Once upon a time, Frank Miller was among the finest writers in the comics medium; that would be right around 1986, when The Dark Knight Returns was published for the first time, revolutionising the world of superhero literature. In the years that follow, Miller started to slide a bit into weaker and weaker stories, then into self-parody around the midpoint of his decade-long run on Sin City during the 1990s; that slide into self-parody turned into a full-on gallop to embrace self-parody starting more or less with The Dark Knight Strikes Again in 2001, and from this he has never recovered, best indicated, perhaps by his inspired idea to have the Caped Crusader fightin Osama bin Laden in a proposed, yet-uncompleted graphic novel tentatively titled Holy Terror, Batman!

Somewhere in all of that, Robert Rodriguez - a much smarter director than he's usually given credit for, and better than virtually anyone else out there at stretching a tiny budget - took three of the best Sin City stories and turned them into a hypnotic pastiche of film noir and impossible CGI sets. Released in 2005, the high-water mark year for comic book films, the Sin City movie remains a unique beast: taking every shot from the graphic novels and adding only movement, it never feels bound to the page or anything else but the raw untapped potential of cinema in the computer age, and counts as perhaps the only film in the burgeoning green-screen style of filmmaking (think also: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Star Wars: Episode III, or the Miller-derived 300) in which the unreality of computer-animated backdrops adds to, rather than distracts from, the mood and impact of the film as a whole.

Because Rodriguez is such a nice fella, and because he essentially used the Sin City books as his storyboards, he fought to have Miller added as a co-director, even though the writer contributed nothing to the actual on-set directing. Rodriguez's well-meant gesture of generosity (which got him kicked out of the DGA) has now come home to roost, sadly, and Miller has turned his honorific credit into an incipient film career with his adaptation of Will Eisner's 1940s comic strip The Spirit, though with a little bit of luck the cringing awfulness of Miller's film will be enough to prevent him from ever getting to make another. This is bad, bad stuff. It's not just that it's obvious from the train wreck onscreen that Miller hasn't ever truly directed a movie before; it's hard to tell if he's ever even seen a movie before. The Spirit is an epic failure on the Ed Wood model, a result of a man with a thousand ideas, all of them bad, and no talent whatsoever for bringing those ideas to life in front of the camera. I'll say this for it, at least it's never, ever boring.

The Spirit plays like a Greatest Hits compendium of all of Miller's worst habits, the ones that we overlook in his good work and roll our eyes at in his bad work: hellzapoppin' sexism, with every woman in the cast (including Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Sarah Paulson and Stana Katic) given to fawning over the oh-so-sexy title hero (Gabriel Macht, who you may know from something, which puts you one up on me) while wearing tight, revealing outfits; self-consciously hard boiled dialogue that veers straight into balls-out silliness, particularly in the endless monologues; violence stylised to the point that you can't tell what the hell is happening; and fever dream imagery that might be cool if it weren't entirely nonsensical, especially the scene where the villainous Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) and his assistant Silken Floss (Johansson) confront the Spirit while dressed as SS officers, standing in front of a giant Hitler portrait. A far cry from Eisner's poppy, noir-in-full-color original, Miller's film is a stylistic cousin to Sin City, with marginally more color (it also uses the green-screen and CGI backgrounds technique, though the technology appears to have regressed).

The end result is absolutely crazy, in ways that I can hardly communicate - the only way to fully ken The Spirit is to see it, and it's so deliriously loopy in its badness that I'd actually recommend you go out and do just that. There's no way to communicate in print how gaudy the Spirit's snarling tough guy dialogue is when Macht delivers it, using a voice that recalls a twelve-year-old playing at Christian Bale's digitally-augmented voice in The Dark Knight, nor can I fully express the mesmerising sight of Jackson at his very hammiest, playing a character with an inexplicable fixation on eggs and egg-related puns, culminating in a left-field rant where he declaims free range chickens because of their horrible brown-shelled ovum.

It all seems like it's meant to be a spoof of the serious, dark comic books and comic book movies, except that Frank Miller has no apparent sense of humor. What little I know for certain about Will Eisner makes me believe he does have such a sense of humor, and maybe this is Miller's attempt at replicating that. He fails, if that's the case: this film's comedy is about as catastrophic as Superman III or Batman & Robin had. Assuming that it is intentional comedy, and not just the side effect of Miller giving in to all of his worst impulses. For without doubt, The Spirit is a prime example of an artist casting off the last traces of discipline and going positively apeshit with all of his pet obsessions. That's what makes it special, really: though it is entirely and irredeemably terrible, it is unmistakably designed to be exactly what it is. These melodramatic performances and garish fight sequences are a perfect fit for the ripe dialogue and gonzo visuals. It's not common these days for a film this unhinged to make it out into the world, with all of its creator's terrible ideas expressed intact, but it has happened with The Spirit. Treasure this, for its like will not come again soon.

But I wonder...maybe I'm being too hard on Miller. As we all know, December is the month for big prestigey movies that the studios want very much to show up on Top 10 lists and win awards. This short-sighted view ignores the other half of things: the Bottom 10 lists, and the Razzies. Could it not be that this is a deliberate attempt to court those votes? If so, I can only say to Mr. Miller: yeoman's work, sir.