I’ve been thinking about Frank Miller’s film adaptation of Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” more than I expected to since I saw it a few days after it hit theaters.
I like Frank Miller. I don’t think he’s an infallible genius or anything, but I generally like his work, and I think he’s got a couple of classics under his belt in the world of comics. Without the work he did on “The Dark Knight Returns,” I think it’s likely the entire landscape of comics and superhero films would be radically different right now. He was in the right place, at the right time, with the right idea. And he just nailed it. Now, I understand rejecting it because of what you think it means… I find I choke on “Forrest Gump” because of what it suggests as a philosophy… and people who find the original “Dark Knight” to be fascist and grotesque are just as right as the people who think it’s a dark comic reaction to Reagan’s ’80s around the word. It’s all in there if you’re looking for it.
I think “Hard Boiled” is the best thing he’s ever been part of, personally. That’s my fave. And of course a big part of that is because I genuinely can’t imagine the artistic accomplishment of Geof Darrow on that book. It’s one of the most disturbingly beautiful things I’ve ever seen. It’s just jaw-dropping, spread after spread after spread. But Miller’s script for it is lovely. Simple. Self-contained and complete. It suggests such a world, paints such a picture, tells you so much about what it means to be this guy… this main character… this Carl Seltz… lots of people have played with the same ideas about identity and humanity as this, most notably “Blade Runner.” Whatever. This, more than anything else he’s done in my opinion, is Miller and the right collaborator making absolute magic.
So I know he’s got it in him. I’ve also read some Frank Miller stuff that I can’t stand. And that’s the case with a lot of guys whose work I like. You don’t have to like everything to respect somebody.
Having said that…
“The Spirit” is terrible.
The sort of terrible where my first reaction was to just shrug the movie off as a misfire and get back to writing about other things.
But it’s not just a bad movie… it’s sort of a perfect storm of awful, and considering just how and why this movie stinks seems to me to be a good way to examine the failings of how films get made in general in the 21st century.
The giant coffee table book about the making of “The Spirit” that was sent to me is truly gorgeous. As a piece of iconography, when you’re looking at individual finished composites, I get exactly what Miller thought he was making.
But it’s a stiff. It’s an absolute belly-up corpse. The first 20 minutes or so might fool you, ’cause the body’s still warm. That first fight between The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) and The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) is so big and ridiculous that you’re lulled, maybe even enjoying it, but then you notice that none of the performances match in tone… seriously… not one. Everyone’s starring in their own movie.
Gabriel Macht is starring in “Gabriel Macht Really Takes Care Of Himself”.
Scarlett Johansson is starring in “Frank Miller’s Masturbatory Fantasies.”
Eva Mendes is starring in “Frank Miller’s Masturbatory Fantasies.”
Sarah Paulson is starring in “Frank Miller’s Masturbatory Fantasies.”
Samuel L. Jackson is starring in “GO AHEAD! TRY AND STEAL MY SCENE, MOTHERFUCKER! I MOTHERFUCKING DARE YOU!: THE MOVIE!”
Paz Vega is, shockingly, also starring in “Frank Miller’s Masturbatory Fantasies.” As is Jaime King.
I mean, seriously… Frank must have been taking some long lunches, because this is the most blatantly fetishistic display by a director since Quentin Tarantino opened the director’s cut of “Death Proof” with a 45-minute uninterrupted close up of Rosario Dawson’s feet while his iPod played.
Not that I’m complaining, mind you. He’s cast his movie like he draws his comic books… exaggerated. The women are all dolled up to outrageous extremes, and they certainly can’t complain about how they’re shot. Bill Pope, the cinematographer of no less than “The Matrix” movies, loves these women, and he treats them right, making them all into impossible candy, plush fantasy objects. And Macht is absurd. He’s absurd in the way Bruce Campbell was absurd in “Evil Dead 2,” just north of good-looking and slightly into ridiculous. Sam Jackson does what he’s hired to do and gives Crazy-Times-A-Thousand at maximum volume. He does that thing where he laughs and chats with you and then BAM! He’s giving you that shit-your-pants-you’re-busted look. Over and over and over. It’s the only thing Miller can think to do with The Octopus. He made the argument in adapting the character (who remained unseen except in bits and pieces in the comic) that he had to show him to make the character work in a movie. But now that I’ve seen the execution, I have to ask: was he really necessary in the form he’s in? Wouldn’t it have been interesting if this unseen foe, glimpsed only on occasion and in fragments, like a gloved hand or someone’s back going around a corner or a silhouette, backlit and looming over you, was portrayed the original way? Would it have made the film better? Or worse? Hard to tell.
The big obvious problem, though, has nothing to do with style or with the casting. It’s a problem that many superhero and comic book movies have… they don’t know which specific story to tell, so they don’t really tell much of a story at all. Just, uh, give everybody some missing doodads to chase around for two hours, everyone powers through a bunch of skirmishes, you have a deadly final showdown, the right people win, the end, good night. And here, sure enough, there are some missing doodads that do various wonderful things, and everyone chases them around and double-crosses each other, and The Spirit eyefucks every woman who crosses his path, and everyone laughs like that’s hilarious, even the woman he allegedly loves, and there’s some talk of The Spirit’s mysterious origin, and it turns out to be sort of the same old “tampering with nature” sort of experimental stuff, and everything comes to a big finish at the same time, and The Spirit gets to make out with someone and the end.
And Miller’s dialogue here needed to be rehearsed with the actors a lot more, and workshopped until it was musical, and if you’re going to do this sort of thing, you want to know that everyone involved gets what they’re doing and knows how to pull it off. This movie switches from the profoundly silly to the allegedly serious to the immeasurably stupid, sometimes within the same scene. I’ve heard that on “Sin City,” Miller was the one working with the actors and Rodriguez was mainly working with the camera, but you’d never know it based on this film. He strands these poor actors. If you don’t have an idea how to create a cohesive vibe for your movie, everyone’s work suffers as a result.
The stylization is too much at this point, too. I think there’s something to the idea of trying to literalize the language of comic books by playing with the way time works and by pushing the style as far as they do here, and I think a more seasoned filmmaker might have been able to pull it together. But Miller’s hobbled by several things. First, this feels like a thin “Sin City” retread, too toothless to pack a punch, too extreme to connect with. Second, he never figures out The Spirit as a character, and if we don’t have any sense of who our lead is, then nothing else really matters that we’re watching.
The only reason this came together is because someone looked at the grosses of “Sin City” and “300” and decided that they were going to back Miller. And I can respect that as a decision on paper. But before this thing ever rolled film (figuratively speaking), they should have really put him to the test. They should have forced him to write a great story, not just a collection of images. They should have pushed him to spend more time getting comfortable with his cast. Bottom line: this film wasn’t ready to be made, and yet, they were chasing that “superhero movie dollar,” as Bill Hicks would have said, and they lost sight of everything else. Considering how long this one’s been kicking around in development, and considering how close this came to being a Brad Bird animated film, this is pretty much the most disappointing ending possible for the saga of bringing The Spirit to the screen, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it ends up putting a stake in the heart of Frank Miller’s ambitions as a filmmaker.