Film Review: The Spirit

Visually spectacular adaptation of Will Eisner's legendary comics creation is all Frank Miller and very little Eisner. Part crime thriller, part superhero origin story, it opts for bombastic weirdness rather than the comic's trademark humanism.

They say some works of literature are unfilmable, and the estimable Gus Van Sant's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues helped prove the point. On the Road, which American Zoetrope is reportedly producing? Good luck. If anyone had a love of The Spirit, writer-artist Will Eisner's legendary 1940-52 comics series that appeared as seven-page stories in Sunday newspapers, it's Frank Miller, who in his travels as a comics superstar (Daredevil, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) spent 25 years as one of Eisner's close friends until Eisner's death in 2005. And if anyone's sensibilities have sadly turned out to be truly unsuited to The Spirit, it's Miller.

That may not be Miller's fault. Eisner's series, about an average-Joe masked crime-fighter in a rumpled suit, may well be unfilmable since it was never any one thing. Sometimes The Spirit gave us tongue-in-cheek bagatelles about Everyman crooks; other times, life-and-death dramas about heartache, regret and loss. Eisner told mysteries, horror stories, fables, comedies, any type of story you could tell, all unified by an earnest humanism which argued that even the slimiest and scummiest of us became that way for a reason. Eisner's characters, even in the sketchy shorthand of a seven-page comics story, seemed novelistic in their flesh-and-blood humanity.

Not a bit of that is on the screen. Miller is a spectacular stylist whose distinctive vision helped make hits of the movie adaptations Frank Miller's Sin City (2005) and 300 (2006), based on his Dark Horse Comics titles. Yet as gifted as he is and as popular as his comics are, he tends to tell the same story over and over: A hard-as-nails tough guy with a personal code of honor triumphs over morally weaker adversaries. It's an Ayn Rand idealization, and the only grey scale in most of his work is in the printer's ink.

The general outlines are all here: Young police officer Denny Colt, thought dead, returns to his beloved Central City as The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) to fight crime in ways that the police can't. Under the avuncular eye of his friend, Police Commissioner Dolan (Dan Lauria, the inimitable dad on TV's “The Wonder Years”) and the lovestruck eye of Dolan's daughter Ellen (Sarah Paulson), he encounters his arch-foe, the remorseless criminal mastermind The Octopus (an operatic Samuel L. Jackson, making the best of things), and a bevy of exotic sirens with names like Sand Saref (Eva Mendes, the wooden Keanu Reeves of women), Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson, whose disappointing performance shows Miller is not an actors’ director), Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega) and Lorelei (Jaime King).

Yet none of it bears any relation to recognizable human life. The Octopus' henchmen are happy, half-wit clones; one endlessly talky sequence involves dressing in Nazi uniforms and dissolving a kitty in acid—jokingly, with the inexplicably resistant eyeballs left to roll around as a punch line; and, worst of all, a core change gives Eisner's determinedly mortal, vulnerable hero a superpower: rapid self-healing, like Claire on TV's “Heroes” but slower. Need an adaptation be faithful to the source? To some extent, yes. It might be possible to re-imagine Clark Kent as a gangsta-rap producer rather than as a newspaper reporter, since that might add musical and casting possibilities, but what's the point?

Comics aficionados will likely deplore the movie, and it's hard to imagine a mainstream audience latching onto its coldly stylized craziness. It's a movie for Frank Miller fans only, and that may be enough; it's certainly one of the most beautifully photographed movies you'll ever see, and that could translate internationally. But when a 1987 TV movie with far fewer resources managed, despite its low-budget faults, to better capture the spirit of The Spirit, that tells you that this movie is all Frank Miller, with very little Will Eisner.