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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The Spirit (review)

Bête Noir

It’s been a week since I saw The Spirit and I’m still thinking about it, and usually that’s a good thing, when a movie sticks with you like that, but not always. Like, not this time. Cuz what I’ve been turning over in my head is this conundrum: Just how awful is this movie, anyway? Is it merely, “Well, they tried, and you have to give them a big gold star and a cookie for trying” awful, or is it “Jeebus Cripes, are they freakin’ kidding us?” awful, or is it “Gee, maybe we need to rethink this whole comic-book-movie thing” awful, or is it “Goddamn, Hollywood better not abandon comic-book movies just because of this one fiasco!” awful?
I toyed with “Man, this is funnier than Battlefield Earth” awful, but it simply ain’t that bad/good/bad. Would that it were — it would have been more entertaining. There are moments — oh, man, are there moments — that made me guffaw, and then made me guffaw more because I suspected that writer-director Frank Miller (and please, let us keep him away from anything filmic that doesn’t involve cinematography and production design from now on) was intending those moments to be funny but in a completely different way… a completely different way that does not include total derision for everyone onscreen and everyone behind the camera. Which you have to feel for some of the talent, although others just make you feel sorry for them.

It’s pretty much a Dark Knight kind of thing this Spirit guy has going on. He was a cop in Central City, and then he died, and then he came back to life and cannot — apparently — die again. Which is kind of a superpower, I guess, though it feels old hat in the era of Claire the cheerleader and Peter the agonized nice guy of Heroes. Of course the Will Eisner comic this flick is based on is quite old — like WWII old, like it was old when your dad was a kid. But, you know, so is Batman, and no one would think of making a Batman movie today that felt like something your grandfather would feel nostalgic for.

The Spirit feels that old, and that unpertinent to how superheroes have evolved into the 21st century. A few obvious and desperate modern references aside — like one snide and entirely unjustifiable swipe against Star Trek that sounds like sour-grapes-in-advance (this movie was originally intended to be in theaters at the same time as JJ Abrams reboot of that franchise) — this masked-avenger live-action graphic novel could be a B-grade serial rediscovered from the 1940s. For the Spirit is now a vigilante crime fighter who talks a lot about the soul of his city and how he loves her and all that, without ever really showing us much evidence of it. Film-noir snarking as a stand-in for male sentimentality might have worked fine during the war, when men were men and weren’t hampered by girly shit like emotions and stuff, but we like Bruce Wayne’s angst these days — we expect it, we want it, and we need it to connect to him. Or at least to feel confident in him as Our Hero.

And we expect our comic books to believe in their own integrity, now that we’re all agreed that comics are our modern mythology. But The Spirit does not believe in itself. It thinks comics are a joke — and it appears to thinks that movies are a joke, too. (Even movies intended to be funny are not the butt of their own humor. There’s self-referential postmodernism that deconstructs our ideas about mass-marketed pop culture, and that’s fine, but then there’s movies that don’t love the idea of movies, and that’s this movie. Freakin’ Bedtime Stories, which is an appalling bit of crass product, is more honest than this.) If this had been dug up from some 1940s archive, its tepid laziness might have been charming in a retro anti-charming kind of way, might have been worthy of a nod of appreciation for its throwback allure. But we’ve gotten past the idea that movies are merely comics that move, and we’ve gotten past the notion that even a comics master like Frank Miller — whose work was the basis of the films 300 and Sin City — must automatically be a great filmmaker. Comics may be cinematic, but there’s more to cinema than dramatic images and over-the-top dialogue.

The Spirit looks amazing, there is no doubt about that: it achieves the stark graphic quality of a cheaply manufactured but thematically urgent pulp comic book. But it doesn’t look amazing in any different way than Sin City did, and that movie had something to say about modern society, about the role and importance of our telling stories about modern society. This one has nothing to say, nothing at all, and its emptiness is appalling. To say that The Spirit is a disaster of epic proportions is both to overplay the situation, and to underplay. The Movies will be fine, once this one is forgotten, but to look at it in the future will be to see the very emptiness that is threatening to overtake us at the moment.

Miller, as a director of film, demonstrates his limitations here. Samuel L. Jackson (Soul Men, Lakeview Terrace) is a force of nature, but as dangerously beautiful as a tornado may be, it can be horrendous if it hits your house: Miller lets Jackson hit his house. At first, I believed that Jackson, as Spirit’s archnemesis the Octopus, was a riot — an unintentional riot — when he launches into a raving monologue of dimensions so hilarious and so incoherent that, though perhaps intended to be “funny,” it achieves a kind of awfulness that is sublime. But now I think it’s kind of sad, that Miller let Jackson embarrass himself this way, when it was Miller’s job not to let that happen.

I also understand those folks who say that Scarlett Johansson (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Other Boleyn Girl) is a terrible actress. She’s chalk-on-a-board terrible as Octopus’s sidekick, and I never thought that of her before. She needs a real director, too, apparently.

Gabriel Macht (Because I Said So, The Good Shepherd), as the Spirit, does not embarrass himself, but surely his not-unjustified dreams of being called an up-and-comer have been quashed by this: he can’t distinguish himself because how the film looks is, Miller seems to believe, far more important than how it works as, you know, a story about people we can care about. Characters can talk in film-noir soundbites all they want, and they can stalk dark and gritty streets all they want, but that doesn’t automatically make for a movie worth watching… not two generations after these tropes stopped being enough to distinguish two hours of zombiefied aimlessness from all the other worthless movies in the big city.

MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense sequences of stylized violence and action, some sexual content and brief nudity

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • Kenny

    Hahaha, oops. I thought it looked pretty dire from the trailer, but,… I guess it was worse.

  • t6


    I’m really glad The Spirit was produced and placed in theaters. Not because I want to see it…I don’t. But because were there no The Spirit, there would have been no, This Review.

    And this review?

    Is teh Win.

  • Kenny

    Yeh t6 :) I feel the same way about Armageddon. (Still my favourite MAJ review)

  • Jason

    Thanks a lot. I had finally repressed Battlefield Earth, and you brought it all back like the bad memories of a boy-touching priest incident….

  • FYI

    I see you’ve praised Miller for his work on comics, but his current writing for All Star Batman & Robin has made him just as big of a joke in the comic industry as he seem to be in the movie industry now.

  • c0r1n

    Anyone else remember the Robocop sequels? Miller and Hollywood have never been a good mix…

  • hdj

    I had a feeling the inexperienced Miller might have a impact on this movies probability in failing.
    Frank Millers a great artist see ( Dark Knight Returns) best graphic novel ever, which should be turned in to a movie but he shouldn’t be behind the camera.
    I still think nothing can be a bigger bomb the Battlefield earth movie, I love the review but Battlefield came out midsummer it was mass hysteria

    Only people this hurts is Frank Millers reputation and people who actually read the spirit who like you said are WW2 vets.

  • The Shadow

    I’m sorry, but if The Spirit was the broad side of a barn, you just missed it by about a mile.

    This movie was about much more than you could ever give it credit for. For starters I notice you bring up ‘source material’ a lot, but I don’t think you quite grasp this movie. For starters, this was a perfect comic book movie. It knew it was a comic book movie, and didn’t try to force itself as being ‘serious’. It’s over the top and it knows it, just like many comic books, including The Spirit.

    Pick up and read a comic one of these days. Any random one and you’ll see how much comics are about over the top action, cheesy one-liners, and ridiculous concepts. The movie even makes fun of itself, just as is done in many comic books. Pick up a Deadpool comic one of these days and you’ll see just how close this movie was to comic book genre it was born from. Or better yet, actually read a Spirit comic!

  • amanohyo

    The Shadow, do you seriously think that a geek like MA has never read a comic? Her main complaint seemed to be about the lack of any characters to care about (which would be one of my major complaints about 300 and Sin City as well, although MA would probably disagree).

    Using your example, even with all the self-referential pop culture goofiness, most readers actually do care about Deadpool as a character; they understand on some level that his stream of consciousness sense of humor is in some way a shell constructed to deal with his horrific emotional and physical scars.

    Another point made in the review is that comic book movies have grown up since the 40’s. In a good comic book movie nowadays, the over the top action, cheesy-one-liners, and ridiculous concepts (if they’re present at all) are wrapped around something substantial: characters, ideology, allegory, the retelling of a myth, all of the above, something, anything.

    You start off by saying the movie was about much more than she gives it credit for, and then you fall back on a limited definition of comics ripped straight out of 1940. Guess what, comics are about much more than you give them credit for, and movies based on comics should be too.

  • rich

    I hate to say this, but none of you really know what you’re taliing about. Except, maybe, the reviewer. There’s plenty of comics fans reading the SPIRIT, who weren’t born in World War II. Will Eisner’s stories featured characters you could care about — criminals, cops, bysternaders, well-to-do people, and ordinary schlubs. And they all struggled with poverty, fame (or fading fame), age, anger, fear … the same things humans deal with today.

    This movie, on the other hand, is the kind of comic book film they made in the 1940s throughout the 1980s. You’d watch the film and wonder why it couldn’t be more like the comic — NOT because you’re a comic geek that doesn’t understand mainstream tastes, but because the comic was written on a more mature and dramatic level than the turd that Hollywood cranked out.

    Thanks, Frank.

  • Oz

    Frank Miller apparently accepted the director role out of a need to protect the Spirit from poor adaptation by someone who wouldn’t get the source material. I’d appreciate the irony of the gesture if it didn’t mean that one of the cornerstones of the artform ended up raked across the coals.

    This film bears no resemblance to the Spirit strips. I guess the reason the character in the film was so adamant that he be given a red tie is that it is practically the one recognisable element of the source material that remains. I’d like to think that Frank Miller is ashamed of this disaster, but considering his recent creative endeavours, from the unrivalled misogyny (even for Frank Miller!) of All Star Batman to the Dark Knight versus Osama bin Laden in the aborted “Holy Terror Batman!”, I’d say he’s beyond feeling shame.

  • hdj

    If your gunna pick a comic of resent I wouldn’t recommend Deadpool of all characters. The guys a smorgasbord of better super heroes, he’s half Spider-man, Punisher, and Deathstroke the Terminator. I couldn’t think of a more rip off hero than Deadpool. He seems to be a favorite with younger readers, but his humor is a bit to low brow for me.

    Event Spider-man’s jokes can be a bit dumb, but he isn’t really the class clown, he’s just a dweeby guy who when he puts the mask on becomes this other wise cracking,laugh at danger hero.
    Deadpool’s jokes are all slapstick,fart jokes, just joke after joke like a class clown that doesn’t know when its time to get serious and fight crime.

    back on Topic a little, MaryAnn, maybe you do need to pick up a few more comics, because the Spirit trailer does make it look like its going to be at least fun for comic book aficionados. If you do take it from me pick up ether the current run of Batman , Thor, or Hellboy all original characters with deep mythology and the classic Will Eisner format.

  • Ralf

    Deadpool was intentionally created as a joke character ripping off Deathstroke from DC comics. Even his name is a play of words off Deathstroke whose name is Slade Wilson, which they merely changed to Wade Wilson. He’s obviously not the best character to make an example out of since he’s just a joke character. As someone said earlier some comics actually carry deep symbolism, ideals, and so forth that go far beyond one liners.

  • Hdj

    Someone would have to be pretty blind not to see the deeper metaphors and puns in comics. Not Deadpool though , he’s an ankle deep character that is used for kicks and giggles. You take someone like Superman , you can go in to the whole Jesus thing, and the duality , he’s deep you can go way deep with him.

  • amanohyo

    My point was that even a shallow “joke” comic character like Deadpool has some finite depth (even if it is only ankle deep), which is a lot more more than the “characters” in this movie have according to the review. Deadpool’s body is a giant tumor, his skin covered in hideous growths; it’s very easy to imagine how he might have developed a manic, immature, nonstop sense of humor as a coping mechanism.

    I would expect a Deadpool movie to reveal something about how his personality developed, just as I would expect a Punisher movie to be something more than the orgy of gunfire and exploding body parts shown in the recently posted trailer. Even the most experimental, juvenile, and/or awful comics I’ve ever read, even early Image comics, have some small shred of humanity, some token bit of character development to hang all the flash and style on.

    Saying that a comic, even a Deadpool comic, is only about ridiculous over the top action and one-liners is selling the character and the medium short. Maybe a particular issue of a particular comic is only about those things to you, but it doesn’t have to be, and for most regular readers, it isn’t. Because as this movie (and Speed Racer) show, style isn’t enough all on its own. We human beings need to see something with at least vaguely recognizable human thoughts, emotions, and motivations up there on the screen (and down there in the panels).

    As crazy as it sounds, those “younger readers” actually care about Deadpool, and on some level they identify with him (with the skin problems at the very least, I used to be one of them). Are there any recognizably human characters we can identify with in this movie? The review says no. The Shadow seems to be saying, “sure there aren’t any, but that’s okay because comics are supposed to stylize all the humanity out of their characters.” I just think that sells comics short, that’s all. Or maybe I’ve just got a soft spot for Deadpool and Weasel.

  • Hdj

    Right well have fun watching the oh so funny Ryan Reynolds ( sarcasm ) play the merc with the mouth.
    Let’s not get in to how wretched his performance in Blade 3, where every line Reynolds delivered was a painful one liner.

    How do you know you don’t identify with anyone in “The Spirit”? Perhaps you could relate to Samuel L Jackson I remember I did so with him in “Unbreakable” with his Mr.Glass character.

    I do however agree with you on the Image Comics really missed the mark when it came to any character depth,it was about the art. All they wonted to do was draw babes with the biggest boobs as fancy as they can and forget about the story.

  • MaryAnn

    MaryAnn, maybe you do need to pick up a few more comics, because the Spirit trailer does make it look like its going to be at least fun for comic book aficionados.

    Have you seen the movie, hdj?

    How do you know you don’t identify with anyone in “The Spirit”? Perhaps you could relate to Samuel L Jackson I remember I did so with him in “Unbreakable” with his Mr.Glass character.

    Ah, you obviously have not seen the movie. No one will relate to Jackson’s character here.

  • Hdj

    No, I’m gunna see it now all after all this schmoozing. We all we’re basing the argument over your review.
    I was mainly agreeing with you, I know how its easy for actors to embarrass themselves in comic movies, They get bombarded with stupid one liners, it was amanohyo and Shadow who said “hey read a comic book it might change your mind”. They said it first.
    I only meant Maybe… you need to get in touch by re reading some comics. That way you can zoom in on how comic fans could like it sorta like you zeroed in on how only girls under 12 would like twilight.

  • D

    Will Eisner’s the Spirit was decades – DECADES – ahead of it’s time. It inspired comic book writters like Alan Moore, Miller himself, and my personal god: Neil Gaiman. While the dialogue is sometimes silly and simplistic, the stories themselves still feel relevant and engaging this many years latter. Like “the fox at the bay” or “christmas spirit”(the one about the tug).
    So I guess Miller has done a great disservisse to his mentor by not being faithfull to his work. I’m planning to whatch this movie. With my now lowered ecpectations, I might even enjoy it. But for once, Miller could have ignored his usual formula(brooding good guy gone bad versus the world) and tried to do something more respectfull.

  • MaryAnn

    I only meant Maybe… you need to get in touch by re reading some comics. That way you can zoom in on how comic fans could like it sorta like you zeroed in on how only girls under 12 would like twilight.

    See this movie, then reread some of my other reviews of other comic book movies, and then decide whether you want to say that to me again.

    So I guess Miller has done a great disservisse to his mentor by not being faithfull to his work.

    I suspect Miller has been extremely faithful to Eisner. I haven’t read the comic, but I can’t say for certain, but this feels extremely dated to me. Even something ahead of its time 60 years ago can feel old now.

  • MBI

    Holy mother in heaven.

    I generally only read the star ratings of reviews before seeing the movie, and read the whole review for analysis afterward. So I knew this was going to be bad, but I still didn’t expect… this. This is a kind of bad I can only compare to M. Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water” or Richard Kelly’s “Southland Tales.” It’s a movie made by a person with a bucketful of bad ideas and the means to realize every single one.

    More than that, it’s one of the few movies I’ve ever seen which combines the two varieties of bad: boring, and obnoxious. For what seemed like hours I sat in agony, dying for something to happen, and then when something did happen I immediately regretted it.

  • Lucy Gillam

    I’m actually kind of glad to see this review. I made the decision a while back that I would never willingly put a single dollar in Frank Miller’s pocket, but like so many of his movie projects, this at least looked very cool. So it’s a bit of a relief to have temptation taken out of my path.

  • D

    I haven’t seen the film (hasn’t arrived here in Portugal yet), but from what I saw from the trailer it’s a very gritty, detatched, noir-style movie. Will Eisner’s The Spirit wasn’t anything like that. Sure, it had some noir influences, but it had a heart at it’s core. You genuinely cared for those characters, and there was a good natured humour, or even irony to it. Not as mean spirited (no pun intended) as Miller’s usual works are. I think you should try buying “Best of The Spirit” on Amazon.com or somewhere else and read it when you have the time. I don’t think it’s expensive. You’ll find Eisner’s writting and drawing quite simplistic but very effective. Better yet, you should start with “The building”, the best introduction to Eisner there is.

  • dan

    I agree with MBI 110%. I love movies and comic books – but this movie was not good…at all. I have only felt like getting up and walking out of a theater for 3 movies…and this was one of them.

  • S

    I agree with ‘dan’ 190%!! Man… If it wasn’t for my friend dan (same name different person), I would’ve watched Transporter 3 instead. =) Can’t believe i gave up transporter 3 for this! Lesson learnt, cool looking poster dont mean its gonna be a cool movie.

  • Ralph

    It is really amazing to me that a movie has to be screened and produced before it makes the cut to be in theatres. This would require more than 10 people in this world to think this movie is good. After watching this movie, I don’t see this as possible, unless drugs were involved. The only reason I sat through this piece of shit excuse of a movie was the fact that Eva Mendez was naked… kinda. But other than that, the weirdest thing I have ever seen.

  • Lainy

    Hi everyone.

    First and foremost, I’m not a comic book fan. I was going on a date, and I figured this would be a movie the guy I was with would dig.

    But I can tell you pretty clearly that it was bad. Like walking out of the theater bad. (Several patrons, mostly men, did just that.)

    One of the most annoying things (and trust me, there were many), was the disconnect to the character in any emotional manner, just like the reviewer pointed out. I didn’t know why The Spirit was fighting or what he was really fight for, and 45 minutes into the movie, I still didn’t know – or care.

    It got only slightly more tolerable after some of these facts started to come out (which is why I probably enjoyed the flashback scenes the most), but you do have to slip into Ellen the brilliant surgeon’s stillettos to put together the pieces of this movie so it makes sense in any coherent manner.

    I’m just glad my date didn’t seem to mind too much since I picked the movie. It pretty much guaranteed I owed him another night out that would be much more enjoyable.

  • Lis

    Hey there,

    I remember my grandfather read The Spirit. I remember it as an ancient, archaic little strip he loved.

    Anyway, the movie doesn’t even remind me of the cheesy strip. It’s like some bizarre, horrible mutation.

  • Yonsan

    I think you kind of missed the point here MJ. This movie was based on a Campy comic. A comic so campy that even readers at the time thought it was campy and laughed at it for being so. Not that this movie bore a whole lot of resemblance to the Eisner written comic, but that’s where they were trying to go with it.

    Was it good? God no. Worth seeing? Alone, no. With friends? Sweet Jeezus yes, because you will laugh your ass off days afterwords. Seeing this movie left me with a feeling of “what did I just watch?” for weeks. Samuel L. Jackson dressed as a Nazi is my wallpaper now.

    I almost went to see it twice just to confirm I wasn’t drugged with some sort of awesomely powerful hallucinogen the first time.

  • Oliver

    Arrh, she blows!

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