There's a movie out there- one that either you've A) never heard of, or B) been told that it sucks. In this movie, there's a fight scene that utilizes an arsenal of plumbing supplies. There's a torture scene in a Nazi dentist office. There's a 3 Stooges-style Greek chorus of genetically engineered cronies named after Greek dramatic devices who, when they are killed, are replaced by more genetically engineered cronies named after Jewish deli staples. There's an overwhelming number of brilliant one-liners. It's an origin story, a love story, a comedy, a noir, a superhero movie, an action thriller, and a commentary on the nature of life and death, all at once.
Oh, and Samuel L. Jackson is the bad guy.
The Spirit is the best movie of 2008. But you were all told that it was the worst. Upon its release, the movie was universally panned as an unworthy follow-up to its predecessor, the universally praised Sin City. Both are adaptations of graphic novels, both are directed by Frank Miller, and both are tremendous films. However, their cinematic style and their origins as graphic novels are the only things these films have in common. Everyone wanted The Spirit to be the next Sin City. I'm about to explain why that's like wanting Schindler's List to be the next Jaws.
Sin City is film noir. The Spirit is a complete send-up of film noir. That's what they are as movies AND graphic novels. There are a couple of misconceptions that obscure this truth- first, they do not share the same author. While Sin City was written by Frank Miller, The Spirit was written by Will Eisner. Though Miller went on to direct both, it's generally assumed that he also wrote both. Second, while Sin City is a contemporary series, first released in 1990, The Spirit's first appearance was 1940. They are separated by sixty years. One is an homage to noir, the other is a parody of that same genre that was just becoming popular when it was written.
Gabriel Macht plays a deceased police detective who's been given a second chance at life by an unknown vision he had while he was drowning. Though he is technically "dead," he patrols the streets in conjunction with the Central City Police Department as an independent part of the force. He also has a libido set on overdrive, and becomes more famous on the force for his sexual escapades, almost habitually turning damsels in distress into willing necropheliacs. More importantly, though, is his quest for identity- why he's still alive, and what his purpose is. But, at first, these questions take a backseat to protecting the citizens from crime and villainy.
And what a villain. Samuel L Jackson turns out one of his greatest performances ever as The Spirit's arch-nemesis, The Octopus, the also-immortal jewel thief he's been trying to catch for (literally) ages. This is the SLJ performance that we'd been waiting for since "English motherfucker do you speak it?!" In Snakes On A Plane, they went back and reshot a scene because fans came up with a perfect line for him. Here, almost every single line he utters is designed for a SLJ prank-call soundboard. In the first fifteen minutes, Jackson and Macht duke it out in a swamp, reaching into the muddy waters and pulling out random crap to knock the other out. First a drain pipe. Then a trash can. Then a cinder block. Then, finally…a whole toilet. Does it matter how it was in the swamp the whole time? Maybe. Is it one of the funniest things you'll ever see? Absolutely.
The Spirit is floored when he runs into his childhood sweetheart, played by the stunning Eva Mendes, and finds out she's working for The Octopus. He must choose between love and duty, and, as the CCPD between to distrust him, decide whether the Octopus is really worth taking down once and for all, and-
You know what? The plot really isn't important here. That's not why you're going to watch this movie. You're going to watch it for exchanges like this:
Spirit: The Octopus knows something.
Ellen: How do you know?
Spirit: Because he just told me he knows something.
And this, from the Greek Stooge chorus:
Pathos: We can't find her.
Waldos: We looked everywhere.
Matzos: Except where she was.
Pathos: We shoulda looked there.
Waldos: We did look there.
Matzos: Where's that?
The Spirit is a film designed to pleasure you with great dialogue. It treads the line perfectly between serious and self-aware, and the result is a great noir flick with a laugh every 5 seconds- if Sin City had the sense of humor and gag rate of Airplane. But it failed because everyone expected this movie to be a replica of another movie that was a lot like it. Maybe they marketed it wrong, maybe they should've released it a little later, but the real problem lies within our consumer culture.
Art is treated like a "product," something you can compare to other products and decide which one you like best- like peanut butter or chairs- rather than a one-of-a-kind experience you won't be able to find anywhere else. I'm not throwing away the value of opinion or subjectivity- hell, the point of this article is the The Spirit is the best movie of 2008. But judging a film on the basis of another film makes it easier to market, to comprehend, and to consume. That way, we know what we're watching, and we know how we should feel about it beforehand, giving us a pre-disposed opinion, which is a lot easier than forming one ourselves. But that doesn't lend itself to progress.
The world of The Spirit doesn't have any rules. It throws them all out. It challenged norms. Is "The Spirit" up there with the greatest movies of all time? Hell no. But it reminds us to treat every work of art like its own planet, not to expect anything from anything, and that toilets are always funny.