morning to make sure the postman would be damn sure to receive that envelope the next day and get it away from me as fast as f*ck as possible so the next disc would arrive sooner. Am I shamefaced by this act of surrender? Look, I had to stop the film or else my frontal lobes would have collapsed like a pair of balloons in a meat locker. It was an act of self-preservation. Really.

The Spirit is lacking in character, lacking in subtlety, and lacking a decent story for fan or not to rally around. It is an overstylized exercise in unchecked monomania in so-called tribute and unbridled id. I know I am hopelessly biased here, but from watching oodles of movies—more than any sane man should—I know my stripper from the paint. Remember the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments that came with Batman & Robin? Would have I liked The Spirit better if I wasn’t versed in the legacy of the character? Well, here’s something that happened the day after I sent the DVD back home to momma:

I was regaling my comic book guy Jeff about the pitfalls of The Spirit, noting to him that maybe I was particularly disappointed, if not downright upset by the film because I was well acquainted with Will Eisner and his Spirit. The liberties taken by Miller I felt with the campy drama, the broad humor, pointless indulgence in style, the Looney Tunes like action and a generally weak script—all of it chafed me and insulted Eisner’s work. The damned thing just failed to hold my attention. I asked him if that didn’t know much about the Spirit that I did, would I have liked the movie better? I mean, the Spirit is no Batman or Spider-Man, pop cultural institutions (that, in fact, owe almost everything to Eisner’s work) that even non-comic book heads have heard of. Would have I dug the picture more if I didn’t know anything about the Spirit?

His answer, “Well, if the movie didn’t hold your attention, then what more could be said?”

Thanks Jeff, for reminding me of that.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. A sad comic book adaptation if there ever was one. And it didn’t even hold my attention (not in a good way, at any rate). Standard crime numero uno.

Stray Observations…

  • I think the guy at the end of the line at the opening scene is the writer, director and disciple of Eisner, Frank Miller. As was the cabbie, as was the beat cop, as was…
  • “Shut up and bleed.”
  • “Iger Street.” A tribute to Eisner’s partner-in-crime (so to speak), Jerry Iger.
  • “Toilets are always funny!” No. No they’re not.
  • Another carp/point about the Octopus in the movie versus the one in the books. In the comics, the Octopus never got his hands dirty. He’d let his thugs and sycophants pull off the heists while he reaped the rewards of his ill-gotten games. There’s a lot to be said for a bad guy operating on brains alone and know that power means not having to respond. Read: Michael Corleone.
  • “Someday I’d love to do your autopsy.”

Next Installment…

Steve Coogan and friends bring us Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story…What the f*ck’s a “cock and bull story?”

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