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The Campy Desecration of The Spirit

Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageThe opening sequence of Robert Altman’s The Player has been given a lot of praise over the years, and deservedly so. It is incredibly post-modern (it discusses the longest continuous shots in movie history, all while breaking the record for longest continuous shot in movie history), undeniably slick and just a damn good setup for the movie to follow. But for me, the element of this sequence that sticks out the most is the litany of pitches that Tim Robbins’ Griffin endures. Writer after writer meets with him in steady succession, offering up hackneyed story ideas that combine two previously made movies (“It’s like Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate.”) and result in thoroughly unappealing premises. Clearly this was a device by the screenwriter to poke fun at how many bad ideas there are out there, and how much crap that executives have to wade through to find the diamonds in the rough.

This makes the very existence of The Spirit such a mystery to me, since I can only imagine that it was pitched as “Sin City…meets the original Batman series!”

The Spirit tells the story of a man who has mysteriously escaped Death’s grasp. Denny Colt was a cop married to the commissioner’s daughter when he was shot to death. However, for reasons no one (least of all he) could explain, he woke up in his coffin complete healthy, with near invulnerability and immortality. He becomes The Spirit, a masked hero who fights crime and woos the ladies, while never revealing his identity to anyone, even his still-grieving widow.

When the movie opens, The Spirit (Gabriel Macht; I’ve never heard of him either) has discovered that his nemesis The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson, for some unknown reason) is up to no good, and sets off to stop him. This scheme proves more complicated than others, however, and before long it becomes clear that Denny’s long lost love Sand Serif (Eva Mendes) is involved, and the stakes are nothing less than the world itself.

If this synopsis sounds compelling IN ANY WAY, it’s only because it took me a good thirty minutes to write that paragraph, and I left out many terrible details.

When the movie first starts, there are enough interesting artistic touches to make you think that it might just work. Frank Miller and company have created an interesting look that – at times – blends live action with animation in a way that is nothing if not compelling to look at. However, even as I kept suspending my opinion while I waited for the visionary creator of Sin City and 300 to take over, eventually even the sometimes slick graphics could not redeem what was ultimately an incredibly stupid movie.

In short, The Spirit is nothing less than the old bait-and-switch con, perpetrated on a huge scale. Audiences walk in expecting stylized Sin City noir, but are instead given cheesy and intentional camp.

The movie begins to fall apart at the first fight sequence between The Spirit and The Octopus, who is flanked by a horribly miscast Scarlett Johannsen, and a series of giddy cloned henchmen all played by Edgar from 24. The two pummel each other without end, and even throw in some literal toilet humor, just in case you don’t get the idea that the scene is meant ironically instead of seriously. As the scene dragged on, the feeling in the theater shifted dramatically. Up until this point (say ten minutes or so), we all clung to the hope that the movie would take on some weight to it, yet by the time it was over, it was all too clear that this was only the beginning of the descent.

Before too long, the plot revolves around The Octopus’ attempt to acquire the blood of Heracles (so he can achieve immortality), while jewel thief Sand Saref attempts to get her hands on Jason’s Golden Fleece (so she can own the “ultimate shiny thing.”) Along the way, The Spirit is captured by The Octopus, and he is tied up. As he sits unable to get free, The Octopus comes out dressed as a Nazi and reveals the truth about The Spirit’s origins while images of Hitler linger in the background. (I was going to continue this paragraph with a few sentences mocking this scene, but I can’t come up with anything more derisive than the simple explanation, and so I will leave it at that.)

There might be some purists out there who argue with my assessment of this film. They would be fans of the original comic strip, and they’d point out that The Spirit was in fact a stylized comic that had elements of the surreal in it. No doubt they’d also point out that his origin in the movie hews closely to the strip, and that every main character here was prominently featured there originally as well.

These are all true facts, and I suppose that, with the right mindset, it could be possible to enjoy this movie in its own right. However, there are times when, if a movie lures an audience to see it based on the pedigree of its creator, then that creator had better deliver what everyone expects of him. If The Spirit had been directed by The Wayans Brothers (or even, more recently, the Wachowski Brothers), then we might easily have expected it to be a live action cartoon, and would have adjusted our expectations accordingly. But this was Frank Miller, and more was expected. Imagine if The Dark Knight started rolling, and it featured Cesar Romero giggling as he attempted to steal a giant diamond with henchmen wearing masks and ski caps. That just about captures the feeling of walking out of the theater after seeing this.

In short, The Spirit is a great film to see only if you're a DIE HARD fan of the character, or if you enjoy movies that wink at you without any substance or depth to back up its own confidence in itself. Otherwise, just stick to the classics: