Let’s get some basics out of the way. The Spirit is based on a series of graphic novels created by Will Eisner in 1940, and brought to the big screen by Frank Miller. Eisner and Miller are two of the best-known names in the sequential art industry. Eisner is a legend and innovator, having elevated the comic book medium with unconventional stories of urban life and blight. Miller used to ink dark, psychological comic book sagas in the 1970s and 80s, wrote a couple of Robocop sequels in the 1990s and now, evidently in vogue in Hollywood, spends his time creating dark, unwatchable movies. He seems to be getting paid more for doing less the older he gets.
A graphic novel, by the way, is like a comic book, except it’s for grown-ups (which means kids read them). In a graphic novel, Veronica would come after Archie with a knife.
In The Spirit, a policeman, Denny Colt, who lives in a nameless, faceless American city, dies and is injected with a serum by his unscrupulous coroner. The serum gives him a second life with enhanced healing powers. He confides in his police commissioner and becomes a shadowy, masked appendage to the force known only as the Spirit.
The movie is bad. It is so bad, so overwhelmingly bad, that the rest of this space must be used to scare you away from it. The city the Spirit inhabits is an anachronistic mash-up of 1960s design and present-day technology—so the cars, trucks and planes look forty years old, all rivets and metal sheets, and the men wear fedoras, but they use sleek cell phones and the Internet. The Spirit displays inhuman acrobatics and physical resilience, yet comes close to death, yet voluntarily chooses to live on. All of this is incredibly disorienting, leaving the viewer confused about where, when and why events are taking place, and ignorant about the parameters of the world. Can the Spirit die? If so, how? Do we even care?
The movie’s awfulness, however, goes beyond its lack of coherence and therefore lack of drama. The Spirit is emblematic of so much that is wrong with our cultural landscape. It is one of a thousand pieces of entertainment detritus littering our minds. Or, to switch analogies, like a sausage—preprocessed, churned out of a factory, indistinct, artificially shaped, coloured and flavoured to look appealing, palatable in very small doses and sickening in excess.
The film euphemistically markets itself as ‘from the producers of 300 and Sin City’—in other words, the same rich guys who already cashed in on the marginal stylistic cleverness of Sin City are still trying the milk, and bilk, the public. Originality, today, is just a financial opportunity. It is seized upon, imitated, duplicated, replicated until even the original appears quotidian.
Why do we tolerate such a marketplace? Have we been so thoroughly trained by our television sets, car radios and magazines? Is our demand to be amused so insatiable that we voluntarily subject ourselves to the visual and auditory assault that is The Spirit and its ilk? Or are we still able, however dimly, to recognize that what is ‘out there’ is of our collective creation? For our own sake, our own spirit, one hopes so.
Directed by Frank Miller.
With Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes and Samuel L Jackson.
108 minutes. Action/Fantasy.