I’m not alone in my flabbergastation that one of the most cinematic comic books ever drawn has never gotten a decent adaptation to screen. In 1987, having grown up on reprints of Will Eisner’s wonderful comic The Spirit (thank you Warren and Kitchen Sink Press), I was pretty excited to see a movie based on the title character. I had high hopes of seeing Eisner’s characters and his noir playground Central City brought to life. I mean, hell, every issue was a storyboard in and of itself! I figured it would be easy to cast and shoot. Even at fourteen, I knew that many early film noir movies invented their “look” out of budgetary concerns—deep shadows covering the edge of a set, the grim look of an urban setting emulating the post-war America, etc.—and even if The Spirit had only a TV movie budget, surely something great would come out of this.
Okay, I was a little concerned that “Bob Boxbody”—aka Sam J. Jones, the furniture-based star of DeLaurentiis’ idiotic Flash Gordon was cast to play Denny Colt / The Spirit, but he might be able to pull off the masked crimefighter okay. After all, Denny is really just an overgrown boy scout in a blue suit. His only superpower is having a head that is harder than the average cinderblock, able to withstand any amount of punishment dished out to him. And Jones seemed pretty solid in terms of cranial density, so my hopes remained high.
And, okay, I knew they were going to throw out his side-kick, Ebony White, a little minstrel-based comic relief character with a Southern Amos ‘n Andy drawl that most found offensive in this newly-minted PC age. Yes, even though Ebony was never treated like a stereotype and was a warmly received character who often took center stage in the stories, white guilt now ruled the entertainment industry. So Ebony would be changed to “Nubbin” or “Willum” or “Sammy” or a score of other, replacement boy sidekicks The Spirit had had from time to time.
And, okay, few women existed in Hollywood at any time since the ‘40s as ridiculously sexy as Eisner’s femme fatales. Even his girl next door, Ellen Dolan, was based on a strange cross between Joan Blondell and Jean Harlow. Again, in the ‘80s, it was bad news to depict women with sex appeal, even if their characters were brilliant and used that sex appeal to get one over on the average dumb male.
And, okay, TV was probably the wrong medium to depict the sheer amount of often scary violence often visited upon The Spirit. He is often beaten nearly to death, shot, stabbed, blinded, defenestrated and otherwise the victim of extreme harm that often lands him in the hospital (one particular instance tells about a normal day of life outside of an urban alley where The Spirit lies wounded and unable to call for help). So most of that would have to be toned down. Gone would be an amazing sequence where The Spirit drags himself painfully across a room to bathe his bleeding head beneath a sink faucet just moments before a thug slams him over the head with a bat—again.
Still at fourteen, cynicism hadn’t quite gotten its hold. So I sat down in eager anticipation and the excitement grew as gorgeous panels of Will’s artwork appeared on screen and quickly dissolved into live-action matches. My God, they were gonna do it! The Spirit! If it took off, it’d get developed into a series. And, and, and…!
Alas, alack and oy. While it starts well with an explosion and a friend of Denny’s giving a last request, The Spirit sets off on a crummy retelling of his origin story—young cop, thought dead, returning as a masked avenger to aid the cops—but makes a mush of it. Gone is Dr. Cobra and his fluid that sends Denny into suspended animation—okay, fine. But why are Denny and Dolan strangers? Why is he a regional cop from something called “Armfeth” (leading to the four-time used joke, “Where’s ‘Armpit’?”)? Why the heck is Ebony now a conning street urchin named “Eubie”, selling stolen tape decks? What the hell is going on with P’Gell? She’s the ultimate Eisner femme fatale, an amoral schemer who uses sex as a weapon, and they cast Laura Robinson to play her? The woman is as exotic as a Yenta buying groceries.
I was so turned off by the movie—the unnecessary Adam West Batman-esque campiness, the bland story, the blah-direction, the bloodless—as in “drained of blood”—action sequences. Jones was fine as Denny, I suppose. He had the upright boy scout thing down and didn’t look overly silly in the ill-fitting Spirit outfit. Nana Visitor (future Star Trek wet dream) was okay as Ellen. I had no idea why they decided to have her friends with internationally-known and intriguing P’Gell, or why, again, they decided to turn P’Gell into a respected community member, but… The whole thing was very off-putting and extremely disappointing. And what was with all the sunlight? Central City looked like Hill Valley in Back to the Future.
The pilot was never picked up and the idea of a series was killed. Some reports say that Eisner himself killed the series, others maintain that the show was too low-rated to warrant continuing. While it is true that Eisner did hate the movie, for precisely the same reasons the rest of us did, it’s unclear whether he pulled the plug himself or not. A moot point, regardless.
Flash forward many years later and we damaged Spirit fans learned just how much love had gone into that original TV movie. In comparison, at least, to the artistic sodomy perpetrated by comic book “genius” and “personal friend” of Eisner’s, the despicable Frank Miller. Compared to Frank’s adaptation of The Spirit, the Stephen DeSouza penned and Michael Schultz-directed TV movie was a loving recreation of the original. Looking back through tear-stained eyes after having witnessed Miller exhuming his “friend” and violating his creation, the ’87 movie actually has a lot going for it.
While most of the decisions made in the TV version were wrong-headed but understandable—updating The Spirit to modern day makes his fedora-and-trench coat fashions pretty ludicrous; recontextualizing the characters and their relationships allowed for development in a later series, and it could be rationalized that the players could explore Central City in future episodes and, perhaps, go deeper into darker Eisner territory. Lack of money made the day-time scenes necessary, fine, fine, fine.
Besides, Schultz had directed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, so he already had that going against him. The odds were never in his favor.
As thin as DeSouza’s script was, it never once felt irreverent or, compared to Miller’s, blasphemous. DeSouza seemed determined to honor the creator in some way, shape or form. Miller seemed out to avenge some wrongdoing. So many decisions in the modern feature film just seemed spiteful and others seemed downright cruel (Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of The Spirit’s villainous nemesis, The Octopus, was never anything less than a kick in the groin to Will and anyone who ever cared for The Spirit. The same is true, but moreso, to Frank making Denny a superhuman with Wolverine-esque healing powers). While Jones is his usual stiff but goofy self as Denny, never once does he brood on a rooftop about how much his “city screams” for him. Maybe the best that can be said about the ’87 Spirit is that it’s never pretentious, and you don’t realize how big a compliment that is until faced with the alternative.
Make no mistake, the ’87 Spirit is not good by any means. But it makes a darned good double-feature with the equally-silly Doc Savage because it was made to be fun. Schultz and DeSouza never tried to “reimagine” Will’s creations, but did their best with what they had to work with. In analysis, it feels more like a fan film than it does a TV movie, but fan films, by definition, are made because a fan loved something.
So if you’re eager to check out this misguided live-action goof-o-rama, it’s easy enough to find on bootleg DVDs and downloads. It’s unlikely that we’ll see an official release of this any time soon, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Again, bootlegs are primarily bought by somebody who loved it. Some amount of fond memory or curiosity drove that fan to either create that bootleg or purchase it. Fan dubs aren’t generally created to “stick it to the man”. So if that rationality works for you, by all means, run down Sam J. Jones as The Spirit. And if you dislike it, pop in Miller’s. You’ll gradually see only goodness and light and puppies in the first one.