Thursday, October 16, 2008

Why Frank Miller's Spirit Can Only Fail

I've noticed a trend: We do a post about the upcoming movie version of The Spirit, and commenters complain that we're too negative about it. Is it a ploy to bury Frank Miller's directing career, you ask? Why are we hating so much on a movie that we've not seen, and judging it on solely on the trailers and interviews and pre-release hype that we're supposed to be excited about? Well, speaking solely for myself, the reason that I'm afraid of the Spirit movie is because of why I love the Spirit comics.

At its best, The Spirit newspaper strip was about so much more than crime fighters in masks and smart suits and femme fatales: It was all about groundbreaking look and storytelling that slowly but surely turned away from the genre stereotypes towards something that was both larger in scope and smaller in execution. It's not just that the strips were good in and of themselves - although they are, or else they wouldn't be worth reading more than half a century after they were created - but that there was an added thrill that came from watching Eisner and his studio creators stretching the boundaries and expectations of the entire medium on a weekly basis. As Alex has already mentioned, the splash pages brought influences from outside of comics to bear, redefining not only the way that comics could look, but the way that creators thought about the way that comics could look... but just as importantly as the visuals, the writing of the series evolved throughout the strip's initial 12-year run, outgrowing its pulp origins to become something more Runyonesque and humanist; as the series went on, stories would center on characters as more than just stereotypes or plot devices but as individuals in their own right (This focus on the little guy continued in Eisner's later work on books like The Dreamer, The Building and Invisible People).
As the series transcended its roots and invented new tools of the trade, it became known as a masterpiece because of the skill of its creators (Eisner wasn't the sole writer or artist for the strip, and during World War II, wasn't involved in the strip's creation at all - other creators involved during its original run included Jules Feiffer and Wally Wood), and because of the subtlety of its execution. What made The Spirit special was the work itself, not the character - It wasn't another Spider-Man or Batman that could endure no matter who was writing or drawing it that month; The Spirit belonged to the Eisner studio, because The Spirit was, at its core, a coherent body of work, instead of a franchise.

(This would be why there was no real attempt to revamp the character by other creators until 2007's series from DC Comics by Darwyn Cooke and J. Bone - Yes, I'm ignoring the failed The Spirit: The New Adventures anthology series from the mid-90s, because that was as much a series of love letters by various creators to Eisner as it was an attempt to deal with this Spirit as a character or series with any life left in it - and even Cooke took his lead from Eisner, offering up a series of stories about individuals that hopped genre and influence with each issue; he realized that there is arguably no way to do the Spirit justice without trying to match Eisner's heart, ambition and, yes, spirit.)
Now, compare and contrast this with what we've seen of the Spirit movie. The trailers and posters have been eye-catching in their own way, yes... but they've also lost almost everything that actually mattered about the original strip. Everything seems fake, whether it be visually with CGI-created backgrounds and manipulated actors, or in terms of story with cliched femme fatales, cackling villains and dialogue that replaces the nonchalant wit of Eisner's original hero with either slapstick base humor or tough guy cliche. It's unmistakably the work of Frank Miller - even the tagline, "My city screams," sounds like a line that his bitter Batman or Sin City's Marv would utter more than anything Denny Colt would say - but the problem with that is that everything that made The Spirit important as a series or as a character is a million miles away from Frank Miller's aesthetic.

Miller's take on the world is tougher - and, as anyone who's been following his work for any length of time could recognize - more mean-spirited than Eisner's; it has a streak (I'll leave it up to you to decide how big a streak) of misogyny that Eisner lacked (Whatever sexism Eisner had in his head - or racism, as "fans" of Ebony White would point out - were more from his being a product of his era than any true bigotry or hatred, I'd argue), and perhaps most disappointingly for fans of The Spirit, Miller's work is a large blunt instrument smashed against whatever story he's trying to tell, instead of the scalpel that Eisner, or his studio creators, would have used.

Ultimately, Miller's movie Spirit could, on its own terms, be wonderful. Despite the unpromising trailers and teases that we've seen, it may be the stylish, sexy, exciting action movie that it so clearly wants to be. That would be great. But there is nothing that I've seen, either in the pre-release material for the movie or in any of Miller's earlier work that shows that he has it in him to translate what was so special about the newspaper strip - the real The Spirit - onto the screen, or even that he has any real inclination to try. And as someone who loves that version of the character, that's why I'm continually disappointed by everything we learn about the movie - and why I'm so negative about it.

Original here

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