Can camp and caricatures get tiresome? Well, yeah, they can.
If that’s all there is.
“The Spirit” shows that not all comic strips translate well to the big screen. Batman, recollect, had all those great toys to play off against The Joker. And Batman was blessed with consistently witty dialogue. But Frank Miller’s attempt at throwing the late great Will Eisner’s The Spirit onto the screen is never as large as its artwork tries to make it. His “Sin City” or a few years ago was genius; The Spirit is less so.
All the while as his gaglines are struggling for real laughs, his painted women are simply enlarged cartoons. While I’m a great fan of bizarre visual comedy on screen, I found myself getting bored with visuals whose garish artistry admittedly flowed with peak creativity in hue and calculated mood-inducing tones, but whose energy and involvement level remained disturbingly level. In a word, I kept waiting for a jolt from the visual dynamics, with which “Sin City” was replete.
And the plot? Limited intrinsic humor here. Nothing catchy about it anyway — probably not even intended to be so — therefore we’re looking everywhere for some fun. The point in the film’s letdown is obvious: On the paper comic book page, The Spirit was quite the eye-catcher, because Will Eisner’s images could overflow and virtually explode off the limited cartoonists’ panels. They were bigger than the print layout. On screen, however, they’re smaller, and they’ve not been noticed for that limitation in the case of The Spirit. In his total persona, he doesn’t have as much going for him as the other super-heroes.
Some historical perspective first:
Will Eisner was the most renowned comic book cartoonist of all time. While serious markets for comic books started in the 1930s (comic strips had first been known in the mid-19th century) it was Will Eisner’s famous “The Spirit” that was a Sunday morning landmark of the American culture for 12 years.
On June 2, 1940, the young Eisner put together, for newspaper editors who were anxious to compete with comic books, this 7-page then 8-page strip. The Sunday supplement would soon become 16 pages and would include two more Eisner creations, “Lady Luck” and “Mr. Mystic.”
But it was The Spirit which would become the provocative mainstay, featuring a Batman-like urban crimefighter, completely vulnerable to bullets and quite mortal but with derring-do action and shadowy moves with which baddies just could not compete. His alter-ego was everyday-man Denny Colt who everybody had thought was dead. The feminine interests were three: the beautiful and spirited Ellen Dolan who was daughter to the chief of police, the spirited jewel thief Sand Saref, and the sexiest woman on earth, the international bad girl P’Gell (sadly for us guys, not included in the film).
The Spirit’s sidekick was Ebony White, an orphaned African American child, The Spirit’s surrogate son (also not in the film).
The exploits of this masked hero — whose base was situated under the tombstone of Denny Colt, a rookie cop who was thought to be deceased — took place within the murky alleys of the dark, this tone very much in keeping with the dark motifs of the movies of Humphrey Bogart, George Raft and The Thin Man.
His characters in Central City were usually the little people, those overlooked as life’s moments go by. And The Spirit himself seemed surrounded by the natural comedy of life, even as he was often bumped around and machine-gunned, not to say being quite perplexed by beautiful women.
But it was the style of Eisner’s The Spirit that was so startling. This consummately imaginative, garishly expressive cartoonist would go on to become the chief artist of the 1951 – 58 Mad Comics (precursor to Mad Magazine). He was the first comic strip artist to let his characters and his action burst out of the strip’s panel borders, surging out over the page. No one had ever entertained that idea before. Commonplace in today’s comics, this was quite the innovation in his time. Eisner then went on to invent the comic book characters Uncle Sam, Blackhawk, Sheena and many others. The Eisner Award, the Oscar of the comic book industry, is named after him.
So then, “The Spirit” the movie.
His arch-enemy in this episode is the OCTOPUS (Samuel L. Jackson), a cold-hearted villain of pure destructive intent. As he seeks immortality, he sees his mission as first wiping out The Spirit’s beloved Central City. The Spirit will pursue The Octopus through the deep recesses, the dark alleys, the wet and dank caverns of the night. Involved will be various sexy beauties: the ever demanding no-nonsense Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson), the punk, frigid and saucy secretary Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), the treacherous nightclub dancer Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega), the phantom siren Lorelei (Jaime King) and the sexy cop Morgenstern (Stana Katic).
Finally, and hardly the least, is The Spirit’s vexing love object, Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), the world-class jewel thief, a good girl gone bad. He can save her, or she can kill him. Who knows which? (As mentioned, the ultimately sexy P’Gell, from the original comics, is not in the film.)
If you never saw “Sin City” this might be a bit of a treat for you. It’s art for sure. Very flamboyant, very eccentric, with some real unusual cartoon moods of the inner city.
30-year former films critic for the Portland (Maine) Sunday Telegram. Offering right-to-the-point reviews that address directly the question of the film’s entertainment value to you. Films have personalities. It doesn’t matter who wrote it, who directs it, who stars in it, if it doesn’t reach out to you with charisma. I examine its honesty and intelligence. Are you being respected, or are you being jerked around?