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The Failure of the Movie Spirit

December 21, 2008

Apparently, the new movie version of Will Eisner’s classic comic, The Spirit, is tanking both critically and commercially. This is not a surprise. I could have predicted this the first time I saw a trailer for it … except I didn’t see a trailer for it until just now.

The lack of marketing is only one of the oddities surrounding this strange film. It was heavily marketed towards its perceived fan base — comics readers and geeks — but not to the mainstream, which is understandable. The Spirit isn’t a character like Spider-Man or Batman, someone recognizable to people who’ve never opened a comic. And he isn’t a property like Ghost World or Road to Perdition, comics that can be made into films and marketed without people realizing it was ever a comic.

No, The Spirit is very recognizably a masked mystery man, but the average moviegoer would see the marketing and not really understand that he’s a character with a 70-year tradition. Without that knowledge, The Spirit — movie and character — just looks cheesy.

Compounding all of that is this: the average 18-to-35 comics fan doesn’t know who The Spirit is, either. He’s been off the radar for generations. There are occasional revivals, like new series, reprints, even a really, really shitty 80s TV movie with Sam Jones, legendary star of cheesy movies. But mention The Spirit in a comics shop today, and you’ll get more blank looks than fanboy grins. On top of that, those fanboy grins will come from readers who know who The Spirit is, and have read about The Spirit, but likely have never actually read a Spirit comic.

Another problem is the look of the film. Sin City was unique and new. Same with 300, but it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The decision to make The Spirit in this green screen, comic booky fashion, probably was a mistake. It just accentuates the cartooniness of it and adjusts the story from comic noir to comedic noir, and that doesn’t work.

The original Will Eisner Spirit books weren’t traditional comic books; they were weekly newspaper inserts. The told the story of a murdered police detective, Denny Colt, who had actually survived his “death” and now fought crime as The Spirit. He wore a business suit, fedora and domino mask, and dealt with oddball enemies and slinky femme fatales. The whole thing was a little campy, but let’s not forget Will Eisner’s mastery of his art (read his later Dropsie Avenue graphic novels for proof of that).

Another problem with this new film seems to be Frank Miller. The comics legend co-directed Sin City (although that whole issue is kind of cloudy) but ran this movie solo, and critics say he wasn’t ready. He mastered the look of the original Eisner books, they say, but forgot to learn how to get good acting out of his stars, or how to set up a shot, etc. Critics say he nailed the dialogue — which is Miller’s strength, really — but the rest of the film suffers for it.

I realize this is a review of reviews. I haven’t seen The Spirit. But you know what? I wasn’t going to. I’m no big fan of the character. I like the idea of the character, and somewhere around here I have a reprint that features The Spirit in Egypt, wearing sunglasses over his mask, and I always thought that was funny.

But I’m like those guys in the comics shop. I appreciate The Spirit. I’m just not a fan. And this movie would have had to have been tremendously good for me to pay to see it.

The evident shitness of this film does not bode well for The Watchmen, another non-mainstream comics property due to hit big screens next year. Watchmen, luckily, has a pretty massive built-in fan base, bigger than The Spirit’s. But if the world has, like me, tired of this green-screen look, The Watchmen may follow The Spirit back to Wildwood Cemetery.

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