In a radio interview with NPR, Frank Miller, director and writer of the movie “The Spirit” said words to the effect that he felt the ghost of Spirit creator Will Eisner standing behind him while he was filming, and that he thought Eisner would come back and strangle him if he screwed it up. If that were so, it would be proof positive that the living have nothing to fear from the dead, since Eisner’s vengeful ghost has not, in fact, throttled Miller yet.
The first grievous error that afflicts the production is color—or the lack thereof. The aforementioned NPR interview spoke of a ‘black and white’ sensibility, which is totally wrong for “The Spirit.” The strip was created to be a color Sunday newspaper supplement, so the four-color style has been part and parcel of “The Spirit” since it’s beginning and throughout its existence. Of course Eisner experimented with color use, just as he did with plot, dialog, sequence, “camera angle” and anything else he could play around with, which was part of what made him such an influential artist and writer, but in the end, the strip always came back to that Sunday paper look. The limited palette used in the film of course harks directly back to “Sin City.”
Color affects character, as well. The Spirit’s trademark was always the blue outfit: blue hat, mask, gloves, and suit—‘true blue,’ blue-for-fidelity blue, accented with an always white shirt and the red necktie, a subtly patriotic ensemble indicative of the character’s birth in 1940. The movie Spirit, all in black except for a red tie, and long coat, looks more like a “Shadow” wannabe.
The second major flaw is in the humor—or again, the lack thereof. ‘The Spirit” was always done with a light touch, indicative of its positioning as part of the family newspaper. “The Spirit” was written for adults, definitely, not children, but there was a recognition that it might be available to young people. Yes, “The Spirit” was noir, but noir at two removes: the films and magazine stories that birthed the genre, and then forerunning comic strips such as Dick Tracy, that brought “hard-boiled” into the comics pages.
(I might be outraging some Eisner fans, but in my opinion, the influence of Dick Tracy on The Spirit is undeniable: there are the often grotesque villains, the outrageous violence (frequently perpetrated against the protagonist), and the femmes fatales: both strips caricatured popular film noir actress Lauren Bacall, in Tracy as “Breathless Mahoney”, and in The Spirit as “Skinny Bones.”)
So the humor was a necessary part of the strip: as far as I can tell, The Spirit was the original wise-cracking hero, as quick with a joke as with a fist, a legacy passed on to such characters as “Plastic Man” (creator Jack Cole was an Eisner assistant) , and “Spider-Man.” By contrast, pompous pronouncements from the movie promotional materials like “My city screams,” and “Down these mean streets a man must come, a hero born, murdered, and born again,” is way more Dark Knight than anything having to do with The Spirit. C’mon, the Spirit’s real name is Denny Colt. Do you think anyone who goes by “Denny” would take himself that seriously? Also, in the movie we totally miss the humor of his ongoing relationships with his supporting cast. In the comic, Commisioner Dolan is like a father to Colt, both frustrated with his methods and worried about his survival. The movie Dolan is just unpleasant all the time. The Spirit’s romance with Ellen Dolan was rocky but, well—spirited. The movie Ellen is jealous and worn out. And of course the Spirit’s loyal friend and cab driver, young black man Ebony White, was written out entirely, despite the fact that I think the role could have been updated intelligently.
The Spirit was always a hero, but not a “super” hero. Like a lot of noir detectives (again, including Tracy) he is capable of absorbing a lot of damage and surviving it, but he is not supposed to be a superman of any sort. However, in the Miller version, in the first sequence, we see the Spirit run along overhead cables like Spider-man, dive head-first off the top of a twenty-story building without harm, and shrug off a six inch deep stab in the side with a bowie knife. As the story progresses, we learn that the serum that brought him back from death in the movie also allows him to regenerate damage, but that still doesn’t explain how he can back-flip upward from on fire escape from another.
And, as a final outrage, it’s obvious that Miller has let his auteur status totally blind him to anything smacking of really preserving Eisner’s legacy. For more than fifty years of comics, including “Spirit” revivals by numerous successor artists and authors, you never saw the face of arch-villain “The Octopus”, and Miller blew that tradition first crack out of the box, and even in the first sequence. It’s not like we haven’t had masked characters before—Darth Vader for most of three films, “V” in V for Vendetta, and I can’t believe that Samuel Jackson is such an egotist that he couldn’t or wouldn’t do the part masked.
The plot itself is at least Spirit-esque. The Spirit’s old-neighborhood girlfriend, Sand Saref, has grown up to be an international jewel thief, and wants the famous Golden Fleece, part of a hijacked shipment of antiquities. The Octopus wants an amphora containing the Blood of Herakles, which is part of the same shipment. They each end up with what the other wants, and their maneuverings plus the Octopus’ attempts to kill the Spirit, drive the action.
However, as noted by most reviewers, the plot is hampered by nonsensical elements: why does the Octopus dress as a samurai sometimes, and then as an SS officer? Why does he have those Emo tattoos/eye makeup? Why is “Plaster of Paris,” surely the clunkiest named character in the entire Spirit canon, in the movie at all, why is she working with the Octopus, why is dressed like a road company Salome, etc.? The entire bit with “Lorelei/the Angel of Death” is total non-canonical pomposity which adds nothing to the film. And, the over-the-top shootout at the climax is just overdone. Helicopter gunships? C’mon! Not to mention that the Spirit’s part in the fight is a rip-off of “V for Vendetta” (Although may have been intended as an homage, see below).
That said, there are some good bits. The knock-down drag-out mud wrestling fight between the Spirit and the Octopus would have been good Eisner material, as would have the sequence when the Spirit, having been pushed out a high window by Sand, ends up dangling by his coattails above the street, and has to extricate himself at considerable expense to his dignity.
Gabriel Macht as “The Spirit” is pretty good. He looks well, and manages an appropriately goofy grin at times. However, he’s hampered by the “Batman” style growl most of his lines get delivered in, plus the general dullness of his dialog. In fact, Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) and Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson) get all the best lines. I must mention Seychelle Gabriel, who gave one of the film's best performances as Young Sand Saref, a job which would have been good in any movie, but is a standout here.
The other bit of fun in the movie is catching the little homages. On the way to his first confrontation with the Octopus, the Spirit leaps from one rooftop to another in a sequence that, as lightning flashes, echoes the oft-parodied cover of Miller’s “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.” Silken Floss runs around in a panel van labeled “Ditko Speedy Delivery”, a nod to famous comic artist Steve Ditko, and in the German costume scene wears lightning bolt earrings that could be either “The Flash” or “Harry Potter” jewelry. The scimitar that Plaster uses has a “Lord of the Rings” High Elf blade—I’m sure there are others, but I didn’t catch them. And in the big early fight sequence, after the Octopus has crowned the Spirit with a toilet, the Spirit replies felling him with what is apparently a kitchen sink: not only the obvious capper (and an unintentional metaphor for the plot) but an homage to publisher Dennis Kitchen and Kitchen Sink Press, who kept "Spirit" comics in reprints for many years when they could be found nowhere else.
If it weren’t supposed to be The Spirit, this movie might have been an amusing, if weird, popcorn superhero movie. As it is, it is a grotesque travesty that is an insult to Eisner’s memory and to his fans.