Monday, December 29, 2008

Why 'The Spirit' Matters

If Frank Miller makes a movie, and no one goes to see it, does that matter? In short, yes... yes, it does. Now, there's enough Frank Miller hate floating around these here internets, so I will talk less about his most recent steaming pile of weird Freudian crap and focus more on why he matters, why 'The Spirit' matters, why comic book movies matter, and most importantly, why 'Watchmen' will probably not be any good.

Frank Miller is one of those guys even the non-geeks know. Everybody has that friend who 'doesn't read comics' but has read Dark Knight Returns. Lots of people saw and liked 'Sin City' (which, even I have to admit, was a well-done piece of film-making). But that's not why he matters. He matters because he has that carte blanche to make whatever project he sees fit and to mold it in his own warped image. 'Sin City' and '300' were his own work, transposed to the screen nearly panel for panel, but 'The Spirit' is something else entirely. 'The Spirit' is a revered text. That's not to say it isn't deeply flawed (I showed my girlfriend a picture of Ebony White and she damn near had a stroke), but it's important. It's influential. It was challenging the confines of comic books when the medium was still nascent.

It's not just that Miller's interpretation was his own. That is neither here nor there. The Spirit is not above interpretation. Darwyn Cooke's 12 issue 'Spirit' run was absolutely dynamite, but I'd hardly say it was completely true to Eisner's original vision. If anything, it poked fun at it. The problem is that Hollywood values comic books for style when their real offering is substance, and Frank Miller's cinematic carte blanche typifies that set of priorities. Frank Miller, as a storyteller, has mostly confined his writing to stories of determined struggle against irrevocable, and often fatalistic, circumstance. There is a looming sense of inevitability in his writing which has occasionally allowed him to be brilliant (i.e. Daredevil: Born Again) but mostly makes him drab and predictable. But his best known works are ultimately defined by their aesthetics, be it the ever-present red tones of '300' or the shadowy noir of 'Sin City'.* And it is in this regard that Hollywood has decided that his talents translate to film.

Hopefully, the poor box office showing of 'The Spirit' compared to the huge success of 'The Dark Knight' will shift this thinking. Hopefully, the powers that be in film will start to see that the best offering comics have to mass media is the rich well of character and conflict rather than the stylized imagery. The 'Spider-Man' and 'X-Men' films began with this in mind, but these trilogies both withered at the end under the weight of special effects as a substitute for real character development and intelligible plotlines, either of which they could've gotten by, you know, picking up a trade paperback or two.

So where does 'Watchmen' fit into this rant? Simply put: My prediction is that 'Watchmen' will be historically bad. My reason: Zack Snyder. 'Dawn of the Dead' was a fun, campy remake. '300' was so weird it made me squirm in my seat. '300', if run end to end without slow motion, would probably be about six minutes long. Plus, the source literature takes about 20 minutes to read. It simply isn't dense and complex like 'Watchmen'. Directing for style is not the same thing as directing for substance. It's why 'The Matrix' is a great movie and the sequels are a joke. 'Watchmen' simply wasn't recognized as a piece of literature. It was looked at like it was 'GI Joe' or 'Transformers', so that's the kind of director they got. I really hope I'm wrong, believe me, but the trailer looks... well... ridiculous.

I guess the point of this whole thing is say that, yes, I think Frank Miller mostly sucks, but he's not the reason great comics get turned into crappy movies.' He's a symptom of the problem. And honestly, I think the only cure is to only see these films in the theater once and pirate the ever living crap out of those DVDs.**

* Note: Dark Knight Strikes Again is best known for looking like it was drawn by an eight year old.
** Note: This is a joke. We here at Second Printing do not seriously condone piracy of any kind, be it of bad DVDs or Saudi oil tankers. No, we don't like pirates. Pirates can suck it.


Devon Sanders said...

If I take anything away from The Spirit's poor box office showing it's this:

Love don't necessarily pay the bills.

While Miller may have been the natural heir to carry on Eisner's pseudo-superhero legacy, the fact of the matter is not every hero is meant for the big screen and not every one is cut out for Hollywood.

Miller was the inspiration for the 300 and Sin City adaptations, he was also the guy who wrote Robocops 2 and 3. Good intent does not always translate into box office.

ChrisM said...

Great to see that the holidays have freed up folks to be blogging again!!
I haven't seen The Spirit yet..but I knew when the first trailers came out that it was going to be too stylized and weird to get wide appeal.
Miller may need to compromise or at least alter his artistic style to find a broader success base. I think that even the most prodigal movie maker will find their purest visions too much for most people.
Plus, as I understand how many of these movies are made they're shot in front of green screens. I can't imagine that its terribly easy to act and be convincingly in characer when EVERYTHING (and sometimes everyone) around you isn't even in the shot!
Sadly, I share in Mike's pessimisim about Watchmen. A screen by screen 'lift' of the comic book WON'T be enough to make a movie a critical success (although I suspect the hype alone will float it to the top)

Allan said...

If most comic book movies are destined to fail it is not because of any central misunderstanding of the medium by the people in charge of greenlighting projects, but instead because the majority of most movies--regardless of their genre--are destined to fail (be it financially, artistically or both) period.

It is the nature of art that only a small portion of it can ever be considered successful (depending on how you choose to determine success) and only a much smaller portion of these will ever reach the kind of transcendence that elevates them to any level of significance.

One thing I have noticed about the comic book movie genre is that the very nature of its audience almost always precludes the possibility of universal consensus. Those who prefer their comics dark and gritty will be put off by the family-friendly whimsy of the Fantastic Four films, while those who prefer the light-hearted adventures of the silver age are put off by the dour pessimism of The Dark Knight.

My first thought when I contemplated your complaint of substance being ignored in the place of style were the two recent Hulk movies. Interestingly the first is widely derided for being slow, pretentious and boring, while the other was praised for being exactly what a Hulk film should be. Though its success is debatable (I considered it highly underrated) Lee's film is a film of substance (or at least an attempt at one), while the more recent film is essentially a Godzilla movie without the inherent nuclear subtext. Though their B.O. takes were essentially equitable, the first was considered a flop, while the second has been regarded as a hit. In this case it was clear that substance was not wanted and as a result the film that attempted it has been saddled with a reputation it did not deserve.

It goes without saying that perception is subjective. I have watched the same Watchmen trailer many times and have never found it to be anything less than sublimely beautiful. I have no idea if the completed film will measure up to the graphic novel or even if I'll care if it doesn't. I'm simply happy that we live in a time where such wonderful cinematic dreams are at least attempted, regardless of the result.

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