Bad Example: The Spirit (1987)

by Jay Stringer

Aha! Gotcha!

You were expecting Frank Miller and lots of shouting, right?  Sorry to disappoint.

The Spirit has been adapted to screen before, way back in 1987 as a vehicle for Flash Gordon star Sam Jones. I watched Frank Miller’s film expecting to hate it. I watched the 1987 film hoping to love it. Neither turned out the way I was expecting.

Okay, it was a TV movie, but that’s still a movie. I mean, Spielberg’s DUEL was a TV movie, but it’s still great. To be honest, I think TV movies would be a far better home for most comic book adaptations. We’re into a mindset where every comic book needs to be a 700 million dollar hit, go big or go home. But aside from the obvious biggies, I believe most comic book properties would be far better served as small indie films or TV movies. Yes, the budgets would be lower, but so would the pressure.  The films wouldn’t be dependent of stunt casting or big opening weekends.

Does the world need Daredevil as another 90-minute action bonanza with a huge star? Or would it be better served as something smaller and seedier, with some unknown character actor playing the nutter in the devil suit?

There have been three attempts now into turning Frank Castle into an action star. Really? Wouldn’t it be better to make a low-budget and scrappy revenge flick, even if it means going straight to TV or DVD?

I’m a firm believer that you should choose the medium that best serves the story you want to tell, not twist the story to serve the medium.

The only trouble with this bold theory of mine? The Spirit.

Before I rush headlong into it, let’s add a bit of balance. 1987 was a difficult time to attempt something like this. The comic industry itself was in the middle of a decade long reassessment of itself, which unfortunately lead to all the wrong conclusions. And adapting material to the screen was largely an unknown for a generation of filmmakers. This was well after the high camp of the 60’s Batman show, a decade after Donner’s Superman and a heartbeat before Burton’s Batman. What did we have to play with? A dodgy Doctor Strange TV movie, a few failed Captain America stories and Howard The Duck.

Oh yes, high quality.

The best comic book film during these years was The Return Of Captain Invincible, which was a silly superhero comedy musical and wasn’t even based on a comic.

These days it’s an easier sell. An audience can go into a film and give a degree of trust to the filmmakers, they know it’s based on a comic book and it might take a little explaining.

So what did they do in 1987? Well it’s funny to note some things haven’t changed; the opening title sequence is a montage of comic book panels and live action shots, establishing that Sam Jones (who most people didn’t really know) was playing The Spirit (who most people didn’t know).

Then they throw us straight into a moody cop story. We know it’s a moody cop story because it’s set at night, and Denny Colt is making tough talk into a police radio. There’s 80’s synth with processed drums and a wailing guitar. Any minute now, I’m thinking, and Edward Woodward will walk on-screen and equalise something.

This is a great example of the sort of writing that drives me nuts. Things happen for no reason. Within the first two minutes a man is killed and his house explodes, torched to destroy evidence I suppose. The problem is that the murder victim isn’t actually dead; he lives long enough to stagger out of the flames and talk to Denny Colt. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I was going to kill someone and destroy the evidence, I think the best way to do that would be to make sure the guy was dead. Otherwise the house blows up for no other reason than to look cool, which isn’t great story telling. In a scene a few minutes later some museum security guards throw Denny out of the building and down the front steps after he’s shown his identification as a police officer. Again, it makes for a fun image, but it makes no sense whatsoever.

Something else that doesn’t make sense is Denny’s “death.” Now, we know that the story needs to get from A to B. A is Denny is alive and working as a cop. B is Denny officially dead, but not really dead, and fighting crime as The Spirit. Batman Begins filled the small space between A and B with a little logic, and enough pretend realism that we believed the step from angry rich man to angry rich man dressed as a bat, but here it’s treated much like the business plan of the Underpants Gnomes in South Park; it’s a three-step plan with no second step.

Denny is missing and the police –those highly trained professionals who follow every forensic lead- decide that he is dead. And, well, that’s it. Next thing we know, he’s decided that the only sane way to respond to being presumed dead is to wear a bright blue suit and fight crime. No mention of the possible tax benefits of being dead, which would be my first thought. And the only two people who attend his funeral are Ellen and Dolan, two characters that he met ten minutes previously. When the Spirit later takes off his mask to reveal his true identity to Dolan, it’s a revelation. “I don’t believe it, you’re dead.” It sounds far more dramatic than, “I don’t believe it, you went missing and we were too lazy to look for you.”

You have to wonder if this film was meant to have a Shutter Island style twist, where it’s revealed Colt is a madman in therapy and everyone else is humoring him.

Tonally the film is all over the place. Say what you will about Frank Miller’s version, but at least it picked a tone and stuck to it. It knew what kind of story it wanted to tell. That’s important, I think. Commit to the story you are telling, because if you don’t then neither will the audience.

Partway through we get one of those montage sequences that are meant to show time passing, with quick scenes of The Spirit taking down various underworld figures and the newspaper headlines that followed. But these brief glimpses look far more fun than the film itself, as if it’s teasing us about what we could have won.

Readers of the comic’s will know The Spirit has a controversial sidekick, an old racial stereotype called Ebony White. Different reinterpretations of the story have tackled this in different ways; some play down the racial aspect and make him a cool street kid, some cut him out of the story completely.

This was the 1980s though, so they dealt with the outdated racial stereotype by updating him to the newest racial stereotype. Here he is the fast talking young black street kid. And he wants to sell you some high tech gear; the latest cassette walkman, running on AA batteries.

(The eighties child in me was still impressed by this technology.)

More things that bothered me. Denny Colt wanders around in the suit and hat, looking exactly like The Spirit but without the mask. I mean, come on, at least Bruce Wayne has the decency to dress like a giant bat, that’s the sort of thing that will make you look a little different. The two main villains are way too easy to spot; one of them dresses in black and the other is English. Dead giveaway.

Occasionally it gets things right. When the film forgets about being set in the 1980’s, or about being a cheap movie, and shows us glimpses of the real Will Eisner creation, like a quick scene of Denny in the dark or the occasional great one-liner. Unfortunately the quick scenes in the dark are followed by badly built sets under bright lights and the one-liners are delivered by Sam Jones.

Despite it’s flaws, it does have a certain charm. The whole thing carries an obvious affection for the source material, even if nobody involved seemed to have a clear idea on how to adapt it. Much like our comments on the recent Iron Man 2 podcast, the film ends up caught between two different identities; One foot in 80’s crime drama and one in the 60’s Batman. The screen was not big enough for the both of them.

Next week; Back to the big screen and Jennifer’s Body!

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