My Critics Scream: In Defence of Frank Miller’s ‘The Spirit’

There seems to be an awful lot of vitriol being herded in the direction of recent comic-book adaptation ‘The Spirit’, and though the film is – by no means – particularly good, I’ve continually found myself leaping to its defense because it’s not ‘wurst film eva’ and other such remarks, it’s just a bit of a mis-marketed mess with inconsistencies in tone that – when it works – is a Looney Tunes 40s-detective-fiction homaging delight with goofball charm, and – when it doesn’t work – an interesting assortment of ideas in need of a good editing and a couple of prods in the performances.

My biggest bugbear with the film and its reception boils down to two things really; the way the film looks and the way the film has been advertised as a result of its look. Here is an adaptation by Frank Miller who has shot to mass media prominence of late with his co-directing credit on Robert Rodriguez’s ‘Sin City’ and Zack Snyder’s version of Miller’s ‘300’. Miller has continued to use the green screen technique adopted by both these films, and whilst ‘The Spirit’ sticks closer in palette to ‘Sin City’ it has some of those-sepia gauzy hues that give the film a look also similar to the unfairly-maligned ‘Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow’. Unfortunately, though often striking, this look just doesn’t really suit ‘The Spirit’ and the use of CGed backdrops, and a severely under-populated city is a huge mis-step in the feel of the film. What this movie needed was the primary coloured fantasia of Warren Beatty’s visually incredible ‘Dick Tracy’ adaptation to really push forward Miller’s blurred vision of a romantic-detective fantasy. In certain scenes you can see this edging its way to the fore; exchanges between Gabriel Macht’s The Spirit and Sarah Paulson’s dedicated nurse Ellen Dolan are filled with charm, and the scenes between Ellen and her police chief father are some of the more effective character scenes.

Even if the look of the film had been akin to Alec Baldwin’s curio ‘The Shadow’ or Billy Zane’s camp romp ‘The Phantom’ the film would have benefited, as audiences wouldn’t have been expecting the guts, girls and gristle of ‘Sin City’ and walked out baffled and disappointed by the quite frankly bonkers and post-modern spin on old cops and crooks comics.

Miller makes a number of other choices in the film that seem slightly at odds and unsure, and a more confident hand (or perhaps another co-director?) may have steered him right. There is an inconsistency of time that can work when handled correctly, but when a character whips out a mobile phone at one point it just seems jarring. Also the film can slow to a snail’s crawl at certain points, most notably in a sporadically entertaining expositional scene with Samuel L. Jackson’s villain The Octopus in full Nazi regalia; it is a scene of moments bridged by huge canyons of boring, though it is punctuated by one of my favourite lines from the film; “And this is for Muffin!”

Indeed, for me, it is moments like that, where the film is post-modern, goofy, ridiculous and manic in its energy – whilst retaining that square-jawed comic book hero swagger, that the movie works best. There is an increasingly over-the-top scrap between The Spirit and The Octopus at the film’s opening that brings to mind Sam Raimi, and, indeed, Gabriel Macht seems to have attended a few-seminars at the Bruce Campbell school of hero acting. Unfortunately the film lacks the momentum of ‘Evil Dead 2’ or even ‘Darkman’, and the post-modernism isn’t quite as to-the-fore as – one of my favourite cult classics – ‘Hudson Hawk’, so, to some extent the audience is left behind a sheet of glass, trying to work out if the film is taking itself seriously or not.

If you can figure it out and go with it then ‘The Spirit’ is one of the more imaginative efforts of recent comic book fare, Miller knows how to put together funny, snappy detective patter, but his directorial skills are still a bit wobbly. I can’t go so far as to actually recommend ‘The Spirit’ to anyway, I just feel sorry for it and the amount of fan-hate that seems to be thrown its way. I do think the film is destined for some sort of cult success for fans of campy, offbeat flicks that are content to rattle along at their own creaky pace trying any idea they fancy and seeing which ones stick.

Owain Paciuszko

© BRWC 2010.

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.

  • Avatar
    Keon Lee 12th January 2011

    I just saw it today and it is a fever dream of film noir and pulp comics… I loved it. I think Frank Miller knew exactly what it was going for and i know few people will live it but I did. Part of me wished it was all set in the past but the more i thought about it, the mix of past, present, its what 10 year old boys would have wanted to see and it knows that. I can see Frank Miller’s glee all ov this movie.

    I mean that fight at the start with octopus and spirit, how homoerotically charged was that? How jaw droopingly funny was it that all women are in love with the spirit, including DEATH??? No wonder so many strong women wanted to act in this. This is a completely comical look at the male ego, playing with all those stereotypes.

    I think I love this movie and I am glad i found your review because there are very few positive ones, and even then most of those were, well, faint praise of the visuals and didn’t see the love and glee Miller had for the source material.

  • Avatar
    Anonymous 12th January 2011



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