A Pale Ghost of Comic Book Cliches
Starring: Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson
By Tom Bevis
Let’s talk about comic books. They have survived the test of time to become a genuine and distinct artistic medium and narrative form, and the fact that they cater to a sheltered and extremely limited audience only makes this much more impressive. The medium has developed its own mode of narrative transportation (called sequential story telling), has impacted both the literary and mainstream worlds (most superhero books fall into the mainstream, though comics such as “Watchmen” fall under the literary banner) and has developed its own brand of humor and sophistication ripe with long monologs, cheap one-liners, and bold verbal sound effects.
For years, filmmakers have attempted to adapt the looks of the comics into film. Sometimes, the attempt proves successful, such as “Dark Knight” or “300,” which translated the aesthetic appeal of the comics onto film, sometimes going as far as to recreate the panels of the comics themselves within scenes of the film. Others, though, are less successful (the 2003 incarnation of “Hulk” comes to mind). This is in part because the filmmakers and script writers have yet to figure out exactly how to translate the sequential-style narration and quirky dialog into live-action.
So, here we arrive at “The Spirit,” the story of a seemingly immortal vigilante detective (Gabriel Macht) who struggles to rid his city of crime, most of which is led by a mysterious industrialist called The Octopus (Samuel L.Jackson). Those of you who saw “Sin City” a number of years ago may remember the name Frank Miller. If you’re a bit hazy, let me refresh your memory. He works primarily in comics (get ready for a bit of heresy; comic fans may want to skip over this sentence) though he doesn’t do it well, either as writer or artist. He’s written in the worlds of Batman and Daredevil, among others, in addition to his own original works. In film, he’s co-directed one film (“Sin City” with Robert Rodriguez), wrote the initial script for “Robocop 2,” his book “300” was adapted to film, and now, he directs “The Spirit” with all the impressions of a man who thinks he knows what he’s doing.
In order to understand this properly, we’ll have to fast forward back to 2005 and the release of “Sin City.” Here is a film that amazed audiences in its boldness and aesthetic innovation, a film that was oozing with atmosphere so thick most people couldn’t see past it. However, without the artistic style involved with the film, there wouldn’t be much. Frank Miller has been accused of not being able to tell a story, and this is too true. “Sin City” was disjointed in a haphazard attempt to tell several stories that are all supposed to tie together but end up, instead, fluttering in a wind of deep over-tone narrations. Without the bold style of the film, no one would have given it the light of day.
So, Miller did what anyone who directs a moderately successful debut picture would do. He imitated himself. This usually produces a bastardized, watered down version of the flagship film. “The Spirit” is no exception. It takes the visual cues from “Sin City” but dilutes the boldness down, the edges aren’t as sharp, most everything is in soft focus, and we get only fuzzy hazes of color with the exception of The Spirit’s tie. With “Sin City 2” riding so close on the heels of Miller’s latest picture, he could possibly be spelling his own doom in the world of film by inadvertently pumping out too many movies that look too similar in too short of a time. But, that’s what he does with his comics, after all, and he’s survived there, so I may be wrong.
You should also understand the importance of “The Spirit” as a comic book. The series is credited with creating most of the modern techniques and trademarks in comic books and is so pivotal to comics as a medium that the prime award in the industry is called The Eisner Award, after Will Eisner, the creator of “The Spirit.” Therefore, many consider “The Spirit” to be untouchable (similar to “Watchmen”). However, Miller, who considers Eisner as a mentor both personally and artistically, felt he understood the story enough to bring it to film.
Of course, there are characters in the film: obviously, there’s The Spirit and The Octopus, building the main conflict. Then, just to make things interesting, there’s a ton of women (Eva Mendez, Scarlett Johansson, and Sarah Paulson, just to name a few), all who tend to dress in skimpy outfits and exist only to distract us from the bad dialog and overacting in the film. None of the actors really work together; instead, they each attempt to steal the stage every time they speak, drawing out long monologs and paying no heed to one another. In fact, I’m surprised there was very little camera flirting here, because the actors certainly set up for it. When they aren’t monolog, the characters tend to chirp out sudden one-liners that fit in with the scene but have little welcome in the rest of the film. Sound familiar? Yeah, the aforementioned comic-coined dialog quirks.
This is a prime example of filmmakers struggling to reasonably adapt the distinctively recognizable characteristics of comics into film, and here, it fails, simply because in film, actors have to work with one another simply because they share the screen together. One-liners, similarly, work in comic books because they can convey a big idea in a small space, help explain something that’s happening in a window that’s only a few inches wide. But in film, the window is much larger, utilizes more of our human senses, and the one-liner become – well, insensible. People who read comic books will understand and will be forgiving. They have, after all, built up a tolerance to such things.
Opposition to the special effects movement in Hollywood will have a good time pointing out all the green screen effects in this picture (which is pretty much every scene). The screens are painfully obvious even to an untrained eye, and can quickly become tiresome to most viewers.. However, those of you who appreciate aesthetic visuals will also have a good time because the film has a great presentation, thick with style. Often times, the visuals can be quite beautiful if you’re willing to ignore the screen break or the character’s seeming lack of gravity.
So, here’s my proverbial bottom line (which, I hope, will someday become my trademark): if you’re looking for a something a step above merely stylistic cinema, perhaps something with artistic or social depth, look elsewhere. However, if you can suspend disbelief, tolerate green screens like Hollywood has been training you to do for years, and ignore one-liners that lack any form of subtly, “The Spirit” is for you. Comic book people rejoice: you will love this film because it was made for you. If anything else, there is an entourage of babes to keep you focused, and most men will pay for that alone.