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.