With the significant box office success of Sin City and 300, Frank Miller had finally made it in Hollywood. His previous experiences as a screenwriter on Robocop 2 and 3 were anything but pleasant, but now Miller had earned unprecedented control. Sharing a co-director credit with Robert Rodriguez on Sin City was a stepping stone to Miller’s one and only solo directing credit, 2008’s The Spirit. Employing the same visual style of 300 and Sin City, actors shot on a green screen with lighting and sets added digitally, The Spirit didn’t put style over substance. The style was its substance. By the time of its release, it was already a tired and familiar style.
300 and Sin City showed that heavily stylized, comic-inspired films could be commercially viable, but the real forefather to The Spirit is Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. A garish affair shot entirely on green screen, Sky Captain was the first full use of the format’s possibilities and limitations. As seems to happen with CGI sets and cityscapes, each successive year the effects lose their affect. Miller doesn’t have any rhyme or reason for his stylizations. I mean, does he really have to highlight the patterns of the soles of the Spirit’s shoes?
As easy as it would be to say that Miller sacrificed narrative coherence at the altar of visual style, it would be inaccurate. One doesn’t have to make choice between style and coherence. Miller has seemingly given no thought to narrative coherence. Like many other films in this series of columns, Miller is only concerned with what he thinks looks cool. If there’s a reason that The Spirit feels like it’s twice as long as its actual length, it’s because it takes twice as long as a decently constructed film to get to the point. Taking the material way too seriously, Miller sincerely thinks he’s creating a new brand of hard boiled fiction, but what he’s actually making is a boiled ham. Like a boiled ham, the fat rises to the surface, leaving the film with the murky aftertaste of some ham fat soup.
The film opens with a brief glimpse of Death in female form, known as Lorelei (Jaime King). From there it moves to the Spirit (Gabriel Macht) receiving a phone call from a police officer. The Spirit’s nefarious foe, the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), is about to pull down something big. While investigating the scene, the officer encounters Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), notorious thief and childhood sweetheart of the Spirit. Shots ring out and the officer is fatally wounded. The police and the Spirit are convinced it was Sand Saref but, in fact, it was the Octopus. Saref was after the Golden Fleece, a mystical artifact from Greek mythology, while the Octopus was after the blood of Heracles in order to perfect his serum for immortality. Aided by Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), the Octopus will stop at nothing to obtain the blood of Heracles. Meanwhile, the Spirit must uncover Sand Saref’s role in this without upsetting the police chief’s daughter, Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson), who is in love with the Spirit. Can the Spirit elude death, defeat the Octopus, and protect his beloved city?
There’s an alternate universe where Gabriel Macht’s performance was a star-making one. Since this is the darkest timeline, that is not the case. His delivery is spot on, however, he’s given such wretched dialogue that it makes him sound absurdly foolish. One could only imagine how many times he had to rerecord the opening voice over. Try not laughing when saying aloud, “She’s not some tarted-up fraud dressed as jailbait,” and think that line is in reference to a city. As hard as Macht tries, he can’t escape the shadow of Samuel L. Jackson. Seemingly the only person who understood the tone of the film, Jackson turns it up to 11. Buried under layers of boiled fat, Jackson gives a wonderfully unhinged performance. Even though he’s given nothing more than yelling, “No egg on my face!” Jackson is the only entirely entertaining entity in The Spirit.
While Sam Jackson provides the film with one of its few bright spots, he also happens to be the centerpiece of the film’s nadir. Throughout the film the Octopus changes his outfits: a bandito, a samurai. When he’s dressed as a Nazi officer it affirms that the greatest assistance to Frank Miller’s career were all the people who told him no. And the scene, like every other scene, drags on and on, just in case you didn’t get the one-note gag.
Unfortunate costume decisions for Academy Award nominated actors and unnecessary sexualization of a city aside, The Spirit is an awful film because it’s really quite boring. Miller’s writing isn’t suited for cinema. While his over-reliance on narration and meandering subplots may work on the printed page, on the screen it makes for one big drag, like slowly dripping remnants of fat. The film’s story bounces all over the place without much purpose – from the present to the Spirit’s childhood to the present to the Spirit’s origin and back to the present. Complicating matters, both the Spirit and the Octopus share the same powers, that of near invincibility. Invulnerability is inherently un-suspenseful. It’s a problem that prevents Superman from being, for me, a really interesting character. When the Spirit and Octopus first fight it’s a long, drawn out battle, nothing of which affects the story or characters at all.
Since the film was written by Frank Miller it contains numerous women intended to be femme fatales, but what he’s actually written are a bunch of subservient women whose identities are intrinsically tied to their male counterparts. Silken Floss has no identity or purpose aside from her work with the Octopus. Ellen Dolan only serves as someone in love with the Spirit, there to talk him out of his dangerous exploits. As the broken woman in need of restoration, Sand Saref is only concerned with jewels and money, but quickly finds a conscience after talking to the Spirit. The belly dancing assassin, Plaster of Paris, betrays the Octopus and frees the captive Spirit, only to kiss then stab him in a fit of jealousy. In a moment where the Spirit is facing death, he turns back because of the women in his life. “They need me,” he says as he returns to the land of the living.
In the comics world, Will Eisner is a god. The man wrote the book on making comics and practically every award for comics bears his name. The visual style of Spirit comics was decades ahead of its time. It is easy to spot Eisner’s influence on the splash pages of Miller’s Daredevil run. After initially turning down the job to direct The Spirit, Frank Miller backtracked, saying, “Nobody else can touch this.” Like everything Miller has said in the past couple decades, he was dead wrong. His singular vision for The Spirit is its greatest weakness, and confirms that unfiltered Miller is a fiasco waiting to happen. The Spirit was a massive critical and commercial failure. Its failure prevented Miller from helming a planned Buck Rodgers remake. Other than a co-directing credit on the Sin City sequel, Miller’s film career is right where it was following Robocop 3 – a distant memory.