In a summer during the early-to-mid sixties, I surreptitiously acquired a copy of a specific issue of Playboy – not for the pictures, though those were nice, but for an essay on The Great Comic Book Heroes, by Jules Feiffer. It was about comic characters from the Golden Age of Comics [approximately 1939-1946 – your mileage may vary]. That led to my acquiring, with a hard-earned seven bucks, for Feiffer’s book of the same title on the subject. Included in the book was an eight-page, full-color Spirit story from the Philadelphia Record Sunday Comics Supplement, dated July 20, 1941. It was about a tale told to a tourist couple by an Egyptian beggar, twice in two days – first as a prophecy, and then as a fait accompli. It was incredible – it had action, wit, humor [even then I knew wit was not the same thing as humor] and amazing art. Well before the Kitchen Sink reprints of the seventies, I was hooked!
In the summer of 1987, the ABC network broadcast the ninety-minute pilot for a projected series based on Will Eisner’s legendary masked hero, The Spirit. It was bright and colorful and really seemed, to me at least, to capture the peculiar mix of whimsy and drama that marked the comic as a unique and brilliant work. Eisner, on the other hand, said it was so bad that “it made my toes curl.”
Today, I saw Frank Miller’s movie adaptation of Will Eisner’s The Spirit. As a critic, I realize that its thin story is told choppily [Frank, buddy, have you never heard of dissolves, transitions and such? And, really Frank! Plaster of Paris? What the hell were you thinking???] and the acting varies from poor to really poor. I get that it’s supposed to be a black comedy; I get that it’s Eisner’s characters and situations as filtered Miller’s sensibilities; I even get that The Octopus [Samuel L. Jackson] is supposed to an evil, human version of Wile E. Coyote/Yosemite Sam, while The Spirit is The Roadrunner/Bugs Bunny.
Somehow, though, I don’t think blending Sin City, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones was really the way to go here. The Spirit is not a character for whom bleached out colors [except, of course, for that blood red tie] really work. Neither should the character be set in such a static, blocky manner. The comics were always more fluid than all but the best films – and certainly more so than any of the comics of the period [and most of the best of today, as well]. And juking The Spirit’s origin in such a manner – turning a tough, determined man into a superhero, when he was really [to quote Douglas Adams, “Just this guy, y’know?”]. The spirit of The Spirit has been pretty much bleached out of the movie.
The Spirit is pretty much a disaster no matter how you look at it – and yet, I enjoyed it. Maybe it’s because of the hard edge Dan Lauria gives Commissioner Dolan, or the resignation Sarah Paulson gives Dr. Ellen Dolan, who knows she’ll never have The Spirit’s heart – at least not exclusively. Part of it is the cinematography. Miller may be a long way from being a film director, but he can compose a shot like nobody’s business! Also, the world of Central City may be CG but it has more heft than Sin City. Plus, there are moments when Eisner’s character peeks through the chaos […and this is for Muffin!”].
Even with the movie’s compositional beauty, a couple decent [not brilliant] performances [Sorry Mr. Gabriel Macht. I know The Spirit, and he’s not a monotoned refugee from a Philip Chandler novel] and amazing CG, I can understand how most critics will give The Spirit the equivalent of an ‘F’. I can’t do that. But tempering my love for the character with what little of that remains here – and combining that with an objective overview of everything that’s wrong with it – I can’t give The Spirit a positive grade [as much as it pains me].
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