Frank Miller is a sham. He is to film making what black velvet Elvis paintings are to art, the unfortunate intersection of two things that shouldn't be allowed in the same hemisphere. The Spirit, his latest comic book adaptation and first complete directorial credit (this time of Will Eisner's iconic '40s character) is a green screen fiasco, so ham-fisted it makes the '60s Adam West Batman TV series seem positively Shakespearian by comparison.
I'm also tired of hearing terms like “hardboiled” and “Film Noir” bandied about in reference to Miller's work. They are obviously meant to describe the hyper-stylized, CGI-augmented tones of Miller's graphic-novel-meets-cinema motif, but the “look” of Film Noir was only one component in what was arguably the most highly complex and deeply existential movement in cinema's short history. Miller isn't doing Film Noir homages, he's doing live action graphic novels that drew their visual inspiration in part from the cinematography of the classic Noir period. What these films looked like was only small part of what they were – a point missed nearly entirely by the vast majority of film critics who have seen The Maltese Falcon and Sunset Boulevard and now claim expertise over the entire Noir canon.
Let's be straight here. Beyond the high contrast visual distortions of Miller's The Spirit (and for that matter, Sin City before it), nothing about these works is particularly comparable to Film Noir. The Noir movement was an extension of (and reflection on) the alienation and angst experienced as a result of the Second World War. The existential meaninglessness of life, honour and ethics in the face of the recent horrors faced by that generation manifested itself on the silver screen as disconnected heroes wandering a desolate urban landscape, numbed by years of continual death and destruction. The essence of Film Noir can be traced to the walking wounded and the emotionally scarred survivors of the time. It's true that the Noir movement morphed over time into many variations on this central theme, but at its core it remained a window on the fractured psyche of society. The crime underpinnings of the typical Noir plot convention provided the means and context to explore the effect this tragic war had on the common man. These films found their source in '20s and '30s pulp fiction but were framed by the post-war social conditions experienced by soldiers returning to a changed land.
At the risk of breaking into a 12 page dissertation on Film Noir, my point in a nutshell is this; the classic Film Noir period has influenced many subsequent films and likely represents the quintessential high water mark of American film making. Frank Miller (and to be fair, a great number of other modern film makers) does little more than dabble around in the fringes of the Noir motif and yet somehow garners endless comparisons to the originals. They are not in the same league and it's high time somebody said so. It's as silly as comparing paint-by-numbers landscapes to the works of the Grand Masters.
Dead men don't wear plaid.