I guess I might as well admit it: I’m a sucker for familiar titles in films. I went to see the first X-Men, Resident Evil, V for Vendetta, even Mission: Impossible. I’m looking forward to Watchmen (then again, who isn’t?), and bracing for the inevitable disappointment even though the trailers look impossibly good. So of course, I had to go see Frank Miller’s The Spirit.
Of course, my fears were confirmed within minutes. Certainly, Eisner’s Spirit was an athletic fellow, but running along telephone wires in sneakers is pure Miller. The Spirit was never a superhero; he came back from the dead once, but apart from that was mere mortal, with likable human failings. Miller’s Spirit has his moments of uncertainty, all two of them, in the first half of the film, like a quota to be filled. Eisner’s Spirit was bloodied and exhausted by prolonged fistfights; Miller’s Spirit fairly laughs in the face of punishment.
Miller’s regard for Eisner is not in any doubt. But it’s a fan-fiction writer’s regard: in essence, he seems to be saying that Eisner “got it wrong”. He’s imposing his own values on a work that always stood on its own merits artistically, but was set apart by its philosophy. This isn’t Central City, this is Sin City. Confusing noir with exploitation, vigilanteism with grassroots fascism, femmes fatales with oversexed dominatrices, and “law, justice and fair play” with “might makes right”, it’s more like a distorted nightmare of the original.
Speaking of comparisons between the two, now that I’m reminded of The Spirit, the influences in Sin City are much more obvious. The supporting characters, for example. They were often the most memorable part of the Spirit’s adventures. (For some reason, Plaster of Paris was always one of my favourites. I won’t forgive in a hurry the way Miller treated her.) Sin City (both printed and filmed) had Little Boy and Fat Man. The Silver Screen Spirit has a villain with a bunch of cloned (what??) sidekicks, unfunny and one-dimensional, who wouldn’t feel out of place in a Sin City story but quite wreck the illusion of following an Eisner story.
Actually, it’s not Sin City the film that I’m reminded of but, sadly, Max Payne. There’s a lot of the same feeling of almost deliberate waste of potential (not to mention entire scenes that feel very familiar). Curiously engouh, at the same time I’m incapable of hating the film completely. There are a number of scenes, lines and details that ring very true. Unfortunately, they only serve to underline the inconsistency in the rest of the film.
Eisner always strove to push the limits of his format, and reportedly hated the term “comics” (being among the first users of the now-overused term “graphic novel”). So what does Miller do? He puts it in the opening credits: “Based on the comic book series by Will Eisner”. I mean, if the man wanted this badly to desecrate Eisner’s memory, wouldn’t it have been easier, faster, and cheaper, not to mention more considerate for us the picturegoing public, simply to take a dump on the maestro’s grave?
P.S. Miller’s storyboards, beautifully showcased behind the film’s end credits, look like pages out of Sin City. No surprises there. Now, they are being released in book form this year. DC released a number of new Spirit stories by other authors last year. The question in my mind is: is Frankie Boy going to do a Dark Knight Returns on The Spirit? It worked for Batman, certainly. But based on the evidence at hand, I abhor the thought of what it would do to The Spirit.