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The Spirit: The CBR Review

by  in Movie News, TV News Comment
The Spirit: The CBR Review
“The Spirit” opens December 25

Will Eisner purists will be up in arms against Frank Miller’s “The Spirit” when the movie is released on Christmas Day. The comic book creator and co-director of “Sin City” renders a version of the beloved Eisner crimefighter that is undeniably unique and distinct from what has come before. The result is an unbalanced film that’s saved only by some enjoyably absurd moments and performances.

Murdered cop Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht, “The Recruit”) is reborn as The Spirit, the crimefighting guardian of Central City. Able to withstand a great deal of injury, The Spirit hunts the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson, “Pulp Fiction”), a criminal mastermind with similar healing abilities. Assisting The Spirit are Commissioner Dolan (Dan Lauria, “The Wonder Years”), the only man who knows Denny’s true identity, and Dolan’s daughter Ellen (Sarah Paulson, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”), The Spirit’s sweetheart. The masked hero’s life is complicated further by the mysterious arrival of Sand Saref (Eva Mendes, “Ghost Rider”), Denny’s childhood love with a deadly obsession with jewelry.

Extreme departures from the source material abound in director Miller’s interpretation of the Eisner classic. Sure, characters in the movie share names with characters from the comics, such as Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson, “Lost in Translation”) and Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega, “Spanglish”), but they have virtually nothing else in common. Yes, some winks and nods to Eisner fans exist, such as the famous “What’s ten minutes in a man’s life?” line from the 1949 “Ten Minutes” story. More often, though, are Miller’s self-referential notes, such as Commissioner Dolan’s use of the term “the hard goodbye,” the title of the first “Sin City” graphic novel.

The Spirit of film is not the everyman detective of the comics. Here, Miller introduces the audience to a local superhero sporting Wolverine’s regenerative properties. The Octopus, as conceived by Eisner, was an elusive nemesis that always went unseen. In Miller’s film, this villain most assuredly has a face. Eisner’s comics offered bright colors in blues, reds, greens and more. Miller, however, harkens back to the visual style of “Sin City,” utilizing that movie’s white-on-black frames and gray tones with a slight mix of other colors.

Gabriel Macht stars as The Spirit

Make no mistake: this is not a translation of Eisner’s work, but a complete overhaul of the revolutionary series. From the opening frame, this is undoubtedly Frank Miller’s “The Spirit.”

The difference between Miller and Eisner’s take on the character is obvious in many ways, most notably in their aesthetic approaches. Perhaps more importantly, however, are their diverging views of The Spirit as a character. Both creators agree that Denny Colt is a man in love, but they do not agree on the object of his affection. For Miller, The Spirit is in love with a city. His stewardship over the citizens of Central City plays second fiddle to the playground that the city provides him. It’s the enjoyment and exhilaration that drives Denny. As a result, he plays kissy face with a multitude of women without regard for the hearts he breaks in the process. His feelings for people take a backseat to his obsession with action and crime fighting. Like a little boy in his backyard, The Spirit immerses himself in a high-octane fantasy that prevents him from humanizing the faces around him.

Eisner, on the other hand, depicted The Spirit as a man in love with his duty. In Eisner’s “The Origin of the Spirit,” Denny decides to “remain dead and take up the job of being The Spirit” in order to fight the “criminals and crimes beyond the reach of the police.” He is a man who literally sacrifices his life so that he can keep people safe. He certainly enjoys the excitement of the job, but his primary concern is for the physical and emotional safety of the citizens depending on his talents. He sympathizes with the people of Central City, which in turn makes Eisner’s Spirit more sympathetic than Miller’s, who Dolan calls out in the movie as going through cops like “toilet paper.”

Samuel L. Jackson stars as The Octopus

Still, Miller’s Spirit is not a completely unlikeable swine – far from it, in fact. Gabriel Macht finds his breakout role as Central City’s crime-busting defender. Channeling an aura similar to a young Tom Cruise, Macht is an actor that knows how and when to ham it up and work the camera. He connects decisively with his director’s vision and knocks the intended effect out of the park. Within Miller’s world, this Spirit is an incredibly compelling and watchable character that exudes charisma at all times. His voice spits all the gravel you’d expect from a Miller creation, but he can also nail a corny punch line when needed. (“Heracles? I always thought it was Hercules!“)

Macht’s performance is overshadowed only by Samuel L. Jackson’s scene-stealing turn as the Octopus. Jackson portrays an incredibly weird villain that would not work for any other actor. He has some of the funniest lines in the film, at one point telling The Spirit that he’s “as dead as Star Trek.” The Octopus is a pure absurdist concoction that only Miller could conceive of and only Jackson could embody.

Despite this magnetic portrayal, Eisner fans are in for a shock at how radical a departure Miller’s Octopus is from the comics. He’s far from a faceless villain, and what should be his trademark gloves are forgettable when compared to Jackson’s whacky outfits and hairdos. In reality, Miller could have chosen any name for the film’s villain, as the character has virtually nothing in common with the comic book Octopus. Still, it’s an entertaining character that Jackson plays with glee.

Scarlett Johansson stars as Silken Floss

On its own, praising the absurdity of Macht and Jackson’s performances shouldn’t necessitate a doomsday scenario for fans of the Eisner source material. Goofiness isn’t an unknown quantity in Eisner’s comics, as seen in “The Story of Gerhard Shnobble” and “Two Lives.” But Eisner earned his sillier moments by virtue of the comic’s format: self-enclosed strips that very rarely leaked into one another. When Eisner needed an emotion, he focused a whole issue around that emotion, while subtly intermixing other tones as well.

In the Spirit movie, goofiness doesn’t work quite as well sometimes, in large part because the film focuses solely on one story. Miller’s film attempts to encompass the full gamut of emotion that Eisner’s series accomplished over years and years of strips. It’s an impossible feat to achieve in 108 minutes. In fact, the decision to focus on one plot as opposed to several short stories is one of the bigger shortcomings of “The Spirit.” Had Miller presented a series of shorts with a through line to connect them all, he could have presented a wide variety of emotions in a graceful and compelling manner. As it is, the viewer is stuck with one overarching story that gets muddled up in its mishandled feelings.

It’s hard to say why Miller ignored the use of vignettes that worked so well for Eisner. An obvious explanation is that Miller was attempting to distance himself from “Sin City,” which did employ such a narrative device. Truthfully, though, the visual style of “The Spirit” is hardly a marked departure from “Sin City,” and the tone is virtually the same as well. Why not go the extra mile, then, and borrow the storytelling formula that has worked for both Eisner and Miller himself?

Sarah Paulson stars as Ellen Dolan

Ultimately, the major problem with “The Spirit” isn’t necessarily Miller’s departure from the source material, but his reliance on his previously demonstrated techniques. The dialogue, visual effects and character types have all been seen in Miller work before. It’s nothing groundbreaking. An excellent creator should always strive towards something new. Instead, Miller took a baby step forward, offering slight variations to the work he accomplished with “Sin City.” The best thing he can do next is to create an all-new original film property that’s unique from his previous outings.

Clearly, Frank Miller would never intentionally create a movie that desecrates Will Eisner’s prior work. Miller reportedly took the director job because he couldn’t imagine anyone else touching Eisner’s revered franchise. Still, if Miller’s mission was to emulate Eisner, he failed miserably. If his mission was to provide an exciting new take on the Spirit, then he fared marginally better. Viewers unfamiliar with the comics might enjoy “The Spirit” as an entertaining popcorn flick. Fans of Eisner’s work, however, are in for a major disappointment and should brace themselves for a cheese-fest more along the lines of “Sin City” or even “Starship Troopers” than the original comic book series.

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