Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Spirit (2008)

Frank Miller is no stranger to comic book nerds everywhere: his brand of stylized violence, ultra-macho heroes, and "gritty realism" practically inspired the modern comics movie, for better or worse, and keeps guys like Mark Millar in business. I'm not going to sit here and say Frank Miller wasn't talented: he absolutely was: from Sin City to Batman Year One to the Dark Knight Returns, Miller made his name delivering some comics that still hold up pretty well today. Unfortunately, as the 90's made "gritty and realistic" into standard practice and the medium evolved, Miller seemed to have been left behind, at least until Robert Rodriguez went out of his way to include Miller in a collaboration of Sin City, listing Miller as a co-director. That movie walked a fine line as it included Miller's trademark macho-ness, all women as good girl or bad girl sex objects, and stark colors. Through excellent casting of hot chicks and paragons of machoness like Bruce Willis and Mickey Rourke, along with excellent directing, that movie somehow worked.

Apparently feeling that this wasn't tempting fate enough, Miller proceeded to release The Spirit on an unsuspecting populace. The Spirit was created by one of the all-time great comics creators, Will Eisner, and was notable for its distinctively modern storytelling and its willingness to blend noir, comedy, and adventure, based on any given story. If, reading that, you think "hey that sounds hard to get across in a movie even for a good director," congratulations, you're more in touch with reality than Frank Miller.

The Spirit heroically hops around against an incredibly fake backdrop.

The film is a mess. Probably the biggest blunder is the casting of Gabriel Macht as the Spirit. Macht has very little presence, and mostly just plays the Spirit as kind of a dope, when he isn't monologuing internally for no reason or just straight out talking to no one. What makes this worse is Sam Jackson, as the Spirit's nemesis The Octopus, appears to be moments away from eating an entire green screen at any given time. His presence and energy overshadow The Spirit so much it becomes pretty much impossible to root for the "hero."

Al Jolson would be proud.

The film probably works best as a parody, but considering it wasn't marketed as a parody, and features action that really isn't any different from every other comic book movie released after 1995, it's not exactly clear in its status. Basically comic book movies are so ridiculous and feature such banal fight scenes that there's not much the movie can do except feature banal fight scenes but then add goofy jokes to the fight scenes like "what if the spirit got a toilet smashed over his head?"

"Do you think you could give it a little more energy, Samuel?"

Then there's the women. Can you believe 20 years ago Frank Miller was singled out as a good writer for women based on Elektra and his Robin character from the Dark Knight Returns? Me neither, but it happened. It's no secret that Frank Miller loves "bad girls," the violent, morally ambiguous anti-heroine, and he loves it even more if that girl is sexy all the time to the point that she is either a) a stripper (sin city), b) a prostitute (sin city, catwoman in batman: year one), or c) just dresses/acts like a prostitute (everything he's ever done). In The Spirit, Death appears as a beautiful, barely dressed siren calling out to the Spirit to join her. Eva Mendes plays Sand Seref (a woman named after a font, apparently), a morally ambiguous and super hot jewel thief, who, when she's not staring at diamonds longingly enjoys xeroxing her own ass. This really happened. Scarlett Johansson plays Silken Floss, the Octopus' Girl Friday who mostly seems incredibly bored to be in this movie. Spanish actress Paz Vega also appears as Plaster of Paris, a French Assassin who loves the Spirit but then tries to kill him, because that is what women do, all the time in Frank Miller's world. The film also features a couple of "good girls," in the form of rookie cop Morgenstern (Castle's Stana Katic) and the Commissioner's Daughter Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson). What's notable about these characters is probably how little interest Miller has in dealing with them, particularly Dolan: The Spirit's alter-ego had even been in love with Dolan before he became the Spirit, but this is played more as a "love that can never be" than a real competition with the various bad girls. Again, maybe it was Miller's intent to parody the lack of dynamic female characters in comics, but if that was his goal he didn't really succeed because it's not really played for laughs: the women are shot to be sexy, at all times.

The Spirit obstructs justice by taking this clue home.

Then there's the green screen. Rodriguez used a green-screen for a lot of Sin City, and by and large it worked out for that film, because the goal was clearly to feel like you were in a comic book. Here there's the same alienating effect, but it sometimes seems to interfere with the story and goes so far over the top that it becomes distracting. In one scene, the color red just pops up as a background for no reason except to show that something emotional is going on: this might work in a comic, but a movie audience is just left confused. Characters never interact with their CGI environment, which makes The Spirit's monologues about how much he loves his city pretty strange. And honestly, the bright red backgrounds become a welcome change after scene after scene of greys and blacks, the sort of obvious post-production effect you'd expect from a Ron Howard movie about a famous boxer or something. In fact, it begs the question "why," since the movie is not particularly grim and gritty, and while it seems to be set in some Gotham-y 50's setting, there's also video phones and helicopters. The tone of the film and the setting both don't jibe with the film's coloring, and guess what? Neither does the source material. Will Eisner's Spirit was notable for its use of shadow, but that shadow made the colors pop. Check out this cover and compare it with a dull gray shot from Miller's Spirit:

Note that the black space on the page is contrasted by bright primary colors.

Really the only reason to use this color palette is that it had already been done, in a "grim and gritty" action vehicle that the public had already seen. But the Spirit isn't a grim and gritty action movie, and nearly every critic reviewing it on that scale found it to be awful, for the same reason reviewing Eat Pray Love as a thriller would result in a lot of 1 star reviews. But in this case it's the movies own fault for marketing itself as something it wasn't.

So what is the Spirit, if it's not a grim and gritty "comic book movie," with the visuals of Sin City and the tone, of, oh, I don't know... Daredevil? That's easy! It's a work of pure, crazy camp. The dialogue, read extremely straight by everyone not played by Sam Jackson, is ridiculously cheesy and hilarious in this context. The action is pointless to the point of absurdity. Roger Ebert points out that in one scene, the Spirit punches the Octopus as hard as he can while sitting on his chest, schoolyard-bully style, at least twenty times: then the fight continues as normal. If you want a sincere action film, this is a legitimate complaint from Ebert, but if the movie more clearly identified itself as camp, this scene makes a whole lot more sense as some sort of commentary on how ridiculous and pointless every superhero fight since the dawn of superhero fights in movies have been. If you're in the mind-set of "hey this is a fun movie," rather than "hey this is about the shittiest action movie ever," the random costume dress-ups by the Octopus, the bizarre swings in the plot, the absurd twists all start to make a lot more sense.

We interrupt this gritty color palette to remind you to always floss! Seriously why
doesn't he just fight the Octopus by giving his henchman delicious Hostess Fruit Pies?

This doesn't suddenly turn the Spirit into a good movie, just into an entertainingly bad movie. You still have to put up with bits that aren't fun or funny that are just dull melodrama, and you still have to put up with a grim and gritty color palette and really fake looking backgrounds because someone decided Sin City's look had to be copied exactly even if this isn't really a neo-noir the way that movie was. But as a work of camp the movie is at least comprehensible, whereas critical consensus was as an action movie it was completely incomprehensible. I don't blame movie critics for not recognizing the film as a work of camp, because Miller is an amateur as a director so it's never made particularly explicit and the movie was never marketed as a camp film. Another problem is that so many superheroes movies are intrinsically camp that it would be extremely difficult to not get sucked into the vortex that is the comic book movie, even if you're trying to make some commentary on the genre. Kick-Ass tried a similar trick this year and failed just as hard, turning from a "ha-ha, aren't comic stories ridiculous" commentary into a completely bland, competently done action film for the final 30 minutes. How do you camp on a genre that already features climaxes involving putting out fission reactions with water or vaporizing a water supply to make fear gas airborne throughout an entire city? I don't know if it can be done, and if it can, it probably takes someone a whole lot smarter than Frank Miller.

At this point I'm surprised the Octopus never dressed as a
voluptuous woman and tricked the Spirit into kissing him.

Still, I enjoy the Spirit in a way I can't enjoy something like X-Men 3. That movie was just incompetent, but rarely if ever funny, while the Spirit is so wacky and so clearly a comic book come to life, complete with the terrible dialogue, male gaze, and unnecessary narration that's so key to the medium that I can't dislike it.

Memorable Quotes:

Sand Seref: Shut up and bleed.

The Octopus: Come on! Toilets are always funny!

The Spirit: I'm gonna kill you all kinds of dead.

The Spirit: ...and this is for muffins!

The Octopus: I don't like egg on my face: not a glob!

The Octopus: Eurgh. Free-range chickens with their big brown ugly-ass eggs. They piss me off. Every time I think about those big brown eggs they piss. Me. Off.

Sand Seref: (looking at a xerox of her own ass). You've made a perfect ass of yourself. A. Perfect. Ass.

The Octopus: I had you beat, just like eggs!

The Spirit: All the enemy has is guns and knives. I have the entire city as my weapon [throws snowball].

[The Spirit is hanging from a gargoyle ridiculously.]

Bystander #1: He looks stupid!
Bystander #2: You'll believe a man can't fly!

Commissioner Dolan:
Is every goddamn woman in this goddamn hellhole out of her goddamn mind?
Morgenstern: No, sir. We're just equipped. [Cocks giant grenade launcher.]

1 comment:

  1. Despite how off-the-wall campy it is, I think The Spirit is one of the least memorable films I've seen in a theater. Every time someone asks me what the worst movie I've seen in a theater is, I never even consider The Spirit, even though it should absolutely be in the running.

    The names, man. Sand Saref? Silken Floss? Plaster of Paris? Now I'm looking forward to the appearance of deadly vixen A. Perfect Ass in the inevitable sequel.