Lead on, Spirit! – The Unique Geek
Let’s get it out of the way. The Spirit, in wide release Dec. 25th, is not a straight-forward adaptation of the Will Eisner comic strip. That always seems to be the “concern” of the comic fan, and it rings hollow, a standard applied to justify having read the source material. In essence, by asking if something is “faithful” to the source, they are saying, “I’ve read this, and I want credit for it. I did Prague before they built the McDonalds. I was into The Strokes back when they played in my friend’s loft.” Get over yourself, Spirit “fan,” a movie needs to be judged on its own merits. The majority of people who see it have never heard of the character, don’t want to hear you talk about it and don’t want fries with that.
So, what will they find, this fresh new audience? After the previews (through which many will have fingers crossed for a glimpse of Terminator Salvation), they will be met with a disembodied voice over and a floating woman’s unseen face, all stabby light and murky moan, calling for the soul of the Spirit. It’s disorienting, but hope remains. We’ve just started, and maybe the light will clear up and we’ll see her. She might be hot! Then some credits and some atmosphere, and then Eva Mendes rising from the water, and it’s unclear whether or not she has super powers or maybe she’s the same woman from the pre-credit sequence, and then The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) is talking about eggs and throwing a toilet at The Spirit (Gabriel Macht), and people are killed but don’t die and you realize it’s a cartoon. You’ve unwittingly paid to see an homage to Merrie Melodies.
This opening fight takes place in an unexplained battlefield of primordial ooze from which they pull kitchen sinks and lamp posts to smash each other with, and I suppose it’s a metaphor for the entire film – things pulled out of nowhere because they have the effects to do it with. The Spirit and The Octopus are established as characters similar to Wolverine and Sabertooth, like, they can regenerate and can’t be killed and like to punch and karate chop each other because they can and it looks cool, but there’s no consequence.
Then the cops show up, and the film has a human center. Dan Lauria is excellent as Dolan, banging out a pastiche of every noir cop he must have loved watching as a kid. He’s got that “aw jeez,” face that served him well as the dad on the Wonder Years and is clearly having a great time. His daughter, the Spirit’s personal physician, played by Sarah Paulson is the only real, read as “attainable by mortals,” woman in the movie, and hope returns. It was a rocky Tom and Jerry start, but here’s something I can relate to and maybe there’s a story here, and we can settle in.
We start to enjoy the effects, the digital city and the colors. They are, as expected, amazing. The snow and the lights are beautiful, the city is beautiful, the Spirit looks cool. Macht’s voice is great. Like, the kind of cool, smooth, gruff commanding voice Bale should have used in Dark Knight. What writer/director Frank Miller gives him to say, however, is, um…there’s a lot of inconsistency in how it’s presented. Like, the standard way to represent captions is a voice over, and we get that sometimes, but then sometimes, The Spirit is telling the plot to a cat (!!?) and sometimes breaks the fourth wall and talks to you. Yes you, gentle reader.
Allow this departure. The ancient Greek poet Archilochus categorized people as either foxes or hedgehogs, with the distinction being “The fox knows many things, and the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The one thing the hedgehog knows is formidable, it works for him, so he keeps doing it over and over, and he survives. He doesn’t quite please, but he sticks around. Frank “The Hedgehog” Miller might dabble in other mediums, might sniff around other story models, but when it’s time to put it together, he pulls his body into a tight noir-ball and rolls spine-first towards the gritty part of town.
His great trick, his gift to comics, was to fuse a hard pulp sensibility into a cartoon narrative, to bring an adult, sophisticated sensibility to funny books. He took the “luckless loser” model Stan Lee wowed ’em with in 1963, basted it with Raymond Chandler sauce, set to three hundred fifty degrees and came out with a super-pleasing Dark Knight and Daredevil roast that reserved his hard-backed chair at the banquet hall of Sequential Narrative Greats. It can be argued this had been done before but not with characters everyone knew and not as successfully. He was an innovator, and his reputation is earned, but for thirty years he’s been a geriatric Mick Jagger croaking out Satisfaction or a Betty White trying to wink seductively. He’s a rapping granny.
This is not to say he’s completely lost it, but what ultimately happened with this movie is everyone decided to do whatever they wanted, like do what they like best, and it all got the ok.
Jackson: “Hey, Frank, Frank, what if I do my makeup like the guy from Fall Out Boy on a crying jag?”
Miller: “My city shrieks…no. My city bleeds blood… Yeah, Sam, fabulous! I love it! My city chortles with infrastructure…hmm. Just wear and say whatever you want, Sam, and tell Scarlett to wear the same thing. I trust you. My city crackles with alternate side of the street parking rules…”
He probably should not have been the director, since he allowed the beauty or oversized personalities of the actors to overwhelm him. A lot of the performances read as first or second takes, and I wonder if that’s Miller afraid to tell hot chicks they’re not perfect or their only having a few days with people, since the rest was needed for post-production.
This works OK with Lauria, since what he wanted to do was distinctive and based in historical performances, and it works nicely with Paulson and Macht, since what they wanted to do was earnestly impress, but when it comes to Jackson, ummm.
I like Jackson. He’s totally cool, and at the press conference he was awesome. Just smooth and personable and effortless. He admitted a childhood love for Aquaman, and is really the only actual comic fan in the cast (Miller’s cameo as a cop aside), but he is out of control here, and why not? No one helped him refine his ideas. Scarlett Johansson, as Silken Floss, gets dragged into his trailer and tags along. The relationship they set up for them in the film is essentially Harley Quinn and the Joker. She makes a stately Harley, but was probably a little more “noir” in Match Point.
And with her mention, it’s probably a good time to point out how very beautiful they make the women look in this movie. Like, mission accomplished. Miller loves women in an, “I eat red meat and have scars on my knuckles from punching monster trucks” kind of way. Like, pure testosterone ass worshipping dude-ry. Mendes and Paz Vega as Plaster of Paris sizzle (my city sizzles) and enhance the overall well-done design of the movie.
There’s a lot that works but not always at the same time. When it’s all clicking, and they’re not randomly coloring something, it can be cool. In particular, a scene where Macht rips medical tape off his chest and demands a red tie is classic Miller and stirring excitement. When they have him skitter like a computer cursor across an imaginary power line, however, it doesn’t matter how awesome his outfit or the snow looks, it’s just off-putting.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a movie that starts off pretty normally and then descends into batshit, eyes gouged out, gun-firing craziness, and maybe that should have been the model here. Like, there we get a standard plot and then the bottom drops out, and we fall into the crazy well, trailing LOLs and WTFs?
The Spirit starts off crazy when we expect serious, then tries to pull it back in, then goes for weird juvenile sight gags then tries to be tough, and we’re disoriented. Theres also a pathlogical fascination with a prop photocopy of Mendes’ rump. If you took a shot every time the camera cuts to it, you would be wasted by the third act, and maybe “wasted” is the right word to end with here. There’s a lot of work and opportunity that went by the wayside here, a lot of talented people and some great source material that never quite gels. The parts that look good, look good, but maybe next time, they’ll hire a fox to put it all together.
Frank, If I give you the photocopy, will you take this thing out of my mouth?