You know what’s really hard? Trying to tell when Frank Miller’s kidding. Does he take us all for suckers? Is his latter-day career just an extended practical joke? Or – like all good artists stewing in their own pretensions – does he take himself and his work 100%, no-holds-barred seriously? Honestly, Frank…why so serious?
The Spirit is one of those movies that got lost in the shadow of that other superhero flick from the summer of 2008. And that’s really too bad. Sooner or later, someone’s going to “rediscover” it and label it a cult classic. We’ve got to be prepared for that, and prepare to fight against it, because this movie is everything hateful and wrong about modern superhero stories.
We open with Death Herself, telling us that someone named Denny Crane (Gabriel Macht) is “the only man” who’s ever escaped her. So we know she‘s not leaving room for Jesus. Or Buddha, for that matter. Cut to a close-up of someone’s flat-lining heart rate monitor, which gradually pings to life as a phone rings offscreen.
So, somewhere in a mausoleum, a person who inherited all of Selina Kyle’s cats after she “died” at the end of Batman Returns finally picks up the damn phone. We can safely assume this is the Denny Crane Death just addressed. Turns out he’s also the titular Spirit. The guy on the other end is a cop calling to inform the Spirit of “something big…brewing at the mudflats…word on the street is The Octopus might be in on it.” The Spirit proceeds to get dressed with the help of a getting-dressed montage that’s a little too near Dick Tracy for my taste. Never know when the villain might start chewing scenery.
But before we get to that, let’s enjoy some of Our Hero’s neo-noir monologuing, which guides us through his physics-defying journey across his city. “My city. She’s always there for me. Every lonely night she’s there for me. She’s not some tarted up fraud, all dressed up like a piece of jailbait. No. She’s an old city. Old and proud of her every crack and pock and wrinkle. She’s my sweetheart. My plaything. She doesn’t hide what she is, what she’s made of: the sweat and muscle and blood of generations. She sleeps. After midnight and until dawn only shadows move in the silence. Damn, I’ve got no time for this. My city screams! She needs me. She is my love. She is my life. And I…am her Spirit.”
As with Sin City, those of you who can’t stomach the thought of listening to an hour and forty minutes of dialogue just like this…keep walking. Despite the title at the beginning that assured us this film is “based on the comic book series by Will Eisner,” this The Spirit is firmly and completely Frank Miller’s. But it’s more than that (though not much more): it’s the ultimate Frank Miller story, with all the unfortunate implications of that title.
So the Spirit’s journey to the mudflats gets interrupted by the Obligatory Screaming Woman who’s being set upon by the Obligatory Muggers in the Obligatory Dark Alley. The Spirit takes care of them, providing us with a brief-but-action-packed introduction to Our Hero…just like every other scene like this one in every other superhero film ever. (Except for Spider-Man – there the Obligatory Attempted Mugging of Mary-Jane served completely different purposes…like foreshadowing her role in the rest of the series).
At the mudflats, where frogs never hibernate (not even in the middle of a snowstorm), Our Hero finds a cop already dying, claiming some “beautiful broad” shot him down. He managed to snag her necklace before she swam away into the…mudflats…that are suddenly as clear as the Gulf of Mexico prior to summer, 2010, because we need to see that “beautiful broad” wasn’t really responsible for that cop’s death.
In reality it was [dramatic pause] The Octopus (Samauel L. Jackson), The City’s resident criminal overlord and the Spirit’s arch nemesis. He’s the usual underdeveloped crime lord. Supposedly all-powerful, his organization consists of exactly one hot chick named Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) and an army of identical, Odious Comic Relief clones (all played by Louis Lombardi). So the Octopus is exactly the kind of bargain-basement Bond villain you’d think he is with a name like “the Octopus.” He just happens to have Jackson’s talent for acting like a lunatic. Who else could sell a line like “Come on! Toilets are always funny”? No one. So props to Miller for making better use of available acting resources than George Lucas. As usual, Jackson’s about the only thing in this film that doesn’t piss me off. Except when he mentions eggs.
So we’ve met Our Hero and Villain. Time for an introductory fight scene. I liked this fight a lot…until I noticed the mudflats turn from water to liquid to solid depending on what the shot requires. Then I became annoyed. Then distracted. By the time I remembered to pay attention, I’d managed to absorb the fact that both hero and villain are neigh-invulnerable, and thus evenly matched, by osmosis. The Octopus asks the Spirit about this coincidence and asks if he’s ever wondered about it. Since he’s a Frank Miller protagonist, and therefore that special Tough Guy brand of Stupid, the Spirit replies, “It never even crossed my mind.”
“Well I’ll be learnin’ ya!” the Octopus Samuel L. Jacksons at him. “I’ll be learnin’ ya real soon.” Fuck both of you: I’ve figured out already. But that’s not good enough for this flick. No! It’s going to spend the next hour patiently, ponderously, and redundantly spelling out everything we just learned. Like any given Michael Bay picture, The Spirit assumes we’re all idiots and takes every opportunity to explain itself to us in the dumbest of all possible terms, as if it were addressing a vast audience of the Octopus’ clones. Is this your target audience, Frank? Or Lionsgate’s?
Either way, the Octopus does manage to knock Our Hero out, leaving him to be serenaded by Death. The other woman in his life, Dr. Helen Dolan (Sarah Paulson), wakes him up to make a big deal out of his injuries…but since he might as well be a Highlander, I’ve gotta ask: why? Really, it’s to give them something to talk about until Helen’s called away to treat that cop the Octopus plugged. Dead Cop #165 gives Our Hero the “beautiful broad’s” locket and Our Hero wanders off to brood about that…while palavering with Police Commissioner Dolan (Dan Lauria), Helen’s father.
This is meant to establish the relationship between Our Hero and local law enforcement, showing it’s simultaneously more chummy and more emotionally overwrought than Batman’s. Dolan complains that the Spirit’s “hotdogging” costs too many good cops their lives (as we’ve just seen). The Spirit has no comeback so he changes the subject, invoking the specter of all those “little girls” who are “selling their souls” on the City’s streets, “slave to the Octopus’ poison.” We could see these “little girls” but it’s much better to just have Our Hero tell us about them. We don’t want to bring up too may Sin City flashbacks, now do we?
Stalking off to clear his head, Our Hero narrates about how, on night’s like this, he wonders about his own essential nature, no matter what he just told The Octopus. “Am I a ghost? Some kind of Flying Dutchman? If the wind picked up hard enough, would I just blow away? I’m not a cop. Not anymore. Not even a dead man.”
And above all else, he’s certainly not a smart one. Already we know the Spirit’s (a) neigh-invulnerable, as is (b) his criminal mastermind arch nemesis. Therefore, by Contrived Comic Book Movie Law, there’s a good chance that (c) Our Hero and Villain are connected somehow. Since Our Hero’s an idiot (charging in to confront his nemesis with nothing but two normal cops for backup, 50% of whom die) I guess Our Villain must’ve created Our Hero as part of some of mad experiment in Science! Something that left Our Hero with movie-grade amnesia.
Except that can’t be true since the sight of the locket triggers a flashback to Our Hero’s younger, happier days (oh hell; I’m flashing back to Ghost Rider). We see a young Denny Crane (Johnny Simmons) attempt to win the heart of a young Sand Serif (Seychelle Gabriel) with the key to every girl’s heart: shinny things. Including the locket he just found in that dying cop’s hand. Sand’s dad was a beat cop back in the day; Denny’s uncle was a washed-up prize fighter. Together they fought crime…except that’s a lie. In truth, Denny’s uncle accidentally killed Sand’s dad one night, driving Sand to depart The City and break our poor hero’s young heart. Now she’s back…but why?
Oops. Time for Sam Jackson to chew up some more scenery. Apparently, today’s Akira Kurosawa day around the Octopus’ lair. Turns out the Octopus and Sand Serif both showed up at the mudflats meaning to steal the same thing: two sealed boxes. One, as Silken Floss graciously explains, was supposed to contain the Blood of Heracles. The other, as Sand Serif soon states, contains “the lost treasure of the Aurgonauts.” She wants the treasure, the Octopus wants the blood. In all the confusion, each wound up with the other’s box.
Sand’s just as displeased with this as the Octopus. We finally meet her in her adult state (played by Eva Mendes – great, just what this movie needed: more shades of Ghost Rider) as she threatens (and then kills) the dude who set her onto the treasure in the first place. Obviously, he sold her out to the Octopus. Incidentally, it’s nice to see Eric Balfour, known as here as “Claire Fisher’s first boyfriend on Six Feet Under,” playing Sand’s Number One. But if he insists on using the atrocious accent he has here, I’d rather he be seen and not heard.
Back in the hospital, Our Hero and Helen drop everything to try and have a tryst in the examination room. “Keep the mask on,” she insists. “Something tells me it might be better that way.” This is our introduction to the fact every woman in the film has the hots for Our Hero at one point or another…for no real reason. It doesn’t contribute anything to the plot. It’s just one of his superpowers, I guess. As a Lady Reporter will say soon, “we hang on your every word.” Nothing creepy about that. No. Not at all. Nothing inexplicable about it either. I guess Our Hero sends out Spirit Rays that force the women of Central City to find him irresistibly attractive. Just not in a rape-y way…right? Because that would be creepy.
Goddamnit. At this point, Frank Miller is officially jerking off his lead character. It’s a good thing there aren’t any normal women in this town…just incredibly hot, simpering ninnies who make googly eyes at the first thing in a black coat, mask and hat that gives them a smile (which goes ping, of course). For a second, I thought the film was getting a little sexist, but it’s not like this is the James Bond franchise. The Spirit never sleeps with any of the women who helplessly fawn over him…he just plays with them the way his mausoleum o’cats play with their cat trees.
I haven’t even gotten to the annoying part yet. After Our Hero meets Sand (and she flashes him and, of course, he tries to act all embarrassed about it, like he’s some prude) he falls out a window and has to use his belt to swing himself to the relative safety of a ledge, causing his pants to fall down. Comedy, thy name is Frank Miller. Then the Octopus captures Our Hero and threatens him with death via the international hot-chick assassin Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega).
I love Jackson’s performance during the Octopus’ Expository Villain Monologue, especially since Silken Floss is around to make it a dialogue and give Jackson a straight woman to play off of. It’s just that, in this monologue, the Octopus reveals the Spirit was a cop, shot down in the line of duty. Posing in his civilian identity as a coroner, the Octopus was on call that night. He injected Hero Cop Denny Crane with one of his super-special formulas for immortality (“all five sweet syllables of it”), and boom, here we are.
So. A resurrected, neigh-invulnerable cop (Robocop) in a badass trench coat and tie with a chivalrously paternalistic love for The Ladies (Sin City) must fight his way through an urban hellscape (pick a flavor: Miller’s specialized in them – he even transported Robocop to the post-Judgment Day future of the Terminator franchise just so he could play around with that post-Apocalypse) in order to put the wrong things right and rescue his walking Electra Complex of a girlfriend (Daredevil). If only Miller could’ve somehow found a way to sneak Spartan warriors and their leather man-panties into this film…though I guess the blood of Heracles is here to represent the baby-killing power of Ancient Greek FREEDOM and REASON.
But you see what I mean? It really is every story Frank Miller’s ever written to date. More than some homage or pastiche, this is a goddamn clip show. Frank Miller’s career-summarizing symphony. And much like Glen Holland’s American Symphony, it had too much build up in front of it. There was no way it could ever pay off as much as Miller would’ve liked. The success of Sin City and 300 exposed the weak points in Miller’s entire body of work. Now that those two have really broken through into the broader culture, Miller’s got to face facts: he’s run out of tricks. Besides being a racist. That always works.
So we get the kind of story you’d have if a horrible transporter accident fused Sin City and The Crow into some stiff-limbed, ponderous, rod-puppet hybrid of metal and flesh. Something Jeff Goldblum would’ve beaten to death with a length of pipe back in 1986. Instead, I’m the one beating this dead cat. I don’t want to. I love cats. I love superhero movies. I’d just love it if Frank Miller never make one ever again.
This is Frank Miller on autopilot, the kind of thing he dashes off on the fly so he can get on to making pretty pictures. Make art books, Frank, by all means. Stop making movies that treat the plot twist we figured out twenty-five minutes in like big, epic revelations. Stop writing one-note, cliched tough guy characters. And for the love god, please stop giving all your female characters Electra complexes.
And stop pretending this is some love note to Eisner’s comics. This is Miller’s love-note to himself. It’s pretty, and I’ll gladly give it that. The cinematography, color correction, and CGI backgrounds all integrate well. But the actors involved are horribly cast, have fuck-all to go on, and you can see the lack of knowledge plaguing them all throughout. It even helps some of them. Johansson, in particular, uses boredom to inform her character, giving Silken Floss the put-upon air of a long-suffering, Evil XO.
The rest of these characters are as blank and aloof as the film they’re in. Bald-faced archetypes. Interchangeable parts, cannibalized from previous Miller stories…rather like the film as a whole. If you like Miller’s style, read his damn books. Or watch Sin City again. It was a redundant exercise in noir nostalgia too, but at least two of its four stories were the fun kind of redundant. This is just…generic.
That’s it. The Spirit is the most generic superhero movie to come out of our current, Silver Age, the Catwoman of 2008. Fitting too that it got clobbered by a much better Batman movie. So I guess there is still justice in the world.