Thursday, July 20, 2006
The Spirit Movie
If you’ve been cruising the Net in the last 24 hours, you’ve probably noted that one of this weekend’s big scoops from Comicon was so big that it slipped out early. That, of, course, is the fact that next year Frank Miller will direct the long-awaited feature film version of Will Eisner’s THE SPIRIT. Miller says that it will not be a nostalgia piece but that it will be surprising and scarier than expected. Sigh. Why does this bother me?
Supposedly THE SPIRIT was considered for a serial back in the forties but that never came about. By the seventies films like THE FRENCH CONNECTION offered familiar homage to Eisner’s cinematic storytelling. The director of that film, William Friedkin, not only acknowledged the influence but was for awhile expected to direct a big budget SPIRIT movie himself. Again, nothing.
THE ROCKFORD FILES on television featured James Garner as a laconic, wisecracking detective with a weakness for designing women and getting beaten up a lot. Garner’s name was mentioned quite a bit at the time in connection with the role of Denny Colt’s alter ego. I can’t find it now but it was probably in an old RBCC where Don Rosa drew a cartoon with Garner as the SPIRIT and child star of the moment Rodney Allen Rippy as Ebony.
Now there’s a problem. Ebony White. As much a part of the strip as the Spirit himself, Ebony was, unfortunately, a stereotypical product of his time. Eisner went a long way toward taking him away from the early stereotypes but the now non-PC look and name remained. Eventually his creator wrote him out, replacing him with Sammy and other less controversial kids but the chemistry wasn’t the same. In spite of his comic relief status, Ebony became a real partner and helpmate to the Spirit and his presence was sorely missed when he wasn’t there for long periods. Please don’t cast Marlon Wayans, Frank! Hmmm. Gary Coleman could probably still play it!
By the late eighties, someone finally got a greenlight on a SPIRIT movie, this one a TV pilot that aired finally in 1987. Well, not around here, exactly. Our local channel was preempting it for some reason. Luckily, my cable system had something called "network preempt" which would pick up network feeds from nearby cities when local stations chose to air something else. Unluckily, they were ten minutes late picking up THE SPIRIT so I missed getting the beginning on tape!
Starring former FLASH GORDON Sam (now with a middle "J" for some reason) Jones in the title role, it wasn’t bad. Not all that good either but not bad. The producer of the movie, perhaps not coincidentally, had produced the low-budget theatrical release of Eisner’s SHEENA a couple years earlier. The script was by Stephen De Souza, apparently a super hero fan as he had previously written THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE as well as episodes of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, GEMINI MAN and THE BIONIC WOMAN. He would go on to write DIE HARD, JUDGE DREDD, LARA CROFT TOMB RAIDER and even a new, as yet unproduced version of Lee Falk’s THE PHANTOM! Director Michael Schultz had actually done an episode of THE ROCKFORD FILES (but also the dreadful SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND!).
Casting was okay with Jones surprisingly good after he mangled (in my opinion) FLASH GORDON. Ellen Dolan was played by a pre-STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE Nana Visitor and she steals the show. Garry Walberg, the cop from Jack Klugman’s QUINCY, ME, was suitably crusty as her dad, the Commisioner. Ebony, rechristened "Eubie" was played by young Bumper Robinson, most recently heard as Hotspot on episodes of TEEN TITANS.
My main problem with he film is that it’s bright, too bright. There are Eisneresque touches aplenty for those that catches ‘em but that noir feeling is almost completely missing. Sam looks great as the rumpled, sweaty Spirit in torn shirt but silly and unrealistic as the blue-suited crimefighter in repose.
Now comes Frank Miller. Just as Darwyn Cooke, currently toiling on DC’s upcoming new SPIRIT series, seems an inspired choice, so does Frank. Certainly, SIN CITY shows that Frank can, at least with Robert Rodriguez, translate stylized noir to the screen perfectly. It bothers me, though, that he emphasizes it will not be a nostalgia piece. Frank is not perfect. For every DAREDEVIL and DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, there’s a RONIN or that horrible second DARK KNIGHT mini-series that I couldn’t even finish! Please, Frank. I’ll try to have faith but just remember, if you screw it up, THIS is what people will remember and it’ll be decades before anyone else tackles the property. Give us THE SPIRIT we’ve always wanted, Frank. Give us the unrelenting do-gooder that didn’t even let "death" stop him. Plop him right down in the center of a windy, rainy Sin City night if you wish but give him his blue suit, his hat and please, no guns. Give him sexy femme fatales who’ll strip him and seduce him and then leave him to be beaten to within an inch of his life but then let him come back, like a spirit if you will, and save the day. This is THE SPIRIT’s big moment, Frank. Make Will proud of you or HIS Spirit will haunt you forever!