Spirit, The

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 09/23/10 14:17:50

"Frank Miller's gaudy Christmas gift to himself."
5 stars (Awesome)

I guess I'm going to have to be that guy the one who genuinely enjoyed Frank Miller's uber-stylized adaptation of Will Eisner's comic "The Spirit." My brothers and sisters in the critical community, I salute you, but I must part ways with you here.

First and foremost, The Spirit is Frank Miller having a grand old time. I appreciate that. And I've gone back and forth on Miller in recent years I was a fan of his comic-book art and writing way back in the Daredevil days. But in the last few years starting with The Dark Knight Strikes Back, his controversial, freewheeling sequel to his seminal Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Miller's name has become mud among comics fans. They feel betrayed. They mock his increasingly loose artwork, his alleged obsession with prostitutes, his instant-parody dialogue ("I'm the goddamn Batman" from Miller's recent All-Star Batman and Robin quickly became an internet meme among Batfans).

What they don't understand, I think, is that Miller has come to a place where he does what he wants. What you see on the page and, in The Spirit, on the screen is exactly what he wanted to put there. And what he wants to do these days is to have fun. He became, with The Dark Knight Returns, the American king of grim 'n' gritty comics (Alan Moore crowned himself the British king of same with Watchmen).He didn't necessarily want all comics to follow his lead. But they did. So what was Miller going to do to stay fresh, to march to his own beat? Well, the exact opposite of grim 'n' gritty. Thus his two much-derided Batman projects, which I now read as Miller's attempt to inject some good old-fashioned escapist jollies into the clenched, self-serious superhero subgenre. "These are people who dress up and fight crime," Miller seemed to say. "We're taking it deadly seriously why?"

Will Eisner's Spirit was never particularly serious, either. Eisner's best work can probably be found in his later graphic novels (like the revered A Contract with God), but The Spirit was where he goofed around and, almost by accident, revolutionized comics storytelling by throwing bolts of cinematic electricity. The Spirit, a pulpy adventure series pitting noble masked hero Denny Colt against nefarious villains and gorgeous dames, was Eisner's toy box, his space to try things out. Put Eisner and Miller (the two were friends before Eisner died in 2005) and you get a massive, fetishistic buffet full of whatever Miller loved about Eisner's work, with side dishes full of Miller's own preoccupations. For instance, Miller clearly thinks Nazi uniforms look cool. Nazi regalia have popped up in his comics from time to time. So, here, in one scene, with no explanation, the villainous Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) and his disdainful assistant Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) rock SS garb. In another scene, the Octopus has a samurai thing going on.

The plot is essentially the Spirit (Gabriel Macht, this generation's Sam J. Jones who, besides being Flash Gordon, also played the Spirit in a forgotten TV movie) and the Octopus going at each other. For variety, there's the Spirit's childhood sweetie Sand Serif, who has become, in the curvaceous person of Eva Mendes, a swank jewel thief. The Spirit's major weakness is women. Miller, I think, can relate. He photographs them adoringly Johansson, Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Paz Vega, Jaime King, the adorably enthusiastic Stana Katic, and so on. The Spirit is awash in stoic heterosexual chivalry this hero would almost be content just to look at women, to catch their scent, to know they occupy the same sidewalk he does.

The look of the film (aided by master cinematographer Bill Pope) caught some flack because critics who saw the similarly hued Sin City enjoyed hypothesizing that Miller (who was given a co-director credit on that Robert Rodriguez adaptation of his comics) could only make movies in monochrome, with ostentatious pops of color. If so, who cares? Who else makes movies that look like this, and look so beautiful? The Spirit also seems to unfold in some strange time warp, where the costumes and attitudes are strict 1940s but there are also cell phones and camcorders. "What year is it?" a doctor asks the Spirit. "This year," answers the hero, who, like Miller, won't be tied down to any one era.

I guess a movie this brassy, sumptuous, and unafraid of what-the-hell effects, gags and visuals isn't enough for a lot of people. I don't really know why. Miller packs every silvery, snow-flecked frame with toys for the eyes; he loves good girls and goes absolutely sappy over bad girls; he even throws in his own storyboard art over the end credits. He puts more of himself into this movie than 90% of the competition ever do into their movies. For this he's run out of town on a rail and tossed into movie jail? Why do so many people hate fun?

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