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The Spirit

Director: Frank Miller
Cast: Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Paz Vega, Scarlett Johansson, Dan Lauria, Samuel L. Jackson

(Lionsgate; US theatrical: 25 Dec 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 1 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)

There You Was

You’re bleeding out of your head.
—Ellen (Sarah Paulson)


The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) lives in a dark, superficial, and exceedingly familiar place. Yet another graphic novel domain dumped onto the big screen, his city is, he says, “Always there for me. Every lonely night, she’s there for me.” He’s just getting started: “She’s my sweetheart, my plaything. She doesn’t hide what she’s made of, the sweat and blood of generations.”


Though he doesn’t actually know much about these previous denizens, or really how the city was constructed, the Spirit likes to celebrate his relationship with the place per se. His affection for it precludes soul-searching questions, like how he came to be unkillable, though this serves as the mostly prosaic mystery at The Spirit‘s center. “My city screams for me,” he pronounces, “She is my love, she is my life, and I am her spirit.”


And yadda yadda. The Spirit not only lives in a city he sees as a she, he is also surrounded by women, all eager to support him in whatever ways he needs. They show up regularly to be menaced by rapists and thugs so he might save them (thus providing the screams that make him feel manly), as well as to provide flirtatious distractions. When, as happens regularly, the Spirit is damaged in a tussle with a villain, he heads down to the hospital, where he’s patched up by the lovely and devoted doctor, Ellen (Sarah Paulson). He tells her that she’s special, and she claims to know his body better than anyone. Err, her father, Dolan (Dan Lauria), who also happens to be the police chief, notes that other women know that body pretty well, but Ellen’s all starry-eyed and loyal, not to mention shapely and red-lipped, like any good comic book girlfriend. And so she sticks with her superhero, even if he’s not inclined to commit in kind.


When Ellen does voice her frustration, she aims it as the Spirit’s inexplicable body. “What are you?” she cries, following an especially bloody outcome. Yeah, well, he says in the ensuing voice-over to no one in particular, it’s a good question. “Am I a crazy man or am I a man at all? Am I some sort of ghost, some sort of flying Dutchman?” Hmmm. Maintaining one of those non-secret secret identities—he wears a teeny but probably cool-looking black mask over his nose—he doesn’t let Ellen know that he was once a cop, with a “real name.” Killed in action and buried by a grieving cohort, he remembers—in nightmarish flashbacks—clawing his way out of his grave but not quite how or why.


Until this film begins, the Spirit has spent precious time pondering his preternatural resilience. Now, however, he ‘s wondering how he survives multiple bullet and knife wounds, not to mention brutal beatings, most dispensed by a set of bald, thick-necked clones (all played by Louis Lombardi, in a concept derived from Star Trek‘s Harry Mudd) as well as their criminal mastermind creator, the Octopus (Samuel Jackson). Hero and villain share a mutually abusive, competitive intimacy; as the Octopus puts it, “When me and the Spirit get together, we like to party all night.” And by that he means, they beat each other silly with all available implements: “Toilets are always funny!” yelps the Octopus following an assault that’s actually rather unfunny. “I’m gonna be the death of you,” he insists during a less light-hearted moment, “I’m gonna kill you all kinds of dead.”


The Octopus is encouraged in such pursuits by his own loyal vavoomy sidekick, Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson). Dressed variously as an oriental comfort girl and a Nazi dominatrix, Silken understands her place in the plot (“I’m great eye candy”) but also has plans apart from her self-obsessed employer, who’s increasingly determined to get his revenge on the Spirit while also assuring his status as the only unkillable freak in their deeply shadowed, sharply angled neighborhood. Silken, for her part, has no trouble walking out of the movie when it gets wearisome.


No one else is quite so self-possessed. The key to both men’s immediate “issues,” no surprise, is yet another woman with cleavage, Sand Saref (Eva Mendes). The Octopus needs something she has, and the Spirit carries something of a torch for her, owing to a childhood romance (during which she insisted she was not his girl, which might explain why he’s so insistent on claiming every other girl—including the feminized city—as his). “I don’t want your world,” she protests during one of his self-pitying flashbacks, “I want diamonds and I want sports cars and I want gowns and I want money.” To that end, she’s becomes a glamorous jewel thief, and has come home only to pick up a package (a gleaming golden something in a suitcase, like the great whatsit in Kiss Me Deadly, just too awesomely beautiful to be shown on screen). Though she’s a suspect in a couple of murders, the Spirit insists she can’t possibly be the culprit. “You were warm, soft, 100% woman,” he mutters in his increasingly tedious voiceover. “Your taste was first class all the way.”


Except, perhaps, in her choice of boyfriends. Their inevitable reunion can’t resolve the deeply conventional identity issues plaguing both the Spirit and Sand, but it does remind them of why they split up years ago. If only they had come to this realization 108 minutes earlier.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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