Part of the joy of being a fan is finding odd and obscure gems that you end up falling in love with. For every Batman, there is The Phantom. For every Hunger Games, there is The Running Man. Here at Fandom, we like to go hunting for some offbeat and off-the-wall films and television shows that might just become your own secret treasures. Strap yourself in and expect the unexpected, because this week’s Weird Watch is the 2008 Frank Miller neo-noir superhero film The Spirit (Last time: Warriors of Virtue)
The Spirit is the kind of Weird Watch that makes no sense on any level. The plot is easy to follow, the material is not very challenging, but who did director Frank Miller even make this film for? For fans of Will Eisner’s pioneer superhero comic of the 1940s, this adaptation is a cruel mockery. Visually it looks like Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City. But in tone, The Spirit has more in common with the live-action cartoon that was Batman & Robin. Imagine that movie but add in a mass of misogyny. As for crime fans, superhero fans, and even just movie fans, there’s nothing here for any of them. The Spirit is a perplexing mess from any angle.
A Trainwreck Waiting to Happen
Those following the comic book scene could see the trainwreck that would be The Spirit coming. Once upon a time, Frank Miller created legendary comics like Ronin, and would redefine superheroes forever with The Dark Knight Returns. By the 2000s, that Miller was long gone. He seemed to want nothing more than to destroy his own career, making preposterous, offensive comics that appealed to nobody. Unfortunately, this came just as Hollywood began to discover his works. By 2008, even as Miller was a pariah in the comic world, his works were inspiring blockbuster after blockbuster.
Lionsgate seemed to have looked at successes like 300 instead of Miller’s own work when they picked him to write and direct The Spirit. If only they had read All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder – a disaster of a comic starring a psychopathic Batman who kidnaps and repeatedly abuses Robin. Miller seemed to feed on being as offensive as possible in the 2000s. His women were all loose, and his heroes were all quasi-fascist psychopaths. Liberals were foolish weaklings worthy only of mockery. It’s hard to say how much of his work was sincere and how much was a conscious act of self-destruction on his career. The studio gave Miller 60 million dollars to make The Spirit at the same time he was trying to make a pro-War on Terror propaganda comic called “Holy Terror!”. They’re honestly lucky the film was not worse.
A Departure From the Original Comic
Frank Miller opens The Spirit with clear clues his version is as different from Eisner’s as possible. The comic book Spirit has no super powers. Miller’s Spirit is immortal thanks to a healing factor. Comic book Spirit is awkward around women. Miller’s Spirit is a disgusting skirt chaser. His arch-villain, the Octopus, is never shown in the comics. Miller makes sure to show the Octopus’ face from his very first shot. Miller was a good friend of Eisner’s and knew the comics. None of this was an accident, but it really is hard to say what it is instead.
Your first hint that The Spirit is going to be a weird superhero ride comes from the first fight scene. The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) and his enemy, the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), slug it out in black mud. Instead of a high-flying action scene, it’s more of a slapstick Looney Tunes affair. The Spirit is bashed over the head with a toilet and stuck in its rim. He breaks free and responds in proper Batman v Superman fashion by throwing the kitchen sink at his opponent. The hopelessly silly tone never ends. “I’m gonna kill you all kinds of dead!” roars our hero. Who knows if that line was supposed to be a joke or not?
Performances With a Side of Ham
Frank Miller has a clear eye for visuals being a comic book artist and all. But The Spirit is clearly the effort of a newbie director. Most actors took the script’s attempt at 1940s noir dialog as a license to be as over-the-top as possible. Others like Gabriel Macht seem confused as to how to act and end up more wooden than anything. Samuel L. Jackson, despite being on a green screen, finds a way to chew on the CG scenery. Stana Katic, as Officer Morgenstern, actually comes off both wooden and hammy at the same time. She shouts all her lines with hardly any inflection.
Mostly, The Spirit is just a collection of very odd scenes loosely mixed up into a vague plot. Most of the energy of the movie comes from the villains acting ridiculous. Samuel L. Jackson stares at a tiny monster he’s created that is just a human head on a foot, as it bounces up and down in excitement. He mutters over and over how it is “just plain damn weird.” Later he melts a kitten for his own amusement. The character is constantly referencing eggs for no reason. Or he’s shouting to the heavens to the exasperation of his sidekick, Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson). The Octopus is a bit more adult thanks to murdering his own idiot hench-clones (all played by Louis Lombardi) and dressing up like a Nazi in one scene for no reason. But otherwise, this clown could have easily fit right into the Joel Schumacher Batman films.
The Ladies Love Him
Beyond the inexplicably silly content, The Spirit’s most pressing point to make is its obsession with women. Between crime-fighting efforts, the Spirit always makes a point to flirt with his doctor, reporters on the street, and pretty much any woman he comes across. He personifies the city he protects as both his mother and his lover in drawn-out incestuous voice overs. Also, for whatever reason, every woman in his universe is in love with him. That includes the endless series of femme fatales and the random women ogling him from an elevator. Then there’s Death herself. Death in this universe is a scantily clad woman with diamonds on her forehead, because why wouldn’t she be?
That The Spirit is clearly made for male gaze should come as no surprise. But Frank Miller wraps the whole movie with a tight pile of sexual complexes. Eva Longoria as the wicked Sand Saref actually objectifies herself in one scene, taking a photocopy of her own ass for – again – no reason. This comes just moments after she makes lewd comments about Batman’s sidekick Robin (just what is with Miller and messing with poor Robin?). At least the movie calls the Spirit out on his philandering. But Miller also allows all his villainesses to escape unharmed, even when the Spirit has good reason to expect Sand Saref of being at least a double-murderer. When a woman is evil, it is a harmless fetish for the hero to enjoy.
As a straight superhero movie, The Spirit is too ridiculous to be taken seriously. As a comedy, it does not really work either, since it is a bad mockery of itself. This is a satire of a serious Spirit movie that never happened and now never will. The year was 2008, decades since the character’s heyday, nobody but even the most snobby of comic book fans even knew who the Spirit was. Nobody was in on the joke, and nobody could be.
Who can say what level of irony Frank Miller was working on here? Early on in the film, he appears as a police detective decapitated by the Octopus. We then get to see our main character beaten over and over by his own director’s head. Just what is Frank Miller trying to say here? Is this a celebration of his own zaniness and inability to keep to a tone? Or is it rightful punishment for what he did to his dear friend, Will Eisner’s characters? However, if Miller was looking to destroy his burgeoning film career just as he was destroying his comic career, he definitely succeeded. He would never work in Hollywood again after The Spirit flopped.
Read more in our regular Weird Watch series here.