“The Spirit,” which adapts Will Eisner’s beloved strip and features the solo directorial debut of Frank Miller, is by pretty much any common standard a complete flop. After two weekends in release — one of them an extended holiday weekend — the film has grossed about $18 million domestic and $3 million international. The reviews have been savage.
But what’s been sinking in with me since I saw it sometime last week was how similar watching this movie is to reading a Frank Miller comic book. Yes, it’s jarring and over-the-top and falls short in telling a story the way moviegoers expect, but it’s also fascinating to watch Miller put his style up on the screen so completely untouched. Doing so also puts Miller’s flaws on display. The same was true in “Sin City,” where the telling of three stories in one film emphasized their similarities in a way reading the comics one at a time did not, though the overall result was a more conventional film.
But “The Spirit” fits right into Miller’s recent work. Since “The Dark Knight Strikes Again,” Miller’s work has polarized fans as he stripped away the elements that grounded his work in the real-world milieu most fans prefer in favor of an unapologetically primal pulp style. Miller has largely abandoned superheroes as a vehicle for expression, going for the gut reactions evoked by pure sex and violence. In some cases, such as All-Star Batman, this goes so far against the audience’s expectation for comics (and the movies based on them) to plumb the hero’s soul and to establish their actions as occurring in the real world. “The Spirit” is much the same — Miller’s happy to have his hero beat up bad guys and make femmes fatales swoon because that’s his job. The villains, similarly, have little to no motivation beyond their fueling their own basic urges for power, money and sex. (Though it is interesting that Miller used the same formula Marvel does for its movies by connecting the origins of the hero and the villain.) The result is a story that lacks the depth commonly expected of comic books and movies in favor of the gut-level reactions to Miller’s intentionally provocative depictions of sex and violence. Miller’s love of breaking taboos is, in its way, admirable, even as I sometimes wish he’d get past pushing those buttons for their own sake.
The visuals are the one part of the movie that even the reviewers will admit are impressive to look at. Some of the things that are the most jarring in a movie — such as the scene with the Octopus and Silken Floss wearing kimonos — would work just fine in a Miller comic book. The background that changes from glowing red to a rising sun image, and the cartoonish figure of Samuel L. Jackson chopping a henchman in half with his samurai sword are so Miller-esque you can imagine the panels and the layout of the page with ease.
The way Miller sticks to a comic-book style of storytelling — especially at the start of the film, with its dense first fight between villain and hero and minimal exposition — reminds me of the dense, quick-action start to many a comic book. While readers can follow a story at their own pace and re-read panels or pages as needed to catch up, film and its audiences are much less forgiving. Given the way Miller slaps the audience around in the opening 20 minutes or so, it’s no surprise that viewers and critics gave up on finding a way into this bizarre, hyper-kinetic world.
By now you’ve probably guessed that I’m working up to saying I admire the film in a strange way — and I do. This is a film that is so comic-booky through and through, that it’s a taste that’s as refined and difficult to acquire as the most continuity-intensive superhero comic book series. This is a film made from and for the purer fringes of the comic-book culture and esthetic — and it is about as far from the standards of mainstream moviemaking and its audiences as you’re likely to get. I do lament that Miller’s vision of The Spirit completely overwhelmed the charm and wit of Will Eisner, but it’s been obvious from the first that that would have to wait for another time.
So is the movie bad? From almost every conventional standpoint, the answer is yes. But the parts of my head that really enjoys the occasional Heavy Metal story because it has nudity and violence, or Howard Chaykin’s “Black Kiss,” or the extreme violence of Simon Bisley’s artwork, and secretly cheers even the most childish of Miller’s anti-censorship rants, finds a lot to like in “The Spirit” — and is glad it got made.