Sometimes things don’t go according to plan.
For my column last week, I was planning to write about comic book crossovers, when they work, and when they don’t. I may still come back to the topic at some point, but last week, it just wasn’t coming together. My Monday morning deadline was fast approaching, so I substituted a thing I wrote back in 2008, when the Frank Miller Spirit movie was about to be released. It was funny, it was the right length, and I had a feeling it would go over well with the comic book crowd. All I had to do was adjust the formatting and add in some pictures. Easy.
But even though people liked the column, I found myself feeling a bit weird about it. After all, the 2008 Spirit movie flopped pretty hard and is largely forgotten today. Was there much point in my bringing it up again eight years later just to make fun of it? Especially since, as I said in the title of my column, I never bothered to see the thing? While I don’t regret writing it (I still think it’s pretty funny, actually), I’m not sure if it’s a piece I’d write today.
So I decided to put my money where my mouth was and finally see the damn thing. Thankfully, my local library had it on DVD. And since I hadn’t seen the 1987 Spirit TV pilot in well over a decade, I ordered a copy of it from the WB Archive to make it a double feature.
And in researching this column, I discovered that when it comes to making a movie out of the Spirit, things have never really gone according to plan.
You’d think that a film version of The Spirit would be a natural. After all, when you’re talking about cinematic comics, The Spirit is usually at the top of the list. Making a movie out of it is a no brainer, right? The thing’s practically storyboarded already!
But it turns out it’s trickier than you might think.
For one thing, the tone of The Spirit is a tough one to nail. It’s equal parts film noir and tongue-in-cheek parody. If you go too serious, it’s a second-rate Maltese Falcon in superhero garb. If you make it too funny, suddenly it’s a camp-fest along the lines of Batman ’66. And you need a leading man who can hit all of those notes, someone along the lines of a Cary Grant, James Garner, or Bruce Campbell. Those guys aren’t easy to find.
And on top of all that, the Spirit has the same problem that properties like the Shadow, the Green Hornet, the Phantom, and the Lone Ranger all have: Most of the last couple generations haven’t heard of them. Or, if they do know them, it’s from flop movies that missed the mark. So audience recognition is an uphill battle.
But still, that hasn’t stopped attempts from being made.
In 1976, William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist and The French Connection, had plans to direct a TV-movie for NBC. Harlan Ellison was hired to write the script. Ellison and Friedkin had a falling out when Ellison complimented Friedkin’s unsuccessful film Sorcerer (How Harlan Ellison is it that he got into a massive fight with someone over how much he liked something?). When none of the writers Friedkin hired (including Jules Feiffer and Will Eisner himself) could capture the tone he wanted, Friedkin left the project.
The Spirit (1987)
Ten years later, Steven E. de Souza, writer of 48 Hours and Die Hard, wrote a Spirit TV pilot of his own. This time around, the pilot was cast and shot, with Flash Gordon‘s Sam J. Jones playing the Spirit and future Star Trek: Deep Space Nine star Nana Visitor as Ellen Dolan. Unfortunately, the pilot was caught between two regimes at ABC, and the new people in charge didn’t have much interest in the projects started by their predecessors. It finally aired in 1987 after a petition circulated among fans at the San Diego Comic Con. After that, it was only available via bootleg until Warners made it available as a made-to-order DVD in 2013.
And honestly, it isn’t that bad. The opening credits even feature art from Eisner himself:
The budget was all of $2.5 million, which wasn’t really enough to bring the Spirit to life. The Spirit and Ellen dress in retro-styled suits and dresses with the bright colors of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, while the rest of the cast is in contemporary clothing. And instead of a rainy, moody film noir set in a New York-esque Central City, we get a lot of daytime scenes shot in sunny Los Angeles. The pilot’s version of Wildwood Cemetery goes back about 20 feet:
The story is so-so. There’s a perfunctory origin sequence where Denny Colt survives an attack on his life and assumes a new identity as a mystery man. Strangely, the movie makes Colt a visitor to Central City, which minimizes his personal ties to Ellen and Commissioner Dolan. You wonder why he chooses to confide in people he’s met for all of five minutes. And the real culprit behind a series of art forgeries isn’t hard to guess if you have any familiarity with the characters.
And yet… it has its moments. The scene where the Spirit introduces himself to Commissioner Dolan has the right sort of atmosphere, the initial montage of the Spirit’s crime-busting is fun, and there’s a great cliffhanger where Ellen has to rescue the Spirit from being lowered into an acid bath.
Sam Jones cuts a dashing figure as the Spirit. He’s got the same wide shoulders and narrow waist that Eisner always drew, and his hat is always tilted at the right rakish angle. He even gets his suit ripped to shreds whenever he gets into a fistfight. Nana Visitor is an appealing Ellen Dolan, and she and Jones show some chemistry. The two have some nice physical comedy when the Spirit is trying to help Ellen sneak out of a bathroom.
The casting is generally good. Garry Walberg is a solid choice as Dolan and Bumper Robinson plays Eubie, a more contemporary version of Ebony. The only weak spot in the cast is McKinlay Robinson as P’Gell, who doesn’t have the oomph the role requires. They needed a larger-than-life vamp along the lines of a young Joan Collins, and Robinson just ain’t it.
But there’s enough good there to make you wonder if they could have figured it all out. Would they have gone for more of 40s look in the series, or gone totally contemporary? Could we have looked forward to direct adaptations of classic stories like “Gerard Shnobble” or “Ten Minutes”? Would the show have ultimately won Will Eisner’s approval or just become Magnum, P.I. with a domino mask? It’s interesting to ponder.
The Spirit (2008)
So after eight years, I finally watched this. And here’s the thing:
I didn’t hate it.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s definitely a bad movie. But it honestly has so little connection to Will Eisner’s comic that it’s not worth getting worked up over. If you changed the character names, I doubt anybody would realize that this started out as an adaptation of The Spirit.
It’s a striking-looking movie throughout. If nothing else, Frank Miller is great at composing an arresting image. It’s just that the story is absolutely bonkers.
The plot, such as it is, concerns the Octopus going after a vase of the demigod Heracles’ blood, which he thinks contains the secret to eternal life. Denny Colt’s resurrection as the Spirit is tied to the Octopus’ quest for immortality, and both characters have a Wolverine-esque healing factor which enables them to fight like Looney Tunes characters. There’s also no shortage of femme fatales, with Eva Mendes as Denny Colt’s childhood flame Sand Saref, Scarlett Johansson as Octopus henchwench Silken Floss, Sarah Paulson as Ellen Dolan, Paz Vega as Plaster of Paris, and Jaime King as Lorelei, all trying to seduce and/or kill the Spirit, sometimes at the same time.
The character dynamics are all different. The Spirit and Commissioner Dolan spend most of the movie yelling at each other, a far cry from the friendly, professional relationship they had in the comics. There’s no trace of Eisner’s Ellen Dolan in Miller’s version. Sand Saref, as you might expect, is Elektra without the sais. And the Octopus… Outside of wearing the gloves, there’s no connection to the comics character.
Most of the performances are bad, but I feel like the actors were giving Miller what he wanted, so I can’t really fault them too much. Gabriel Macht is utterly wooden as the Spirit. The Wonder Years’ Dan Lauria, an inspired choice for Dolan, doesn’t get to do anything besides be loud and grumpy. And Stana Katic as Officer Morgenstern gives some of the worst line readings I’ve ever heard in my life.
Of all the actors, Scarlett Johansson acquits herself the best. She finds the right sort of tone for the piece, and Silken Floss has a nice monologue towards the end about why she’s really working for the Octopus. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that’s she got the whole sexy librarian thing going on.
But yeah, the movie’s pretty bad. There are lots of moments that are just… odd. Like the Octopus’ frequent references to eggs. The constant cutting to a stray cat. The cloned henchmen with their names written across their chests like the 1966 Batman series. The Octopus dressing up like a samurai or a Nazi for no stated reason. The Spirit using a photocopy of Sand Saref’s ass as a clue in a murder investigation. And the failed clone that’s just a tiny head on top of a foot. I know it sounds like I’m just making this up, but I swear it’s all in there.
I don’t feel like Miller did any of this maliciously, though. I think he just couldn’t help himself. Love Frank Miller or hate him, you can’t deny that he’s a very creative guy. And I think he just can’t turn it off. If you give him a property, he’s going to Frank Millerize it. I don’t think Miller ever consciously said, “I’m going to turn Will Eisner’s The Spirit into Frank Miller’s The Spirit,” but by the time he was done, that was exactly what he did.
So yeah, it’s too bad that neither the 1987 pilot nor the 2008 movie were the definitive live-action adaptation of The Spirit that we deserved.
But there’s one attempt out there that got things totally right.
In 2008, Steven Paul Leiva wrote a piece for the L.A. Times about how the Spirit nearly made it to theaters 25 years earlier as an animated film directed by Brad Bird. Yes, that Brad Bird. Director of the modern animated classics The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and the more recent live-action films Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Tomorrowland.
In 1980, Bird and several of his Cal-Arts classmates put together a pencil test demo reel to show what they could do with The Spirit property. And boy, did they get it. You know how I was saying that the tone of a Spirit movie was the toughest thing to get right? Watch this 3-minute video and tell me that Bird & Company weren’t nailing it:
Bird and Leiva got some cool people in their corner, too. Gary Kurtz, the producer of American Graffiti, Star Wars, and The Empire Strikes Back, agreed to produce the film. Even Will Eisner was impressed enough to give Bird’s team the film rights to the character. Bird also had a lot of his old classmates ready to quit Disney to help him start a new animation company and produce a Spirit movie.
But unfortunately, Bird, Kurtz, and Leiva failed to secure financing for the movie. Comic book movies were still very much an unproven property in the early 1980s. Sure, the Superman movies were hits, but Popeye, Annie, and Flash Gordon all disappointed at the box office. And potential backers just couldn’t grasp why this story about a plainclothes crimefighter with no powers should be animated instead of live-action. Animation was for kiddie stuff like The Secret of NIMH with talking animals, and even Disney was in a slump then. Eventually, Bird’s option on The Spirit expired.
But man, it’s fascinating to think about what might have been. Would an animated Spirit film have been a success? Would Will Eisner’s character have gotten mainstream recognition? Would Brad Bird have become a big-time director two decades early?
And who knows? Maybe it could still happen. Properties get rebooted faster and faster these days. Brad Bird is working on The Incredibles 2 right now, and maybe that’ll give him enough cachet to finally make an animated Spirit movie.
Sounds like a plan to me.
See you next week.