I had looked forward to the Spirit movie last year but I was ill for the week it was in theaters so I didn’t get a chance to see it. I wasn’t a great fan of the original material but I respect Eisner’s contribution to the art of sequential narrative (comic books to people who never read the Comics Journal) and had been a fan of Frank Miller’s work since Daredevil. If you carefully parse the tenses and voices in that last sentence you’ll get a pretty good idea of where I stand on this movie.
No spoilers this time because there is simply nothing to spoil. I doubt that Miller will be given a chance to make more movies after this one, but if he does we have a director that rivals Ed Wood in creative potential. And this movie should be seen for the same reasons that one watches Wood’s movies- the joy of indulging yourself in a bad movie for the joy of watching it crash and burn. The same guilty joy one gets from rubbernecking at a car wreck on the highway. In fact, the setting where the Spirit meets the Octopus is so reminiscent of the graveyard set in Plan 9 From Outer Space that one wonders if Miller isn’t in some stage of his career where he is attempting to deconstruct his own work. Dark Knight Returns Again (or whatever it was called) and All-Star Batman and Robin are compelling evidence that’s what is going on. It’s just a shame that, in the process of pissing down his own leg, he wound up pissing on Will Eisner, one of the truly great comic artists of all time. And one of the few who was able to continue growing as an artist and keep himself from being eaten by his own style, unlike such comic greats as Neal Adams, Gil Kane, and Miller himself.
For the fan of Miller or Eisner or comic history, the movie does have some interesting bits. Firstly, Miller has completely abandoned Eisner’s style and substituted his own. Secondly, Miller has taken the idea of using his comic work as a storyboard, an idea used well in Sin City and 300, to its ultimate conclusion. Third, Miller has given us the ultimate realization of what comic book writing is like when displaced into another medium. And lastly, Miller has given us a stronger argument against the “cinematic comic” than Alan Moore did in Watchmen, and done it from the other side. All of these are fascinating glimpses into the connection between comics and movies, although it is debatable how many of them Miller was actually trying to accomplish.
This movie is not Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Not any more than the movie called Issac Asimov’s I, Robot was actually anything like Asimov’s robot stories. There are characters who have the same names as the ones in Eisner’s work (though Ebony is mercifully absent) and the situation is superficially the same. But Eisner’s lighthearted tone isn’t there. The only evidence of his work is the influence it made on Miller. What is abundantly evident is the style of Miller’s later negative space, black-and-white work. The visual style is also straight out of Sin City as well. Gone are the flowing prose, bright colors and wry humor of Eisner’s work, replaced by “Frank Miller’s The Spirit”. Eisner’s work was truly cinematic. Panel sizes didn’t change much, but perspective did- here they don’t. Movement was translated to the static page by moving the POV of the camera rather than invoking movement through the frame- here it doesn’t. And even the trademark Spirit logo, which took on a different architectural aspect in every story, is reduced to a vaguely three-dimensional font supported by bricks. Eisner’s art is forced through the strainer of Miller’s latter day simplicity and the result is that all the blood is drained out of it, leaving only the bare bones and little meat behind.
Frank Miller’s The Spirit is basically a moving fumetti. Not only does it use the black-and-white-with-a-single-spot-color style of the Sin City comic, but it is basically filmed in static shots. When the camera does move it’s usually a horizontal pan, lengthening the frame in the same way Miller’s work often uses grossly wide or tall panels to evoke movement. The result is that if you take a still frame from each camera set up you basically have the storyboards with nothing missing. All the Miller clichés are there- women with their asses stuck out and one breast in profile, silhouette cityscapes with a wooden water tower on every building (sometimes two or three on a single rooftop), faces that scowl up through knitted eyebrows, characters standing in front of static impressionist backgrounds doing nothing. The movie includes every Millerism but the kitchen sink (no, wait, the Spirit actually throws a kitchen sink at the Octopus in one scene, and if there was any evidence of subtlety in the entire movie I’d think it was a nod to Kitchen Sink Publishers, who reprinted the Spirit comics in the 1980’s, but there isn’t so I don’t).
As much as the movie looks like a parody of a Miller comic, the script sounds like a parody of Miller’s comic writing. The opening monologue where the Spirit waxes moronic about his love affair with his city (“She gives me everything I need.”) is so full of purple prose that it rivals the infamous line from All-Star Batman and Robin- “I’m the goddammed Batman!” You can get away with this kind of shit in a comic book where the whole thing requires an exaggerated sense of willing disbelief. After all, the words are often, for instance, coming out of the mouth of an alien who flies around under his own power wearing a bright blue skintight suit with big red boots and a bath towel around his neck. But try to read even good comic book dialogue out loud and it quickly becomes obvious that, as the actors in Star Wars said about Lucas’ script, “You can type this stuff but you can’t say it.” Miller fills every mouth with words that can only be considered as camp but never allows anyone to put their tongue in their cheek while they are saying it. Camp is hard to do because if the audience doesn’t get it, it just looks stupid. Luc Besson did it almost perfectly in The Fifth Element (and a lot of folks still didn’t get it), Mike Hodges did pretty well by turning Flash Gordon into a gay pride parade, and even in THE SPIRIT the film comes close toward the end. But I’m afraid that by that time most people have lost the thread. The woman I saw it with turned it off after the first half hour, and she’s sat through some pretty weird movies in her day. It doesn’t help that the look of the film is so close to the movie Sin City, with it’s over the top film noir. Perhaps if Miller really wanted to do more lighthearted camp he might have stayed closer to Eisner’s look and color palate. As it is, it just comes off as bad.
So Miller’s SPIRIT winds up, in some ironic way, being the fourth movie in a quatralogy of movies in the last year that have basically encapsulated the path of comics over the last forty years. Iron Man was the best iteration of a Stan Lee’s Marvel of the 1960s- a path set forth by Sam Rami with the Spider-Man movies but made lean and mean by comic novices Farveau and Downey. The Dark Knight carried the torch into the 70s making the Batman of the movies as real and gritty as possible as the one envisioned by O’Neil and Adams. Watchmen went further (perhaps further than movie audiences were willing to go) by translating the greatest superhero comic into an equally ambiguous tale of superheroes and why they would have to be damaged and psychotic in the real world. And now Frank Miller takes the oldest comic creation of them all, one who was the first to combine cinematic techniques with comic sensibilities, and makes Moore’s point in Watchmen from the other side. With Watchmen, Alan Moore set out to make a comic that used every comic book trick to the effect of completing a work of narrative that could, in essence, never be translated to the screen. In THE SPIRIT Miller takes every comic book cliché that he has popularized over the last thirty years and translates them to the screen intact. And in the process he reveals them for the superficial and unrealistic tricks that they actually are. It’s all there- the exaggerated poses, the static shots, the silly dialogue, the unrealistic plot, the retarded prose, the pointless violence, the elevation of style over substance. It isn’t as worthless as badly done comic book movies. You don’t want to run from the theater screaming as you might with the Schumacher Batman movies, or WANTED, or DAREDEVIL, but you still have the idea that the director has no reverence for either format: comics or cinema.
I’m struck with cynicism about Frank Miller’s directorial debut. The same way I was at Neal Adams redrawing and recoloring of his classic Batman comics for their hardcover release. It’s just an artist wanting to get paid for his previous work by shitting on that work with no thought for the people who loved that work back when they first did it. It’s also the work of an artist who has given up any artistic principles. Who has been co-opted by the business interests so completely that they have decided that being paid is more important than their fans or their legacy. At least Adams wiped his ass on his own drawings. Miller has decided to do his paperwork on the legacy of another artist who isn’t around to defend his artistic vision anymore. And unlike the National Lampoon replacing the face of the Mona Lisa with a chimp for comic effect, Miller has decided that, like a visit to the monkey house, anyone who still has any reverence for the classics of his media deserves to have his shit flung at them. He’s deficated on his greatest triumph twice with DKR and All-Star Batman, and now he’s branched out to leave a steaming pile on Will Eisner.
We get it, Frank. You hate yourself and the very work that made you famous. You wish you had done something else with your life than entertaining 12 year olds. And you think those 12 year olds deserve to be punished for ever making you famous in the first place. Be an artist. Or just go away. Don’t try to get even with them for ever being childish enough to like your work. Take all that self-loathing and become a hermit. Don’t shit on our childhood the way you shit on your life’s work. The way Walt Disney had to show himself as a fascist bigot and capitalist swine because he couldn’t stand the wholesome facade he had built his fortune on. We get it. You hate yourself for being successful in a medium you hate. But Will Eisner never got to that point. He continued to break new ground with works like THE CITY until the day he died. For you to drag his good name down with you and the love your fans have for your early work is a shame.
Shame on you, Frank Miller. And shame on me for saying that everyone should see THE SPIRIT. If nothing else, to see what happens if you have dreams of being an artist and succumb to the self-loathing that drives artists to create. THE SPIRIT is a cautionary tale of what happens when a once ground-breaking creator is devoured by his creation and his own demons. He becomes a caricature of himself.