The quickest way to get clicks on the internet is to say something blatantly stupid. This is why we have lately been suffering through a wave of revisionist film criticism in which rightly reviled movies get reassessed and we learn how we really got it all wrong, you guys. Ang Lee’s Hulk isn’t an unwatchable mess where Hulk transforms through the power of angst and fights CGI dad splooge, it’s a lyrical… actually, no. I can’t even say it. The most recent recipient of this nonsense is Frank Miller’s The Spirit and hoo boy, if you liked this one, see a doctor immediately, because your brain is visible through that crack in your skull.
Tagline: My city screams. She is my lover. And I am her spirit.
More Accurate Tagline: What are you, dense? Are you retarded or something? I’m the goddamn Spirit!
Guilty Party: Frank Miller chose to announce his insanity with the comic All-Star Batman and Robin, also known by its alternate fan-given titles: “ASSBAR” and “The Goddamn Batman.” As the writer and illustrator of what is generally considered to be the second-greatest graphic novel of all time, it was a little jarring to see what he had become in his dotage. The hardboiled noir narration, what seemed so fresh in the ‘80s had become a hollow parody of itself two decades later. The odd quirks — dinosaurs, Nazi imagery, butts — which once provided the spice of originality had warped into obsessions. It really seemed like if Miller could have written an entire comic about Nazi dinosaur butts, he would have. After Robert Rodriguez made Sin City, and managed to walk the tightrope of straight-faced homage and affectionate parody, Miller tried his luck with Will Eisner’s iconic The Spirit. Miller’s id, unchained by age and I’m guessing a ton of prescription drugs, took it over and made this.
Synopsis: Remember when your screenwriting teacher said “show, don’t tell”? Good, neither does Frank Miller.
Anyway, the Spirit, a mannequin whose favorite pastime is weird misogynistic rants about his city delivered to cats, rushes off to the mudflats to fight a super criminal and egg enthusiast named the Octopus (Sam Jackson). The Octopus, along with sexy-clothes-owning thief Sand Serif, are after a pair of trunks that are sunk in the bottom of the harbor for no reason. The Spirit arrives in time to mudwrestle the Octopus, while Serif escapes. After a brutal, gritty fight that somehow employs cartoon sound effects and lug wrenches sized for kaiju, they have an argument over who won the fight. Sadly, they never manage to get to the “nuh uh, yuh huh” portion of it, because the Octopus has to go.
Serif got one trunk, the Octopus got the other, and here’s the kicker: they got the wrong trunks. Serif wanted the one with the Golden Fleece (you know, from mythology) and Octopus wanted the one with a vase of the blood of Heracles. Yep, we’re in a gritty, hyper-stylized noir reality in which Greek mythology actually happened.
The Spirit gets patched up by his doctor girlfriend Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson), and I have no idea why she’s even in this movie. The point of the scene is that the Spirit can regenerate from any damage, which is an excellent way to make sure that your movie has no stakes.
The Spirit got a locket from a murdered cop at the scene, and with this locket he knows that Sand Serif was there. See, they were childhood sweethearts and he gave her the locket because that’s what fictional characters do. She left town after her father, a beat cop, got killed protecting a drunk. This makes Sand hate cops because Frank Miller never passed basic psychology.
Anyway, Sand realizes that her fence sold the location of the artifacts twice, and she then blackmails the guy into killing himself because he’s a closet homosexual. It’s more than a little disturbing, but don’t worry, Serif never gets her comeuppance. During this scene, she photocopies her ass for no reason, and despite not having seen her since she was fifteen, the Spirit is able to identify her by her ass. I just lost fifty IQ points writing that fucking sentence. He uses this ass picture to track her to her hotel where they have a conversation. After he reveals that he’s her childhood love, she pushes him out a window. If it’s starting to sound like things happen for no reason and everyone acts like they’re off their meds, good. Means I’m describing it well.
Using industrial salt on one of the Octopus’s cloned minions (yes, he has cloned minions and it’s… painful), the Spirit finds the evil lair. Unfortunately, he immediately gets captured by the Octopus’s right hand woman, Siken Floss (Scarlett Johansson). The Spirit wakes up tied to a chair to find that the Octopus and Floss are dressed as Nazis. That’s right, this movie features Black Hitler. He tells the Octopus their shared origin story. The Octopus was a city coroner who also developed a regeneration serum. He injected it into slain cop Denny Colt — that’s the Spirit — as a test. It works! But for true immortality, the Octopus needs to drink the blood of Heracles. Because who fucking cares at this point?
Then Plaster of Paris, the assassin the Octopus hired for no reason, comes in dressed as a belly dancer. Come on guys, we had a Nazi theme going and now there’s a belly dancer? She’s not even a Nazi belly dancer. Also, she’s French, and not even Vichy French. It’s just a mess. And yes, I’m complaining about not enough Nazis, because if you’re doing to do something that stupid, at least stick to the theme. The Octopus tells her to cut the Spirit up, and instead he seduces her. And why the hell hire her in the first place? He’s tied to a chair. Floss can cut him up. Or the Octopus. Or one of the clones. Anyway, she gets him out but also stabs him. Chicks, am I right?
The Spirit falls in some water, but the Spirit of Death resurrects him. Yep. That also happens.
Sand and the Octopus meet up for an exchange which the Spirit and the cops also show up to. This degenerates into a massive gunfight. Eventually, the Spirit shoves a grenade into the Octopus, and Sand rescues the Spirit using the magical Golden Fleece. They have a romantic kiss — right in front of the Spirit’s girlfriend — and Sand leaves. Floss finds a single finger of the Octopus and leaves with that, planning to regenerate him.
Life-Changing Subtext: Women are psychopaths! But it’s cool, though. They can’t help it.
Defining Quote: When you watch an Ed Wood movie, you think, “There’s no way anyone will ever write dialogue this bizarre and redundant ever again.” And then this happens:
The Octopus: “Free range chickens with their big, brown, ugly-ass eggs. They piss me off. Every time I think about those big brown eggs they piss me off.
Yeah, the Octopus has a thing about eggs. It’s… off-putting.
Standout Performance: This could only go to Stana Katic as the rookie cop Morgenstern. Whenever she’s onscreen, whether she’s squawking in her put-on Baltimore accent or just silently watching other people talk, you cannot look anywhere else. And it’s not just because she’s gorgeous, either. She is made of eye magnets.
What’s Wrong: It starts with the casting of Gabriel Macht as the Spirit. Maybe Miller is a bad director — wait, what am I saying, “maybe.” Macht is straitjacketed by his performance, doing nothing but going off on his wooden rants. His tie upstages him on more than one occasion.
The biggest problem, though, is tone. The movie doesn’t have one. It has no idea if it wants to be a lighthearted parody that features cartoon sounds, silly clones, and dad jokes, or a stonefaced neo-noir where people are chopped up with machine gun fire. So it settles for doing both. Badly.
Doesn’t help that the “comedy” consists of people being hit with toilets and Sam Jackson screaming about how toilets are always funny or references to movie taglines from the late ‘70s.
Best Scenes: So the Octopus is a genius who created an injection that can bring dead men back to life. He’s going to be real disappointed when he realizes that the circulatory system stops at the moment of death. I wish there had been a shot of them, with a chyron that said, “6 hours later,” with Floss checking her watch, and the Octopus all, “Okay, one more hour and I’m getting another dead cop.”
Frank Miller doesn’t trust his audience. Maybe because he knows we’re dumb enough to have paid to see a Frank Miller movie. He’s also a douchebag who can’t resist throwing in references to his time of being culturally relevant. So when the Spirit and the chief are trying to explain Sand Serif’s motivations, Morgenstern loudly chirps that Sand has an Elektra Complex. Just in case someone in the cheap seats missed it, she proceeds to repeat herself eight or nine times. Get it, guys? Miller had a character named Elektra? Huh? Remember?
When the Spirit raids the Octopus’s hideout, all the clones have guns. The Spirit starts up his noir narration about how the city provides weapons for him. And what’s the first weapon he uses? A snowball. Next, he’ll break out the crazy shit, like snowmen, Indian burns, and purple nurples.
Transcendent Moment: Early on in the movie, the Spirit starts up his narration. It’s intrusive and jarring, but it’s tough to have a noir movie without the first person voiceover. The audience is conditioned to ignore it. Until a cat meows. Turns out it’s not narration. It’s the Spirit talking to a cat. So through the rest of the movie, whenever he’s trying to be a tough guy, he’s basically just that old cat lady who doesn’t have any company except for like a hundred cats.
The Spirit is terrible, but in a fun, unique, and utterly crazy way. Miller has since said he always intended it as a parody, but contrast that with his statements at the time. That’s the surest sign of a Yakmala movie: the desperate backtracking of the truly exposed.