A throwaway TV pilot scripted and produced by Steven E. DeSouza, who was on the point of graduating from tube fluff like Knight Rider to the action A-list of Commando and Die Hard, and directed by Michael Schultz, who was sliding the other way after credits like Car Wash and The Last Dragon (plus the major malfunction of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) – recently, he’s worked on things like Black Lightning. Will Eisner’s newspaper strip was a tough adapt for Frank Miller two decades later, with its mix of straight-up heroics and quirky comedy. In truth, it’s a more obvious fit for the camp approach than Batman, though this effort is plainly in a line of descent from the Adam West show, with an ‘80s vibe that has aged worse than 1960s BAM! POW! ZOK! pop artiness.
Cop Denny Colt (Sam J. Jones), a trenchcoated hulk from an Oregon town people think is called Armpit in a running joke that trips and falls at the third repetition, is out to avenge his criminologist mentor (Philip Baker Hall, who dies in the first scene). He travels to Central City to investigate a museum where dodginess abounds. After a brisk introduction to a bland version of Eisner’s regular cast – Commissioner Dolan (Garry Walberg), Ellen Dolan (Nana Visitor) and black kid sidekick Ebony, here wisely renamed Eubie (Bumper Robinson) and rethunk as a different decade’s ethnic hustler stereotype – he is gunned down by thug Bruno (John Allen) and revives with no explanation. On an apparent whim, he puts on a mask he admits looks like the Lone Ranger’s and the familiar blue suit/red tie/sharp hat to become the Spirit, operating outside the law.
Wildwood Cemetery, where the hero makes his lair, is a big hokey set wth dry ice, but the rest of the film lacks any kind of comic book look, even when Batman-like death traps (the Spirit lowered into acid, Ellen in an iron maiden with ratcheting spikes) are involved. The tone is juvenile, but some of Eisner’s ruthlessness and even perversity comes through – black widow villainess P’Gell (McKinlay Robinson) has the Spirit’s shirt ripped and her thugs work him over in silhouette while she plainly gets off on it, and knows he’s only stringing her along when he promises to turn evil if she lets Ellen go because his kiss isn’t convincing. But there’s more silliness like diving for a bomb in a big creamy cake shaped like a dinosaur, compounded by pounding music that isn’t actually exciting but tries to pretend it is.
Given that a few years down the line Tim Burton’s Batman would goose comic book heroes – leading to reboots in various media for Dick Tracy, the Phantom, the Shadow and the Flash – it’s a shame that this came along too early to catch that wave. Instead, it’s nearly the last gasp of a previous cycle, just as Miller’s Spirit would come at the tail end of the Burton-influenced comic strip adaptations, upstaged by Christopher Nolan and the MCU. I guess that makes this a hard luck property.
Here’s my Empire review of Frank Miller’s film.