The Spirit

Russell Burlingame Takes in an Early Screening!

The central question on the minds of fans everywhere-at least as it pertains to next week's release of the long-awaited film adaption of Will Eisner's The Spirit-is whether the choice of comics legend Frank Miller to direct the film was exactly right or exactly wrong.

On the one hand, Miller's style of art, and storytelling, isn't exactly a dead-on match for Eisner. One of the things that made Miller's Sin City film work so well is that he was able to closely recreate his own work, crafting a film that was visually almost identical to the source material. And starting with the monochrome palette we've seen in commercials, and the suit that sent thousands of irate fanboys scrambling for their keyboards, it's clear that "identical" will not be an adjective anyone uses in describing this film to the original comics. While Miller has often cited Eisner as an early influence in his work, the press materials for the film cite their relationship as "a debate that ran for 25 years on how to make comics and how they work."

On the other hand, Miller is clearly an advocate for comics and for good superhero stories. His Batman: Year One was the basis for Batman Begins, the film that relaunched the franchise and has led to a comics-to-film renaissance. Sure, Spider-Man was the first of this new breed, but Batman Begins was the first film to remind viewers that superhero films didn't have to be vapid to entertain. And whether he can bring himself to be visually true to the books or not, Miller's love for Eisner's source material is well-known.

The result is an ambitious, fun...but a bit Miller, a first time director working with a well-established property, a good deal of special effects and a cadre of star-level actors, may not have given as much attention to keeping a consistency in the dialogue and production as he might have. Lionsgate describes the process of adapting Eisner's unique universe to Miller's vision by stressing that Eisner himself allowed the universe of The Spirit to age, always remaining contemporary in spite of the clothes and cars that hearken back to the earliest days of its creation. And so, a film that utilizes cell phones and cloning at the same time that the police car is an old steel hulk with actual rotating lights on top was intentional.

Still, it's not this area that feels forced and artificial, but the digital effects (the red tie, the sneakers and other elements that use solid, matte colors laid over the top of the film), a la Miller's Sin City film. In Sin City, the adaption was of a black-and-white comic by Miller himself, and the use of these effects was to as closely as possible import the imagery and feel of the source material. In The Spirit, it feels more like a gimmick-like, "Hey, look, it's those Sin City special effects again!"

The film version of The Octopus is a highlight-not only is Samuel L. Jackson great as the formerly-faceless villain, but his over-the-top performance brings the noir-ish, brooding performance of Gabriel Macht's Spirit into relief. Without Jackson, Macht's performance may have been out of place and frankly, the narrating monologue that runs throughout the whole film may have felt too much like telling instead of showing-but Jackson's performance pushes the whole film into an Old Hollywood milieu and makes all these things make a little more sense. Like Spider-Man, The Spirit is slavishly loyal to the original feel of the strip's dialogue. Ultimately this is a little awkward, as characters who hold onto cell phones and talk about the Internet carry on like it's the '40s. Equally strange is the presence and portrayal of Lorelei, the underwater angel of death who frankly should have been left on the cutting-room floor. It's possible that Miller was just trying to keep too much of the strips here, but this character feels out of place in the film and every time they cut to her, it distracts from the narrative.

The film successfully evokes Eisner's sense of humor, and the physicality of Macht's character (along with the stilted, prissy-girl that Sarah Paulson puts forward as Ellen Dolan) imbue these characters with the personalities of the original strip, even if the look and feel of the film isn't entirely what you would expect from Central City's suit-wearing hero.

In-jokes abound, as a young Denny Colt is seen reading one of the EC Comics that sparked the Seduction of the Innocent controversy; the truck that The Octopus and Silken Floss use to appear inconspicuous is for the Ditko company; and frequent mentions of eggs and cats are meant to add depth to The Octopus and The Spirit, although in reality they're just off-putting.

The film revolves around a story wherein The Spirit runs afoul of both the Octopus (and his girl Silken Floss) and his first love, Sand Saref. While interviews and press materials have referred to the Octopus as the Spirit's oppsite number, it's really Sand who fits this role better; the thesis of the movie is that the city is the Spirit's true love, and the parade of beautiful women he encounters in his travels are merely diversions (with the possible exception of Ellen), and Sand-his childhood sweetheart, for whom he still carries a little flame-hates Central City passionately, blaming it for her father's death (he was a cop killed in the line of duty when they were teenagers). She's back in the city looking for the Golden Fleece (yes, of Jason & the Argonauts fame) while the Octopus seeks the blood of Heracles, believing it will make him immortal if he drinks it. The inclusion of these elements of mythology may have felt a little more at home in the context of the comics, but in the film it's distracting. The world in which this Spirit resides is essentially ours, with a few very minor modifications, and so magical artifacts feel unnatural for reasons that are hard to put your finger on-not unlike when aliens were introduced into the Indiana Jones franchise this summer.

Another element that didn't fit was Eva Mendes-her performance is exactly like every other performance she's given in her career. She's wooden, unconvincing, unemotional and there is no logical reason why she continues to get work. She steps on every scene she's in here, and it doesn't speak well of Miller-the-filmmaker that in a story that leans so heavily on the Sand Saref character, that he chose such a terrible actress for the part.

Early reviews haven't been kind to The Spirit, a film that's a lot of fun to watch as long as you don't think too hard, but it'll be interesting to see more than anything else how longtime fans of the franchise will react-probably not kindly-in the coming weeks. While a fun diversion over the Christmas weekend and sure to turn some kind of profit, this movie will be unlikely to be remembered in ten years, and certainly won't bring new fans streaming into stores looking for old Eisner issues of The Spirit-which is unfortunate, as that should have been Miller's goal all along.

Russell Burlingame is a journalist and columnist living and working in New York City. In high school, Russell interviewed Elliot S. Maggin for a review of the Kingdom Come novelization, and since then has worked consistently in and around the comics industry. He interned for Wizard magazine, and has freelanced for Wizard and Newsarama, in addition to a number of non-comics publications, Russell is currently working on a graphic novel based on Cap'n Internet, the comic strip that ran in his college newspaper; and a graphic biography of folk singer Phil Ochs with artist Marion Vitus.

Currently, in addition to his freelance work and his comics projects, Russell writes a number of columns for ComicRelated, including Conscientious Sequentials, The Gold Exchange, What's Perhappenin', Closing Statements, Reflecting 'Pool and To See or Not To See. Russell also takes point on the Hot Shot of the Week feature.

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