The Spirit

Watching “The Spirit,” it’s hard to tell whether writer/director Frank Miller intended it as an homage to Will Eisner’s classic comic book character, or whether Miller hated it and wanted to sully its reputation. You could make a strong case for either theory.

Miller, a comic book writer and artist himself, who created “Sin City” and co-directed the film version of it, has made a mess of “The Spirit.” In his hands, the film — his solo directorial debut — is a befuddling wreck of disparate tones and styles, with broad slapstick one minute, arch-ironic dialogue the next, and supposedly thrilling action scenes after that. Worse, these (and other) elements are often crammed uncomfortably into the same scene, leading the viewer to wonder whether he is meant to be laughing at or with the film — or, for that matter, whether he is supposed to be laughing at all.

The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) is a masked crusader who follows Batman’s crime-fighting modus operandi and Superman’s Boy Scout-ish code of conduct. He has no real super powers, though he is immortal and heals quickly due to an incident that occurred some time ago at the hands of his archenemy the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson). In the film, the Spirit is eager to learn what the Octopus did to him, while also seeking to prevent the Octopus from obtaining a legendary artifact that will make him invincible.

The Octopus, a maniacal villain whose dialogue inexplicably includes frequent references to eggs, is assisted by femme fatale Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) and a squad of imbecilic clones (all played by Louis Lombardi). These bumbling stooges are not ever funny, not even once, and while they get on Silken’s nerves a lot, I’d wager it’s not nearly as much as they get on mine.

Thwarting both the Octopus and the Spirit is another femme with fatale tendencies, Sand Saref (Eva Mendes). As a youth (played in flashbacks by Seychelle Gabriel), she was the Spirit’s childhood sweetheart, back when he was just Denny Colt (Johnny Simmons), a regular kid who wanted to be a cop when he grew up. Speaking of cops, the film also includes a gruff police commissioner, Dolan (Dan Lauria), whose daughter Ellen (Sarah Paulson) is the medical examiner and the non-fatale femme in the Spirit’s life.

And, um, you know, et cetera. The fights between the Spirit and the Octopus boil down to little more than two guys punching each other; none of the other action scenes offer much in the way of originality or excitement, either. The plot is vague and goofy (something about the blood of Heracles), and the Spirit himself is a bland, uninspiring hero. Only the Octopus offers any real entertainment (isn’t that always the way with super-villains in bad movies?), but he’s no Joker. Heck, he’s not even Mr. Freeze in “Batman & Robin.”

There’s no life anywhere in the film, and that extends to its visual presentation. Miller sticks to his wheelhouse by giving everything a bold “Sin City,” old-style comic book look, with lots of blacks, whites, and reds. It makes for some striking compositions. The problem is that rather than bringing to life the action implied by a comic book panel, Miller has simply recreated it: Even when characters are in motion, the film looks like a series of static, flat images. Nothing appears natural — it’s too sterile, too computerized.

I’ve never read the Spirit comic books, but I can’t imagine they’re bad like this — if they’re bad, it must be in different ways. This movie has a modern kind of badness to it, the kind that’s only possible in an era of mind-boggling technological advancements and de-emphasized storytelling. Frank Miller: How about we get back to work on those “Sin City” sequels, OK?

D (1 hr., 43 min.; PG-13, brief nudity, a lot of stylized violence.)