Spawn: did the movie deserve more love?

1997 wasn't the best year for comic book movies. Spawn certainly didn't do much to help. We revisit the film...

Mark Dippè made his directorial debut with Spawn. He introduces himself on the film’s commentary track on the DVD by suggesting that “You can blame it all on me.” Very kind of you, Mark.

Listening to a commentary on a film like Spawn is interesting. It reminds us of something we already know, but that we can lose sight of when our patience is stretched like mine was with Spawn. That’s that nobody sets out to make a bad movie. Listening to the team behind Spawn chatting about the film, they clearly went for it, and it’s not a film that fails for a lack of ambition. Argue with the results all you want, and I’m about to, but they cared about what they were doing.

I care about what I’m doing too, though, and so empathy will have to sit the rest of this article out.

Spawn is a staggeringly poor film.

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Creator Todd McFarlane developed the comic book Spawn after leaving Marvel, where he’d gained acclaim writing and drawing Spider-Man comics. McFarlane released the first issue of Spawn (cunningly titled so that it would be alphabetically close to the Spider-Man title he made his name on, but just before it, on comic book store shelves) in 1992. The Spawn comic was a huge hit and a big budget movie and a cartoon version soon followed.

McFarlane, who released the Spawn comics as part of the newly formed Image comics (McFarlane set Image up with fellow comic artists dissatisfied with working for larger comic publishers), opted to make Spawn with New Line Cinema, a deal that secured him less money than going with a larger studio but afforded him more creative control over the film.

Director Dippè, who came from a special effects background, would work with screenwriter Alan B McElroy to come up with the story for the adaptation. Al Simmons (Michael Jai White), a mercenary, is set up and killed by his own team at the request of a demon. The demon needs him to lead his army of demon warriors from hell into a war against the army of the good or whatever. Goodness me.

Anyway, Simmons comes back to the normal Earth for living people where he’s meant to learn how to be a great demon warrior, but a mysterious guy teaches him how to be good guy Spawn, an undead costumed ball of power-sadness. He fights a deceptive demon monster guy called Clown (Jon Leguizamo) who isn’t a clown but dresses up as a clown for child’s birthday party in one scene. Then he has to save his family and slay the demon monster in hell.

That might sound all over the place and awful, and it is, but it’s worth remembering what comic book films were like in 1997.

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The most notable comic adaptation of the year was Batman And Robin, although it didn’t crack the end of year top 10 highest grossing films of the year. That’s a weird movie. Steel, starring basketball playing rapper Shaquille O’Neil as the lead hero, also debuted in 1997. Men In Black is based on a comic, too, which makes it the biggest comic book hit of the year, albeit one that’s not commonly associated with its little known source material. MIB aside, then, clearly no one had a clue what they were doing when it came to comic adaptations in 1997.

There are lots of small things that make Spawn terrible, and I’ll cover some of them shortly, but there’s one big standout. Spawn is an effects movie, but a good number of the effects aren’t good. Some are flat out awful. When the effects do look good, they’re dead impressive, such as when Simmons first sprouts his Spawn costume (this is well executed, if odd). More often than not, though, they look like very early CG at a time when other films were starting to get it right. When you consider other films of the time period, Spawn looks bad. The previously mentioned Batman And Robin or Men In Black both have effects, either practical or CG, that hold up. It’s also helpful to consider a film like Jumanji, which had a slightly higher budget than Spawn but came out a couple of years earlier, which never looks as ropey as Spawn often does.

Take the demon in hell. Sock puppets sometimes get together to snigger at how unconvincing the demon in Spawn is. This might sound like a joke, but it actually happens; they’re my sock puppets. The demon monster looks so unconvincing that the Sega Mega Drive game Altered Beast threw pixels at it and booed it on opening night. The mouth doesn’t even move in time with the dialogue. The hell fight sequence at the end of the movie, where Spawn has his big showdown with the beast, has to be seen to be believed. But who gives a shit if you believe it? Just don’t make the mistake of seeing it.

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I think the worst thing about Spawn, worse than the often dodgy effects and the frustrated-shrug inducing story, is John Leguizamo’s Clown.

God bless Leguizamo, it’s not his fault. He does what he can with the role, which he performs while squatting to make Clown short and stout. He’s a little teapot. Clown’s look is straight out of a low budget horror film, but in one scene he has cartoon eyes that pop out of his head, an effect that would be more at home in Jim Carrey’s The Mask (although it looks less accomplished than the effects in that film). Even when Clown just looks normally evil, though, he never strikes you as intimidating. It’s never apparent as to why Spawn doesn’t just pull his head off. In the scenes where he’s attempting to trick Spawn into believing he’s an ally, he’s still irritating enough that you don’t buy that permanent grumpy-guts Spawn wouldn’t just decapitate him for the quiet.

In one sequence Clown morphs into a giant monster which looks a bit like a sinister version of Randall from Monsters Inc. The monster version of Clown actually looks pretty cool, and the morphing effect is one of the rare efforts that impresses, but the action sequence that follows fizzles out unremarkably. By the end of it, he’s chased Spawn down and Spawn magics his cape into a protective cocoon and then I buried my head in my hands and missed what happened.

In another scene, Leguizamo’s Clown pulls off his underwear and shows us all a fresh, streaked stain. “Skidmarks!” he says.

I legitimately can’t tell how I’m supposed to respond to this. On what level was this meant to land? As funny? As provocative? As outrageous? As silly? Someone wrote this, it got approved at every level and then it got filmed and made it through the edit. The film is constantly playing for a moody, cool vibe but then they also included a clown demon pants crapping joke. I honestly can’t think of a film that’s got a less firm grip on tone than Spawn. It’s the cinematic equivalent of asking Danny Dyer to scream Shakespeare’s soliloquys at the funeral of a beloved relative.

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There are some fart jokes in Spawn and they’re not funny. How do you make farts not funny? People have been laughing at farts since the first guff crept out from between a caveman’s buttocks. Bum noises are funny to us in a primitive way. In including farts that aren’t funny, they’ve managed to subvert the very core of human programming. And here was me thinking Spawn had achieved nothing.

There are failures all over Spawn. I could tell that you a lot of the dialogue is poor, but I’d be better off demonstrating with an excerpt. This comes from a news interview that takes place at the end of the film. This is not played as a joke.

Interviewer: “Do you have any further comments?”Interview subject: “Something I should have done a long time ago.” 

Spawn also features a baffled looking Martin Sheen sporting a beard so awful you could justify turning the film off in response to it. His character is working in cahoots with evil forces, as was, I suspect, his agent. Spawn came along only one year after Sheen’s appearance in the television movie Project: A.L.F., a belated follow on of the beloved puppet sitcom. It would be fair to say that this isn’t the strongest period of Apocalypse Now star Sheen’s career, even accounting for the quality of Project A.L.F. (I’d certainly recommend watching it before I would suggest watching Spawn).

Then there are the voice over sections, which are a genuine disaster and seem to be present to tell us what’s happening in lieu of the story making any sense. They’re occasional intermissions, likely adapted from a melodramatic angsty teenager’s poetry journal, that explain how the next vignette is actually part of the plot somehow.

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Is there anything to like about Spawn?

It pulled in a surprising amount at the box office, taking $55m, although with a $45m budget it can be described as a modest hit at best. It received the odd positive review, including one from noted critic Roger Ebert, so apparently there’s something about it. I can’t imagine what, though. The soundtrack, maybe? The soundtrack is pretty cool.

Spawn, the character, looks great for much of the film, so perhaps that’s part of it. He’s duller than dust, though. Even when he’s Al Simmons, he’s a grumpy, tough mercenary with strict morals and he loves his family, and nothing else. There’s not a single member of Sylvester Stallone’s team of Expendables who has less personality than the hero in Spawn. The only other thing we know about Al Simmons is that he has a small fluffy dog called Spaz. Fuck this film.

Spawn has a shitty plot, shitty effects, shitty characters, shitty pacing, shitty dialogue, shitty voice over, shitty shitty underpants jokes, shitty Clown with shitty farts, shitty demons and shitty action sequences. It’s just all shitty.

My suggestion would be that we not worry about looking back at Spawn any further. We always try and look for the positives in these pieces, but Spawn can be left where it is.

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