THE ARCHIVIST VOLUME XIII — Failed Comic Book Adaptations: THE SPIRIT [1986] and STEEL [1997]

Welcome to the Archive. Following the infamous “Format Wars” (R.I.P. VHS), a multitude of films found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their admittedly niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Disc On Demand and Streaming service devoted to some of the more idiosyncratic pieces of cinema ever made. Being big fans of the label, we here at Cinapse thought it prudent to establish a column devoted to these unusual gems. Thus “The Archivist” was born — a biweekly look at some of the best, boldest and most batshit motion pictures the Shield has to offer. Some of these will be recent additions to the collection, while others will be titles that have been available for awhile. With over 1,500 pictures procurable on Warner Archive (and more being added every month), there’s no possible way we’ll get to all of them. But trust me when we say we’re sure going to try.

Welcome back, vigilantes, to an action-packed installment of The Archivist! Today, superheroes are everywhere. Their exploits can be seen on any size screen in nearly any locale. They are major moneymaking machines in filmed entertainments and also profitable in every sort of merchandising. They are plastered on apparel, phone cases, backpacks and purses, and practically anything else you could want. Did you look in your ass, lately? You probably have one in your ass. The Atom would be my first guess.

Yes, the original creations of the comic book realm are now more prolific and popular than ever, but even as recently as 1997, producers of film and television still didn’t really know what to do with them. Tim Burton had great success with a Batman franchise, and Superman had also performed well, but sometimes Quincy Jones gets in the mix and things start to go off the wall.

Let me explain…

First, let’s get through the good. Superheroes had often flourished on TV, but in 1986, when Sam Jones (Flash Gordon) donned the blue suit and matching fedora/mask combo for an extra-long pilot of The Spirit, nobody seemed to care. I had a rough go of researching this one. It doesn’t even have so much as a Wikipedia article to clue us in to the production history, so that means I won’t be able to tell you about all that stuff only I find interesting. Sorry! I suppose I could tell you a little about the movie itself, though.

Detective Denny Colt is investigating the murder of an old friend when a thug connected to his friend’s killer guns him down. Thought to be dead, Denny takes on the persona of The Spirit, only revealing himself to the police commissioner. He starts kicking all the right asses, makes a name for himself, and works his way toward solving the mystery that set him on this dangerous path.

Don’t be fooled by the low-res images I’ve included in the article. The DVD actually looks quite good considering this is a TV movie from the 80s. I am thankful for that, because this pilot has so much promise, I’m surprised it wasn’t picked up for a series. They were shooting for pure comic book glee with this one, and from the art direction to the performances, the whole thing strikes the same adorable tone. It’s full of funny gags, zippy dialogue, and more vibrant color than you could fit into Frank Zappa’s best acid trip. At a super slim running time of 69 minutes, the movie practically overflows with low-budget appeal. It’s a lot of fun and you should check it out, especially if you were lost or burned watching Frank Miller’s bafflingly dull and unfaithful adaptation from 2008.

Phallus much?

About ten years after The Spirit tried his hand at television, Shaquille O’Neal tried his hand at acting… again. Did you ever see a movie called Blue Chips? He was in that, too, and he was good! Shaq can aqt! So what the hell happened two years later when he infamously made an ass of himself in Kazaam? What the hell else happened just one year after that when he decided to take on a butchered adaptation of a DC comic book character? Something about moving to the Lakers must have given him a serious confidence boost (I mean… duh). Sometimes you just can’t stop until you get enough.

John Henry Irons (Shaquille O’Neal) is happily creating “non-lethal” weapons for the American military with his best buddy, Sparks (Annabeth Gish) and obvious maniac, Nathanial Burke (Judd Nelson), when Burke takes a weapon past its tested abilities to impress a senator. Sparky is crushed and crippled, and all three inventors are disgraced and leave the army. Irons, who lives in a wide-open scrap yard in a bad neighborhood in L.A., discovers some of his weapons technology has fallen into the hands of local gangs. He teams up with wheelchair-bound Sparky, takes a look at the man in the mirror, lets Sparky know she is not alone, and the two of them use scrap metal to create armor, computers, and enough advanced weaponry to tell the gangs they should beat it.

Taken from a very cool storyline in the Death of Superman era, Steel has almost nothing to do with its source material. Normally, that would be fine. It is apparently human nature to take something and make it your own. In this instance, it was the inspiration of Quincy Jones (producer/collaborator on Michael Jackson’s classic albums) that might have led this film astray. His intentions were noble. He felt children didn’t look to the future with positivity. I’m not sure how this ridiculous movie could change that, but I’m sure that’s just the way it made him feel.

The movie is a mess. It tries to strike the goofiest “Tee hee, crime fighting is fun! Smoking is bad!” tone, while employing “streetwise” dialogue with as much PG-13 profanity as possible. For whom did they make this movie? The dialogue is at its most troubling when only African American characters populate a scene. It sounds like a white guy took a bunch of overheard speech patterns and injected them into the script at random. Apparently… that’s actually what happened. Writer/director Kenneth Johnson visited an inner city school in order to get the conversations “right”. Who knows, maybe with better actors, the script would work fine, but with Shaq demonstrating all the magnetism of Michael Jordan in Space Jam, the language sounds forced and awkward. Add to that extremely boring action sequences, the most uncomfortable Richard Roundtree reference imaginable, and a predictable story made up of elements borrowed from previously released action movies, and this movie becomes really hard to recommend. I want to say you have to see it to believe it, but then you would have to see it.

Look, the whole point of The Archivist is to dig up the most nerdy cinematic discoveries possible, and if you want to see two failed superhero properties from a time when you could actually fail making a comic book movie, then these two movies make great companion pieces.

So fake your own death, and blacksmith yourself some seven-foot-tall body armor! It’s double-feature time!

Previous post NEW YEAR’S EVIL: Unjustified Cult Status
Next post New on Blu Podcast: WILD ORCHID Bores Despite Ample Nudity