erik lundegaard

The Spirit
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The Spirit (2008)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Pardon me, but is there a point to this? I’m getting old just listening to you.”

That’s the riposte, and one of the wittier ones, of The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) to his arch-nemesis, The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), who, at this point, is in his underground lair dressed up like a Nazi and expounding on how death defines everything we are, and how he, and only he, has developed a serum that can cheat death. He’s already given this serum to beat cop Denny Cole, lying in the morgue, who becomes the Spirit. Now he’s given it to himself. He and the Spirit are “two of a kind,” as he likes to say throughout the movie, but soon there will only be him. Because he plans to chop up the Spirit, dispense his body parts globally so they cannot reform, and then drink the blood of Heracles, the greatest of the demi-gods, to become a god himself and rule the world. Mwa-ha-ha-ha!

It’s also what I thought throughout the movie: Pardon me, but is there a point to this?

Writer-director Frank Miller employs the slick, comic booky/digital background technology he and Robert Rodriguez used in “Sin City,” along with a vibe that’s both cartoony and unfunny, in order to showcase ... nothing. No wit, no humanity, not even a good story. Just a dead, stupid hero who doesn’t know why he is, and who, in numerous voiceovers, offers Mickey Spillaneish valentines to a city, Central City, that, because of the digital background technology, we never really see:

My city, I can not deny her. My city screams. She is my mother. She is my lover, and I ... am her Spirit.

Your mother and your lover? Dude.

Does anyone else get claustrophobic in these digital-background movies? “Sin City,” “300,” this? The world isn’t the world. It’s reduced to this small, awful space where these small, awful things happen, which the filmmakers pump full of their hyper-masculine, hyper-sexual hyper-meaning. The men beat each other to pulps, the women, smart and sexy, watch and calculate, and everyone thinks themselves the center of the world. Because they are. Because the world has been reduced to this.

That’s the awfulness, isn’t it? Frank Miller doesn’t let us outside of his imagination and his imagination is small and dirty. It’s appropriate that our first set piece is the swampland outside Central City, because that’s what Miller’s imagination feels like to me. There, The Octopus clangs a toilet over The Spirit’s head and laughs, and when The Spirit doesn’t join in, when none of us join in, declares, in full Sam Jackson bore, “Come on! Toilets are always funny!”

Pardon me, but is there a point to this?

The Octopus has an egg phobia. He references it several times, and shoots one of his minions, the odd, bald creatures he and his partner, Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), have created, because he talks himself into a situation in which he winds up with egg on his face, and—full Sam Jackson bore again—“I don’t like egg on my face!”

Because I’m getting old just watching you.

“The Spirit” is a movie made by, and for, people who suffer a kind of cultural analgesia; who feel nothing. All the characters are that way: The Spirit, The Octopus, Silken Floss, Sand Serif (Eva Mendes). Many beautiful women fall in love for one beautiful man, the Spirit, but no one else feels anything. When The Spirit falls off a skyscraper but is saved when his coat catches on a gargoyle four stories up, a crowd gathers. They point out that he looks ridiculous. Then they mock and insult him. Then they encourage him to jump. They shout: “Jump! Jump! Jump!” Is this what human beings are like in Frank Miller’s mind? That even passersby are assholes wishing death upon strangers? Maybe that’s why you fall in love with cities rather than people. You can anthropomorphize the city into anything you want.

Throughout the movie, Denny is pursued by Death, whom he sees, in his mind or soul, as a beautiful woman (Jamie King) who longs to enfold him in her arms, a la “All That Jazz.” The story—cop returned from the dead, more powerful than ever—has strong elements of “Robocop,” while the plot hinges upon the oldest ruse in the book: switched packages. “Hey, I didn’t want this blood of Heracles!” “Hey, I didn’t want Jason’s Argonaut armor!” In this way the movie is derivative but apparently not of its source material. I never read Will Eisner’s “The Spirit,” either the Golden-Age version or the Harvey Comics 1960s update, but apparently it had some soul and wit. It had spirit. Miller’s movie doesn’t. Early on, the Octopus decapitates and throws his head at the Spirit. Is this supposed to be funny? Like the toilet? Like the Nazi outfits? Like Sand Serif photocopying her ass as she’s blackmailing a man to kill himself? Which he does?

Pardon me, but is there a point to this?

But I’ve felt that way about everything Frank Miller has done: the graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One; the movies Sin City and 300. Miller worships at the twin altars of cool and cruel. His cool heroes are cruel to the ones who are cruel to the weak, which means his heroes, and by extension his readers or viewers, get to be cruel and moral. That’s the point to him: revenge as moral imperative. “The Spirit” is the Harvey Comics version of this rain-splattered, blood-splattered ethos, which is why it rings particularly off-tune. But even in-tune I find this ethos reprehensible. I get old just thinking about it.

—August 10, 2012

© 2012 Erik Lundegaard

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