Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…
Until they end up here.
The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). Next up on the Rack: New Line Cinema’s ambitious misfire, and easily the best superhero movie of 1997: Spawn!
Ethnic representation in superhero mythology has always been kind of a thorny subject. The comic books of the Golden Age featured virtually no black characters (certainly none that survived the decade, and many of which were products of overt racism); then in the Silver Age, Black Panther arrived as a guest star in The Fantastic Four, the sole African hero of Stan Lee’s heyday at Marvel1. Some of the most popular examples of black superheroes would come about later in the Bronze Age as a response to the Blaxploitation boom in cinema in the ’70s (Luke Cage, Black Lightning, etc.). But by the ’90s, most of those characters were lying dormant, and black heroes headlining their own books were largely unheard of. So it must have been quite a surprise for fans that one of the most popular new comic characters to come out of the decade would turn out to be a black man… and that, moreover, he would end up as the star of his own movie within five years of being created, making him the first black comic book superhero to headline a major motion picture2! Surely this was a sign that Hollywood and the comic-book landscape were finally taking a turn for the better, offering stronger representation for people of different races and cultures!
… Unfortunately for everyone involved, the hero headlining that movie just happened to be Spawn.
Who is Spawn, you might be asking? Well, it’s not the ’90s anymore, so I don’t blame you.
Spawn was the culmination of all of the worst stylistic and storytelling trends that had been building up in comic books since the mid-’80s. Created by possibly the whitest man on the planet, Canadian comic writer-artist Todd McFarlane, Spawn is a former government assassin named Al Simmons, a trained killer who ends up being murdered by his superiors when he questions the morality of his agency’s actions. He ends up in Hell, where the Devil (named Malebolgia, for some reason) makes Simmons an offer: lead the armies of the damned, and he’ll get to see his beloved fiancée Wanda again. Simmons says yes (‘cause really, what ELSE was he gonna do in Hell?) and ends up being dumped back on Earth five years later; Wanda has married his best friend Terry, his superior/murderer Jason Wynn is closing in on being a global superpower, and Simmons has no memory of who he is. Oh, and he’s stuck tooling around in a living black costume with a red cape, wielding magical powers he has no idea how to use and fighting demons and robots that want to kill him for various contrived reasons.
Spawn, as a concept, was basically superhero soup: his living black costume was ripped wholesale from Spider-Man/Venom; the red cape and abstract magical powers were borrowed from Dr. Strange; his gruff attitude, silhouette, and nocturnal alley-stalking habits came straight out of a Batman comic; and his contrived amnesia practically SCREAMED “Wolverine”. But lacquered over all of it was the “dark, gritty” tone and attitude that pervaded comics of the time… a nihilistic ugliness, catering more than ever to the stunted juvenile mindset that saw violent and cynical comics as being “for grown-ups”. Plastering this tone atop his hodge-podge of cliches and old ideas, MacFarlane had inadvertently created the Poochie of superheroes– something meant to be hip and subversive, but which transparently catered to the broadest audience possible. One can’t help but feel that McFarlane didn’t choose to make the character black because he had anything valuable to say about African American culture… he did it because African American superheroes weren’t much of a thing anymore, so it would be subversive and edgy to make his hero black. With his skulls and spikes and ethnic diversity, Spawn would be the most EXTREME superhero out there. And unfortunately, in this particular story, Poochie turned out to be a huge hit.
Spawn would turn out to be one of the most popular independent comic books of all time, selling 1.7 million copies of its first issue. Columbia Pictures approached McFarlane about licensing his character for a film almost as soon as the book hit stands, but Todd was resistant because the studio wouldn’t give him creative control over the project; eventually, McFarlane sold the rights to New Line Cinema for $1, in exchange for creative input and the merchandising rights3.
Appropriately enough for a character created by a famous comic artist, the filmmakers assigned to the project were actually special effects artists trying to break from ILM; director Mark A.Z. Dippé was a computer graphics artist on The Abyss and a co-visual effects supervisor on Jurassic Park. Dippé and co-screenwriter Alan B. McElroy4 transplanted much of Spawn’s mythology into the movie with surprising fidelity (except for Spawn’s largely-pointless amnesia, because in a self-contained two-hour movie, who’s got time for that?). Complete with an EDM/rock soundtrack– which somehow feels like it’s ripping off Blade and The Matrix before either of those films had been released– and a PG-13 rating, how could this NOT be the coolest, darkest, gnarliest superhero movie ever?
IN THIS ISSUE: Hoo-boy. Spawn is a hundred pounds of “stupid” crammed into a five-pound bag.
To begin with, while the script significantly streamlines and simplifies the Spawn mythology, there is FAR too much plot crammed into this movie. Simmons gets killed by Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen, devouring the scenery) on orders from Malebolgia’s lieutenant, the Clown (a bizarrely cast John Leguizamo), who then brings Simmons BACK to Earth as a Hellspawn so that he can kill Wynn. The whole thing is part of an elaborate double-cross, as Wynn is wired with a deadman switch that will release a “bio-chemical virus” called Heat-16 to kill off everyone on Earth. But Spawn receives moral guidance from a mysterious vagrant named Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson) who turns out to be a crusader fighting against Malebolgia and his forces; meanwhile, Spawn’s former friend Terry is working covertly to expose Wynn’s Heat-16 plans. There’s so much information to introduce in such a short span (the movie runs at a brisk 117 minutes) that the film features not one, not two, but THREE expository voice-overs, just to keep audiences up with the conceptual conceits well enough to follow the movie. (Luckily, all three are done by Williamson as Cogliostro, whose booming voice sounds like it really COULD trumpet the arrival of the the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.)
Worse, on a pedantic plot level, the villains’ plans make no goddamn sense. Malebolgia releases Spawn on Earth so that he can kill Jason Wynn in a fit of revenge, thus releasing the Heat-16 virus and consigning Simmons’ soul to Hell. But… Simmons already WAS damned to Hell, and Wynn doesn’t even GET the deadman switch heart monitor until AFTER Spawn attacks him. What if Spawn’s first attack was successful, and Wynn died with the existence of Heat-16 a secret from the world? Also, why would Wynn even accept the suggestion of a deadman switch from a demon from Hell, when he’d just been attacked by a SOLDIER from Hell, and it was obvious that the demon had a stake in this whole “murder the entire world” plot? Worse, in one of the most nonsensical moments of the film, Wynn eventually sets up a ruse to make Spawn think that Wynn has murdered the woman Simmons loved, in an effort to get Spawn to fall in line… somehow. What the hell did Wynn think that ruse was going to lead to, other than a chain-driven flurry of murderous vengeance?
Our hero is played by Michael Jai White, a skilled martial artist fresh off an acclaimed debut performance as Mike Tyson in the 1995 HBO biopic Tyson. While White has been in some great roles and is absolutely a talented performer, his Al Simmons is little more than a wooden block of surly machismo, an archetypal action movie anti-hero without any personality traits beyond “angry” and “badass”.
It’s difficult to say whether his stiff delivery and flat affect are intentional— the character is, after all, a hardened assassin, described by Wynn as a “borderline psychopath”– or the product of an inexperienced actor working with a first-time director. Either way, it leaves us with very little to connect us to Al Simmons as a character, as the only humanizing relationship he HAS before going to Hell is related to us entirely in chopped-up flashbacks (more on that later). The movie tries to make up for this by giving us TWO adorable children for Spawn to form bonds with– Wanda’s young daughter Cyan and a street urchin named Zack5— but by then we’re hip-deep in the plot and have no investment in either of them. Admittedly, MJW does loosen up a bit once he’s running around in full make-up as Spawn, even having a bit of fun with his no-nonsense character’s reaction to all the bizarre sh*t happening around him– and all the insane stuff he can do himself.
To put it bluntly, Spawn’s powers are completely ridiculous. For the first two acts of the movie, Simmons doesn’t know what he’s capable of, so he runs around in bandoliers toting enormous and impractical machine guns. In every action scene, however, his armor reacts reflexively to threats by revealing some new power– super-healing, camoflage, wall-crawling, grapple-hook-chains… hell, it turns out that his belt buckle acts as a defense against kicks to the crotch! So as the movie progresses, it becomes very clear that Spawn’s “powers” are basically whatever is called for in the plot at any given moment. Need Spawn to get away from a conflict fast? Have his cape fly him away– and then never let him use it to fly anywhere else for the rest of the movie! Need to get rid of that pesky deadman switch so that the Clown can’t just kill Wynn himself to release the virus? Spawn can remove it and destroy it with magical x-ray eye-beams! Need Spawn to kill off a bunch of soldiers in Malebolgia’s army so that his retreat from Hell doesn’t seem like a defeat? Uhhhh…
On the villainous side, Spawn pulls the old “Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson” routine by bringing aboard a respected actor to class up the joint as one of the main antagonists– in this case, hiring Martin Sheen to play sleazy government demagogue Jason Wynn. Sheen apparently knows full well just how vapid and shallow a movie this is, because he’s bringin’ the ham as this growly, mustache-twirling Bond villain (he even gets a maniacal laugh in for one scene). Wynn is probably the stupidest character in a film FULL of stupid characters, working with the obviously treacherous Clown and following every one of his orders, even when it’s blindingly obvious that he’s being set up to take a fall. Worse still, he has the gall to act shocked when it turns out that the demon from Hell has– GASP!– double-crossed him, as if he’d never heard a single “bargain with the Devil” parable in his life. I mean, if you can’t trust the Lord of Lies, who CAN you trust?
Then you have the curious case of John Leguizamo– a lanky stand-up comedian turned actor– cast as the Clown: a squat, fat, grimy monster-man. The Clown reads on screen as a sort of cross between the Joker and Tim Burton’s Penguin (what with the grotesque anatomy and the crass, vulgar sense of humor), but the closest thing I can compare Leguizamo’s performance to is Jim Carrey’s take on the Riddler: a constant barrage of jokes and mugging that sometimes works (“Come on, my barbecued friend! We don’t wanna keep that side order of potato salad waiting, now do we?” is probably my favorite line in the movie), and sometimes doesn’t, but mostly feels inappropriate and out-of-place. The most impressive thing about him is the make-up and body-suit, which required Leguizamo to squat down inside of it for every wide shot he’s in.
If you’re gonna give this film credit for anything, it really has to be the visuals– which is perhaps not too surprising for a character created by, first and foremost, a famous comic artist. The production design is fantastic, bouncing between gothic nightmare, slick Bond movie chic, and suburban bliss with nary a hiccup. The cinematography is by Academy Award winner Guillermo Navarro (Pan’s Labyrinth, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, Jackie Brown, Spy Kids), who gives the film a rich palette of warm golds and deep blues. The make-up effects by KNB are goddamn phenomenal— Spawn himself is a textured and intricate sight to behold, never a bore to look at. And ILM’s contribution– creating both the CG model and animatronic of the Clown’s giant monster form, called the Violator– is on par with some of their best work. But as for all the other effects…
The C.G.I. in this movie is all OVER the damn place. Spawn‘s budget doubled over the course of production as the number of visual effects shots swelled from 77 to 400— and it’s clear from the quality of some of the finished shots, in particular for the final sequence set in Hell itself, that a number of these were done in a mighty big hurry.
The most disappointing element of the film in many ways, however, has to be the treatment of Wanda Fitzgerald (Theresa Randle), Simmons’ ex-fiancée-slash-Terry Fitzgerald’s wife. I kind of have to describe her that way because, despite her importance to the main character and the fact that her name gets spoken a zillion times throughout the film… we really know absolutely NOTHING about Wanda herself. Full scenes between Wanda and Simmons have clearly been cut out of the movie, shredded into flashback clips that spur Simmons into action as Spawn later on… but as a result, we don’t get a SINGLE SCENE between the two of them before Simmons dies, and we get almost no scenes with Wanda after the fact to establish who she is outside of being a wife and mother. She DOES give a professional presentation on the effects of the Heat-16 virus to a (presumably) academic audience near the end of act two, but that’s largely just to give Spawn a chance to spy on her and to meet Cyan for the first time. For all of the emphasis on her as an object of affection for Spawn or a source of leverage for the bad guys (who, on at least ONE occasion, threaten to RAPE her), Wanda herself never registers as a character.
But maybe… maybe there’s a point to that. See, whether by accident or by design, there ARE some intriguing themes that resonate through the Spawn mythos, and through the movie itself. A big one is the notion of people being seen as things. The government uses Al Simmons as a killer, requiring that he follow orders without thought or hesitation; when he questions or resists that control, they eliminate him. Then Hell does the same thing, manipulating Spawn physically and psychologically into becoming their perfect killing machine and the leader of their army. Spawn is their tool, forced to fit the role they created for him… he is, in essence, a slave. When you consider the choice to make Simmons a black man, and the fact that one of Spawn’s signature weapons are his magical chains, this (fairly on-the-nose) reading starts to make a lot more sense. And with Wanda, whom Spawn sees as a glorious past to reclaim, a beautiful thing that was taken from him, Spawn ultimately lets her go because he realizes that what’s best for her is to move on– that she’s a PERSON, not a prize, and that he would only hurt her by trying to reclaim her love. With all that in mind, it seems as if maybe, maybe, there’s actually more to Spawn than just what’s on the surface, that maybe there’s some merit…
… oh, wow. What am I saying? No, no, this movie sucks.
IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: Spawn is a dumb, clunky throwback with some decent make-up effects, gorgeous production design, and some truly awful CGI. It’s certainly more coherent than its source material, but like McFarlane’s creation himself, the movie is all style with nothing meaningful underneath.
DISCOUNT PRICE: $0.25
- The dumbest line in the movie:
COGLIOSTRO: “This is just what they want! You’re playing their game!”
SPAWN: (Cocks gun) “Then I’ll play dirty!”
… Dipshit, you’re fighting SATAN HIMSELF and his demonic right-hand man! “Playing dirty” is, by definition, their game!
- The OTHER dumbest line in the movie:
“Take care of your powers. If you drain them… you die.”
This warning, given to Spawn by Cogliostro before his big battle with the Clown in the third act, is completely pointless. Spawn’s powers never run out. We have no way of knowing how little or how much power he has left. And neither he nor Cogliostro ever bring it up again. It’s like telling Superman “oh, by the way, you’re vulnerable to Kryptonite” in a movie that doesn’t feature Kryptonite6.
- Kid-friendly: Spawn takes a moment off from stalking his one-time fianceé Wanda to go help her daughter Cyan when she sprains her ankle in an empty school gymnasium. This rag-covered, hideously scarred stranger walks up to the adorable four year old girl in the middle of a big, dark, empty room, yet she shows absolutely no sign of fear, even asking him his name (to which he reluctantly– and hilariously– replies “… Spawn”).
- Crashing the party: In the centerpiece of the film, Spawn smashes through the skylight of a gorgeous ballroom to confront Jason Wynn in the middle of a gala. Pretty much every moment of this sequence is solid action-movie fun, from his confrontation with Wynn and showdown with Priest (who nails him several times, leading him to realize he has a healing factor) to the subsequent shootout with ’90s stock goons, in which Spawn does a forward flip off a balcony while firing both his guns… with most of the shots going behind him.
- Todd did it before Stan: Smack dab in the middle of his harrowing first battle with the Tyrannosaurus Violator, Spawn climbs to his feet in the alleyway… and comes face to face with his creator, Todd McFarlane, who shows up as a filthy bum carrying a baseball cap. Spawn, of course, does the most natural thing you could imagine in this circumstance: he points a gun at him.
NEXT TIME: Let’s lighten things up a bit by taking a look at the colorful, funny, and blandly homogenous 2005 hit, Fantastic Four!