The Spirit (2009)

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When I heard that The Spirit was going to be made in Miller-vision — that is, with the kind of artificial computer-generated imagery that attempts to mimic 2D drawings on film — my initial response was “oh shit”. Then I started hearing that this was Miller’s worst movie yet — far more egregious than 300 or Sin City. But, it turns out this one is different. It’s not just a load of crazy macho... this one is at least 50% comedy.

The percentage is hard to estimate, because it’s hard to say how much of the comedy is intentional. To the extent that it is intentional — which many will dispute — this movie succeeds in doing something I didn’t think could be done anymore: it’s deliberate camp that’s actually funny. The fact is, I loved every second of it.

I had thought that intentional camp, especially as applied to superheroes, died (slowly and horribly) in the seventies. Since then, every other attempt at it has failed dreadfully. Until now. *

The case could be made, of course, that this degree of camp wasn’t really done on purpose at all — that Frank Miller stumbled into it by accident because of what a weirdo he is. Maybe it’s true, but I’m not quite buying it; Miller’s talent, when he’s on, is undeniable, and more importantly, I think the result just works too well to have happened by accident. This movie is everything that a weak spoof like The Tick tries to be, and plenty more. Some of my fellow bad-movie buffs do enjoy the film, but are convinced that its hilarity is unintended; I say that when Miller wrote lines like “Come on, toilets are always funny”, he was spelling out his true intent.

The cast is a big help. As the Spirit, Gabriel Macht is a bit funny looking to be playing an egregiously over-handsome ladies’ man, but his delivery of the character’s pretentiously melodramatic inner monologue is perfect. You never see the tongue enter the cheek. And as the villain, Samuel L. goes over the top to utterly ludicrous heights, yet never loses the scary intensity you need to make a proper bad guy. He kind of reminds me of Gene Hackman as Luthor in the original Superman... if you take Gene as the laid-back stoned hippie seventies version of an over-the-top villain. Samuel has far more energy.

Speaking of the cast brings up the topic of the constant supply of gorgeous women. The Spirit comic strip was notorious for the vast quantity of babealicious femmes-fatale that populated its pages, and the movie doesn’t stint. The one real disappointment is Scarlett Johansson as Samuel L.'s sidekick: she phones in her part and doesn’t even manage to look like a bombshell doing it. At the opposite end, the irresistible Paz Vega leaves us disappointed because she only gets five minutes of screen time.

The lead femme fatale is Eva Mendes. She’s no Paz Vega in either looks or talent (I’d bet even Scarlett Johansson might be capable of out-acting her, if someone were to ask nicely enough) but she can carry off this kind of role with panache.

If I were invested in the original Spirit character as created by Will Eisner, I might find this movie deeply offensive. Many do. The version we get here seems all Frank Miller (especially the above-mentioned pretentiously melodramatic inner monologue), despite Miller’s close real-life relationship with Eisner, who seems to have practically been a mentor to him. Some people I know have diagnosed Miller’s weird hangups and obsessions as being because he’s “a man at war with his own homosexuality”, but if that’s true, maybe the flip side is that he has a flair for camp that he won’t publicly admit. And if that’s true, and the campiness of this film is entirely deliberate... then Miller deserves considerable credit, because what he’s done is to take a form that was dead and moribund, and bring it vigorously back to life, tall and grinning and chatting up the ladies... fully updated for the new post-Bryan Singer century. He’s made a success of something that I, elsewhere in these pages, predicted would never succeed.

So far from thinking this is Frank Miller’s worst movie, I say it’s his best. But it’s not for everyone — oh boy is it not. With a massive but disingenuous ad campaign yielding a domestic gross of only $19,000,000 and the great majority of those viewers disappointed with what they saw, I think it’s safe to say you have to be a bit out of the mainstream, or maybe just in a particular frame of mind, to enjoy this movie. Or maybe it’s just that, with Miller unable to admit what his real artistic goal was — or maybe just not able to sell it to the suits — audiences felt ripped off because they were told to expect something very different from what they got. With revised expectations, who knows what kind of audience this might find?

Generalizing from this, I’ve now come up with a Theory of Flops. Every movie’s ad material promises something that some audience would like to see. Flops happen when the film doesn’t deliver what the audience thought they were promised. Avoiding flops isn’t a matter of putting good stuff into the film: it’s a matter of making the correct promises so that those who come to see it are the ones who will enjoy whatever it is you’re offering, and knowing how many people that is likely to be before you decide the budget.

A film”s publicity has to offer some particular thing people want to see: that might be “insightful character study with powerful acting”, “gorgeous but heartwrenching historical drama”, “jaw-dropping spectacle”, “hallucinatory mindfuck”, “twisty suspense”, “badass fightin’ action”, or just “gore and tits”... whatever. Every movie has something that some audience will enjoy; if you attract those people, and make sure that whatever you promised is present throughout the film, you get positive word of mouth, and if you accidentally attract the wrong crowd, which doesn’t fit what you’re offering, then your word of mouth is negative.

The best way to attract the right crowd is just to be honest. Misrepresenting what the audience is going to see, as The Spirit's campaign did, is a recipe for boxoffice disaster. The commonest reason for such misrepresentation is when they realize that the honest audience is not big enough for their budget. That’s probably the case here; if they’d aimed it just at the people who could really enjoy it, it probably would have had to be quite a bit cheaper.

* A later interjection... in hindsight, I am now coming to see this “New Camp” as something that has been building up quietly, under the radar, for some time. It started in places like the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic (which began as a parody of early Frank Miller), and in the horror-comedy subgenre, and it got a boost from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For the most part, these antecedents do not in themselves count as “camp” by any traditional definition, but they paved the way for a type of humor that plays the “serious” part of a goofy story completely deadpan — they worked out how you could get laughs with a surface demeanor that’s dark and grim.