In alternately, at times simultaneously, entertaining and disquieting ways Frank Miller has been losing it in slow motion over the last ten years or so. Despite its qualities, Sin City was one slow degeneration of the storytelling instincts of one of the truly great writers in mainstream comics of the last 25 years. An ongoing condensation of elements always present in his work, the series represented a fascinating, if often disheartening artistic development that now seems to be flatlining into irrelevance.
Hollywood and mainstream fame unfortunately do not seem to have provided the rejuvenation one might have hoped for. On the contrary; his films are mostly transpositions of what he does in comics to a medium on which he is much, much less proficient. The Spirit is awful, as predicted, but really it is not much worse than — or indeed all that different from — the Sin City flick: they share their stilted direction, sluggish pacing and lack of storytelling rhythm, a tin ear for what animates a given scene — whether it be action or talking heads — which results in several sequences dying on the screen, not to mention the strange belief that one can transpose untreated something that works in a comic into live action.
Add to this uninspired casting, bad storytelling choices (eg. giving the Octopus a face — Miller gets very little out of the potentially funny Samuel Jackson) and uninspired cinematography; for a movie that relentlessly assures us that it is about the Big City, one of the quintessential Millerian themes, The Spirit seems reluctant to ever foreground it. And what it does show is blurred and bland. I am fine with Miller throwing out almost everything Eisner about the character in favour of his own vision — how else could you pull off this kind of adaptation? — but this is actually the one place where their concerns meet, and the film would have benefited considerably had it taken more of a cue from Eisner in this respect — in the Spirit comics, the city lives and breathes on the page, here it remains a digitized postulate.
Anyway, as indicated the film is basically the latest iteration of Miller’s “crazy” phase. Towards the end of the Sin City comics run — perhaps around Family Values (1997), and certainly with the execrable Hell and Back (2000) — Miller had pretty much entirely jettisoned the traditional storytelling virtues and pretensions of realism of his earlier work in favour of a kind of balls-out cartooning that nurtured his principal themes in all their raw, unrefined glory. Almost vociferously eschewing the most obvious claims to literary respectability of his earlier work, he increasingly came to embrace the grotesque, often to the point where he veered into more or less intentional self-caricature.
This approach proved immensely rewarding when he undertook the seemingly impossible task of creating a sequel to his masterwork The Dark Knight Returns (1986). The Dark Knight Strikes Again, or DK2 (2001-2002), is an intoxicatingly idiosyncratic, irreverent take on the comics tradition from which Miller had made his living for his entire career. Given a deliriously enzymatic boost by his then-wife Lynn Varley’s utterly confident, brutally beautiful colouring job, Miller caught the raw energy and primeval fascination of four-colour heroics like lightning in a bottle.
Ultimately however, his vision was without much direction and has proven to be a rather shallow well of inspiration. There is a compelling rage in all of Miller’s work, but unlike that of his great predecessor Jack Kirby, it too often becomes an indulgence in — rather than nourishment of — his storytelling. This has become painfully obvious in recent years, not the least with the misconceived All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder series, which, besides struggling with an utterly inappropriate artist in Jim Lee, suffers from an acute lack of inner necessity. There are certain inspired moments here and there, such as having Batman tasting cigar smoke on the tongue of Black Canary, or the ridiculing of Green Lantern’s lack of imagination in the use of his power ring, but ultimately they are rather childish in their irreverence, never amounting to much beyond cheap laughs. It’s almost like Miller is just going through the motions.
The same goes for The Spirit. You occasionally catch the glimmer of a good idea, but Miller does not seem to care much. It is always wise not to speculate too much on personal matters, but the persistent rumours of alcohol abuse cannot help but resonate with this observer. He seems to be losing his grasp on what previously made his art tick, resorting to trite reiterations of formulae that used to work better.
At the beginning of the film, The Spirit enters a police car, pushing the driver off the wheel, telling him “Move over Liebowitz, I’m driving!” Surely a reference to the famous co-founder and publisher of DC Comics, Jack Liebowitz, this is an homage to Eisner’s famed independence of corporate comics and control of his intellectual property. But the scene is made all the more poignant by the policeman Liebowitz being played by Miller himself — his grasp on the wheel unsettled by his own work.