Today, I’m going to explore the dark and ill-received 1997 superhero film, Spawn.
The plot of Spawn is summarized succinctly on IMDb as follows:
An elite mercenary is killed, but comes back from Hell as a reluctant soldier of the Devil.
The character of Spawn was originally created by comic icon and entrepreneur Todd McFarlane, and first appeared in Spawn #1 in May of 1992. Spawn was (and is) the face of Image comics, an independent comic book company that is creator-owned, and prides itself on treating artists fairly: most distinctly by allowing them to retain creative copyrights. The original founders (including McFarlane) primarily defected from Marvel comics, where they felt that they didn’t get the credit or pay they deserved. The character of Spawn includes a handful of elements that trace back to McFarlane’s time working on (and creating) Marvel properties, most notably the Spider-Man antagonist/antihero, Venom.
This film adaptation of Spawn was directed by Mark A.Z. Dippé, an experienced visual effects artist who previously worked on The Abyss, Ghost, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Back To The Future Part II, and Jurassic Park. However, he did not (and still doesn’t) have much directing experience, outside of a handful of television movies and shorts that came years later.
The screenplay for the film was penned by Alan McElroy, who also wrote Halloween 4, Wrong Turn, The Marine, and Kirk Cameron’s Left Behind: The Movie, and was also involved with Todd McFarlane in the creation of the subsequent Spawn animated series.
The cast of Spawn in primarily made up of Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now, The Departed, The West Wing, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, Wall Street, Gettysburg), John Leguizamo (Super Mario Bros., The Happening, John Wick, The Pest, Carlito’s Way), Michael Jai White (Black Dynamite, The Dark Knight), Theresa Randale (Space Jam, Bad Boys), Nicol Williamson (Excalibur, The Exorcist III), Melinda Clarke (The O.C., Nikita), and Miko Hughes (Pet Sematary, New Nightmare, Apollo 13).
The cinematographer for Spawn was Guillermo Navarro, who has also shot such films as Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, Jackie Brown, Hellboy, Hellboy II, Spy Kids, From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado, and Night At The Museum.
The film required the work of two primary editors: Michael Knue (House, Night of the Creeps, A Nightmare On Elm Street 4, Rocky V, The Ring 2) and Todd Busch, an assistant and visual effects editor who has worked on movies like Spider-Man: Homecoming, Lake Placid, X-Men, Beowulf, and Terminator 3.
The music for Spawn was composed by Graeme Revell, whose credits include Sin City, Pitch Black, Daredevil, Red Planet, Tank Girl, Street Fighter, From Dusk Till Dawn, Hard Target, and the remakes of Assault on Precinct 13, Walking Tall, and The Fog.
Spawn was notably the first superhero movie with a black lead, as it predated the better-received Blade by a year. However, another property was even closer on its heels: Shaq’s infamous Steel, which released in theaters just two weeks after Spawn, and to even less acclaim.
It reportedly took an entire 8 months of work, from storyboard to completion, to nail down the Clown to Violator transformation sequence. Like much of the effects work in the film, it was a hybrid of practical work and CGI imagery, though it leaned quite heavily on the CGI.
In a show of dedication to his craft, John Leguizamo actually ate the “maggots” during the sequence where Clown eats a pizza from the trash. However, this is only half-true: the on-screen maggots were, in fact, mealworms.
Spawn reportedly went through a lengthy battle in order to get its PG-13 rating from the MPAA, which required countless changes to dialogue and violent sequences to appease the notoriously fickle and conservative ratings board. However, in retrospect, the decision to pursue a PG-13 is now widely criticized, and often blamed for the film’s poor reception by fans and casual audiences alike.
Spawn’s cape, one of the character’s most distinguishing features, is shown only sparingly throughout the film. However, when it does, it is an entire digital creation, with no mixed practical elements involved. This is in contrast to the previously mentioned Clown to Violator sequence, which hybridized practical effects with digital enhancements.
While Spawn hardly met with any critical praise, it did help launch a well-regarded animated series on HBO in the years after the film’s release, which ultimately won two Emmys over its run.
In the past couple of years, much talk has been made of bringing the character of Spawn back to the big screen. Todd McFarlane in particular has taken on the task of reviving his creation, and is currently attached as both a writer and director on the project. In 2017, it was announced that he was working with Blumhouse Productions to produce a “low-budget” vision for the character on the big screen, but time will tell what exactly that will look like.
As mentioned previously, Spawn was anything but a critical success. The movie currently holds on IMDb user rating of 5.2/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 18% from critics and 37% from audiences. Financially, it looks like the production took in an underwhelming profit, taking in $87 million in a lifetime international theatrical release on a $40 million production budget.
Perhaps the most divisive aspect of Spawn is the performance of John Leguizamo’s Clown. While the character and portrayal is unarguably obnoxious, there is something to be said for the fact that he is certainly memorable. As much as I didn’t find much entertainment value in the character, he lit up the screen more than anything else in the movie, and is more or less the only takeaway of the film I’ve held on to since my first viewing. On top of that, I have been led to understand that it is accurate to the source material. While that shouldn’t automatically be considered a positive, I think it goes a long way to explaining why the character is played the way he is. It is also worth noting that Leguizamo was clearly 100% dedicated to the part, and is nearly unrecognizable in the role. All in all, his performance is almost as impressive as it is inexplicable: why would someone put so much effort into a role so bad? In any case, he is the highlight of the movie by a longshot, and is enough to make it or break it, depending on the person watching.
On the other end of the performance spectrum, however, is Martin Sheen. While Leguizamo chews scenery throughout the film and consistently goes above and beyond the needs for the role, Sheen appears to sleepwalk his way to a paycheck with his performance. I’m sure this was a case of a distinguished actor on tough times dealing with material he felt was beneath him, but there is something markedly dispassionate about it all the same. That is particularly a shame, because I’d be willing to bet that there are a ton of character actors who would have eaten up the chance to be a crooked, evil politician in league with the legions of Hell. Alas, an underperforming Sheen is what the world received.
Beyond the performances, the element of the film that most stuck with me were the effects. Unfortunatly, it was for all the wrong reasons. To put it succinctly: the effects just look bad. While I can certainly appreciate the attempt to blend practical work with digital work (in the vein of Jurassic Park), something clearly went wrong here. Whether it is Spawn’s cape, his motorcycle, or the transformation sequence for Clown, every major sequence that required digital work looks and feels flubbed. Perhaps this is partly a product of how much time has passed, but I feel like there are plenty of contemporaneous films with similar effects that look far better. In any case, they make the movie hard to look back on positively.
One of the problems with characters like Spawn is that they require a lot of backstory. Unlike a character like Captain America or Spider-Man, who inhabit a world more-or-less like our own, Spawn has a complicated mythos woven into his backstory that is inherent to his character. Establishing that kind of mythos for an audience via a screenplay can be a daunting task: a bit too much exposition, and audiences will feel bored; not enough, and they will feel lost. In the case of Spawn, there was an attempt to cram as much information as possible into the opening narration, I’m sure in the hopes that it could be gotten out of the way for the rest of the film. However, that narration winds up feeling rushed, bloated, and overwhelming, to the point that the information doesn’t get digested by the audience. Hopefully, in a future attempt at adapting the story, the screenplay will reveal information a bit more organically, and use Spawn as the audience’s surrogate for revelations to unravel.
Overall, I think Spawn is hardly the worst movie ever produced, but it certainly belongs in a lower tier of superhero films. A combination of strategic production mistakes, some mediocre effects work, an unpolished screenplay, and a wide array of off-putting performances damned it in the public consciousness. While the movie has some defenders, I think its bad reputation is mostly deserved. I do think it is worth watching as a case study of method acting gone haywire with Leguizamo’s clown, though. That said, it isn’t enough for me to recommend it to people who don’t already have it secured in a place of nostalgia.