Should I Watch..? 'Spawn' (1997)
What's the big deal?
Spawn is an action horror superhero film released in 1997 and is based on the comics character of the same name. Co-written and directed by debutante Mark A.Z. Dippé, the film depicts the origins of the character which sees double-crossed Black Ops soldier Al Simmons resurrected as Spawn, the reluctant leader of Hell's forces on Earth. The film stars Michael Jai White, John Leguizamo, Martin Sheen, Theresa Randle and Nicol Williamson in his final screen role. The film is notable for being one of the first to feature an African American as a major comic book superhero although the film considerably toned down the levels of violence seen in the comics. Released to a mostly negative response from critics, the film would go on to earn a relatively disappointing $87.8 million globally and has seen a sequel stuck in development hell for more than twenty years.
What's it about?
Special forces soldier Al Simmons is assigned to a mission in North Korea by his supervisor, Jason Wynn. Tasked with infiltrating a chemical weapons facility, Simmons is unaware that the mission is merely a pretence with Wynn's top assassin Jessica Priest ordered to kill Simmons instead. Having been killed and set on fire by Priest, Simmons arrives in Hell but is offered a deal by the vile demon Maleboglia - if he agrees to lead the army of Hell into Armageddon against the forces of Heaven, Simmons will be returned to Earth to see his fiancee Wanda Blake again. Reluctantly, Simmons agrees.
Returning to Earth, Simmons discovers that five years have passed since his death and Wanda has married his old best friend Terry Fitzgerald and is surrogate father to Al's daughter Cyan. Wynn, meanwhile, has become a powerful arms dealer who has developed a deadly biological weapon called Heat 16. In order to aid Simmons' attempt to lead the army of Hell, the clown-faced demon known as The Violator is sent to Earth to ensure Simmons sticks to his side of the bargain. But Simmons meets a mysterious old man called Cogliostro who claims to have escaped from Hell himself and who begins to teach Simmons about his new-found abilities as the demonic Spawn...
Michael Jai White
Al Simmons / Spawn
Mark A.Z. Dippé
Alan B. McElroy*
Release Date (UK)
19th September, 1997
Action, Horror, Superhero
What's to like?
The saying 'style over substance' is often bandied about with regards to many films but never has it been more apt than with Spawn. The film's strengths are undoubtedly its impressive array of costumes, makeup and prosthetics which help create the various hellish characters seen in the comics come to life - which is no mean feat. While Dippé might not be the most experienced director, his extensive background in special effects is well utilised here and the film offers many imaginative sequences that benefits from Spawn's crashing through a skylight with cape billowing around him to the frankly monstrous appearance of Leguizamo as the Violator. Only his voice and mannerisms give the game away as the actor is simply unrecognisable.
The film's action sequences are loud and bombastic enough to distract you from the weak narrative but also give Spawn a menacing edge, given his near limitless powers. Imagine if Jim Carrey's The Mask was nursing a hangover from hell and you get the idea - White's masked marauder can send mighty chains sailing through the air, huge steel jaws for clamping onto baddies and a mutating motorcycle. It makes a change from the usual fisticuffs we get from most superheroes - even now - and at least the character is a little different and less clean-cut than almost all of Marvel's franchise-leading characters.
- Although Spawn and Steel (another superhero film with an African American lead) were released in the same month, neither were the first to feature such casting. 1993 saw the release of obscure flop The Meteor Man which saw writer and director Robert Townsend star as a mild-mannered janitor who becomes a superhero to fight street gangs in Washington DC. But before that, Abar, The First Black Superman saw a limited release in 1977 - a year before the actual Superman was released.
- Among the actors considered for the role of Simmons were Cuba Gooding Jr, Snoop Dogg, Tony Todd, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Tupac Shakur, Samuel L Jackson and Wesley Snipes - who would appear as Blade the next year.
- White himself is not a fan of the film as he later admitted "There is no footage of me ever saying that I liked Spawn. I have never said that I thought that was a good movie." He has expressed an interest in returning in the role, however.
- New Line Cinema were determined that the film was PG in order to appeal to a wider audience, therefore the comics' use of gore, dark imagery and adult content would have to be toned down. This was despite series creator Todd McFarlane signing up as a creative consultant and wanting to retain the more adult elements.
What's not to like?
The film suffers badly by being a poor movie but one that's well made. The narrative is largely incomprehensible for anyone who hasn't read the comics while dialogue isn't particularly memorable. The only character that really stands out is Leguizamo's repugnant Violator who seems to be the only role imbued with any sort of personality. White is disappointing as Spawn - he brings the character plenty of attitude but he's buried under masks or makeup to such an extent that you can't identify with him, not that the role is an easy one to identify with anyway. And while I'm talking about him, why does Spawn use machine guns when he appears to have limitless powers anyway? Guessing guns are cheaper...
Another issue is the film's pretty poor use of CG, mostly seen with Spawn's cloak but also in the disappointingly familiar view of Hell itself. Actually, that's unfair - because Hell is largely seen from a distance, the lack of detail and clarity don't matter so much but overall, the CG looks horribly artificial and plastic-looking. At no point do you ever believe it and at no point during the film do you think how much fun you're having. Nearly all the characters in the film are pretty unlikable with the possible exception of Randle's love interest role who frankly feels underused and underdeveloped. I didn't fully understand the film or enjoy it that much either. Considering how the character could and perhaps should have been, the film feels like a wasted opportunity.
Should I watch it?
Spawn sells its soul to the Hollywood machine, eschewing the darkness and violence inherent in such a character to become a mass-marketable, more palatable version of himself. But fans of the comic will be annoyed at the character getting toned down while the rest of us will be bemused as to why this obviously powerful character keeps using machine guns instead of supernatural powers. The film works hard to make the characters come to life on screen and at times looks great but the confusing narrative, dull characters and a disinterested cast makes this film feel like a chore rather than the dark, Satanic fantasy it longs to be.
Great For: forgiving fans of the comic series, Goth amateurs, anyone who paid to see it
Not So Great For: anyone who has never read any 'Spawn' comics, the visually impaired (it's not lit that well), the easily distracted
What else should I watch?
Before Marvel introduced their game-changing cinematic universe known as the MCU, superhero films were often derided for their poor quality and sometimes goofy atmosphere. Blade changed all that, being a well-made and exciting action film that stayed close to the comic origins (pleasing the all-important fan-base) and featured a kick-ass performance from Wesley Snipes as the coolest vampire slayer on the block. As studios started taking comic book adaptations seriously, there was a noticeable improvement in quality - Tobey Maguire's tenure as Spider-Man was highlighted by a fantastic debut and an even better sequel while Hugh Jackman first took up the role of Wolverine in the widely acclaimed X-Men in 2000 - a series continues even today.
But it wasn't until 2008's Iron Man that Marvel took control of superhero films by producing a big budget, well made and hugely entertaining film that would set the template for all superhero films that came after it, excluding The Dark Knight Rises. The studio became one of the biggest players in Hollywood in the years since with billion-dollar films like Iron Man 3, Avengers Assemble, Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther and the record-breaking Avengers: Endgame. With no sign of the studio easing up their relentless assault on box offices the world over any time soon, their dominance is total and puts their long-time rivals DC to shame.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox