Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2008

The Spirit

How did this one go wrong? Start with a famous old Sunday supplement that truly outshone its legend: The Spirit, created by Will Eisner in 1940 and often called the Citizen Kane of comics. Assign the property to Frank Miller, the graphic-novel mastermind of the Sin City and 300 graphic novels that were made into hit movies. Miller, who received codirector credit with Robert Rodriguez on Sin City, is using the same green-screen process here, so he's had his practice shots. Miller admires the heck out of Eisner, as every graphic artist does, and every pop-culture aficionado who has bought The Spirit in a lavish reprint series at $50 per volume. I was revved up to do an extended exegesis on the triumphant transformation of a great picture book to vivid movie life.

The joke — the prank — is on all of us. Whether you're a deep-dish Eisnerphile or an ordinary Christmas moviegoer looking for some action-adventure in a mall full of Oscar contenders, you will be obliged to proclaim this Spirit a calamitous botch. Miller has misread the original, turning dark drama into strained comedy. Of course, artists have the liberty to make fun of any source material, however hallowed; but Miller lacks the simple competence to make the movie move. The facility he has on the page doesn't translate to the screen.

There are times when the movie comes to a dead halt, extending some tiny bit of business — like the special effect of a severed, hopping foot with a tiny human head on it — agonizingly long after it's made its point. The actors, stranded by their director, are unable to bring characters to life on their own. In the title role, Gabriel Macht has no charisma, no clue as to motivation, tempo and tone. Eva Mendes, playing the Spirit's one-time love and current jewel thief Sand Saref, seems to have been told, "Pretend you're Angelina Jolie and take it from there." Samuel L. Jackson, as the Spirit's nemesis The Octopus, doesn't chew the scenery so much as strangle it.

Perhaps the enterprise was doomed before Miller got to it — for the Spirit is not really a typical comic-book or movie hero. In some of the old stories, he did not participate; he'd serve as narrator of other people's adventures. Graphic novelist Neil Gaiman (The Sandman) refers to these as "stories through which the Spirit would wander bemused and often beaten-up, a McGuffin in a mask and hat." That shouldn't have been a challenge to Miller, since Sin City was a blending of four stories; The Spirit might have gone that way too. Instead, it's the standard movie expansion of the serial comic-book format.

We see the Spirit in his "hero uniform" — dark suit, red tie, snap hat and an eye mask filched from the Lone Ranger — and in his previous incarnation as Denny Colt, the street kid who'd grow up to be (as he says on page 1 of Eisner's first story) a "criminologist and private detective." We get the usual supporting cast of no-goodniks and femmes fatales: tough cop Dolan (Dan Lauria), the one man who knows the Spirit's identity, and Dolan's lovelorn daughter Ellen (Sarah Paulson); Lorelei the watery Death damsel (Jaime King); the sexy danseuse Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega); Octopus' aide-de-high-camp Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) and his lame-brained multiple musketeers Ethos, Logos, Pathos, Mangos, Bozos, Bulbos, Heuvos, Rancheros and Matzos (all played by Louis Lombardi).

Miller is ostensibly faithful to the original's visuals. He keeps his camera mostly static, turning the shots into a flipbook, a series of comic-book panels. The frame compositions mimic Eisner's proto-noir cinematic style: a mix of tense close-ups, intimate medium shots and fire-escape-sitter's overhead views of back alley life. And the production team took pains to lend grandeur and detail to the Spirit's home town, Central City — aka, lower Manhattan in a jumble of eras. Gaudy colors occasionally splash out of the urban murk.

For the cognoscenti, Miller has scrawled allusions to comic book titans in the corners of his movie, like graffiti valentines. A sign reads "Iger Street" (for Jerry Iger, Eisner's publishing partner before The Spirit). There's a shady character named Donenfeld (for Harry Donenfeld, owner of Action Comics, which first published Superman, and Detective Comics, which first published Batman). The EC line of early '50s, best-ever comics gets two plugs: with a character referred to as "old man Kurtzman" (for Harvey Kurtzman, founding editor of the classics Two Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat and Mad), and a flashback in which young Denny reads Crime SuspenStories, a viciously, deliciously lurid EC title edited by Al Feldstein.

These might sound like acts of veneration, but Miller has betrayed the spirit of The Spirit. It's utterly baffling that the man who in the 1980s rethought Batman as a moodier, more mature and conflicted figure — inspiration for the Christopher Nolan series of Batman films ("the dark knight" was Miller's phrase) — should turn Eisner's essentially serious, driven hero into a deadpan doofus, as if he hoped to recapture the farcical brio of the '60s Batman TV show. Macht's intonations as the Spirit are a raspy parody of wartime tough-guy detectives. When he introduces himself by saying, "I'm the Spirit; I beat up bad guys," there's no hint of self-awareness, no acknowledgement that beating up bad guys has physical and social consequences. The character has no moral weight whatsoever.

Neither does the movie. When a movie this off-putting is made by a director with a distinctive and established style — Joseph Losey, say, with his '60s comic-book movie Modesty Blaise, or David Lynch doing almost anything — viewers can reasonably infer that the hothouse air is intentionally clammy. Here, though, it's hard to tell whether the movie is the result of some brazen anti-audience maneuver or the director's lack of competence.

Either way, this is a desecration of a comic-book monument. Eisner's Spirit was wonderful, but Miller's Spirit is weak. The Citizen Kane of comics has become the Ishtar of movies.