The Spirit

The Spirit movie poster


At last, final­ly anoth­er entry to The Dork Report’s 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 (read The Dork Report appre­ci­a­tion), 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 to far as to visu­al­ly quote indi­vid­ual pan­els).

Gabriel Macht in The SpiritI’m gonna kill you all kinds of dead.”

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 includes a must-see bonus fea­ture: “Miller on Miller,” in which Miller talks of him 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.

This Dork Reporter 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).

Scarlett Johansson in The SpiritI’ve known some pret­ty strange women in my time but this one, she’s got the final word on strange.”

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 the unknown Gabriel Macht in the epony­mous role with 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 (hi, Sam!). 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 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.

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the DVD and the book The Spir­it: The Movie Visu­al Com­pan­ion from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.