After finishing hi successful run on The Amazing Spider-Man, Todd MacFarlane left Marvel to create his own company, Image Comics. And although they published many successful titles, the one that really put them on the map was Spawn, first released in 1992, about deceased marine turned super powered demon Al Simmons/Spawn, who will either be mankind’s savoir or bring about it’s destruction.
And inevitable, in 1997, a film was released. And to put it simply, it was crap. Not crap as in the ‘this is the kind of film that brings shame to everyone involved’, but rather the ‘so bad it’s good kind’.
See, you have to remember, that before Blade was released in 1998 and started the comic book craze, superheroes were a different kettle of Xudarians (sorry). Sure, it was an origin story, with the awesome tagline “Born in Darkness. Sworn to Justice”. But before the countless examples of how to and how not to do a superhero movie came about, Spawn unfortunately had very little inspiration to look towards. The film was also rated PG-13, when an R rating was necessary. A so called Unrated Director’s Cut was released, but the changes were no minimal that you’ll barely notice them (click here for a full comparison of both versions).
Special effects creator Mark A.Z. Dippe, who had no previous directing credits to his name when he was selected to direct Spawn. And since the film’s release, he’s had a fantastic Hollywood career, directing Blockbusters such as Frankenfish and Garfield Gets Real. Without wishing to enter into the debate of whether special effects creators become good film directors (cough Strauss Brothers), but with Dippe, well, he may have been good at effects, but when it came to telling a good story…
Michael Jai White, popular for The Dark Knight, Arrow and Fast 7, was cast as Simmons. And although he did what he can in the role, there was not much he could have done with dialogue like “You sent me to Hell, Jason! I’m here to return the favour!”, yup, it’s a revenge flick alright, and the person who Spawn wants to be on the receiving end of the revenge (or as he puts it, to throw a “going away party” for), is billionaire and terrorist Jason Wynn, played by Martin Sheen, playing the most stereotypical evil genius imaginable that it’s amazing that they didn’t give him a mustache to twitch.
But clearly one villain was not enough, so they needed another bad guy to even things out. Enter John Lequizamo playing demon The Violator, or in his human form, The Clown. Now I need to stop for a second. You see, Lequizamo’s performance was not easy to put into words. He makes The Clown into the most unbelievably over the top, pantomime like, campy, cheesy, hammy, and most downright ridiculous villain ever. When he’s not trying to be destroy the world or whatever it is he wants to do, because, you know, that’s what evil people do, he is either crapping his pants then holding up the spoiled clothing, eating pizza with maggots on it, singing in baritone or delivery lines that are so terribly written that I dare you to watch him deliver them with a straight face: “How come God hogs all the good followers and we get all the retards? “A hospital? Have you looked in a mirror lately, burnt man walking? Even the entire cast of “E.R.” couldn’t put you back together again.”, or “Start the Apocalypse, Now”, which he says to Martin Sheen. No prizes for guessing which film that was a reference to. Practically everyone Lequizamo says in the film is of the ‘so bad it’s good varity’, but the icing on the cake has to be a conversation between him and Spawn which goes as follows: Spawn : “you can take that army of yours and shove it” Clown: “Sounds like a country song. (singing) You can take that army of yours and shove it. You can…(stops singing) Uh oh, you’ve got that “I wanna kick the fat little man look in your eyes”.
Amazingly, despite Lequizamo’s undeniably terrible performance, White would go onto act alongside Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, with that Oscar winning performance of an evil clown in a comic book adaptation being considered to be one of the best performances of all time. And nobody ever said that Lequizamo did not take the role of The Clown seriously, after all, those maggots that he ate unfortunately were not CGI…
The plot moves along quickly as one would expect from a standard revenge flick, with Wynn having Simmons burned to death, only for him be resurrected as Spawn five years later. Spawn also wants to be re-united with the love of his life, Wanda (Therese Randle) and his young daughter Cyan. Unfortunately, after his death, Wanda remarried and convincing her that he is her husband, back from the dead is no easy feat. But Spawn is not completely alone, he has help from angel Cogliostro (played by classic British actor Nicol Williamson in his last ever performance). But all the supporting characters seemed to have no substance, they were just there to drive the story forward. And with the exception of The Clown, it suffered from taking itself too seriously. It’s a movie about a guy trying to stop the armies of Hell from rising up, with a fantastical premise like that, who wants to see everyone playing it straight faced? They also through in some religion imagery, such as Spawn being impaled on a gate in a crucifixion position, clearly subtlety was not a hot topic.
With Dippe being a former effects creator, you would at least thin kt that the effects would have looked impressive at the time. Well, considering that Dippe had previously worked on Terminator 2, The Abyss and Jurassic Park, the effects in Spawn looked incredible poor in 1997, and just plain laughable now. The sections in Hell looked like a N64 game, complete with rough textures, and Malebolgia, the demonic ruler of that part of Hell, looked like an unevenly projected image, and for some reason his lips never moved when he spoke. The Violater, Clown’s demonic form, looked a little better, and the scene where he transforms from one form to another looked cool, but for the most part, the effects were a disappointment.
Due to their stupidity, the action sequences were a lot of fun. Spawn crashing through the ceiling of a cocktail party, cape and all, is one of the highlights of the film. And a motorbike chase sequence, in which Spawn transforms himself into a giant spike to stop a truck of gasoline, well yeah. It’s almost as if they knew that were making a classic example of a B movie.
And that more or less sums up Spawn, a dumb but highly entertaining pre-superhero boom movie that showed us what the genre was like back then. It made an okay $87 million worldwide, but the critics slaughtered it (apart from Roger Ebert). Macfarlane has been trying to get a reboot made for years, with filming presumably set to begin this year, and Jamie Foxx strongly hinted to play Spawn. As a character long overdue a second chance in Hollywood, let’s hope that Spawn does eventually get another chance to shine on the big screen.