People as interested in and as enthusiastic about comics book as I am and (I think it’s safe to assume) you are probably won’t be able to watch The Spirit in the same way most movie-goers will. Longtime comics readers have known writer/director Frank Miller for a long, long time—decades!—and have followed his career pretty closely. Likewise, they’re familiar with the work of Will Eisner, his most recognizable creation The Spirit, and the importance both have in the medium (I think it’s also safe to assume that anyone who’s been around comics long, even those that may not have personally read much or even any Spirit, are well aware of the influence it and its creator had on comics).
So we’ll likely be wrestling with a couple of questions a lot of film critics and filmgoers won’t necessarrily worry about: Is this a good adaptation? Is it true to the character? To Eisner’s work? Is Frank Miller doing the material justice? Is this movie more about Frank Miller than it is Eisner, The Spirit or anything else?
A far more universal question, one asked by every viewer he sees it, will be, Is this a good movie? That question’s pretty easy, certainly a lot easier than untangling Miller’s intentions and inspirations: No, no this is not a good movie. Is it fun, or at least worth watching? Well, that’s a slightly different question—I recently sifted through about a dozen reviews of the movie after watching it, and opinion was fairly unanimous that it was fairly awful. I can’t really argue any of the points most of the critics made, as they are, in fact, correct, but I don’t know if I agree that everything that they point out as wrong about the film is necessarily a bad thing.
I actually regarded the film in almost the exact same way as a typical issue of All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder: It was funny, even hilarious, and it was hard to tell how much was funny on purpose (Miller making fun of Frank Miller-isms or, at the very least, parodying his one-time influences), how much was funny on accident (Holy shit, is the dude serious here or what?!) and if it was all one or all the other or some combination of the two that was constantly alternating.
Further observations about some specifics of the film after the jump; including what I suppose you’d consider spoilers, so be warned if you haven’t seen it yet and are sort who’s bothered by spoilers.
1.) The green-screen, drained-of-natural-color, Sin City-style was a perplexing choice. I don’t think it’s necessarily an automatic bad thing as much as a Why did he do this? I wouldn’t have done this kind of observation, but there is absolutely no reason for it. In Sin City, it reflected the source material, but The Spirit‘s source material is extremely different. Does it look cool? Sometimes, but it doesn’t add to the movie, comment on the source material or the story or the plot or themes in any way.
There’s no discernable motivation for making the film like this instead of, say, a computer-animated film, or a stop motion animated film, or a claymation one, or a plain, old just-costumes-and-sets kind of film. The one thing it accomplishes is that it makes the film look like Sin City, but Miller doesn’t have Robert Rodgriguez here, and the anthology-format of Sin City saved any single set of actors from having to carry the whole film for longer than a half-hour or so. The end result then is that the style simply serves to remind viewers that this movie isn’t as good as Sin City.
2.) I’m not sure how I feel about The Spirit’s footwear. He wears tennis shoes with his shirt, pants, tie, trench coat and fedora. It’s hard to get a good look at them, because the soles seem to glow with unearthly white light frequently, but they appear to be Converse All-Stars, or the Central City equivalent. I’m sure that make some practical sense for running around in, but the message is a little conflicted.
What do you think of when you think of tennis shoes with a trench coat? Or tennis shoes with a tie? I think “lameness,” personally; the former makes me think of a Silent Bob-type, the latter of a grating Uncle Joey-from-Full House kinda guy, an intense, overdone sort of funloving.
Of course, a guy who dresses for business but likes to be comfortable fits in with the character, as a more affable, approachable, down-to-earth sort of angsty, conflicted urban vigilante. Which is why I’m not sure how I feel about them.
3.) Ever since the trailers went up, I’ve been complaining about the fact that The Spirit was in black instead of blue, and that he looked more like The Shadow than The Spirit. (Look how Shadow-y he looks here!) I’ve since heard that Miller experimented with blue, but it just didn’t look right, which I can sort of see. After watching the movie, the general colorless-ness of the whole film really makes what color The Spirit is wearing seem moot. If it were true black and white—i.e. his tie wasn’t brilliantly red, and there weren’t random splashes of color throughout—it would have rendered the coloration completely moot. After all, dark blue looks black in black and white.
4.) This is extremely Frank Miller-y. The funniest bits that didn’t involve Samuel L. Jackson Sam Jackson-ing like he’s never Sam Jackson-ed before were when The Spirit was talking about his city, particularly at the beginning. You know, it’s his sister, mother, lover, it’s not tarted up like a whore, that sort of thing. If you were writing a Sin City/Dark Knight Returns parody, these are the exact lines you would use.
5.) Because of the flak he takes for his women characters in general, I imagine everyone will look at The Spirit’s luck with the ladies and the fact that he’s apparently a complete hound as Miller simply being Miller, but I thought the whole city-as-one-true-love theme worked pretty well, particularly in light of the “city provides for me” urban fighting narrative thread, where there’s always a garbage can, manhole cover, snowball or telephone wire around when he needs it. These reminded me of hearing Jack Kirby talking about growing up (around the same time Eisner did) in New York City, and how brawling with other kids inspired the rooftop battles that became a staple of superhero comics.
6.) I was pretty surprised not to see Ebony White. Maybe I shouldn’t have been (I tend not to follow articles and announcements regarding films too closely, so maybe this was old news) and it’s easy to see why Miller might have wanted to just avoid him altogether, but Darwyn Cooke made him work pretty well in his short Spirit revival. Taking Ebony’s place as someone for our hero to talk to is a particular stray cat that’s always around.
7.) Samuel L. Jackson is, as he often is, the best part of the movie he’s in. Other than the black-for-blue color change, the fact that The Octopus would be seen on-screen seemed like the creative choice Miller was pre-judged most harshly for making. I think the film could have still worked with an unseen Jackson (his voice and delivery are certainly powerful enough that even when he’s only partially seen, his presence is felt—his first few lines are heard before anything more than glowing white teeth or eyes in his silhouette are seen).
It’s not quite clear why he keeps talking about eggs, and I’ve seen critics mention how weird it is that he randomly dresses up as Nazi at one point. I’ll give ‘em the eggs—that shit makes no sense. But the costumes—he also dresses as a samurai and a crazy cartoon pimp—seem meant to simply indicate that the guy is crazy, and likes the craziness of his work.
8.) The street lamps, telephone poles, police cars and other bits of the city look very Eisner-y, and there are several places where things look like real-life versions of Eisner drawings (The exact shape of The Spirit’s mask, the thick ropes he’s tied-up in during the Nazi-dentist scene). I was still somewhat surprised that it wasn’t still more Einser-y though.
The signature buildings/city elements-spelling-out-a-word technique is only used once at the beginning, with the letters of the logo revealed as the tops of buildings receding off into the distance, but it’s not part of a scene, it’s simply a flash of the logo on a black screen. And that’s all there is of it. There’s no scene of a building with the front cut away to reveal all of the rooms in the house at once either. That’s not a problem, it’s just something I sort of expected Miller to use at some point, even if only in a panning shot.
9.) Miller never seems to decide how cartoony the movie is supposed to be. The Octopus and The Spirit are both given the same superpowers: They essentially have Wolverine-like healing factors. Whether or not that was a good decision is open to debate (it’s certainly an example of Miller moving away from Eisner’s version), but it’s somewhat contradicted by the fact that they’re not the only examples of cartoon reality. The film opens with an odd sequence of The Spirit bouncing around a cartoonish city in a highly unrealistic scene, and while The Octopus and Spirit pound on each other without ever really hurting one another, other characters are similarly impervious to damage. One of the Octopus’ goons, for example, survives being rolled over by a truck, receiving no more damage than a tire tread mark along his face, but a gunshot is sufficient to kill him afterwards.
10.) Dolan doesn’t look like Dolan. Dan Lauria does a great job playing him, but I was surprised the first time he’s referred to as “Dolan,” since he doesn’t have the Dolan-hair. He does suck on a pipe in one scene late in the film though, so there’s that.
11.) The Spirit should keep his cellphone closer to his bed at night.