This has been, apparently, the year of the smart comic-book movie. (As if The Dark Knight and Iron Man are so far beyond what Spider-Man and the first two X-Men movies accomplished way back in the bygone days at the turn of the century, but whatever.) If anything is capable of single-handedly turning that perception upside down—and just in time for Oscar voting—it’s Frank Miller’s new adaptation of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, one of the most plodding, joyless, and empty big-budget funny-book movies of recent years.
If you think that the hallmark of a comic-book movie is how much it looks like the source material, and you’re familiar with the original comic, then maybe you can find some small pleasure in The Spirit. Shot for shot, it resembles the pages of Eisner’s strip, which ran as a short, episodic newspaper supplement from 1940 to 1952. If, however, you look to movies for stories and even the most basic emotional resonance, you’re out of luck. Miller—who wrote the original comics that Sin City and 300 were based on and makes his solo directing debut here—just can’t seem to get the arresting images borrowed from the strip to come to life.
The plot, cobbled together from several Spirit stories, hinges on the close relationship between the Spirit (Gabriel Macht), an ex-cop who mysteriously survived a murder attempt and was reborn as the silent protector of Central City, and his arch-nemesis, the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), who is seeking the key to immortality. There’s also the return of the Spirit’s long-lost love, the criminal adventuress Sand Saref (Eva Mendes). It seems like a worthy tale that explores the hero’s origins and includes ancient mystical artifacts, hidden laboratories, and elements of the police procedural. The trouble is in the telling of it.
Miller might have seemed like the ideal choice for adapting Eisner’s series about a lone masked vigilante to the big screen. His re-inventions of Daredevil and Batman in the 1980s energized mainstream comics with pulp violence and daring narrative techniques drawn, in part, from Eisner. The problem is that Miller’s skills as a screenwriter and director don’t match his ability with comics. The very things that made his work on Daredevil, The Dark Knight Returns, and Sin City so good—the stylized violence, the stark contrasts of black and white, the suggestive and subtle way the stories move—might seem cinematic on a page, but don’t necessarily translate to a movie screen. Comics consist of static images in sequence; most of the narrative comes from dialogue (or those clunky boxes of editorial exposition) and the implicit action between panels. Movies demand a different kind of narrative. The action happens inside of each shot, and Miller’s insistence on recreating specific static images deprives The Spirit of any momentum.
The acting doesn’t help much, either. Aside from Mendes and Jackson, the cast is wooden and charisma-free. (A tip to Scarlett Johansson, who plays the Octopus’ assistant: The secret to the craft of acting is to make the audience believe you’re not reading from the script.) Macht is blank behind the mask, incapable of anything more complicated than gritty resolve and the occasional skirt-chasing leer, and the supporting cast is there only to fill the 100-minute run time.
The cardboard cast reflects the biggest problem of all: Miller’s grim sensibility is ultimately at odds with Eisner’s vibrant, playful creation. The Spirit worked in a dark, decaying city, beset by urbanization and mid-20th-century alienation, but Eisner was a humanist. He believed in the dignity of the everyday schlubs who got a helping hand from his hero, and his artwork almost literally burst off the page. Miller’s respect for Eisner is clear in the movie, but it doesn’t seem like he really gets it. His film recreates the look of it, but he’s imposed his own too-bleak view of the world onto The Spirit.