As if the geekdom NEEDED any evidence beyond “All-Star Batman & Robin” (or the entire last decade or so of his career, really) that Frank Miller has turned perhaps irrevocably into a self-hating destroyer of his own work and all he’s ever professed to love, please keep in mind that he still calls the late, legendary Will Eisner – creator of The Spirit – a friend and mentor… yet he has turned Eisner’s signature creation, one of the most groundbreaking and important in all of the medium, into the most toxically awful comic adaptation since Joel Schumacher first opted for anatomically-correct Batsuits.
It’s not enough to call “The Spirit” a bad movie… it’s one of the THE bad movies. What we have here is a must-be-seen cultural touchstone, a moment that any film geek worth his salt will want to be able to say he remembers experiencing for the first time. It sits in a rare pantheon with the most truly awful of the awful – think “Myra Breckenridge.” Think “Zabriske Point.” Think “Showgirls” and the “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band” movie with the Bee Gees. This will be a punchline for decades, and we will speak of it forever.
Eisner’s “Spirit” was a newspaper strip (so popular that for a time papers would carry it in it’s own section instead of placing it with the other comics) about a masked man who took a licking and kept on ticking – an ex-cop named Denny Colt who uses the fact that the underworld believes he’s been killed to assume a vigilante identity. Part hard-boiled noir, part romance, part slapstick, part kiddie fantasy and part gritty action drama, there’s still never been anything else exactly like it – not for nothing does the comic publishing world call it’s highest honor “The Eisner Award.” It was always going to be a problem to adapt this material into a film – Spirit is often a supporting character in his own adventures, a nigh-indestructible Rod Serling taking readers on a tour of urban fancy that was, tonally, all over the map: Spirit could be romancing a curvaceous hitwoman in one scene, and partnering with Santa Claus to save Christmas in the next. Hard-edged thugs share the same panels with glamorous pinup beauties with names like Sand Saref or Plaster of Paris.
Miller’s “solution” to this conundrum is twofold: He opts to suck the fun out by bathing the whole film in the monotone sheen thats become a boring cliche in the genre AND by turning the circumstances of Spirit’s joked-about invulnerability into a plot point; then he fills in the cracks with his standard-issue bag of tricks and the ultimate over-the-top “what the HELL are you buying that you needed to say yes to this??” turn from Samuel L. Jackson.
The sole plus side of the film, aside from being able to enjoy it’s transcendant awfulness for the sake of comedy, is that Miller retains a (visually) acute taste in women – he’s honored The Spirit’s tradition of curvaceous pinup-princess female characters by packing the cast with some of the best-looking women in the business and pouring them into a boutique’s worth of fetish-doll costuming. One can feel pity on Scarlett Johanssen, Eva Mendes, Paz Vega (so thats where she’s been…) Sara Paulson and Jamie King for having to debase themselves with Miller’s tone-deaf tuff-girl dialogue, but they’ve never looked better. Thank goodness for small, (even-numbered) favors.