The Cinematic Spirit

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!

Instant movie. Just add motion.

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. 

As far as similarities go, this is about it.

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.

I’m sorry… What was I saying?

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.

Steven Paul Leiva, Brad Bird, and Will Eisner, 1981.

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.

25 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    I remember seeing the Spirit in The iron Giant and reading that Bird was a fan. Seeing Mr Incredible dressed as the character, in The incredibles made me wish Pixar would gain the rights and let Bird direct it.

    The TV pilot is pretty entertaining, except, as you say, it really missed on P’Gell.

    I don’t think it’s a hard property to get right, I think it is symptomatic of Hollywood thinking: no trust in the source material. Hollywood always thinks it can do better or knows better. They are usually wrong. When it comes to the Spirit, follow the source and you can’t go wrong, as that pencil test proves.

    1. John Trumbull

      I think it is symptomatic of Hollywood thinking: no trust in the source material. Hollywood always thinks it can do better or knows better. They are usually wrong.

      Yes, I agree that that’s the basic problem 90% of the time. I can usually smell the disdain for the source material in trailers these days.

      I wish instead of asking, “How can we change or revamp this thing we’re adapting?” Hollywood instead asked, “Hey, let’s figure out what makes this thing SO cool that it’s lasted 40/50/75 years and figure out how to put that on screen.” If you want to boil what Marvel Studios is doing down to a basic formula, that’s it.

  2. Edo Bosnar

    Yeah, you’d think a live-action Spirit wouldn’t be *that* hard to make, but you make a good point about it having to walk a fine line between noir and (occasional) parody. It was line Eisner could negotiate beautifully in a comic, but I can imagine translating that to the screen would be pretty challenging. So I’m not even sure it’s entirely the fault of Hollywood thinking in this case, as Jeff suggests.
    It seems like animation is the way to go, though. That pencil test you linked is quite good – I want to see that damn film now! Hopefully you’re prediction about Bird will come to pass, and we get to see a Pixar Spirit feature.
    By the way, I’m still completely uninterested in seeing Miller’s Spirit, but am now quite curious about that 1987 TV pilot (casting Visitor as Ellen is interesting; personally I see her more as someone like Sand Saref…).

    1. John Trumbull

      you make a good point about it having to walk a fine line between noir and (occasional) parody. It was line Eisner could negotiate beautifully in a comic, but I can imagine translating that to the screen would be pretty challenging.

      Yeah, I think that’s one area where Eisner’s drawing style really gave him an advantage. Compare the straight way that the Spirit/Denny Colt is drawn with the more caricatured or cartoony looks of Commissioner Dolan or Ebony. That right there tells you that the strip is going to have a blend of styles.

      So yeah, maybe animation is the way to go.

  3. M-Wolverine

    Leave it to Ellison to have to be so right that something was good he couldn’t just let it go.

    You could do a lot worse than Magnum PI in a mask.

    And in the other article I had forgotten one of the few pluses in Miller’/ version being the fine cast of women. Of course I had also forgotten the photocopy of an ass, so maybe that was a wash.

    1. John Trumbull

      I needed an 80s action/cop show, and Magnum was the first one that came to mind. If I’d thought harder about it, I suppose I could have come up with a more generic/mediocre one, like Simon & Simon or The Fall Guy. But Magnum, P.I. is just a funnier title to say.

      Let the record show that I like Magnum just fine. 🙂

  4. Pol Rua

    The problem is that Hollywood has two major formulas when dealing with adaptions of this sort.
    The first is deconstruction. “For years, you heard the legends, but now… here’s the truth”, and the second is irony “What did you expect, Yellow Spandex?”
    It’s all terribly adolescent in its approach.

    Not to mention that, you can pad a story a hell of a lot by having your major characters spend 90% of the movie arguing until finally coming together at the end.

    A damn shame filmmakers are so terrified of sincerity.

    1. John Trumbull

      Good points. Yeah, deconstruction and irony do seem to be the default approaches.

      Yeah, sincerity is tough to convey in a non-boring way. I don’t mind characters having conflict or a disagreement (that’s more dramatic, after all), but the contentious Spirit/Dolan relationship that we saw in Miller’s movie was like no Eisner story I’ve ever read.

  5. John Trumbull

    ATTENTION, JUNK SHOPPERS!! My Facebook buddy DAN RIBA (of Batman: The Animated Series, Superman, Justice League, Ben 10 fame) commented on my thread there, and he had some very interesting things to say about the Spirit movies. He graciously gave me permission to copy & paste his comments over here. Take it away, Dan!

    “I have a similar reaction to the films as you have. I’m a little harsher on Frank Miller’s film because I was there in the crowd at SDCC when the film was announced. He said a lot of things that sounded great….and didn’t follow through with very many of them. He said the film would come from Will’s pages…and that Will Eisner would basically be storyboarding the film with his panels. The next year he came back with a trailer…and described the film…it sounded nothing like the comic. He said that yeah he knew that the Octopus was never shown in the comic( except for his gloved hands)….but ” You don’t cast Samuel Jackson and don’t show him!” I thought….well don’t cast him then! So I felt betrayed by him…it’s hard to be objective about it. I do like that Sand Serif flashback sequence, I wish the rest of the movie was as good.”

    1. John Trumbull

      Dan Riba: “My dream cast for a live action Spirit would have been James Garner as Denny…Lee J. Cobb as Dolan…and Jessica Walter as P’Gell. Back in the 70’s it would have worked. I remember Will talking about the Ellison script…he loved it. There was a fight in a phone booth that was thrilling and funny. Friedkin thought it was too silly…Eisner didn’t…when pressed Friedkin said it was too “comicbooky”. Eisner didn’t like that. I hope some day that someone would adapt the Ellison, Feiffer , and Eisner’s own script into a comic.”

        1. John Trumbull

          DR: “My brother was working at Warner Bros when they made the TV movie…I used to hang out and watch them film. I went to the wrap party and spoke to Steven E. De Souza. I eventually ended up with the tombstone with Denny Colt written on it. I offered it to Will…but he said his wife would kill him if he brought it home.”

          “I had a Dr Strange ring…a replica of the one from the TV movie. While they were building the set to the cemetery lair of the Spirit , I went up to one of the builders and asked where the window…the one that looks like this ring? He said the ceiling wouldn’t show it but they could make sure the lighting people would have the light cast in the shape of the window. Later on, I found out that the guy thought I was Will Eisner.”

          1. John Trumbull

            DR: “And one more thing years later when I was directing for Ben 10…Bumper Robinson was a regular on the show…the kid that played Eubie. He grew up into a really good actor…and phenomenal voice actor!”

            “One more thing about the TV movie. They set up an air cannon to propel a stuntman back as the Spirit punched him. The camera was behind the Spirit so you never saw how far back the the guy flew…but it was a cool stunt.”

            “Oh…oh…I also remember the casting. I kept hearing about all the people that tried out. All I can remember is Gil Gerard.”

            Dan also owns a hat & mask that were used by one of the stuntmen on the pilot. He posted a picture, and it looks way cool. 🙂

          2. John Trumbull

            Oh! And I almost forgot to include this one:

            DR: “Garner had always been Eisner’s first choice. I remember a news report in the entertainment section of the Washington Post back in the 70’s…talking about a Spirit TV movie with Burt Reynolds and Flip Wilson as “an ultra-hip” Ebony.”

    2. I was at that SDCC panel as well. The unintended irony was staggering. The producers talked for about 15-20 minutes about the importance of “the artist’s vision,” about “being true to the artist’s vision,” about “respecting the artist’s vision,” they said it over and over like it was a church liturgy, “the artist’s vision bla bla bla,” and then finished it off with, no joking, no hyperbole, no exaggeration, they really said this, “and that’s why we’re so proud to have Frank Miller on board to bring his artistic vision to The Spirit!” As if Will Eisner was just some guy, some hired hand whose work needed to be completed and corrected by the Great Frank Effing Miller. Suppressing the urge to yell something took a lot of strength.

  6. Jeff Nettleton

    Aw, man, yeah; James Garner! I could buy Cobb as Dolan, based on his role in the two Derek Flint films. Going that route, I’d say Debbie Reynolds would have been a pretty good Ellen Dolan. She and Garner had good chemistry in How Sweet (uneven film; but, they are good).

      1. Caanan

        I recommend it. It’s nudged its way in to my top 5 even. (THREE now Brad Bird movies now, plus Back to the Future and Stand By Me, naturally.)

        I remember it getting wildly uneven reviews but basically it separates the world in to optimists and pessimists/realists (what pessimists call themselves.) If you’re optimistic by nature, if you believe we’re not all screwed and the next generations can save us all, you’ll most likely enjoy it.

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