(2008) dir. Frank Miller
Adapted from a greatly respected and appreciated, though perhaps out of hardcore comic book circles less known, comic by Will Eisner, The Spirit is the latest “old” comic book character to get resurrected. And in this case, he’s resurrected by writer/director Frank Miller, a comic book artist/writer turned Hollywood with his collaboration in 2005’s Sin City. Apparently, influenced by that film and another filmic adaptation of one of his own comic books, 300 (2006), Miller takes his cinematic aesthetic and heightens it into visual pop art, with nothing remotely natural-looking ever appearing onscreen.
In some ways, the design approach is also like the French animated noir film Renaissance (2006), though that film was more literally animated. But for my money, this approach is risky. The Spirit suffers from some of the same issues of Dick Tracy (1990). How to approach cinematically work that is both very much originally pen and ink and colors, trying to maintain an aesthetic, while also working with some really dated figures and trying to an extent to make them modern and palpable. And how much of this is intentionally funny and how much is just so uber-arch that it’s almost more an outright comedy than adventure or action film.
Nobody chews scenery these days with more vigor and joy than Samuel L. Jackson. He seems to well-prefer the opportunities to ham it up a la Snakes on a Plane (2006) than to try for anything of true seriousness. And he likes to wear crazy outfits and funny hairdos. As the villain The Octopus, he’s perhaps got his most lustrous role yet. He’s a complete cartoon, and a pretty intimidating one, except for the outright comedy.
Jackson is not the only one in high camp. Scarlett Johansson, as his sexy assistant only has a comic role. Well, maybe the whole thing is simply a comedy, I don’t know. It’s marketing tried to make it look like it would be the next Sin City, though there are two sequels to that film in production already. Perhaps it is marketing around the art design. The art design looks cool. But the film inside of it is just a scrambling pile of weirdness and inanity.
When these more tradtional comic book heroes make it to the big screen, they have a lot to get over with the audience who probably isn’t overly familiar with them anymore. The Spirit is a cult comic. And like Dick Tracy, The Phantom (1996), and The Shadow (1994), none of these films could make their characters germaine to the world at hand. And it’s not the source material to blame. While The Phantom and The Shadow both tried to just make a modern live-action action film, Dick Tracy was prototypical to the overdone aesthetics. The whole thing feels false.
Why Sin City worked where The Spirit doesn’t…I don’t know. The Spirit is disspiriting, hollow, too clever while never clever, amateurish slop. And a whole battalion of green screens and an army of designers and computer effects specialists can’t make a stark, noirish silk purse out of the garble of junk.