The Spirit

Movie Information

The Story: Seemingly indestructible crime fighter The Spirit battles with archcriminal The Octopus in an attempt to learn the secret of his origins and bring The Octopus to justice. The Lowdown: Stylized, screwy, silly and deliberately preposterous, The Spirit is a lot of loopy fun -- if you're on its wavelength.
Score:

Genre: Damn Weird Comic-Book Movie
Director: Frank Miller (Sin City)
Starring: Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Sarah Paulson, Dan Lauria
Rated: PG-13

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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

30 thoughts on “The Spirit

  1. Sean Williams

    Perhaps they don’t want it for the simple reason that The Spirit is a film that scoffs at the comic-book-movie genre.

    Speaking as someone who is familiar with Miller’s work, I can assure you of the accuracy of that observation. Miller’s most recent Batman stories (The Dark Knight Strikes Again and All-Star Batman and Robin) have met with the same scorn because their audience doesn’t realize they’re intended to be ridiculous. Really, Miller actively encourages the impression that he’s a hack — it’s part of his style.

    To be fair, plenty of intelligent critics have missed that point. Alan Moore, arguably the most brilliant comic author who has ever lived, called Miller’s work “juvenile”. But there’s nothing wrong with intelligently examining our adolescent subconscious. The entire Sin City epic is about the manner in which men buy into sweaty macho fantasies, and the fact that Miller never hints at that deeper level of interpretation just makes it all the more resonant for me. He’s totally devoted to accurately representing the silliness of his subject matter, even to the point of self-parody.

    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.

    See, humble protestations aside, you do Get It. That sort of “faithful mockery” is the essential quality of most of Miller’s work.

  2. Ken Hanke

    See, humble protestations aside, you do Get It. That sort of “faithful mockery” is the essential quality of most of Miller’s work.

    Thanks for the validation. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts when (if) you see The Spirit. I’m still curious to hear from someone who knows the Eisner comics — and who isn’t altogether so caught up in specifics that they can weigh in on the overall tone.

  3. Andrew

    Thank you for giving a good review of this movie, I am getting irritated with all of the critics acting like this movie is horrible.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Thank you for giving a good review of this movie, I am getting irritated with all of the critics acting like this movie is horrible.

    Well, I didn’t set out to do that as such. In fact, I was pretty sure it was going to be terrible — and was pleasantly surprised by it.

  5. Maur

    I recently watched (part of) this movie but one of the friends I was with INSISTED that we walk out. I wasn’t particularly engrossed with the film, so I wasn’t going to forsake my friends for The Spirit, but I was morbidly fascinated by it.

    It was so cheesy, so ludicrous, I couldn’t help but laugh at (with?) it the whole time I was there. I was thinking, “there is no way Miller could make a movie this bad unintentionally…”

    I do like how eloquently you put what I think I “got” subconsciously. I was genuinely amused by the dichotomy of over-the-top yet somehow sub par acting. Seeing bonafide actors deliver such hammy dialogue with straight faces made me think, “yeah… no way they don’t know how corny these lines are, they must be in on it as well.”

    I’m not sure what the target audience for this film would be or how to categorize the type of person it would appeal to, but perhaps it’s like you suggest and it’s a “post-post-modern comic-book movie” that’s too much of a shock to the average moviegoers system.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I’m not sure what the target audience for this film would be or how to categorize the type of person it would appeal to, but perhaps it’s like you suggest and it’s a “post-post-modern comic-book movie” that’s too much of a shock to the average moviegoers system.

    I really believe that it’s a similar kind of film to, say, Casino Royale (1967, not the newer one) or The Magic Christian where so much of the audience — and the critics — delpored the messy silliness of it all, only to later realize that was the point of it all along. Both films are held in much higher regard now than they were then. The probability of me still being around to see if I’m right is less than slim, but I’m betting that 40 years from now The Spirit will have a much better rep than it does today.

  7. Sean Williams

    so much of the audience — and the critics — delpored the messy silliness of it all, only to later realize that was the point of it all along.

    The same thing has happened to Miller repeatedly. Back in ’86, he wrote The Dark Knight Returns, a black comedy that became popular because everyone took it for a psychological drama. Dark Knight Returns is the single graphic novel most directly responsible for the cliche of the “grim and gritty” superhero (although the phrase “grim and gritty” was actually coined during a marketing session for Ostrander’s Grimjack).

    All of Miller’s subsequent work feels like a wretched artistic penitence: he’s become more and more overtly humorous, and his popularity has declined correspondingly, but fans still miss the point. No matter how kooky he gets, they honestly think he’s writing serious comics badly rather than writing silly comics well.

    The great tragedy of Miller is the critics who are intelligent enough to read the subtexts in his work generally dismiss it as sensationalistic, whereas the critics who love his work generally take it more seriously than he ever intended. Sin City is all about the limitations of the crude archetypes we impose on urban life (the Tough Guy, the Whore with a Heart of Gold, etc.), but the series’ fans praise what they perceive as the “depth” of its deliberately shallow characterization.

  8. Ken Hanke

    What I find especially interesting about The Spirit is that Miller’s version of the Octopus (as played by Jackson) is the closest the movies have come in a long time to the classic form of the “evil genius.” And yet, he’s an evil genius in a very post-modern manner in that he’s supposed to be funny and more than a little inept.

  9. Sean Williams

    Well, Miller is a lowbrow intellectual. He’s disdainful of the scientific establishment and of ivory-tower intellectualism in general. And while that kind of surly social conservativism frankly alarms me, I accept its place in postmodern culture.

    How can our society help but be dissatisfied with science when its greatest advances have served not to ameliorate the human condition but to level Hiroshima and Nagasaki? And however sophisticated modern instrumentation becomes, we’re beyond the heady air of discovery that pervaded the antebellum world.

    What we’re going to see in the next century — and what we see already in the American religious right — is a resurgence of material, pre-Enlightenment religion rather than abstract spirituality. The only alternative to popular religion will be esoteric fraternities like the Freemasons and Theosophical Society, who will be regarded in the same light as witches in the Dark Age.

    That’s my theory, anyways.

  10. Maur

    No matter how kooky he gets, they honestly think he’s writing serious comics badly rather than writing silly comics well.

    This is the part I would argue against. I don’t believe he is writing silly comics well, or otherwise he would let the audience in on “the joke”. The problem I find with The Spirit is that its humor is TOO esoteric, TOO subtle; TOO different. It’s similar to Dennis Miller or like those jokes that if you have to explain them to be funny, then they’re not really good jokes to begin with.

  11. Ken Hanke

    What we’re going to see in the next century—and what we see already in the American religious right—is a resurgence of material, pre-Enlightenment religion rather than abstract spirituality. The only alternative to popular religion will be esoteric fraternities like the Freemasons and Theosophical Society, who will be regarded in the same light as witches in the Dark Age.

    I can’t tell you how much I hope you’re wrong on this.

  12. Ken Hanke

    The problem I find with The Spirit is that its humor is TOO esoteric, TOO subtle; TOO different. It’s similar to Dennis Miller or like those jokes that if you have to explain them to be funny, then they’re not really good jokes to begin with

    But then aren’t you saying that for a joke to be really good, it has to be comprehensible to the Larry the Cable Guy contingent? That seems pretty limiting and undesirable, doesn’t it? At least, it does to me.

  13. Maur

    But then aren’t you saying that for a joke to be really good, it has to be comprehensible to the Larry the Cable Guy contingent?

    No, I’m not saying humor has to be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, but that the best writers/comedians find an appreciable balance between low and high brow. If you go too high, it goes over people’s heads, or worse, is condescending. And if you go too low then it becomes crude and shallow.

    Is it funny? Sure… on an absurd and abstract level, but is it silly writing done well? Well, then it comes back to the question of “Who did he make this film for?” If it was intended for a general audience then the problem I’m saying is it lacks tact and moderation. At least certainly for its time… and usually, too much of anything is a bad thing.

  14. Sean Williams

    I don’t believe he is writing silly comics well, or otherwise he would let the audience in on “the joke”.

    Come on, man. Literally every time anyone in All-Star refers to Dick Grayson, it’s “Dick Grayson. Age twelve.” Black Canary demolishes an entire bar because one patron called her “love chunks”. When there’s a reporter bleeding to death in the hospital, Bruce Wayne phones Clark Kent and tells him to “fetch Ekhart” — a Parisian detective. Superman proceeds to fly across the ocean, pluck Ekhart’s car off of the streets, and carry it over his head, nearly colliding with a cruise liner in the process — all without ever speaking to the screaming Frenchman.

    We can argue about whether it’s good, but the humor isn’t particularly esoteric. Admittedly, Miller delivers all of his jokes with a straight face, and as you said, they’re not always good jokes. But esoteric?

    Honestly, I find jokes funnier when they’re understated.

  15. Ken Hanke

    Is it funny? Sure… on an absurd and abstract level, but is it silly writing done well? Well, then it comes back to the question of “Who did he make this film for?” If it was intended for a general audience then the problem I’m saying is it lacks tact and moderation. At least certainly for its time… and usually, too much of anything is a bad thing.

    As a pretty staunch admirer of all sorts of things that have been branded “too much” of this, that or the other thing, I probably don’t agree with that last. Anyway, I can only address Miller from the standpoint of the film, and that’s likely not going to change, because I simply don’t like comic books as reading material.I don’t really find find Samuel L. Jackson braining Gabriel Macht with a porcelain bathroom fixture, claiming, “Toilets are always funny,” all that highbrow. Now, if you take the gag as being a comment on America’s puerile love affair with toilet humor in movies (which I suspect it is), then it becomes something else, but in itself, it’s pretty basic. As for exercising tact and moderation…well, it then becomes an entirely different film. What I think you’d get then is a film I wouldn’t have liked nearly so well — excess is part of the point — that still wouldn’t have pleased large audiences because the very concept is wrong for 2008. It’s the same thing that angered people who went to see Casino Royale in 1967. They were looking for a “serious” James Bond movie and got a spoof — a more restrained spoof would have only made it less funny, not more acceptable. We’ll see how time treats The Spirit, which has all the elements necessary (including being a box office flop) to attain cult status in the long run.

  16. Ken Hanke

    Those interested in checking this curiosity out would perhaps be well advised to do so with all possible haste. It disappears from the Beaucatcher and the Hollywood on Friday — no word on Epic or the Grande. With this on top of the equal b.o. disaster of Punisher: War Zone, Joe “Quality Films” Drake isn’t looking so much like the wonder boy of Lionsgate these dats. As a friend of mine remarked, perhaps they oughtn’t have thrown Midnight Meat Train away.

  17. Bruce

    Since I had never even heard of the comic book, I watched the movie with no preconceptions. What I witnessed was a badly acted, annoying and disjointed piece of rubbish which I promptly categorized as one of the worst movies ever. But, after reading your review, I understand that it was supposed to be badly acted, annoying and disjointed. That is brilliant. I have totally changed my mind, this is one of the best films I have ever seen. Unfortunately I will not be sitting through this movie again because, even though it is brilliantly one of the worst movies ever, I’d have more fun ripping my fingernails off with pliers.

  18. Ken Hanke

    I detect a trace of sarcasm in there. Also a degree of hyperbole.

  19. Justin Souther

    I promptly categorized as one of the worst movies ever.

    Whenever someone makes a statement such as this, I automatically think, “This person should watch more bad movies, and get an idea what a bad movie really is.” Then I get sort of depressed because I realize how many bad movies I’ve watched.

  20. Edward

    But, after reading your review, I understand that it was supposed to be badly acted, annoying and disjointed. That is brilliant. I have totally changed my mind, this is one of the best films I have ever seen.

    Wow, Sir, where do you reside? I’ve got a few islands in the Caribbean and a set of limited edition Scientology books to sell you.

    Brilliance is not exhibited in the accidental understanding of a work based on the terse review of someone who doesn’t even support most of his claims. You need to be a bit more thoughtful in your critiquing process. Like Maur said, this film fails at its intended goal – which, good God man, if anyone did not realize it was a parody from the onset, he/she must have been asleep – to make jokes that are rarely clever and lack cohesion.

  21. Ken Hanke

    Wow, Sir, where do you reside? I’ve got a few islands in the Caribbean and a set of limited edition Scientology books to sell you.

    I could be wrong, but I think you’re missing the poster’s sarcasm. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think the film is “one of the best films” he’s ever seen.

    Brilliance is not exhibited in the accidental understanding of a work based on the terse review of someone who doesn’t even support most of his claims.

    I’m not entirely sure what this means. Whose “accidental understanding?” And what claims are actually made that can be or need to be supported? If you’re addressing my original review, I’m unclear on what I accidentally understood — that it’s supposed to be over-the-top, campy and silly? I don’t think that was accidentally understood (what does “accidentally understanding” even mean?). What claim did I make that needs support? That I enjoyed the film for its messiness? That I found its warped sense of humor appealing? How exactly does one support that? It’s not really possible to support what strikes you as funny. There are people in this world who think Will Farrell is funny. I’m not one of them, but if they think he’s funny, I can’t demonstrate that they’re “wrong.”

    Where’s the actual support for your claim that the jokes “are rarely clever and lack cohesion?” I’m not sure these are demonstrable values, though the lack of cohesion — the bizarrely digressive nature of the jokes — is precisely part of the film’s appeal for me.

  22. Ken Hanke

    My suspicion that The Spirit is big screen history has been confirmed. As of tomorrow, it will be on no screens in the area — something that suggests that Lionsgate may have actually pulled it from distribution altogether. (That is merely a guess, but it’s unusual for a film not to hang around in split shows for at least a third week — unless, of course, it’s Delgo.)

  23. Daniel Sutherland

    What I feel is really stated in this film is that people make perceptions about what a comic book movie is, despite having no interest whatsoever in their source media. I think Miller is attempting on some level to change these perceptions; the film is structured in the style of comic book which works well with the recurring images of the lady death figure(just like watchmen’s story within a story) but fails with some of the self explanatory dialogue better suited to a graphic novel. But I agree with Hanke in that this film isn’t to be taken seriously but its more adoring of a revolutionary genre. If Miller had chosen a well known figure in pop culture the project fails imminently as the audience. Its a homage in the same way Tarantino used DeathProof to glorify an otherwise brong halfhour carchase. HOw could anyone not see the cultural value of SS Commandant Samuel L Jackson.

  24. Ken Hanke

    HOw could anyone not see the cultural value of SS Commandant Samuel L Jackson

    Especially when he makes a far more believable dress-up Nazi than Tom Cruise.

  25. irelephant

    Just caught this on DVD, I thought it was brilliantly done. One of the few comic book movies I would own.

    Samuel L. Jackson has made up for Star Wars–as far as I’m concerned. And he IS a more convincing dress-up Nazi than Tom Cruise, but I imagine Samuel L. would be a more convincing Tom Cruise than Tom Cruise is…dats just the way it is.

  26. Ken Hanke

    I bought it first day it was out. Well, more correctly, I made Justin pick it up, but it amounts to the same thing. I was not disappointed in the least. In fact, I liked it even more on the second viewing — and admired the way it was made far more.

  27. Vince Lugo

    Saw this last night. I’ve read some of the comics and I will say that the film isn’t much like them, but I still enjoyed it. A lot. I love Miller’s sense of style and the fact that he can pull off such silliness better than almost anyone else. From a visual standpoint, I would argue that the film is a work of art and it ought to be recognized as such. I hope that the film gains enough fans to qualify for “cult classic” status, because it is a nifty (and damn weird, in a good way) piece of work.

  28. jasondelaney

    Pacing. That was my only gripe. Constantly throughout the film the hero would run off full of ambition only to cut to the next scene where action came to a dead halt. In fact, the hero was always running off to do something or other and I don’t recall anything ever becoming of it. Just went to the next scene forgetting all about whatever was just so important.

  29. Xanadon't

    Okay, haven’t read the above conversation yet, nor have I seen the film -as I noted in The Aventers column moments earlier. But based solely on your review, seems a shame you didn’t award this a full four stars.

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