There are maybe a handful of comic book movies that really gain a noticeable amount of ire from fans and audiences. Sure, there are many that are hated and cast aside, but mainly those are forgotten and, eventually, recategorized as simply “not worth the time”. Honest and sustainable ire only comes into contact with a select few, like Catwoman. We’re here to discuss one such comic movie, Frank Miller’s The Spirit, and why it doesn’t really deserve such a reputation.
First things first, one of most common complaints I’ve heard about the movie is that it caters to a lot of Miller’s hallmarks. This is something that is both true and widely overblown. The most noticeable self-indulgence that Frank gives himself actually concerns the thrust of the movie’s plotline. Miller has a lot of love for Greco-Roman mythology and this is no different. The major problem with this is that The Spirit is a noirish, pulpy character - a weird mix that doesn’t entirely gel.Yet, what people also use this complaint as an allusion to is the idea that Miller has a lewd love for the ladies, notably “ladies of the night”, and that this has a big part of it. Not entirely so, no. It’s appropriate to just admit that the movie has a lot of sexually charged scenes, but not really in the way that goes into Sin City territory. In fact, it is something used to contrast with The Spirit’s boy scout nature. Rather than drowning, or simply being gross, it is played for laughs. While that may have fallen flat for others, it is the talent of Gabriel Macht that sells the endeavour.
Really, the movie hinges on The Spirit himself, and the ability to balance Miller’s own tendencies for a darker noir and his goofier roots. Not that the Will Eisner stories never went to more gray places, but it did have a cleaner shine of camp at points. So, the brunt of the work falls on Macht’s shoulders - the juggling act between acting serious and acting, honestly, like a gray scale Warren Beatty as Dick Tracy. Perhaps the best way to describe this movie would be as a gray scale version of that other film. Macht is able to pull it off with aplomb, and is actually my favorite part of the film. He gets pretty goofy, and in one memorable scene, plays off a magnificent “PSA” scene without a hint of irony. That’s another mark for this movie - it doesn’t try to second guess itself at any point. It goes for what it wants with a smile. It never mitigates itself by winking at the audience, or doing anything wryly. In that way, it is one of the comic book movies that truly captures a comic tone. Not even cloned dumb henchmen or a side character who pluckily screams all her lines breaks the facade.
Now, it’s obvious to see where the problems lie as there is a reason why comic movies don’t all try to emulate films in tone. It’s because they’re movies, and they have to work as movies. Watching The Spirit is like watching people act out a comic mini-series word for word and angle for angle. It’s a surreal experience - only compounded by the aforementioned choices in general mood. So, the ire and distaste for the film is not entirely unfounded. It’s a hard mixture to get into and a harder one to stay into - but there’s one thing I really have a dislike for.It’s Eva Mendes. Not that Eva Mendes isn’t a talented actress, but in a movie where 90% of the cast is hamming it up and clearly in on some level of jokery, she comes off as especially bland. A boring femme fatale character in a product that could have been neon colored and not really change much. People talk about the over the top nature of everything in the movie, but it is the one thing that isn’t over the top that sticks out like a badly sore thumb. In a better film, she would have been a better fit, but against Macht and especially Jackson, she comes up calling short.
Is it a perfect film? No. Is it a well done film? Oh no, a well done film would know what it was beforehand. Yet, it is entertaining. Way more than it is given credit for, and it is actually a pretty good time. The last thing to tackle is that Miller is clearly as much of a Spirit fan as he had professed, as there is the trademark silliness in the movie itself, but, honestly, that is obviously the main thing he liked. Which is fair enough, and the rest is his own, and if you can get into that mindset, you can get into the movie - an experience I haven’t regretted.