Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Spirit

Kim Thompson says that The Spirit is bad in a way that suggests Frank Miller made exactly the movie he set out to make. I think he may be right, but a big part of what made watching the movie such a disappointing experience was that there were hints - around the edges - of what a better Spirit movie might look like.

Specifically: in the opening and closing voice-overs, the Spirit rhapsodizes about his beloved city, but the city plays no part in the movie. Where the Gothams of either the Burton or Nolan Batman movies are fully-realized places, Central City in Miller's movie is barely even a background: to call it abstract is giving it too much credit. Calling it generic, even, implies that there's some form there that's fulfilling certain conventions, but there's just nothing.

Anyway - that absence points to how Miller should have made this movie: with Central City as the main character and the Spirit operating in the background. Hey - he could even have split the movie up into three separate stories - maybe even stories from Will Eisner's comics - with some recurring characters to give us a sense of a living city.

For me, it isn't a question of whether or not Miller should have been more faithful to the original comics. However, completely ignoring what made the original comics interesting and sucessful - or rather, giving it lip service but not following through - seems like a bad idea.

This happens to tie into my Comic Book Pet Theory #2 (#1 is the thing where I say that Watchmen is all about gravity and that Dave Gibbons doesn't get enough credit for it): apart from a few early homages to The Spirit in Daredevil, Frank Miller's work bears no relationship to anything Will Eisner has ever done. Miller keeps trying to pass himself off as an "Eisner acolyte", but they are completely different artists. Eisner is interested in the city - in its geography and in the way that geography shapes the lives of its denizens. It's the line that runs through his work from The Spirit to the graphic novels. His heirs are Ben Katchor and Chris Ware. Miller is an action/adventure cartoonist working with outsized figure-drawing and Steranko-inspired page layouts. Though I don't think he's ever said this, he's a follower of Kirby, and, to the extent that you can talk about his innovations, the main one is that he either (a) puts exaggerated Kirby-style super-hero figures into non-super hero genres (Sin City, 300) or (b) brings various noir elements to bear on super-hero comics (The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One). (I think his best super-hero work is The Dark Knight Strikes Again partly because he's dealing with super-hero comics on their own terms, even if he seems to find those terms somewhat retarded).

It's (unfortunately) not surprising then, that a cartoonist whose work centers on figure-drawing would make a movie that is so (detrimentally) "figure"-centric (and I don't say actor-centric because none of the people on screen are creating characters or playing objectives or doing any of the other things we like to see actors do). That's partly why Central City is such a non-entity: Miller is only interested in it as a backdrop for highly-stylized images of movie stars and would-be movie stars. The problem, as Michael Barrier would point out, is that, the drawn figure tends to be much more expressive and much more congenial to exaggerated expression than bodies on film. So Miller is trying to do something he knows, but he's working in a medium where it's very hard to do that kind of thing and he's not using the right kinds of tools.

I'd still argue that what he's trying to do, doesn't really make a good fit with the material, although that becomes a side point as Miller doesn't even do what he seems to be trying to do all that well.


Ed Howard said...

Wow, I think this is probably the first time that I've actually seen someone who likes The Dark Knight Strikes Again as much as I do. I wouldn't say it's Miller's best superhero book, but I really love its wild, radical perspective on the genre, the way it completely shits on everything the superhero supposedly stands for. You're right that it engages with the idea of the superhero more directly than most of Miller's other work, but it does so primarily in order to tear apart superhero myths in the most violent way possible. It takes the 80s and early 90s vogue for superhero deconstruction to its extreme.

Anyway, I haven't seen The Spirit, mainly because I'm so turned off by the obvious fact that Miller has ignored nearly everything about Eisner's original comic. They really are totally different artists in every way, and Miller was an extraordinarily bad fit for adopting those comics.

James said...

I'm with Ed on both counts.

Eisner's triumph, as a comics person, seems to be in recognizing that characters & plot occur in a context, whether that's social, economic, historical, religious, whatever--and the interplay between a character's aspirations and his or her setting drives the work.

Frank Miller's work is largely about over-the-hill Tough Guys finding ways to stay in denial about their latent homosexuality or impotence.

I can certainly see some overlap: a nominally straight bouncer at a kinky gay bar, rejecting the advances of perfectly nice men as he dreams of meeting the Perfect Girl to impress his grandmother... growing old in his celibacy as life passes him by, eventually coming out of the closet with great inner turmoil only to discover that the guys no longer find him attractive...

But that's probably not the sort of movie Hollywood wants Frank Miller to make.

I think the closest thing to //The Spirit// (comics series) in modern culture is probably //The Wire//, which is too serious by half, but at least has the right focus.

P.S. I think I've just found my next //Primetime Adventures// character.

Mark said...

You can chalk me up as another person who liked The Dark Knight Strikes Again, but lately, I'm not so sure Frank Miller is quite the artistic genius he is made out to be. His work seems repetitive, and having recently watched a lot of Japanese martial arts films from the seventies, not quite as innovative as I'd originally thought. Even the Batman revamp he did in the eighties looks half-assed, after watching Paul Pope take some of his visual ideas to their logical conclusion in Batman: Year 100.

Jon Hastings said...

Mark - I think Paul Pope's Year 100 has a much more narrow scope than either of Miller's Dark Knight series or even Year One. That is, I think Pope can take those ideas as far as he does because he isn't also trying to (for example) establish an entirely new revisionist approach to the way we compare Superman and Batman.

My main criticism of Miller is that while I think he's a great (if messy) talent, I think his work is "in his own head" more than that by similar artists who had a wider variety of life experience (Jack Kirby or Sam Fuller, for example).

James - I'm not sure if you've read Richard Price's novels Freedomland and Samaritan, but you might like them. Price worked on some of the screenplays for The Wire, but his own work is (I think) better (just as serious, but with a greater sense of humor).

Ed - I agree with your take on DK2.

Anonymous said...

I am big fan of Frank Miller and with great expectation I decided to watch this movie, but poor writing and direction disappointed me. But his performance was nice in the movie as the fault lies somewhere else.
Frank Miller