At last, finally another entry to our hallowed pantheon of zero-star unholy cinema atrocities. Frank Miller’s The Spirit is far more than just merely bad. Like the most infamous movie disaster of all, Ed Wood’s Plan Nine From Outer Space), it veers wildly from stunning weirdness to unintentional hilarity, interspersed with frequent stretches of insufferable boredom.
But what truly lands The Spirit among the rarified company of true cinematic crimes against humanity is that it is the insane and unhinged product of a uniquely obsessed auteur mind. The only difference is, Miller was handed a great deal more money and resources than Wood ever managed to wrangle.
Not that he didn’t have to work for it. Miller is one of the best-known (and most ripped-off) rock stars to graduate from the sweatshop that is the comic book industry. He has written and/or illustrated some of the best-selling and most influential series of comics’ modern age, including Wolverine, Daredevil, Ronin, Elektra: Assassin, Sin City, and 300. Much of this work has long been ruthlessly pillaged for raw material for Hollywood’s leveraging of comic book intellectual properties.
The unmatched one-two punch of his 1980s Batman graphic novels Year One (with David Mazzucchelli) and The Dark Knight, together with Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, became the basis for Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). That first major comics-to-movie blockbuster not only borrowed Miller’s particular interpretation of the character (itself a highly distilled version of its surprisingly dark history), but also his overall visual style (going so far as to visually quote individual panels).
Over a decade later, Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil (2003) unfortunately fumbled Miller’s most famous original character, the Greek ninja assassin Elektra. But Miller was soon to cease being merely someone from whom Hollywood stole paid homage. In 2005, Miller jumped media barriers to co-direct a feature film adaptation of his original graphic novel Sin City with Robert Rodriguez. The two crafted an exactingly faithful recreation of the book, essentially treating the original comics as storyboards. Miller’s profile only rose as Zack Snyder pulled a similar stunt with Miller’s 1998 graphic novel 300, producing an even bigger (and slightly controversial) smash hit.
Credit to Miller for absorbing countless lessons from the seasoned indie maverick Rodriguez, enough to helm an entire feature on his own. The Spirit‘s visuals are often extraordinarily beautiful, exploiting the thin barrier between animation and live action blurred ever since the largely green-screened Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999) and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Kerry Conran, 2004). Like Sin City, nearly every shot is highly processed to effect a stylized evocation of noir literature and movies.
But together with Miller’s signature brand of stark, chiaroscuro images and purple, pulpy noir dialogue, it doesn’t look or sound anything like the real ostensible real source material, Will Eisner’s original Spirit comics. The legendary Eisner is considered the inventor of the graphic novel. The DVD edition of The Spirit includes a must-see bonus feature: “Miller on Miller,” in which he talks of Eisner as a teacher, and took many of his aphorisms as lessons, including the essential sensuality of inking (which Miller took rather literally). Eisner (and others such as Neal Adams) may have inspired Miller in the first place, but Miller’s version of The Spirit in Chucks and cape-like trenchcoat more closely resembles his own creations, especially Dwight from Sin City (Clive Owen in the film) or Daredevil as he appears in the 1990 graphic novel Elektra Lives Again.
I read Miller’s comics as a kid, and certainly never expected the guy would one day be a bankable force in Hollywood. Looking backwards, it’s plain he hasn’t changed much. His obsessions and preoccupations are now only amplified and enhanced: his modern comics (and now movies) are mostly comprised of homoerotic bone-crunching acrobatic fights (if the entirety of 300 isn’t proof enough, might I refer you to Daredevil’s battle with the naked, big-dicked Bullseye in Elektra Lives Again), voluptuous femmes fatale (no skinny waifs for him), and pulp fiction and film noir-inspired odes to his beloved New York City. Also on the DVD, Miller expounds on all his favorite talking points, from his detailed knowledge of comics history, his love for New York City, and his hatred of censorship (he’s famously prone to castigate the comics industry for weakly censoring itself instead of fighting back against – or even ignoring – Congressional pressure in the 1950s).
I’m not familiar with Eisner’s original Spirit comics, which appeared as inserts in 1940s Sunday newspapers. But from what I understand, Miller took a great deal of liberties beyond jettisoning Eisner’s colorful visual style in favor of his own Sin City look. Miller adds a metaphysical aspect missing in the original, making The Spirit and his nemesis The Octopus both indestructible and quick-healing (perhaps inspired by the character Wolverine, to which Miller had a hand in popularizing in the early 1980s). The presence of Samuel L. Jackson can’t help but recollect M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, an infinitely more subtle examination of the superhero archetype.
The action is set in an unnamed fantasy urban landscape like that of Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998) and David Fincher’s Se7en (1995): filthy, surrounded by water, soaked by constant precipitation and fog, and in perpetual night until the sun finally rises at the end. Miller’s script conspicuously avoids mentioning the year, but the automobiles and fashions are clearly of the 1940s while the characters employ the cell phones and internet of the 2000s. This is Miller’s home.
The Spirit sports an unusually eclectic cast, with Gabriel Macht in the eponymous role alongside much better-known stars Jackson and Scarlett Johansson in supporting roles. The performances range from the distracted (Sarah Paulson as a good girl besotted with The Spirit) to the borderline lunatic. One can hardly blame the actors, for surely they were at the mercy of the screenplay and Miller’s rookie coaching. Stana Katic is entertaining as Morgenstern, a gosh-golly gee-whiz rookie cop that goose-steps from scene to scene like a sexy robot. ScarJo rocks hornrimmed glasses like no bad girl before her, but it’s just plain uncomfortable to see her in Nazi fetishwear and jackboots.
The Octopus is a mad scientist conducting all sorts of medical atrocities in the name of mutating himself to godlike powers. He deems one of his misfired experiments as “just plain damn weird,” a phrase apropos of the movie itself. It’s oddly slapstick, and often outright silly. Unexpectedly, it’s much less violent, or rather, gory, than 300 or Sin City. It’s also slightly more playful in narrative terms; the Spirit’s noirish voiceover often brazenly breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to the camera.
And finally, some trivia gleaned from the credits:
- This comic geek thought I recognized a contribution by frequent Miller collaborator Geof Darrow (Hard Boiled and Big Guy & Rusty the Boy Robot), and I was proved correct in the end credits.
- The end credits themselves, designed by Miller, are stunning.
- Miller is also credited for the storyboards, which must be something to see.
- Miller cameos as a decapitiated cop, the head of whom The Octopus wields as a weapon. He also appears in Sin City, Daredevil and RoboCop 2, for which he wrote the screenplay.