Black and Blue—but Mostly Black

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:15

    The Spirit Directed by Frank Miller Running Time: 103 min.

    A crucial, though seemingly trivial, decision was made when writer/director/comic book pioneer Frank Miller decided to make The Spirit look like his and Robert Rodriguez’s film adaptation of his own comic book, Sin City. As a creative choice, it makes sense considering how wrapped up The Spirit is in excusing its gleeful garishness by claiming similitude with various other seemingly disparate culture myths—comics are apparently just like Greek myths. Because comics still need to be defended, Miller, a notoriously combative defender of low culture and the satisfyingly gaudy EC Comics that inspired Sin City, has gone on the defensive and traded in The Spirit’s blue suit for a black one.

    Today The Spirit is nothing but fodder for postmodern pastiche, but he was originally the premier creation of truly innovative writer/artist Will Eisner, a newspaper-strip hero printed in the Chicago Tribune that the New York Herald Tribune’s Marilyn Mercer aptly called “the original middle-class hero.” Formerly police officer Denny Colt, The Spirit came back to life within his very first adventure with a newfound purpose and sense of civic duty. Fighting urban crime and winning the hearts of countless women was heroic, but it was also work in its own colorful way.

    In Miller’s film, Colt (Gabriel Macht) comes back from the dead for the same reason—but everything else is uncertain. He’s bulletproof and very confused, assured only by his arch-nemesis the Octopus (Samuel Jackson)—who at different times during the film can be seen dolled up as a samurai or as a Nazi—that things are screwed up and need to “go back to normal.” They can’t since everything old is new again, as is made clear by the abundant references to comics legends like Jules Feiffer, Jerry Iger and Steve Ditko that pepper Central City’s skyline. These aren’t just a fanboy’s way of praising his influences: They’re the artists that Miller’s defending.

    That’s what’s so distracting about Miller’s The Spirit: it’s both an argument for comics as high trash and a moderately entertaining, slick-looking—but very spazzy—action yarn. The Octopus, for instance, is not just playing to type by telling The Spirit that they are both “two of a kind”—as all supervillains eventually do when they momentarily have the upper hand—but is also actually making a larger point, albeit in the most basic terms. Gloating that they’re both just like gods, he sets out to get the blood of Heracles to make his point as literal as possible.

    As he explains in typical longwinded fashion, they’re both part of a grand mythical cycle. This is confirmed in flashback form when Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), Colt’s childhood sweetheart and future femme fatale, reads Jason and the Argonauts while Colt’s absorbed by Crime Suspenstories, one of the grisliest of EC’s titles. In Miller’s world, the two types of stories are the same, just like how the Octopus’ goons (Louis Lombardi) all look alike, talk alike and wear the same shit-eating grin alike. Except for their interchangeable shirts—which originally read “pathos,” “logos” and “ethos”—there’s no telling them apart. Miller, like the Spirit and his bevy of buxom women—played by Scarlett Johansson, Jaime King, Mendes, Sarah Paulson and Paz Vega—doesn’t have to make a choice between the three categories because in his book they’re all the same.

    Miller’s Spirit has something to prove, not content to simply be an EC-inspired version of the character but rather using his Sin City aesthetic to protect comic books from the slings and arrows of unkind tastemakers. With many wondering what Zack Snyder’s Watchmen will do for the comic-book movie, battle lines are being drawn. And Miller is more than eager to argue for the legitimacy of comics’ pulpy roots. But he’s not doing it in the right way. While The Dark Knight led fans and closeted laypeople alike to believe it was OK to support comics when they take themselves seriously, Miller has countered by showing that there’s merit in just being loud for loud’s sake.

    This won’t work, however, because The Spirit is no Iron Man, and though his first venture should make a ton based on its look alone, it won’t win anyone over with its bombastic claims to traditional legitimacy. For the moment, people like Miller may think comics still need to be defended, but with the turning point supposedly on the horizon, nobody cares what color suit The Spirit’s wearing.