by Jason Coffman
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It’s pretty rare that any comic book to film adaptations are anything but disappointing, but The Spirit is in a class of its own. A much more fitting title for the film would be Frank Miller’s The Spirit, because there’s precious little here that owes anything to Will Eisner’s original creation. To be fair, The Spirit is a tough character to get right— Darwyn Cooke and J Bone nailed it with the first 12 issues of the current DC Comics series, but things fizzled when the team handed it off to Sergio Aragones and Mike Ploog. The trick with the character is that the book should be bold, colorful, and funny while keeping the noir underpinnings, and under Aragones’s hands the book has become far too goofy.
Frank Miller’s film veers wildly from being overly bad-ass to embarrassingly goofy, often in the space of a few moments. Much has been made of the film’s visual similarities to Sin City, but other than a few 100% black and white scenes, it doesn’t look exactly like Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Miller’s books. It just looks a lot like it. Still, Miller has assembled a cast that’s mostly very easy on the eyes, and soaks them in enough CG that some of the film looks more like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow than Sin City. If it seems like I’m spending a lot of time talking about what the film looks like, there’s a reason for that: it’s the only thing I really have anything nice to say about it.
The film opens with the first in a long line of monologues delivered by The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) about his City. Depending on the circumstance, the city is his mother, his lover, his weapon, his soul mate, etc. etc. etc. Since this is the first filmed version of The Spirit, Miller seems to feel obligated to present an origin story of sorts, and while some of the plot points regarding the Spirit’s previous identity are more or less consistent with the character’s origins in the books, Miller adds some extra links between The Spirit and his nemesis The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) for some reason. The Octopus is trying to retrieve a relic that will give him godlike powers from jewel thief Sand Serif (Eva Mendes), who ended up with the relic during a botched heist.
Along the way Miller crams in as many ladies as he can and then some, playing up The Spirit’s weakness for women. There’s Serif, a figure from The Spirit’s past; Silken Floss (Scarlett Johanssen), The Octopus’s allegedly brilliant sidekick; Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega), your guess is as good as mine; Lorelei (Jaime King), the angel of death(?); and Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson), the only doctor The Spirit trusts to keep him patched up and in good health. While each of these characters are interesting and have their own story arcs in the books (except, uh, the ones not in the books), in the film they’re little more than an excuse to flash some t & a and give The Spirit something to do in between beating up crooks and/or getting his ass kicked by The Octopus.
There are a few things that carry over from the books that work, but there are enough changes that diehard fans are going to be pretty much completely disgusted from sometime around the end of the opening scene. Anyone not familiar with the book will probably just be confused as to why a character with Wolverine-style healing powers spends so much of his time getting beaten up; anyone familiar with the book will wonder why the hell Frank Miller thought it would be a good idea to give The Spirit any kind of powers at all— Will Eisner’s original character was basically just a tough guy who was a great detective and a better fighter. LORD, as a fan of the character I could complain forever, but that’s not going to do anyone any good.
I will give Miller points for some inspired visuals, but that’s it. The Spirit is an indefensible mess, an awful film version of a great character. Miller’s typical hard edge has been neutered by the requirements of the PG-13 rating, leaving characters to sheepishly utter such brutal insults as “Shut up, you fart.” That’s an actual line of dialogue. Sometimes The Spirit addresses the camera. Somehow, a character gets their head removed without any blood appearing anywhere on-screen. There’s a scene in which The Octopus is dressed in full Nazi regalia. The Spirit doesn’t need a review so much as a list like that of reasons for you to avoid seeing it. There are infinitely better films in theaters right now— please, go see one of them instead of this.
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago.
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