Friday, December 26, 2008

Defending The Spirit

All right, that's it. I've had enough. The bashing of The Spirit needs to stop.

Roger Ebert had this to say about the movie: "There is not a trace of human emotion in it. To call the characters cardboard is to insult a useful packing material." As admittedly funny and sarcastic as that comment may be, those kinds of remarks should be reserved only for the likes of unwatchable sludge like You Don't Mess With The Zohan, Strange Wilderness, and The Love Guru. Let me say this: The Spirit is nowhere near the best movie I've seen this year, nor good enough for me to even highly recommend to anyone other than fans of the original comic series. But is it worthy of the harsh online criticism that it is receiving, with The Movie Blog even going so far as to boycott the film because of its marketing? I don't think so.

The Spirit
Writer/Director: Frank Miller
Starring: Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Samuel L. Jackson

I think people give this movie a bad wrap because they are misinformed before they enter the theater. The general movie-going audience (or GMGA) automatically sees the visual style in the trailer and connects the film to Sin City, a reasonable conclusion due to Miller's involvement in both projects and the same studios working on them. People make the assumption that because the two films look the same, they will share similar themes and tones. This is a problem because while both films are cop/noir/dramas, The Spirit is unquestionably a more goofy and cartoonish take on similar subject matter that was tackled through heavy violence, sharp dialogue, and an overall more "badass" approach in its 2005 predecessor.

Honestly, I believe I'm being slightly more generous to audiences than they probably deserve: in reality, most people probably won't know who Frank Miller is or that he was involved in a film released three years ago that many have already forgotten. The online film/comics community, on the other hand, is definitely tapped into the memory of the well-received Sin City and knows full well the effect that Miller has had on comics over the past quarter century. This, I think, adds a level of pressure to Miller as a first time director; he has earned the respect of many through his comic works and those fans expect work of equal or greater value to his previous adaptations (300 included). But as far as GMGAs are concerned, they are clueless as to Miller's achievements and don't enter the theater with that same expectation.

I'm not going to pretend I'm a master of all things Spirit-related, but here's a brief history behind the project: Will Eisner, one of the most important developers of comic books in the history of the medium, created the character of The Spirit in the early 1940's in comic strip form for newspapers. Years later, Eisner (who was by then well-recognized within the industry for his influence) became a mentor to Frank Miller. After Eisner passed away, producers asked Miller if he wanted to take on the challenge of directing a live-action adapation of The Spirit, and he refused because he didn't think he was up to the task. Almost immediately after, Miller realized they would give the project to somebody else, so he manned up and took the job. He knew he would be the only person able to capture the essence of what Eisner would have truly wanted in the movie because he worked so closely with the man himself. (I'd guess they talked about a live-action Spirit movie back in the old days, just tossing ideas around and not truly expecting it to happen.)

Here lies what I believe is the main problem with The Spirit - the marketing team didn't successfully transfer all of that information to GMGA's, so people can't look at the movie as more than just the images on the screen and appreciate the history behind it. Even the online film blogging community doesn't seem to know that the movie is supposed to be far more lighthearted and cheesy than the visually similar Sin City. The problem is only confounded by this trailer:

In defense of the company contracted for making trailers for this movie, there are only so many cool lines they could use to promote it and they put a small amount of effort into trying to convey the essence of it by concentrating on ridiculous one-liners like "I'm going to kill you all kinds of dead," and "I'm going to get El Spirito dead while I still can." But using those quotes from "critics" as the centerpiece of their marketing is a pretty shady move, especially since the guy they quoted is not a respected critic.

While I don't think that The Spirit necessarily lived up to the fan pressure put on Frank Miller, it was better than a lot of movies out there and I was entertained to the point of getting my money's worth. I know that "getting your money's worth" isn't the most lofty goal to set for a movie-watching experience, but it's a lot better than coming out of a theater disappointed. Stylistically, The Spirit treads where few others have - and the style hasn't bored me yet. I for one still really enjoy the harsh contrasts and stark colors, especially set against a noir background. The film allowed Samuel L. Jackson to really let himself go in an over-the-top role that added to his steady-growing collection of eccentric characters he's played. A refreshing thing is that the movie deviates from the standard "origin story" formula that so many comic book films fall victim to in their first installments and picks up with The Spirit already in action. I think The Spirit fell victim to The Happening syndrome: the movie was trying to be campy and the dialogue was pretty iffy, but because the GMGA's didn't know this was how the film was supposed to be, the movie's reputation suffers. Another high point in the film (for me personally) was the inclusion of mythological artifacts and references to ancient Greece. As long as you don't care about how the characters came across these items or the tangibility of the whole situation, I think most people will enjoy the plot device as well. I also liked how the whole concept revolved around The Spirit being a complete rouge and a total womanizer; even women news reporters were smitten with him, and he had chances to pick up dames left and right throughout the movie.

The purpose of this post is not to try to convince you to go see The Spirit, but rather just to give the movie a little breathing room after the online community has been choking it so badly over the past couple weeks. The acting is pretty bad, the characterizations are not up to standard, and the movie is almost too over-the-top for its own good. But that doesn't mean it's the worst thing out in theaters right now, or even the worst thing out in the past couple of months. So if you're feeling up to it and you don't want to see Oscar bait like Benjamin Button, go check out The Spirit. If you're not, that's fine - I'm just saying that there are worse things out there. Oh, and did I mention it has Eva Mendes and Scarlett Johansson in it? Until next time...


Anonymous said...

Right on

joel siskel said...

Head Hero said...

I just saw the movie and have to agree with you on the bad marketing. I was expecting a superhero film and I'm not quite sure what I saw. I would have to be a complete robot to not enjoy some parts, but overall I thought it could have been a lot better, but I don't know much about the Spirit character.