It's been too long since we've had a proper comic book superhero on the screen. There's been enough of them running around and bashing up the bad guys in a CGI-enhanced fashion, that's for sure. But it's hard to look at the recent cinematic incarnations of Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne and call them "superheroes;" even if they keep their identities secret and have nifty outfits. "Billionaire action figures" would be more appropriate, what with all their high-priced gadgetry and super-duper hideouts. Whatever happened to the caped heroes who kept an eye on the city's dark alleys and took out the bad guys with nothing more than a sock to the jaw?
Frank Miller's jazzy The Spirit answers that question with a cocky wink and a grin. The streets of Central City are almost always dark and threatening, but they're watched over by a guardian who used to be a cop named Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht, wonderfully deadpan). One near-death experience later and Colt has dug himself out of his own grave. He then decides to serve the city as a masked avenger known as The Spirit, whose only weapons are a newfound ability to absorb ridiculous amounts of punishment and his fists.
There's a supervillain out there called The Octopus (played with rarely-seen operatic relish by Samuel L. Jackson) and a squad of curvaceous femme fatales (Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, and Paz Vega, to name just a view of the film's many pouty-lipped vixens) to fall in dangerous love with. The Octopus wants something that will make him invincible, and he's going after an old flame of The Spirit's to get it. So The Spirit leaps into the snowy night, long duster like a cape and blood-red tie flapping in the wind as he bounds across rooftops and intones odes to the object of his affection, the city: "She's my sweetheart, my play thing." And then he gets beat up; a lot. But he always has a quip to spit out the side of his mouth, and a friendly cat who's frequently nearby for him to gripe to.
It's surprising that one of the year's most refreshingly fun films would come from the man who helped Robert Rodriguez create the infinite loop of mind-numbing sadism that was Sin City (tongue-in-cheek or not, after the thirteenth pistol whipping, it got old). This time out, graphic novelist Miller takes the directorial reins himself to adapt that comic-book touchstone, the late Will Eisner's mid-century superhero series. While Eisner's classical storytelling verve and soft-touch humanity would seem an odd fit for Miller -- whose most famous works, like Sin City and The Dark Knight Returns -- are lavished with cynical ultra-violence, the two artists' viewpoints mesh rather beautifully here.
As in Sin City, each frame of The Spirit is more painted than filmed. Miller's performers work inside cartoonish cityscapes that draw equally from his own jagged style and Eisner's Sunday funnies look. It's a frankly gorgeous effect, liberated by the fact that Miller adapted freely from Eisner's panels -- the two were longtime friends -- to create an organic story instead of slavishly following the master's work.
Although The Spirit is in part a classic superhero story, with a square-jawed hero who knows how to take a punch and kiss a dame until she's weak in the knees, it's also a freeform lark that has more fun than anything that has been coming out of the Marvel sausage factory. What with flocks of cloned idiot henchmen (all played by Louis Lombardi) available for easy slapstick, and the Octopus' tendency toward elaborate costumery (one scene has him and his hench-girl in samurai-gear, another in full SS regalia), there's a drift here toward full-on giddy surrealism that beats anything you'll find in the next Incredible Hulk.
In short, it's neat-o.
Headin' up the the spirit in the sky.