Yes, we’re going to talk about that movie. So buckle up!
The expression goes, “ignorance is bliss,” and that likely is the case for those unaware of the 2008 film adaptation of Will Eisner’s celebrated comic strip, The Spirit. Directed by Frank Miller (yes, that Frank Miller), The Spirit boasts a strong supporting cast behind its relatively unknown leading man, Gabriel Macht. It’s the Superman (1978) approach to superhero movies, but unfortunately the casting process is the only thing that these two movies share. From start to finish, The Spirit is an absolute train wreck. From is inconsistent stylization, erratic tone, and amateur writing, it’s amazing this movie made it past the script stage. And yet for some reason, I love this movie. It’s actually my favorite bad movie, and it’s because it was my gateway into the character and discover the brilliance behind Eisner’s original strips.
Visually, The Spirit looks stunning. It borrows a similar aesthetic to the Sin City movies. However, aside from the silhouette and red tie, the Spirit little like his comic counterpart. Sure, his alter ego is the presumed dead Denny Colt, but that’s a throwaway revelation late into the movie’s runtime. The mysterious and never-seen (except for his gloves) archenemy, the Octopus, is overtly displayed with scene-chewing glee by Samuel L. Jackson. Though at times depicted as a goof in Eisner’s stories, Gabriel Macht’s Spirit is a clumsy imbecile, save for one extremely brief, awesome moment. Given Macht’s track record since this movie, I’m willing to lay the blame at Miller’s feet for the character’s portrayal. Then there’s the revolving door of great actresses who are little more than set dressing. They are hollow characters with the sole purpose of being objectified. The only one who escapes this fate is Stana Katic’s Officer Morgenstern, whose role requires her to be fully dressed in a police uniform instead of the skimpy, impractical outfits the other women find themselves in.
Speaking of costumes, the Spirit’s trench coat, slacks, and hat have swapped out the iconic blue for a grittier black. Same with his white button-down shirt, also black in the movie. Miller has stated that his reasoning for this is due to his understanding of Eisner’s intentions and coloring techniques of the Golden and Silver Ages. Because of the price of black ink, it was used more for accents in conjunction with blue, and as a result many costumed heroes were depicted in blue rather than black. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Batman, who Miller himself restored to a black-and-grey color scheme in The Dark Knight Returns. With this knowledge, giving the Spirit a black color scheme makes sense on paper. But Eisner was one of the few creators with the ability to push the medium forward despite its limitations. He may have initially wanted the Spirit to be clad in black, but over time he embraced the blue outfit and made it a critical element to the strip’s visual identity.
As mentioned, there is an impressive lineup of actresses to play the Spirit’s various femme fatales. And while they were sexy in Eisner’s strips, they also were fully fleshed out characters. Eva Mendes’ Sand Sarif, for example, has the surface-level motivation of wanting shiny objects no matter the cost. That’s it – nothing more, and nothing less. But contrast that with The Spirit #502-503 (“Sand Sarif” and “Bring in Sand Sarif”) and you see that Miller has only adapted a portion of an empowered, interesting character. Surprisingly, the movie does get much of Sand’s origin story right. Her father is a cop, killed trying to protect Denny’s hard knock uncle. Miller’s script even lifts some of the language directly from Eisner’s story, though what works in a 1950s comic strip doesn’t necessarily work for a 2008 movie. But what Miller’s adaptation is missing is the psychological damage this personal loss has inflicted on her. The film treats Sand as someone who was always selfish and materialistic. Eisner’s character, on the other hand, undergoes a transformation. Her hate of cops develops over time as she attempts to grieve her father’s death, fulfilling a need to place blame on something. As a result, it feels like a natural progression for the character, as does her subsequent life of crime. It is why the Eisner stories are revered classics, and the movie’s plot falls apart at the seams.
The Spirit strips by Eisner were often moody and atmospheric like a film noir, but also had plenty of moments of unadulterated silliness. For better or worse, Miller attempts to bring both aspects of the comic to life. Technically, he succeeds. The movie was shot mostly against a green screen and is given a look similar to that of the film adaptation of Miller’s own Sin City comics. As a result, the movie has a unique, dreamlike atmosphere that makes the marriage of old and new technology work. The Spirit frequently delivers a voiceover that also recalls old crime films of the 1930s through the 1950s. But it is the visuals that truly reign supreme. Often, I find myself putting the movie on sound off, and just enjoying the visuals. It’s not too dissimilar to how I revisit Eisner’s strips – glossing over the words but marveling at the visual craftsmanship.
Then, there’s the damn goofiness. I said that Eisner’s strips had their moments of silliness, but it was done so subtle, playful manner. The Spirit may be caught in a compromising situation, but it never undermined his abilities as a capable crimefighter. The movie, however, takes a much different route. Miller has never been one for subtlety, and his directorial effort here can be shown as Exhibit A for all future demonstrations. The opening sequence in which the Spirit traverses the rooftops of Central City shows the hero move with the grace and skill of a toddler, or perhaps a drunk. Spider-Man he is not. But what it does do is set the mood for what kind of experience viewers are in for. And to be honest, this isn’t too dissimilar from the silliness you might see in a Spirit strip. It’s only once the Spirit confronts Samuel L. Jackson’s Octopus that the wheels come off.
When the Spirit and Octopus fight, it’s just most over-the-top, slapstick stupidity that has no place in any adaptation of Eisner’s work. Their first encounter starts off okay enough. Like the aforementioned sequence, it possesses hints of silliness. But it just keeps going and keeps escalating. There’s toilets, giant wrenches (?), and a kitchen sink (how subtle) being used as weapons that seemingly appear from nowhere. The point of this scene is to provide a little action and demonstrate both characters cannot be killed (we’ll touch on this tidbit momentarily). Conceptually, it makes sense to do something like this. However, it drags on far too long, and despite its best efforts is a joyless affair. And what’s the in-movie rationale for this? Both characters know they cannot be seriously harmed. Sure, they get winded, but neither of them is in any danger, so why keep punching each other in the face over and over again? These are the types of confounding scenarios that frequently take place to which the movie has no answer for.
Of course, the idea that the Spirit is invincible goes to show that, despite claims to the contrary, Miller does not understand the character on a fundamental level. You know which movie featured a more accurate version of the Spirit than this one? Raiders of the Lost Ark. Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Indiana Jones is a better Spirit than what Miller was able to cobble together. This is because the Spirit isn’t a superhero. He’s a regular guy with zero powers. Denny Colt is presumed dead, but he’s still just a regular guy that uses that presumption to remain anonymous to the police and the criminal underworld. He’s strong, but not super-strong. He takes a beating and just barely comes out on top. Go watch Raiders and you’ll find Eisner’s character is embodied by the famed archaeologist.
I find the Octopus to be problematic, but not because of the performance. It’s clear from watching this movie that Sam Jackson is having the time of his life. He’s gone on record numerous times saying how much he enjoyed his experience making this movie. That’s probably because he knew it was going to be crap and decided to just have fun with it. As a reminder, Eisner’s Octopus was an enigmatic criminal mastermind who was never actually seen, save for his gloved hands. That’s not what we get in the movie. Sam Jackson is enjoyable in every scene in the movie, but his character is the Octopus in name only. But I do not lay the blame at his feet. Yes, it’s his portrayal, but his portrayal is based on the writing and direction given to him. And for that, we need to do what so many have done already: bash the shit out of writer/director Frank Miller.
Now, before the flogging begins, credit must be given where it’s due. If not for Miller, I would never have seen this movie, and I would likely have gone a while longer before discovering and appreciating the works of Eisner. Despite its flaws, Batman: Year One remains my Batman favorite story. The Dark Knight Returns is a seminal work. I’m even a huge defender of All Star Batman & Robin. And then there’s the great work he’s done on Daredevil and Sin City. Needless to say, I was familiar with his works when I heard about this movie. It’s also true that before seeing this movie, I was relatively unfamiliar with Will Eisner, save for the industry awards which bear his name. Frank Miller’s The Spirit was my gateway into the works of Eisner, but it also shined a light on his bastardization of the material.
Part of the problem is that this movie is written by late-career Frank Miller. This is not the guy who made Daredevil a marquee character, nor is it the guy who wrote The Dark Knight Returns. This is the Frank Miller that wrote The Dark Knight Strikes Again, and Holy Terror. At this point, Miller was a stubborn, crotchety old man whose books were full of hate, misogyny, and sloppiness. He has said that Eisner’s works were unfilmable, only to then say that only he could do them justice. The first part may be true to an extent, but this movie is evidence to why that latter sentiment is false. I can think of several writers and directors who would be better equipped to tell a proper The Spirit story. Get Ed Brubaker to write a script, like he did for the Eisner Centennial Newspaper. Get someone like David Fincher or even a capable TV director like David Nutter to direct. Bam! There’s a team that can to The Spirit justice. However, Miller’s hubris prevented him from seeing his own limitations, resulting in this mess of a film.
I’ve done a lot of bashing of my favorite bad movie, because I think it’s important to realize that you can really enjoy a piece of art – whether it’s a painting, writing, or film – and acknowledge its flaws. And The Spirit has a ton of flaws – way too many to discuss in detail here. Let’s just say that Miller’s film is a bastardization of Will Eisner’s signature work. However, I still really enjoy this movie for what it is – a farce. It’s an insane fever dream incarnate. It also was my gateway to discovering the true genius of Eisner’s work and abilities, not just in The Spirit but in his other works like A Contract With God. Because of this, The Spirit (2008), with its 14% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, 30 rating on Metacritic, and paltry $39 million worldwide box office, is my favorite bad movie.