Injecting Noir Into A Comic-Book Classic

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Two legendary comic-book artists have come together in movie theaters.

Will Eisner was a pioneer in comic books in the 1930s. He was a mentor to Frank Miller, who became known for bringing new depth to Batman in the 1980s and expanding the audience for graphic novels. Now, Miller has directed a screen version of his mentor's seminal work, The Spirit.

The original is a film noir-style classic of the 1940s. Miller says that the key to keeping film noir out of the realm of cliche is to remember that the darkness isn't about lighting, it's about tone.

Beth Accomando reports for member station KPBS.

'The Spirit' Is Weak (Which Is Bad In A Superhero)

Gabriel Macht as The Spirit i

The Flesh Is Willing: Shirtless scenes don't help Gabriel Macht seem any more stirring. DreamWorks/Paramount hide caption

toggle caption DreamWorks/Paramount
Gabriel Macht as The Spirit

The Flesh Is Willing: Shirtless scenes don't help Gabriel Macht seem any more stirring.


The Spirit

  • Director: Frank Miller
  • Genre: Action, Thriller
  • Running Time: 103 minutes

Rated PG-13: Sadistic violence and fetishistic nudity, both taken lightly

Samuel L. Jackson as The Octopus i

Eight's More Than Enough: Samuel L. Jackson overplays the Octopus. DreamWorks/Paramount hide caption

toggle caption DreamWorks/Paramount
Samuel L. Jackson as The Octopus

Eight's More Than Enough: Samuel L. Jackson overplays the Octopus.


A ghostly crime-fighter who wears a fedora rather than a cape, the Spirit comes from a different, more grown-up tradition than Batman and Superman. Yet writer-director Frank Miller follows the standard superhero-flick formula in his disappointing homage to the pulp hero and his influential creator, Will Eisner.

Conceived for newspapers' Sunday comics supplements, The Spirit ran from 1940 to 1952, blending film-noir archetypes and playful wit.

The alter ego of presumed-dead police detective Denny Colt, Eisner's protagonist prowled Central City at night, battling crime — which often took the curvaceous form of punningly named femme fatales.

Emulating the look of his own noir-inspired Sin City, Miller shot The Spirit on empty sets, adding the scenery with digital illustration. Although Eisner's strip was originally printed in full color, Miller opts for a near-monochromatic palette; the Spirit's flesh is pale pink and his tie bright red, but the dominant hues are black and white.

Like most superhero movies, The Spirit wastes time on its protagonist's genesis, even though the origin story is almost always the weakest link in such tales. It also tries vainly to simulate the feel of a long-running serial by dumping various plot lines and multiple villains into one script.

Thus a synopsis becomes primarily a checklist of characters. The Spirit (a blank Gabriel Macht) faces archenemy the Octopus (unseen in the original strip but conspicuous here, as overplayed by Samuel L. Jackson), his scientist sidekick Silken Floss (blase Scarlett Johansson) and their army of clownish identical clones.

Our hero also contends with glamorous jewel thief (and childhood paramour) Sand Saref (a vamping Eva Mendes), who's accidently switched heisted strongboxes with the Octopus.

The other members of the Spirit's on-screen harem are belly-dancing Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega); beckoning Lorelei (Jaime King), the lady of Central City's lake; and police physician Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson), who moons over the Spirit's sculpted physique every time she patches it up. Ellen's dad (Dan Lauria) is the local police commissioner and the Spirit's ally.

The story, embellished with Yiddish phrases and references to Greek mythology, could hardly matter less. Miller lavishes just as much attention on his own private fixations, which require Jackson and Johansson to dress in both samurai and SS gear.

The Nazi stuff might make sense if the film were set in the 1940s, but the presence of computers and cell phones suggests otherwise. Miller is entitled to modernize Eisner's vision, of course, but his update is haphazard and soulless. Better to forever haunt a wartime Central City than to be trapped in The Spirit's green-screen Nowheresville.



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