Millennial Malaise 15: Spawn

In Which We’re All Back From Hell

The comic book films of the 90’s were incredibly reactionary. After the earth shattering success of 1989’s Batman the industry was put on high alert that a new genre of blockbusters were open for business. But for the rest of the decade Hollywood could never crack the nut of the first major wave of big superhero movies. Some made money and some have gone onto to cult acclaim, but none were able to fully endear the mainstream audience to a cape crusader as much as Tim Burton’s original crack at the medium. So in the years following Batman, studios tried to chase that high and ended up hitting all the wrong notes.  

Some thought the success of Batman resulted from it’s pulp noir origins leading to big budget flops like Dick Tracey and The Phantom. Another route was the aggressive lean in to 90’s stylization (think hyper color) to follow the what seemed to be the trends of youth culture. This lead to the garish excesses of the Joel Schumacher Batman films that basically poisoned the character as a movie icon for almost a decade.

Concurrent with the movie feeding frenzy were major shifts in the actual comic book industry. At the start of the decade saw creators wanting to strike out against the major publisher and become more independent with greater creator freedom. One of the most visible versions of this pushback came in the form of Image comics, an indie company formed by such industry luminaries as Rob Liefeld, Erik Larson, and pertinent to today’s topic, Todd McFarlane. I won’t get into the trials and tribulations of the company but I will stop to note that Image is representative of a strain of comics made in the 90s that feel hopelessly dated and retrograde now. All jokes about guns, straps, patches, and biologically impossible women still stand as a hilarious reminder of what a bunch of bros in the 90s thought the cutting edge was.

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These two streams of influence crossed paths in 1997 to create what is possibly the ugliest and most grotesque of superhero movies, Spawn. A film drunk on the potent possibility of being “in your face” and “cool” while also kowtowing to a PG-13 rating. The result is an un-beguiling disaster that pushes the limits of what is actually watchable in film form. The movie vomits up an incomprehensible narrative, and truly some of the absolute worst special effects ever cemented to celluloid by a major movie studio. In its way Spawn is the Poochie of superhero flicks. A film that wants to rub your nose in shit (literally) while also opening the doors to adolescent fans. It’s two bad tastes that are absolutely nauseating together.

The story, or at least what appears to be the story, follows special forces operative Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) as he is betrayed by his commander Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen) at the behest of the demon clown The Violator (John Leguizamo). Simmons is then offered to be the leader of the legions of hell and is turned into the murderous Spawn. He then has to fight for his soul and the love of his wife Wanda (Theresa Randle) as he balances vengeance with responsibility. Honestly the story here is barely readable as narrative. The film leaps from point to point with abandon only to fill in the gaps with haphazard flashbacks that do little to clarify what is actually going on.

This scattered approach speaks to the whole disaster that is this production. It feels like an effects reel where all the effects look worse than a pre-rendered cutscene in a PS1 game. The frazzled storytelling, grating performances, and cobbled together editing certainly don’t help the matter.

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There are two technical points that highlight just how aggressively unwatchable the movie is. The first hits you immediately in the form of the opening credits. The opening credits are, quite functionally, unreadable. For in their pursuit of “coolness” somebody decided that, hey, you know what Se7en was kinda neat, and what if we did that opening but with a bunch of CGI fire and shot it through an out of date video editor. This may seem hyperbolic, but I actively struggled to make out the names as they flashed across the screen. Maybe it’s a mercy if people have a hard time seeing the people who worked on the project.

The second confounding decision involves a few cuts that have pumped up with some After Effects transitions. Every 10 or so minutes a transition will involve the screen burning up from one scene to the next, or Spawn’s cape swooshing through between cuts. What’s mind boggling about these editing choices is that they seem randomly applied (one happens when Sheen goes up an elevator, we don’t change locations or time) and only serve to highlight how truly atrocious the effects are.

But these decisions reflect the core principle of the movie and the crisis the superhero film in the late 90’s. It doesn’t know what to give the audience. Do they want an badass action movie involving guns and the devil, or a whacky comedy with a magical farting clown and a cute dog. Spawn can never balance those things and when accompanied with the mind breaking effects it creates one of the absolute worst examples of the genre.

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It does serve as interesting cul-de-sac in the now superhero dominate movie landscape. A moment when the desperate trend chasing of the comic book film in the 90’s smashed head on with the “independent” minded creator. Now, over 20 years later, Spawn will be returning to the big screen, this time directed by MacFarlane himself. And one can’t help but feel as if this is another hopeless attempt at bandwagon jumping. That a character whose main appeal was how “extreme” he was could somehow fit into a post Deadpool landscape of R-rated comic book films. Based on all apparent evidence it seems likely that it will end up like Simmons, forced to live again for feckless creator with no sense of how to move forward.

Odds and Ends

  • I feel like this piece of information from Wikipedia offers a lot of insight into why this movie is so bad: “Columbia Pictures showed interest in making a film adaptation of Spawn when the comic book was launched in 1992. Negotiations fell through as Todd McFarlane felt that the studio was not giving him enough creative control. He eventually sold the film rights to New Line Cinema for $1 in exchange for creative input and merchandising rights.”
  • John Leguizamo’s performance here is easily a crime and should be put to trial at The Hague.
  • Spawn has the mixed legacy of being one of the first black led superhero films. A shame that Blade couldn’t grab it.
  • Michael Jai White’s performance in Spawn is filled with a bunch of the dumb macho posturing that he would effectively skewer in his later comedic work
  • It boggles the mind to think that another Spawn movie would be a good idea, but hey Hollywood needs that sweet brand recognition even if all association is mostly terrible.

As always follow me on Twitter, take a look at the Letterboxd list of possible films, and check out my podcast I Chews You (the show about cooking and eating Pokemon).

Next week I’m deciding to pull out of the death spiral of mediocre to terrible films to focus on the positive with a film I genuinely enjoy: 1997’s Gattaca.