The Spirit is one of the odder comic book movies ever made, but its spirit is much closer to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again. It’s one of the few comic book movies that actually is a comic book, not just in the way it looks, but in its crazy energy, unfulfilled ambition and pulp traditions.
Sit through the whole thing and you come away with a completely different experience than the modern comic book superhero blockbuster. The Spirit has nothing in common with Nolan’s Dark Knight or Bryan Singer’s X-Men, the movies that define the 21st century comic book blockbuster. It does its awkward horrifying best to be a comic book on film. And it’s the closest thing to seeing Frank Miller on film.
Like most first time directors, Miller is way over his limit and doesn’t realize that he hasn’t yet learned how to tell a story. But there are glimpses among the ruins of what The Spirit might have been if Miller had been given a reality check by a producer who knew his stuff.
The worst thing about The Spirit is Samuel L Jackson as The Octopus, a monster of crime who’s all Id with no Superego. It’s not Jackson’s fault that he’s been set loose with no tether and mugs for the camera like mad. What else is he supposed to do. Especially when he’s being dressed in a Nazi uniform or a Samurai scalplock. There’s nothing Jackson could have done to fix this mess. That was Miller’s responsibility and he blew it.
But the best thing about The Spirit is the Spirit himself. Macht isn’t a great actor, and the narration is usually over the top, but the Spirit’s mad race through the city, his pratfalls and escapes, capture the pulp energy that once made comics so exciting to generations of kids. There’s a freedom here that’s completely missing from the summer blockbusters. A freedom that goes beyond the panels. That says anything is possible.
The encounter with Sans Serif in her hotel room, The Spirit riding up in a transparent elevator past falling snow and gargoyles captures the quintessential urban pulp noir feel. But Miller doesn’t know when to stop. Most scenes with The Spirit’s allies go on way too long. The Octopus is so far over the top that it’s unwatchable. There are too many women around The Spirit and all of it runs in a comic book story which doesn’t work on film.
Then there’s the mismatch of art styles, a problem that crippled The Dark Knight Strikes Again, it’s not as bad in The Spirit, but it’s a major problem. Playing with art styles in comic books is one thing for a pro like Miller looking to test the boundaries of the medium, but Miller doesn’t realize that he’s not a pro here. He’s an amateur director and when you’re an amateur, you need boundaries.
There are some beautifully lit and shot moments, but the movie feels like browsing through DeviantArt at random. There are some gorgeous scenes, and plenty of amateurish ones, and none of it hangs together as a consistent whole. The Spirit needed dramatic reediting and a few reshoots. Had Lionsgate done that, The Spirit wouldn’t have been a major success, but it wouldn’t have been a punching bag either.
Still what The Spirit has is valuable. In a summer when there are a ton of comic book superhero blockbusters that all feel the same, it’s a reminder of something undeniably different. The spirit and energy of the comic book living faithfully on screen.