The waiting is finally over. It’s Christmas Day, and Santa Frank has left a special present under all of our Christmas trees: his big-budget movie adaption of Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Is The Spirit an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock, or a big, lousy piece of coal? Several of the nation’s top critics have presented their two cents worth about the movie, so if you’re on the fence about ditching your family and rushing to the theaters, you may want to check out their reviews before deciding. I haven’t seen the movie myself, but that hasn’t stopped me from offering a few thoughts on the subject as well.
Rick Bentley of McClatchy Newspapers gives the movie a positive review, and makes some good points about Frank Miller’s decision to use a quasi-Sin City aesthetic and tone:
A traditional presenting of The Spirit would have ended up looking like the lame 1994 Alec Baldwin disaster The Shadow. And going as bleak as The Dark Knight would not have exposed the fanciful aspects of the character. Only Miller’s vision of a world that often exists only in silhouette or shadows is suitable for telling this tale.
ME: A lot of comic book fans have slammed Miller for making The Spirit “Sin City Lite”, but I’ve always thought he made the right choice. A straight adaption of Eisner’s source material would have been tough to pull off successfully because the “language” of comic book storytelling is so intrinsicly hard-wired into his stories, thanks to the fact that Eisner was more or less inventing new comic book storytelling techniques as he went along. Much of that would have been difficult to translate to film. And if Miller had gone with a more faithful adaption, there’s no way The Spirit could possibly be successful. While comic book movies are big business these days, they’re successful mostly because of name recognition, not because we’re all secretly comic book fans at heart. The Spirit is too obscure a character to appeal to the masses, and only by applying a mainstream style could the movie be even remotely marketable. (Of course, the movie is still probably going to bomb, so take my opinions with a grain of salt.)
Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Glieberman doesn’t quite trash The Spirit, but he doesn’t praise it either while giving the film a “C” grade:
The Spirit comes off as just another ludicrously knowing and mannered noir pastiche, full of burnt-end romance and ”style,” but robotic at its core… Miller stages it all with sleek angularity, but it’s the film’s clichés that seem to have lived forever.
ME: Film noir is kind of a tough genre to pull off, because it’s easy to fall back on familiar, well-worn story and style tropes. Miller has done some great noir stories in the past, but at this point in his career, he may have run out of anything original to say about the genre.
Claudia Puig’s review in USA Today not only has a clever headline (“The Spirit is Thrilling, But Some Characters Are Weak”), it also has some encouraging things to say about the movie:
The Spirit is uneven, but its campy adventure provides some amusing, escapist fun.
ME: Isn’t that really all we can ask for from The Spirit? I don’t think even most die hard Miller apologists expected the movie to be any good, but bad movies can still be fun to watch (see: Farley, Chris).
Robert Wilonsky of the Village Voice didn’t care for the movie, but his review contains one unitentionally hilarious line that caught my attention:
… the movie’s so full of nods to comics and their creators (from DC Comics founder Harry Donenfeld to artist Steve Ditko) that the fanboys will find room in their heart to forgive the desecration.
ME: Ah, if only it were that easy. The Fantastic Four had Stan Lee playing Willie Lumpkin, and people still thought it sucked. Name-dropping Steve Ditko isn’t going to save The Spirit from the wrath of disillusioned comic book fans.
Finally, Roger Ebert, the world’s most beloved movie critic, either woke up on the wrong side of the bed when he wrote this review, or he just really, really hated the movie:
The Spirit is mannered to the point of madness. There is not a trace of human emotion in it. To call the characters cardboard is to insult a useful packing material.
ME: I’m a little surprised Ebert didn’t like the movie, because he’s usually a little more open to genre films. He once called Alex Proyas’s Dark City the best film of 1998. Hell, he even liked Daredevil. It’s a bad sign that Ebert gave it a negative review.