Will Eisner and Frank Miller: two great tastes that taste putrid together?
A couple of decades ago, maybe. In the late 1980s, when comic-book giant Miller’s groundbreaking graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns was rocking the world of comic book fandom, I had the privilege as a cartooning student of studying under the legendary Eisner, creator of the seminal “The Spirit” series.
In those days, there were no greater luminaries in my pantheon of cartooning heroes — “The Spirit” was Citizen Kane, The Dark Knight Returns was The Godfather — even though Eisner didn’t share the Miller love, and could be merciless to a cartooning student who submitted pages displaying a Miller influence (as I learned the hard way).
But the putrid taste of Miller’s solo directing debut The Spirit isn’t simply a collision of conflicting aesthetic visions. The putrescence is all Miller’s — and it’s been evident in his own comic-book work for some time now, which has increasingly degenerated into debased self-parody.
Miller reinvigorated comics in the 1980s with an approach influenced by film noir and martial-arts cinema, among other things. Over time, though, that aesthetic metastasized into the increasingly stereotyped, sadistic and/or sleazy worlds of Hard Boiled, 300, Sin City, and dreadful sequel/prequel extensions of his classic Dark Knight Returns.
These days, everything Miller touches becomes an extension of the Frank Miller Universe, a dark, gritty, rain-soaked, blood-drenched, camp satire of a film noir world populated with one-dimensional character types — musclebound toughs, brutal villains, exotic whores, venal authority figures, lethal femmes fatales — who speak in tough-talking clichés, have rough sex and kill and die in heinous ways, bereft of human interest but high in visual impact.
The movie version of The Spirit is a straightforward excursion into the Frank Miller Universe at its most reductionist, self-parodying and content-free. There are no characters or relationships, only placeholders where characters ought to be. There is no drama or conflict, only dueling line readings and cartoony brutality. There is nothing at stake and nothing and no one to care about, only a pointless, shapeless exercise in wildly veering moods and styles.
As reimagined by Miller, the Spirit (Gabriel Macht, The Recruit) is such a soulless cipher, he lacks even the self-awareness to realize that he doesn’t know who he is or why he does what he does. Why he wears a mask and fights crime; why he seems to be in love with any woman in his field of vision, only to forget her as soon as she’s out of sight; why he mysteriously recovers from any number of fatal injuries just like his more self-aware archrival, the villainous Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson in a twist on Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, where he played an abnormally fragile counterpoint to the indestructible hero).
The movie provides an explanation for the Spirit’s (and Octopus’s) invulnerability; as for the Spirit’s crimefighting, perhaps that doesn’t really need an explanation (Eisner himself never bothered to invest his protagonist with a psychologically compelling motivation, like Batman or Spider-Man). The thing with women, though, is just plain weird.
Perhaps it’s simply that women in the Frank Miller Universe are basically interchangeable bombshells with a few basic profiles: whore/moll, psycho killer, good girl. I’m reminded of a line from a very different movie that also fundamentally subverted its title character: “There is only one woman in the world, with different faces.”
Said faces here include Officer Morgenstern (Stana Katic), a bright rookie with a schoolgirl crush on the Spirit; Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega), a murderous exotic dancer who both loves and hates the Spirit; Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), an Octopus henchwench whose attitude toward the Spirit I can’t remember to save my life (gosh, this movie is fading fast). More importantly, there’s Sand Serif (Eva Mendes), the Spirit’s tragic childhood flame, now a femme fatale with a soft spot for cops stemming from the murder of her own hero-cop father. (The conspicuously repeated term “Electra complex” obviously recalls the Elektra that Miller created as Daredevil’s lover-turned-enemy — but the Serif character in Eisner really does have that soft spot and that history.)
There’s also Dr. Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson), whom convention would designate the Spirit’s “true love,” if this Spirit were capable of such a thing. Ellen understands the masked man’s strange fickleness of mind and heart, and evidently loves him for what he is, or what he is capable of offering her, which is not much. Ellen’s father, Commissioner Dolan (Dan Luria), wants to protect his daughter from the womanizing Spirit, but she’s content to love her hero from afar, which might suggest something about what kind of father Dolan was, if you stopped to think about it, which you most certainly should not.
I don’t object to Miller reinventing the Spirit as a rooftop-bounding, deathless super hero. It wasn’t Eisner’s vision — Eisner saw the Spirit as more of a James Garner “Maverick” type, and at one time hoped to see Garner play the character in a feature film — but the spirit of “The Spirit” could survive such a transformation.
After all, “The Spirit” wasn’t really about the Spirit fighting crime. Not infrequently he was a supporting character or even a cameo appearance in a series that was really about creating effective, memorable short stories in a variety of moods and tones — comic, melancholy, exciting, chilling — often with a startling or surprising ending. Eisner’s most important influences weren’t Warner crime films or the novels of Hammett or Chandler, but the short stories of O. Henry, Bierce and Dickens.
I do object to Miller using The Spirit as a receptacle for recycled bits and pieces of his own artistic history, such as the “My city is my lover” shtick from Daredevil, among others. There are also in-joke references to other cartooning legends such as Steve Ditko and Harvey Kurtzman; occasionally even Eisner himself is referenced (“What’s ten minutes in a man’s life?”, a nod to a Spirit story called “Ten Minutes”).
Worse, The Spirit fails to do the one thing that defined Eisner’s entire career: It doesn’t tell a story. There’s a lot of action, all more or less revolving around a quest for a MacGuffin — but a narrative logic never emerges and so there is never a story or even a world to engage. There’s just a lot of imagery, dialogue and violence.
Macht gives a performance that suggests he could conceivably play a hero, in a movie that had one. Jackson chews the scenery shouting such dialogue as “No egg! On my face!” Of all the women, Paulson comes the closest to creating a character, but is saddled with stupid devotion for a character she knows has that effect on all women and is incapable of standing by any of them. At no time does anything resembling a point threaten to emerge.
Here is an anecdote that is more interesting than this movie and probably than the preceding review. Some twenty years ago, I subjected the Spirit to an exercise in Frank Miller style — and showed it to Eisner. I drew a page of the Spirit with each panel representing a different artist’s style, the joke being that the Spirit was aware of being represented in foreign styles, and was trying to find the culprit responsible (me, of course).
One of the panels was a wide, low close-up on the Spirit’s angry eyes, a shot borrowed from Miller’s visual playbook. Reflecting Eisner’s skepticism of Miller’s work, I made the Spirit furious about being represented in Miller’s style: “Miller … Miller, I swear … you’ll pay for this.”
Eisner thought it was hilarious. If only he had known.
The movie is an impressive work of transposition, but I can’t recommend it. Excessively brutal and sexually graphic as well as nihilistic and and antiheroic, it’s a thoroughgoing deconstruction of humanity as well as heroism, one that takes its world apart without putting it back together again. There are things to admire here, but Watchmen doesn’t make me care. If you can’t care about characters facing the end of the world, perhaps it’s time to turn back the clock and move on.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.