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April 28, 2009

The Spirit

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Frank Miller - 2008
Lionsgate Entertainment Region 1 DVD

The last time I read what were then known as comic books with any degree of regularity, it was in the Seventies, with the Warren Magazines version of The Spirit. What attracted me Will Eisner's work was the sense of humor. Wry and self-deprecating, the character and series itself existed on a special place that combined a self-awareness of the ridiculousness of the situations with graphics that anticipated the comic book parodies that Mad Magazine would create a few years later. Just looking at the magazine covers were enough to make clear that the Spirit in Frank Miller's film was not quite like Eisner's Spirit.

Making films from comic books has always struck me as a dubious enterprise because of the expectations of the look and tone based on the source material. The films I do like are those made by directors whose particular visions of the world I generally enjoy, being Tim Burton's Batman Returns and yes, Richard Lester's Superman films. It could also be that I had less of an emotional investment in Bob Kane's, or Siegel and Schuster's, versions of their characters. I should also note that two of the best comic book style films were not based on comic books, being Darkman and RoboCop. All of which is to say that I was hoping for film version of Will Eisner's Spirit but what is on screen is mostly Miller's moodiness.

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While I would not criticize Frank Miller move from comic book artist to filmmaker, he was not the person who should have translated Will Eisner to film. I didn't mind that newspaper seller Ebony White was nowhere to be seen, or that the story takes place in an alternate universe of vintage cars, skateboards, video cameras, and a host of other anachronisms exist. What I did miss was the humor that someone like Sam Raimi or Paul Verhoeven could have provided. Too often I felt that Miller was trying to prove that if he couldn't film The Dark Knight, he would at least film dark nights.

Frank Miller's The Spirit has more in common with the grimness of Sin City or 300. Any attempt to mimic Eisner's playfulness comes down with a thud. References to former Eisner assistant Jules Feiffer, or the tagline to Richard Donner's Superman come across as heavy-handed, a smirk rather than a chuckle. Miller's intense seriousness may be right for his own work, but works against the, er, spirit of Will Eisner. I'm not sure which contemporary director would have been best, but for me, the closest to the feeling I got from Will Eisner's comics was in Philippe De Broca's comic misadventure films with Jean-Paul Belmondo, where sight gag followed sight gag, with a hapless hero and his femme fatale.

On its own merits, The Spirit is as visually as well composed as one should expect from Miller, working here with Bill Pope. Pope has notably worked with Sam Raimi on several films which share something of a comic book style, even when they weren't based on comic books. Gabriel Macht looks about right as the title character, but the best reason to watch the film is for the trio of curvy actresses: Scarlett Johansson, Paz Vega and Eva Mendes. Sure, Eisner's Plaster of Paris was blonde, but when Vega does her dance with her long knives, such considerations disappear. Disregarding all of the digital enhancement that went into making The Spirit, critical considerations also evaporate at the sight of three voluptuous women who, at least on film, more than match the imaginings of any artist.

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Posted by peter at April 28, 2009 10:49 AM


Interesting. I think the film failed with audiences because it was TOO humorous. Campy humor is unfashionable in this age of THE DARK KNIGHT, and if one were to point out that Will Eisner's original was also tongue-in-cheek, the most common response would be "Will who?"

That said, I thought the film was great-looking, just like one of Miller's graphic novels, and I can't see how anyone who likes Miller on the page (aside from 300) wouldn't appreciate this film. I enjoyed Sam Jackson's over-the-topness, and liked his relationship with Scarlett (which reminded me of Dirk Bogarde and Rosella Falk in Losey's Modesty Blaise - especially with all the costume changes).

As for the humor, I thought at least some of it worked. Jackson sold most of his best lines, and the sequence with the little half man/half foot clone was genuinely amusing.

Posted by: C. Jerry at April 28, 2009 11:16 PM