Jan 09

A Spirited Failure

Do You See + FT/6 comments • 284 views

The SpiritFrank Miller’s film of the Spirit has been beaten to death by the press, which befits a film where ultra-violent beatings are the order of the day. Watching it out of curiosity it is interesting to see how much of this beating is due to
a) Frank Miller
b) Superhero fatigue
c) Violence fatigue
d) Blue-screen movie boredom

There is no doubt that all of the above contribute to the Spirits’ awfulness, but at the same time the film has a gusto and energy missing from many movies, something which could be down to the writer directors singular vision of the titular character. Which unfortunately boils down to “What if Miller’s Batman moved into Sin City?”. So we get endless voice-overs of how “The city” is The Spirit’s wife and life – which is somewhat ironic as the choice of filming technique leaves us with little image of the city itself except as a black silhouette and a few bricks.

So to take those criticisms above:
a) Frank Miller is not a film director. That co-directing credit on Sin City was a vanity to Robert Rodriguez, which luckily – via Miller’s choice of almost identical shooting style shows who the real director was there. The other criticism of Miller is that he had taken Eisner’s distinctive character and turned him into a stock Miller caricature also holds, but then its not as if anyone outside a small circle knows the backstory of The Spirit.
b) Superhero fatigue has set in already, that was clear well before this summer. What this summer did differently was give us superior films in their genres. And good actors. Which Gabriel Macht is not, even without stupid flapping tie, no motivation and a rubbish mask.
c) The Spirit is stupendously, cartoonily violent. Some of this violence if plenty fun (my views on the use of toilets in fights has been documented elsewhere) but when it is all the film has to offer in the way of conflict resolution it really gets dull quickly. My views on fights between indestructible protagonists are also well documented.
d) Why is it that blue screen digital set building has led, on the whole, to an aesthetic which can only really be called grimy. Every hue of desaturated blacks, greys and browns are enlivened only by the flappy red tie and Tennantesque waffle pattern of the Spirit’s Converse.

What (questionably these days) works for Miller on the comic page, fails him on the big screen. Cinema, even blockbuster cinema, has no room for his unnaturalistic dialogue, and the characters find it hard to move from one set piece to another with motivation and demeanour intact. So in the end what is left is a flapping red tie and the images which luckily do burn themselves into your memory. So not terrible if just for the memory of:
a) Samuel L.Jackson dissolving a kitten whilst dressed as a Nazi
b) The Spirit escaping from a precarious situation with his trousers down
c) The hosts of sixties Batman henchmen with their punning names on their tops.

In all other ways, terrible!


  1. 1
    MBI on 4 Jan 2009 #

    Scene b) that you mention is quite possibly the worst scene in the history of movies.

    You don’t even mention the real reason why this movie is terrible, that it teeters between unbearable over-the-top camp and deadly boring earnest stretches in which nothing happens seemingly for hours. This movie completely and thoroughly hates itself.

  2. 2
    pete on 4 Jan 2009 #

    I think the tonal problems (earnestness to camp) are exactly the same problems with Miller’s All-Star Batman And Robin, to the extent that perhaps Miller has lost sight between the distinction between playing it straight with a wink and playing it straight with a yawn. The hidden model here is the Batman series (or perhaps film) of ’66 which looked back on affectionately now, manages the tricky task of playing its camp straight enough for two audiences. The violence and stabs for serious architype gold alienates the camp audience, and the film is too violent and cat dissolving for kids.

    But in the end the Spirit is not a billionaire who dresses up as a bat, he is an indestructible bloke in a suit and a tie. One of these is inherently silly, the other inherently dull.

  3. 3
    Martin Skidmore on 6 Jan 2009 #

    Would most of your complaints not also apply to Sin City? I ask because I loved that film, and wondered if I should avoid The Spirit or not. Obviously I know loads about the character as depicted by Eisner, but I don’t care if that is changed, as I don’t think he was a particularly great character, just one whose comics were executed in a way that was almost peerless (excepting Jack Cole and some newspaper strips, which The Spirit sort of wasn’t) in ’40s comics.

  4. 4
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 6 Jan 2009 #

    i imagine the signif diff is taken care of by one robert rodriguez, acclaimed director of the FT Best Film of All Time

    (i haven’t seen sin city but dr v!ck liked it a lot, even tho she couldn’t remember its title and knows nothing of comix: “it’s all grey” was how she decsribed it to me while raving)

  5. 5
    Pete Baran on 6 Jan 2009 #

    I liked Sin City a lot more than The Spirit. I guess the difference lies in their respective genres. Sin City wasn’t just a noir film, it relied on noir tropes to fill in the blanks on its bass asses and hookers. The Spirit is more of a camp superhero film, with a lead who doesn’t look like a superhero living in a noir world. It has almost zero characterisation and lurches from one expositionary sequence to another. But it still looks great in places, is occasionally very funny and entertains on a very basic level. I’d say see it at the Prince Charles or a cheap cinema.

  6. 6
    jel on 6 Jan 2009 #

    Here is my review of it, which I posted on my crappy blog:

    Today, I decided to go and see the 11:10am showing of the Spirit. I enjoy eating my lunch at the movies, and usually the cinema is empty at this time. There were only two other people in the cinema, and they were sitting on the aisle near the front, which I thought was a bit odd (haha, I’m calling other people odd).

    Anyway, the film, hmmm, it was er, watchable? It seemed to be a cross between Sin City (well, duh, that’s because of Frank Miller) and Tim Burton’s Batman…it tried to be a ’screwball caper with sexy dames’ and ‘a hard-boiled grimy crime drama’, and this sorta tore the film apart. I would have just stuck to the ’screwball caper’…

    The Spirit himself lacked substance, no sorry that’s a cheap joke…he was actually a little more than that, but not that charismatic to be honest, he liked cats and cats liked him, so that’s cool. Eva Mendes played jewel thief Sand Serif who was his first love. Samuel L. Jackson looked like he had fun playing the Octopus, the same goes for Scarlett as Silken Floss. The weirdest scene involved, the Octopus and Floss dressed as Nazi’s which ended in the disintegration of a kitten which really riled the Spirit…I think this scene was meant to be “lol” funny, but it just seemed a bit wrong.

    The plot revolved around the blood of Hercules, and some golden fleece. Oh, and it was snowing.

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