I have to admit, I like a bad movie. A certain kind of bad movie anyways. The kind that took effort. The results of a lone crazy man off in the woods with a camera. The kind that was really, really, really meant to be good. Focus-grouped vanilla garbage goes in one ear and out the other, but an artistically minded bad movie? Those can be glorious, instructional, fascinating affairs. Which brings us to noted madman Frank Miller and his adaptation of Will Eisner’s seminal newspaper comic,The Spirit. It’s a hot garbage film. I honestly can’t really recommend watching it even.
But it does make some pretty notable, potentially cautionary mistakes.
Cautionary Mistake One, Incoherence:
What’s happening? Where are the characters in relation to one another? How deep is that water? Where are they in relation to it? Why would you make a whole movie look like this? Who knows!
Cautionary Mistake Two, The Spirit’s Origins:
There’s this thing that happens when you just randomly decide something should be a reveal, it seems to be an obvious one, yet so many films forget it. Quite simply if you choose to keep something a secret you lose the chance to use it for dramatic effect or characterization. The Spirit even holds one reveal so long it kills the effect of an entirely different reveal. Basically we find out in the same moment what The Spirit’s origin is and why it happened. The main character of the movie knew the “what” all the way through, but we’re supposed to care about the “why” without actually knowing why he’s even looking for that information. It’s insane. It also has no effect on the character, and changes exactly none of our understanding of the plot. You could argue it does change our understanding of The Octopus, but not in any truly significant way. It’s pretty terrible. The movie misses a chance to invest us in the movie at all.
Cautionary Mistake Three, Breaking Any Hope of Stakes:
The movie opens with a super cartoony montage of The Spirit doing physically impossible stunts. Then he gets into a sprawling brawl with The Octopus. The fight includes a cartoony scene where the characters keep reaching off-screen and procuring increasingly ridiculous weapons, including comically sized wrenches and a toilet. The Spirit has the shit beaten out of him and is shot. He survives. We’re told he always survives. In some world multiple people worked on this scene and never once thought there would be a problem with it. It’s pretty dangerous to open your movie by establishing there are no stakes and no rules. Anything can happen and also the main character can survive anything. Now please care about the remaining hour and twenty minutes of this film’s runtime.
That sort of choice is fine if you’re going to commit to it. But then you have to be making The Haunted World of El Superbeasto or The Tick or something other than the The Spirit. Which brings us to the film’s primary sin.
Cautionary Mistake Four, Pick a Goddamn Tone:
I was going to paraphrase here but I feel like the most effective choice is just going to be forcing you to read this (from http://badassdigest.com/2013/07/03/film-crit-hulk-man-of-steel/ and http://badassdigest.com/2014/06/26/film-crit-hulk-smash-why-the-edge-of-tomorrow-ending-is-great/ )
BEYOND THE PUSH-PULL OF THE RELATIVITY OF OPINIONS, HERE’S THE REAL REASON THE TANGIBLE DETAILS THEORY MATTERS: IF THERE IS NOTHING ON THE SURFACE THAT IS SO OBVIOUSLY BAD, THEN THE NON-EXPERT CAN’T TELL IF THERE’S SOMETHING ACTUALLY WRONG.
IF HULK DOESN’T ACTUALLY NOTICE A PROBLEM WITH HULK’S CAR THEN HULK IS JUST GOING TO ASSUME IT’S WORKING FINE! (THAT’S EXACTLY WHY HULK ISN’T A MECHANIC.) LIKEWISE, IF A CINEMA-GOER IS NEVER ABJECTLY BORED IN A MOVIE AND DOESN’T NOTICE ANYTHING OBVIOUSLY + TANGIBLY BAD IN IT (MEANING IF THEY CAN’T POINT TO ANYTHING SPECIFIC IN THE MOMENT AND GO “That totally sucks!”) THEN THE MOVIE BECOMES EASY TO SHRUG IT OFF OR GIVE A PASS. IT BECOMES EASY TO SAY “I definitely watched a thing for two hours and it didn’t offend me!” WHICH IS EXACTLY THE REASON THESE DAYS WE HAVE SO MANY SINGULAR-TONED, WELL-CONSTRUCTED, WELL-ACTED, RAPID-CUTTING, EMPTY SHELLS OF MEANINGLESS BLOCKBUSTERS THAT FAIL TO REALLY RESONATE OR ENGINEER THEIR STORIES PROPERLY. THE STRATEGY IS NOT TO COMPEL THE AUDIENCE, BUT TO PACIFY THEM. STUDIOS HAVE REALIZED THAT PEOPLE WILL READILY ACCEPT A MOVIE AT FACE VALUE AND NOT SEE THE FAULTY ENGINEERING IMMEDIATELY (REALLY, THEY TALK OPENLY ABOUT THIS). LIKEWISE, THESE SAME MOVIEGOERS WILL SEE A CRITIC’S COMPLAINTS AND NO MATTER HOW WELL-RATIONALIZED OF JUSTIFIED THEY WILL BE, THE OPINION WILL STILL COME AS AN AFFRONT TO THEIR “OBVIOUSLY TRUE” GUT FEELING. THE DYNAMIC IS OFTEN NO DIFFERENT THAN THAT WITH THE PROVERBIAL MECHANIC, “What my car, works just fine! What do you know? You’re just trying to sell me shit I don’t need!!!” AND THEY LEAVE IN A HUFF… ONLY THREE WEEKS LATER THEIR CAR IS BACK IN THE SHOP.
WELL… WHAT HULK IS GOING TO ARGUE THIS IS ALL REALLY ABOUT IS THE NATURE OF TONE SHIFTS. PLEASE UNDERSTAND THAT HULK’S NOT BRINGING THIS UP AS SOME WAY OF CONFINING YOU TO THIS THINKING, JUST NOTING THAT IT REALLY SEEMS TO BE THE PREVALENT THING IN MOVIE-GOING TODAY. GENERAL AUDIENCES ARE EXTREMELY SENSITIVE TO TONE SHIFTS. IT’S OFTEN WHY HORROR COMEDIES DO SO BADLY OR WHY BIG TWISTS OFTEN DON’T WORK. NOT BECAUSE THE LOGIC AND MOTIVATIONS OF THE MOVIE HAVE CHANGED IN SAID TWIST, BUT FAR MORE IF IT CHANGES THE KIND OF MOVIE IT IS. REALLY, PEOPLE JUST DON’T LIKE THE FEELING OF A TONE SHIFT. THEY ENTER A MOVIE AS A KIND OF SOCIAL CONTRACT. WHETHER IT’S HAPPY, SAD, GRITTY, WHAT HAVE YOU, THEY SETTLE INTO IT. AND WHEN THE MOOD SUDDENLY SHIFTS, THEY FEEL THE CONTRACT OF WHAT THEY WERE EMOTIONALLY EXPERIENCING IS BROKEN. AGAIN, THIS MAY SOUND LIKE CONFINING CHARACTERIZATION, BUT HULK IS JUST AS SUSCEPTIBLE TO IT AS ANYONE ELSE. THE KEY, LIKE WITH ALL OF MOVIE-WATCHING, IS TO BE ABLE TO CONTEXTUALIZE IT INTO WHETHER OR NOT THE SHIFT IS FAIR AND EARNED. AND HULK IS JUST TRYING TO ARGUE THAT SOME FOLKS GET SO LOCKED INTO THE UNLIKED FEELING OF THE TONE SHIFT TO THE POINT THAT THEY’LL IGNORE THE THEMATIC AND LOGICAL ARGUMENTS FOR WHY IT IS WHOLLY VALID AND PURPOSEFUL.
TO BE HONEST, HULK HAS INCREASING TROUBLE WITH THE CATCH 22 OF THIS PARTICULAR ARGUMENT. BECAUSE ALL HULK IS TRYING TO ARTICULATE IS A MERE FUNCTION OF HOW CINEMA WORKS, BUT 1) PEOPLE GET CAUGHT UP IN THE IDEA THAT YOU ARE SAYING THEIR EMOTIONS ARE “WRONG” AND 2) PEOPLE DON’T LIKE THE FEELING OF BEING BOXED INTO SOMETHING WHERE HULK IS ESSENTIALLY ARGUING “YOU ARE OVERREACTING TO A SUBCONSCIOUS EMOTIONAL CHANGE” – WHICH CAN’T HELP BUT COME ACROSS AS ASSUMPTIVE, GROSS, PATRONIZING OR BELITTLING. BUT THE PROBLEM IS THAT MOVIES ARE BUILT TO WORK ON SUBCONSCIOUS, EMOTIONAL LEVELS. AND AGAIN, HULK IS WORKING RIGHT FROM THE SAME EMOTIONAL PLACE AND IS THUS JUST TRYING TO ESTABLISH THIS IS WHERE WE ARE BOTH COMING FROM. AND ONCE WE ACCEPT THAT, HULK’S SIMPLY MAKING AN ARGUMENT FOR WHY IT WORKS. DOES THAT DISTINCTION MAKE SENSE? HULK DESPERATELY WANTS THIS TO MAKE SENSE. IT’S NOT JUST AN ARGUMENT FOR AN OPINION, BUT AN ARGUMENT FOR A PROCESS. AND THE FUNNY THING IS THE MORE HULK HAS DIVORCED HULK-SELF FROM THE SANCTITY OF EMOTIONAL TRANSFERENCE, THE BETTER HULK HAS BECOME AT ENGAGING A MOVIE ON ITS OWN TERMS, WHICH HAS THE ADDED BENEFIT OF GAINING EVEN MORE WAYS TO BE ENGAGED AND DELIGHTED BY THE BREADTH OF CINEMATIC FUNCTIONS OUT THERE. AND BY REFLECTING ON THOSE ELEMENTS WITHIN THE POPULAR REACTION, THE BETTER HULK HAS BECOMING AT UNDERSTANDING HOW MOVIES AFFECT PEOPLE ACROSS THE BOARD.
Audiences are sensitive to tonal shifts, but don’t always notice that’s what they’re responding to. Cool? Cool.
The Spirit is all tonal shifts. The opening scene of the film is dead serious neo-noir. It reads as a little over-the-top, like it’s Frank Miller’s version of Dave Sim’s spoof of The Dark Knight Returns, but played straight. Moon Roach references! Moving on. The dead-serious scene leads straight into the afore-mentioned goofy fight. There’s a version of this opening that works, mind you. However it would require a tonal tightrope walk. If the film’s opening minutes were slightly goofier then it might create a sort of tension in the audience. “Is this is joke or not?” That tension leading into the first fight would feel like a cathartic reveal. It’s cool to laugh you guys; it’s meant to be ridiculous. Instead the movie shifts as opposed to flowing into the comedy. We were serious before but now we’re funny. It’s a sharp change, and it just leaves the audience confused.
As the movie goes on, it continues this tug-of-war between parody and seriousness. It leans towards the silly, which is quite probably Frank Miller’s attempt at capturing the frequently light-hearted tone of the source material. Some of these longer silly moments start to come alive around the edges. When Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L Jackson are dressed as Nazis (for no apparent reason) and pontificating ridiculously, it feels like the movie knows what it’s attempting. Jackson’s fierce scenery chewing lightens up a generally dismal film. At least he’s having fun.
I want to take this second to implore you all to read Roger Ebert’s amazing review of The Spirit [http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-spirit-2008]. Here’s an excerpt:
“The Spirit” is mannered to the point of madness. There is not a trace of human emotion in it. To call the characters cardboard is to insult a useful packing material. The movie is all style — style without substance, style whirling in a senseless void. The film’s hero is an ex-cop reincarnated as an immortal enforcer; for all the personality he exhibits, we would welcome Elmer Fudd.
The movie was written, directed and fabricated largely on computers by Frank Miller, whose “300″ and “Sin City” showed a similar elevation of the graphic novel into fantastical style shows. But they had characters, stories, a sense of fun. “The Spirit” is all setups and posing, muscles and cleavage, hats and ruby lips, nasty wounds and snarly dialogue, and males and females who relate to one another like participants in a blood oath.
But it’s worth reading just for the last line alone.
The movie makes the mistake in the later portion by breaking these moments of humour with dead serious relationship drama and flashbacks. It’s fucking terrible. Again, there’s a version of this idea that works. But that version is rooted in character. If The Spirit was an actual character we might follow him on this journey through the film’s tonal quagmire. If The Spirit found fighting fun, but took his cartoonish and unpleasant lusting seriously we might have had something. A well-executed tonal shift can be delightful. Saddling it in character might’ve done it. Instead Ebert’s wonderful packing-material comparison is dead on. The Spirit approaches his every scene with the same deathly boring portentousness. It’s almost impossible to watch a character who responds to Samuel L Jackson dressed as Hitler pontificating about chickens the same way he responds to the reappearance of his childhood love. Who thought that was a good idea?
“What, are you dense? Are you retarded or something?” Are you thinking maybe the same guy who scribed those words might not have the best grasp of tone? Frank Miller, master of erroneously blending comedy with neo-noir masculinity to dumb results. The thing is I can read All-Star Batman and Robin in five seconds, and consequently enjoy its messy tone. The Spirit on the other hand was an hour and a half of movie that felt like it was twice the length.