Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: The Spirit - Campy Comic Book Film a Misfire Post-Dark Knight

Friday, January 30, 2009

Movie Review: The Spirit - Campy Comic Book Film a Misfire Post-Dark Knight

I was kind of tickled by Frank Miller's The Spirit. Not the instant classic that I've deemed the 2-dimensional Sin City (2005) to be, what could have been a fun campy tribute to the pulpy comics of yore ala Beatty's Dick Tracy (1990), Losey's Modesty Blaise (1966), or Vadim's Barbarella (1968), turns out to be a colossal misfire of the first order in late 2008, post-Dark Knight. How dare this movie be produced after the comic book hero genre got serious? Of course, if you can manage to not be so fanboy about it, it's really a magnificent piece of eye candy. And Miller has fun expanding on the traditional comic book tropes of duality between hero and villain, identity, etc. The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) and the Octopus (Samuel Jackson) are both ciphers on the page, infused only by whatever personality the actors, their costumes and their surroundings bring to them. The Spirit is the remnant of deceased officer Denny Colt. His various girlfriends are all facets of an idealized woman, and depending on which one he's with, one wonders if Colt has allowed his heroic identity to take over to release him from any ties he once might have had to a fiance played by Sarah Paulson. In the original comic book, the Octopus was never seen outside of a gloved hand at the corner of a page frame. So imagine the fun for Jackson and Miller to craft the character by allowing him to dress in every outfit from Samurai to Nazi officer. But I can't help feeling uncomfortable at the Aryan-ness of the whole enterprise. In addition to the Octopus, every person of color is on the wrong side of the law, including Italian Louis Lombardi as the clones, Spanish Paz Vega as Plaster of Paris, and the Cuban-American Eva Mendes as Sand Saref. And the rest of the denizens of Central City are all lily-white. Even more discomfort do I later feel in light of this little tidbit I discovered.

7 comments:

Ed Howard said...

I think it's funny that Miller eliminated Ebony White from the film because the character would be too offensive, but then made all the villains ethnic caricatures, which is arguably even more offensive. In the original comics, Ebony is unfortunate evidence of the time in which they were made, but he's also a sympathetic, complex character far beyond his obvious caricatured appearance. Will Eisner, who created the original Spirit comics, was no racist, and it sounds like the treatment of the film's racial/ethnic elements is one of many ways in which Miller has fundamentally misunderstood the comics he's supposedly adapting. Miller's sensibility is perfect for Sin City, but I couldn't think of a worse person to make a Spirit movie.

Montgomery said...

Could this movie over time be overlooked for it's flaw and become a cult movie like Lynch's Dune or my favorite Streets of Fire.

Tony Dayoub said...

Ed,

You're right about Eisner not being a racist. And you're also right about Miller. A right-winger like him doesn't seem perceptive enough to leaven this movie with commentary or subtlety when it comes to the issue of race.

Montgomery,

I like those two movies also. I agree with you that Streets of Fire was misunderstood at the time of its release, but I don't think it was as deeply flawed as Dune still continues to be. Only time will tell where The Spiritends up. I suspect that it will become a cult classic, but unless Miller grows in stature as a director, I doubt it will be as well-regarded as either of those films.

Montgomery said...

As flawed as Dune was, I grew to understand what Lynch tried to accomplish. The extended version is on par with watching Blade Runner with and with out the voice over.

Tony Dayoub said...

Interesting that you say that. I'm a huge Lynch fan, bordering on being an expert. I'm also a fan of Dune, having read the book four times.

I love his interpretation of the story, but feel like 2 hours didn't do it justice. While the extended version is more complete from the literary perspective, from a cinematic perspective it is even further from Lynch's sensibility than the theatrical version is.

This may explain why Lynch himself has disowned the extended version, a detail evident in the extended version's director credit to Alan Smithee (for those unaware, Alan Smithee is a pseudonym used when a director asks to have his name taken off a film).

Jeremy Richey said...

Very nice to see someone else who didn't hate this.

Also, Tony I just awarded you the Dardos award at Moon in the Gutter. Keep up the great work...

MovieMan0283 said...

I found this movie pretty terrible, and Miller's direction atrocious. Nice observation on the Aryanness though - I didn't even notice that (I was too busy groaning about other matters). I think this is Exhibit A in contemporary cinema's obsession with visuals - cold, technically perfect visuals - over all else. Yes, film is a visual medium but the resonance of the visuals has to extend beyond the surface (in other words, there has to BE a resonance) and I found The Spirit just too glib.

Also, I've read an old Spirit story or two - which were extremely inventive - and I found the movie's boring plot and lack of sublety was doubly disappointing. I did not know about the Octopus appearing only as a hand (sounds like Inspector Gadget). But this does make me think "the more left to the imagination the better..." Poor Sam Jackson, seems to be phoning it in, or rather phoning in to a phone which then phones it in to another, and so on, till all traces of the originality and spark he showed in Pulp Fiction is completley drained out of his voice...