Upfront, I have never in my life read a Spirit comic book or comic strip. All I know about Will Eisner’s classic 1940 creation The Spirit I learned from reading about it, or I gleaned information from friends whose interest in comics and the history of them is greater than mine. Therefore, I’m not the person to come to as concerns the faithfulness of Frank Miller’s film incarnation of The Spirit. Still, I can’t help but conclude that there’s at least a hint of fealty to Eisner’s creation, on which Eisner said he quickly added a small mask so he could tell his backers that, yes, The Spirit had a costume. Plus, the film’s peculiar story line seems in keeping with some of the loopier plot outlines of Eisner’s faux-noir originals. And I’m told that The Octopus’ (Samuel L. Jackson) repeated phrase, “That’s just damn weird,” is authentic. It’s also a phrase that accurately describes the whole movie.
I’m a little surprised by the scorn and derision that’s been heaped on Miller’s film by both fans and critics. I’ve read many of the criticisms, and while I don’t want to say that those attacking the film don’t “get it,” I do have to note that many—maybe most—of the very things they’re railing against are precisely the elements that I found amusing and entertaining about The Spirit. It’s possible I’m somehow more in tune with Miller’s mind-set here than they are. It’s also possible that they do indeed “get it,” but they don’t want it. Perhaps they don’t want it for the simple reason that The Spirit is a film that takes the piss out of the comic-book-movie genre. As such, it’s out of joint with the mood of the moment—the moment when The Dark Knight is being seen as the full maturation of the comic-book film. The first post-post-modern comic-book movie could not have arrived at a worse time.
The Spirit is a loopy affair—make no mistake. It makes sport of both comic books and hard-boiled detective fiction, yet it does so by utilizing and adhering to the conventions of each. If you’re willing to go with this approach, you’re likely to have fun with the film, which is a lot shrewder and more cleverly developed than its detractors are willing to admit. There are elements of Rian Johnson’s Brick (2005) here, and also the 1967 Casino Royale—not to mention the kind of scrambled period setting one finds in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm (1988) and Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990). The story is not in the least incoherent—though it’s been called that. In fact, it’s pretty straightforward in terms of plot.
You have a hero, The Spirit/Denny Colt (a surprisingly appealing Gabriel Macht), cut from the Raymond Chandler cloth of Philip Marlowe, meaning that he’s constantly narrating the film (and sometimes just plain talking to himself) in faux Marlovian terms. The difference is that he seems to be unable to be killed, no matter how much punishment is doled out to him. In typical film-noir manner, he doesn’t himself know why. You have a super-genius villain, The Octopus, who shares this invulnerable trait, but does know why, and likes nothing better than spending hours shooting, stabbing, bludgeoning and otherwise evidencing antisocial behavior against The Spirit.
There’s a femme fatale, Sand Seref (Eva Mendes), who just happens to be The Spirit’s childhood sweetheart gone bad. Of course, they’ve never really gotten over each other. And there’s “good girl” Ellen Dolan (TV actress Sarah Paulson), a doctor who spends a good deal of her time patching up The Spirit, and is, of course, hopelessly in love with him (even while not realizing he’s her supposedly dead boyfriend, Denny Colt). But then The Spirit is catnip to all the ladies—some of whom, like Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega, Talk to Her), harbor grudges. Next, there’s the amiably amoral Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), who functions as The Octopus’ girl Friday. And finally, throw in an endless supply of mentally defective dispensable clone henchman (all played by Louis Lombardi) who The Octopus insists on naming by labeling their shirts. (We start out with names like “Pathos” and “Logos,” but they degenerate to “Huevos” and “Rancheros” by the end.)
The plot involves The Octopus’ search to get his mitts on a container of Heracles’ (Hercules, to most folks) blood that will turn him into a god (“or the next best thing,” as Silken Floss insists on reminding him). The crate containing this gets mixed up with the one containing the object of Sand Seref’s obsession, the Golden Fleece (“There’s something creepy about it,” opines The Octopus). Call the plot functionally silly, but it is functional. The film may not move smoothly—Miller’s too fond of “just damn weird” digressions for that—but it does move and isn’t hard to follow.
Its screwiness is deliberate and it’s all a matter of taste. If you don’t respond positively to a hero who awakens tied to a dentist’s chair muttering, “Something smells dental,” then looks around to find he’s in a Swastika-festooned Nazi playroom before adding in distaste and horror, “Dental and Nazis,” this probably isn’t for you. If Samuel L. Jackson dressed in a Nazi uniform speechifying to a recording of “Deutschland Über Alles” holds no strange amusement for you, avoid The Spirit at all costs. On the other hand, if such appeals to you, has Frank Miller got a movie for you! Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of stylized violence and action, some sexual content and brief nudity.