Like the film’s disfigured protagonist, Spawn is a movie that society has chosen to shun and cast aside since its release 20 years ago. Even the film’s own director felt the need to apologize for it on the DVD commentary track. As far as comic book adaptations go, Spawn was hardly a trendsetter for the now-booming genre that dominates the summer box office every year, but as a time capsule of an era when caped crusaders were still adjusting to the screen, it’s an interesting case study. Spawn isn’t the quality adaptation the source material deserved but is the film completely without merit? Let’s look back and re-evaluate things.
Created by Todd McFarlane and published by Image Comics since 1992, the original Spawn portrayal tells the story of Al Simmons, a former government assassin who was mercilessly slaughtered by his own colleagues and sent straight to hell. Upon his arrival in the pit of flames, Simmons strikes a deal with the demon lord, Malebolgia, agreeing to part with his soul and servitude in exchange for seeing his wife, Wanda, again. Simmons is then resurrected five years later as Spawn, a scorched anti-hero who returns to Earth to battle street thugs, crime syndicates, and all manner of supernatural foes as he fights to cling on to his humanity amid the call of his demonic destiny.
Spawn is one of the longest-running and most successful independent series to ever hit shelves, and during the comics boom of the early ‘90s, it was a top-seller that regularly beat out competition from the big guns at DC and Marvel. The first issue sold approximately 1.7 million copies, so it made sense to adapt the property for the screen during its commercial peak. Directed by special effects whiz Mark A.Z. Dippé, the live-action film debuted in theaters on August 1, 1997, to moderate box office success and widespread critical derision.
As an origin story which doesn’t stray too far from the premise of the comics, those familiar with Simmons’ tragic journey won’t find a lot here they aren’t already familiar with. Michael Jai White stars as the titular demonic superhero, viciously murdered by his evil boss, Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen), at the behest of hell’s clown henchman, the Violator (John Leguizamo). The pit needs a soldier to lead an army against heaven and Wynn craves power and immunity. It’s a mutually beneficial working relationship, and Simmons is the unfortunate pawn mixed up in the sinister game.
After reluctantly agreeing to lead the forces of darkness in a war against heaven, he returns from the oven to find that Wanda has remarried and moved on. Now all he needs to do is avenge his death and trigger a virus so his transformation from Al Simmons to the hell’s general can be completed. But there’s still some humanity lurking beneath Spawn’s monstrous exterior, and with the help of the angelic warrior Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson), he learns to harness his new powers and use them for non-apocalyptic purposes.
Let me preface this critique by stressing how much I love the Spawn movie. While it’s a far cry from the source material and superior animated series also released that year, I do fall into the minority camp of people who find the film immensely enjoyable despite its numerous flaws. It’s not a good movie by any means, but there are impressive elements to it, even if they’re outweighed by the negatives.
Spawn is an ambitious effort with outstanding makeup, occasionally great special effects and entertaining performances from White and Leguizamo who bring their grotesque characters to life admirably despite the weak material they’re forced to work with at times.
Another plus is the soundtrack of quintessentially ’90s metal, industrial, and techno music. Featuring artists like Filter, Marilyn Manson, and Orbital, the music selection encapsulates what was popular in alternative circles back then. All that is missing are more characters sporting novelty creeper shoes, black lipstick, and dog collars.
That said, Spawn is a dated flick in other ways; the product of a decade where superhero movies were still finding their groove and CG was an art form few had mastered, it stands out as a remnant of a bygone era like a sore thumb. The scenes set in hell are on par with PS1 cut-scene graphics and look atrocious, and while you could argue that they add to the film’s charms as a guilty pleasure, those moments are a reminder that the film failed to live up to its potential. That same year also saw the release of Batman & Robin and Steel, which tells you all you need to know about the confusing place superhero comic book adaptations were trapped in back then.
The Spawn comics aren’t without their cartoonish moments, but they’re essentially grimy, dark, and chock full of violence. The film strives to achieve the same gloomy mood as the source material, only with the inclusion of contradictory scatological humor and low brow silliness. All in all, the forced comedy makes for a movie experiencing an identity crisis. For example, there is a scene where our clown antagonist rips off his underwear to reveal skid marks and another one where he’s dressed as a cheerleader performing a sexy routine. But Leguizamo gives it his all and somehow manages to turn what should have been an obnoxious, career-killing role into entertaining comic relief. In these instances, the script is about as creative as the mess on the clown’s tighty whities, but what it lacks in tonal cohesion it makes up for in being entertaining in a train wreck sort of way.
Despite being envisioned with an R rating in mind, the studio demanded edits to get a PG-13 rating for the theatrical release. In a bid to appeal to younger viewers, the onscreen violence was removed and the film lacks a bloody punch as a result. There is a Director’s Cut DVD with the violence and naughty words restored, but it’s nothing to write home about when it comes to the carnage you want from a film of this ilk. However, it is a vast improvement compared to the Theatrical Cut and well worth seeking out should you decide to lower your standards and enter at your own risk.
Overall, Spawn is a mixed bag; every criticism that’s been hurled in its direction throughout the years has been warranted, but it’s far from the worst movie out there. If anything, Spawn is worth revisiting just to see how far superhero movies have come along since. Spawn is from an era where the genre was still undergoing awkward teething pains, but it’s a fascinating mess nonetheless. Perhaps it’s a case of me appreciating what it was trying to achieve rather than what it actually accomplished, but it’s not completely devoid of plus points. While I will admit that it’s a movie which suffers from a case of wondering what could have been, the final product makes for mindless escapist fun.
Recently it was announced that Blumhouse is producing the long-awaited reboot to be written and directed by the series’ mastermind, McFarlane. It’s about damn time. Described as “The Departed meets Paranormal Activity” by the creator himself, the new movie will be a low-budget suspenseful horror affair as opposed to a grandiose spectacle. It makes sense to revamp the franchise this way; the cheaper production budget gives McFarlane more freedom to execute his creative vision. Who better than the property’s O.G. to usher in the new cinematic incarnation after all?
The Spawn mythology is rich and deserves a grand scale big screen adaptation, but there’s no denying that McFarlane has a specific vision in mind for the character’s next outing. That’s an intriguing and exciting prospect and one which will hopefully give our anti-hero the treatment he deserves. Failing that, we can at least hope for another entertaining mess, although I highly doubt McFarlane will allow that to happen twice in the same lifetime.