Writer, Artist: Will Eisner & Assoc.
Published: 1940 – 1952
Sunday newspaper supplement
Director, Screenplay: Frank Miller
Starring: Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendez, Scarlett Johansson
Released: December, 2008
Taking a classic and celebrated body of work such as The Spirit is a touchy thing. Its formula is simple yet so hard to duplicate because of the medium William Eisner chose. Placed in a Sunday newspaper, Spirit’s do-gooder deeds were recounted in a mere handful of pages. Foregoing back stories, monologues, or an assembly of other tools used to deliver sound, compelling drama, each new tale of The Spirit seems to start in what would be the climax of the story if Eisner had more pages to build up to it. The anecdotes range from hot under the collar romances to cat and mouse games with hoboes in Central City’s cavernous sewer system. But, one theme rules every page I’ve read, and that’s irony. Eisner’s short and sweet style and laden irony made for a lethal one-two combo. Frank Miller’s screen adaptation of The Spirit, though, strongly deviates from the original series’ simple essence, its spirit.
How do you select the “right” stories when creating a screenplay out of a comic? Do you go to the main character’s genesis? Arch-nemesis? Death? Most popular series? Most recent series? It’s like throwing darts at a wall of balloons at the carnival: You try to hit one but soon start wasting darts away at any and every balloon, hoping to pop just one. Miller’s flick resembles this chaotic flail. Granted, Eisner’s The Spirit is a romance in one issue and an international mystery the next (or both at the same time), but the movie never resembled the personality of Spirit’s era or the type of “real” crime he was chasing. For instance, the movie incorporates mythological artifacts such as the Golden Fleece and the Blood of Herecles (Hercules) to the story. The comic is more or less about fighting everyday criminals: bank robbers, swindlers, murderers, etc. Stopping thugs trying to get a free piece of the pie is a far cry from thwarting a villain chasing immortality via the blood of Hercules.
Miller selected antagonist Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) for the movie. He is a feared villain in both the comic and movie, dubbed the Kind of Crime (read Eisner’s “The Postage Stamp“). His face and figure is never discovered in print, but we see quiet a bit of him in the movie. It’s forgivable, even exciting to see what Octopus may look like-but dressing him as a Wild West ruffian, nazi, and samurai were probably a little outside the realm of Eisner’s vision. The thugs and crime lords of the comic were usually in suits or scraps-which resembles the age the comic was written in. Besides, I believe Eisner was more about the message than the wardrobe.
Through the comic there are many characters that symbolize the attitudes and inner struggles of people, from down-and-outers to the affluent on fifth avenue. Of course there were the bad apples that just led a life without morals, but Eisner seemed to love a character that defies the status quo of his or her respective disposition, and how criminal acts serve as a means to break out of the shackles they were inevitably constrained by. There’s also redemption, which the movie does touch on via femme fatale Sand Serif’s (Eva Mendez) redeeming acts. But, the movie isn’t about the oppressed, repressed, or depressed; it’s about a madman seeking immortality and a hero stepping in between the bad guy and world domination.
The movie also has back story between Sand Serif and Spirit. They were kids that grew up on the same block, and they loved each other, etcetera, etcetera. We never see Spirit as a child in print, which is part of his mystery, and highlights his presence as a heroic symbol, but maybe back story slightly resuscitates a flatlining story.
The comic also celebrates the art of suggestive sexuality, which was as far as published sex went in the 40s. The movie does this, but dips into more contemporary traditions, visa vi Eva Mendez’s hindquarters. The rules on skin and sex were different in Eisner’s day, and my preference would be to see a film reflect a more flirty tone, especially a PG-13 rated film. It would be very interesting to see a modern depiction of what sexuality was like then, rather than thrusting the characters into modern day rules (or lack thereof). But, in the comic Spirit flirts with and kisses the girl—in fact it’s a big part of the series. And since it is such a big part of Spirit’s character, it’s hard to swallow a depiction of him carelessly flirting with every lady that passes him by. It becomes a running joke by the end of the film, and his debased ethics take away from his symbol as a pure good guy.
Miller’s genesis of Spirit was also out-of-the-blue, which in my opinion is a big mistake. In the comic Denny Colt, respected detective and wisenheimer, sought Dr. Cobra in his underground lair. Colt was presumed dead after suffering a chemically induced coma after shooting a vat of toxic liquid in Cobra’s stronghold. Pronounced dead, Colt was buried-but he rose that night and became the Spirit. In the movie Colt was shot to death, but Octopus, who was then a mortician looking for a test subject for his invulnerability serum, injected Colt with a strain of immortal juice and Colt became the un-killable Spirit of justice. Nice symbolism, but why mess with a good genesis? I did notice in my reference that Eisner has a trademark on Denny Colt. Perhaps this is why the movie spins the origins of the character. It is certainly the easiest reason to swallow.
The characters are hit or miss. Miller got the secondary characters down pretty well. The femme fatales were spot on. Sand Serif was a fiery, ambitious seductress that resembles Eisner’s lusty go-getters very well, while Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) was a puzzling oddball and a cool breeze to compliment her boss, Octopus, and his zany outbursts. Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson) was Denny Colt’s wife or girlfriend (it was never made clear), and though her character had zero relevance to the comic, she was the only character that had a soft side. It’s nice to have a grounded character bring us back to reality when the rest of the movie resembles 90 minutes of Elmer Fudd (played by the Spirit) chasing Daffy Duck (Octopus).
Spirit (Gabriel Macht) was well casted, but the character was misdirected. Spirit and Octopus were all-but immortal in the flick, and they stood toe-to-toe bashing each other’s brains in (to no effect) on more than one occasion. Spirit was impaled, shot, and smashed throughout the movie, but in the comic he couldn’t take a bullet any better than you or I could. In fact, he is often saved by women or Commissioner Dolan. His allure for women is overdone but entertaining in the flick, and it serves up a few chuckles.
Octopus, I don’t know what to say-probably the most confusing character I’ve ever seen on a screen. He is intended to be a crafty crime boss in the comic, but a scientist and absolute loon in the movie. Commissioner Dolan (Dan Lauria) seems to love tearing Spirit a new one, but in the comic there is much more camaraderie and benevolence. Dolan in the movie seems more like the angry commissioner archetype than a softy.
And last but not least, Lorelei Rox (Jaime King) is an aquatic rhinestone-studded seductress bent on bringing Spirit back to death every time he passes out. What? Unfounded in the comic, they’re relationship is trumped up, as we only see her in flashes swimming and seducing Spirit. Who she is; how she can breathe under water; and why she’s trying to keep Spirit dead, no one will ever know.
Note: I should mention that I did not have access to a complete body of Eisner’s original work. Rather, I based my body of knowledge on a compilation, “The Best Of The Spirit” which I recommend to all comic readers and students of storytelling method. Any insight from The Spirit fans is welcomed and appreciated.