WARNING: Somehow I forgot that I already wrote about SPAWN eight years ago, but now you’re in for a more detailed look.
August 1, 1997
It’s weird that one of my least favorite movies in this series so far is the one that stars Michael Jai White! Thank you Ralph Bakshi for making sure it’s not in last place.
White plays Al Simmons, an amoral elite counter-terrorism black ops super badass who gets betrayed by his boss Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen, FIRESTARTER, who took the job because his grandson told him Spawn was cool). He’s set on fire, blown up and recruited by a crude CGI giant monster devil (voice of Frank Welker) to be a soldier for Hell. Returned to earth five years later as a burnt up demon called Spawn, he lives among the homeless and learns how to use his new demon powers while pining for his wife Wanda (Theresa Randle, CB4) and plotting revenge on Wynn.
I made that sound like a story, if I do say so myself. The movie’s not as interested in that. Faithfully adapted from the top-selling comic book of some parts of the ’90s, here is a visually dark, Marilyn-Manson-on-the-soundtrack slog that makes THE CROW: CITY OF ANGELS look like a masterwork of storytelling craft. And at least CITY OF ANGELS was nice to look at. Despite the participation of the great cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (DESPERADO, JACKIE BROWN, PAN’S LABYRINTH), this thing looks like shit! Rarely has there been a worse case of CGI overreach – shockingly sub-par, MORTAL KOMBAT-level monsters, fire and transformations are slapped all over it like a big-screen CD-ROM game, and even the straight-ahead action movie scene at “Military Air Base, Hong Kong” looks like a ’90s syndicated TV show where cops raid warehouses and dockyards every episode.
KNB EFX Group provide high quality makeup effects, but have a hard time dealing with the design of the character – piling so much burnt flesh and “viral necroplasm” armor onto muscleman White turns him into a shapeless lump even before they wrap a bulky homeless coat on him.
On the DVD commentary track, Spawn creator Todd McFarlane says he first drew the character in high school in 1978, and made up the backstory later. So this is literally a world based on the type of crap he liked to draw: giant membranous capes, chains, spikes, Spider-man-type masks, facepaint, muscles with designs painted on them, skulls, glowing neon green things. Unfortunately most of these things do not translate well to live action, or at least they didn’t in that early era of digital effects. There are a couple money shots of Spawn posing with his gigantic cape blowing and I had to stare at it thinking “What am I looking at here?”, TRANSFORMERS style.
I thought about putting that upside down to see if anybody could tell, but I was worried somebody’s eyes would be seriously injured.
The weirdest thing you will be looking at is John Leguizamo (JOHN WICK) as “Clown,” a short, fat, grotesque guy in a leather jacket who maybe looks like a juggalo, but not a clown (except when in disguise at a birthday party). Leguizamo is buried under makeup and a fat suit and had to crouch the whole time – I’ve always suspected it helped him get the job as Toulouse Lautrec in MOULIN ROUGE. He’s some kind of sleazy agent for Hell who makes deals with Wynn but also encourages Spawn to kill him. And they treat him as one of these cartoon characters who’s constantly making what clearly are meant to count as jokes and having different outfits (waiter, cheerleader, etc.).
He’s never funny, but often gross. He eats a slice of pizza covered in wriggling mealworms, farts glowing green smoke, shows off his shit-stained underwear, stuff like that. On the commentary track the director or producer or someone talks about liking fart jokes, and their company is called Pull Down Your Pants Pictures. So I guess at least this is an honest expression of themselves and not just trying to pander to little kids who like farts and poop.
The Clown also stretches his limbs and lower jaw out to turn into a monster, calling himself “Violator.” I think they actually built a huge animatronic of this guy, but it must not have been able to move much because they mostly use the shitty animated version.
There’s also an agent of Heaven I guess (Nicol Williamson, EXCALIBUR, in his final role) who narrates the movie and teaches Spawn that he can make spikes come out of himself and shoot chains out as grappling hooks, like a Cenobite Spider-man. His mask has glowing eyes and wraps around his burnt-up face – it’s implied that this is protective when it covers him before riding a motorcycle. His big red cape pops out very occasionally and also can turn into a hard shell around the bike. I guess if I had to choose something that was best about this character it would be this weird organic armor idea and the way they animate it opening and closing.
Remember DICK TRACY had a part where he dropped through a skylight, because that was a famous shot in BATMAN? SPAWN has it too. When Spawn bursts into a fancy rich person banquet it’s one of the better scenes because of people in tuxes abruptly being faced with a, you know, demon super hero monster type of whatever thing it’s supposed to be. Probly none of them believed in demon super hero monstery type of whatever things until that exact moment. Although honestly if they’re like me they’re thinking “what is this red computery blur thing I’m looking at?”
But then he retracts his cape and tosses Wynn into some tables and (because he hasn’t learned his powers yet) has a shoot out. The have a stuntman doing a flip off a balcony with the makeup and lightup eyes and firing two machine guns. That’s pretty cool.
There’s a whole action scene where he’s driving a motorcycle and Clown is in a truck shooting fireballs at him, and music is playing like it’s a fight in a BLADE movie, except the Clown is not his enemy, he’s just fucking around, so there’s no actual goal to this action scene, it’s just a scene for no reason. Or I guess a scene to show these powers that he has since they couldn’t think of a time when he would actually need to use them. They seem to see it more as a sample reel of what the character is supposed to be than as a story.
Then Spawn kills the truck by turning into a sharp thing and impaling it. It spills green liquid, then explodes, and Clown does an homage to DIE HARD 2.
I guess this is a PG-13 movie, but it has such a vibe of scumminess and forced edginess that I always assumed it was R. It’s much more broad than things usually aimed at adults, though. Like, Simmons doesn’t realize his boss is sending him on evil missions even though the guy speaks in a cartoonishly villainous, gravelly voice at all times and works out of an office stocked with pet scorpions and tarantulas and with two large, framed pictures of mushroom clouds on the wall. And the city’s homeless community all camp out in one narrow alley crawling with hundreds of rats and coincidentally it has a spiral staircase that goes up to the roof of a giant gothic church that Spawn can stand on top of to pretend to be Batman.
But Wynn has surgery to implant a monitor that will release a world-destroying virus if his heart stops. So that’s pretty sophisticated. I like that.
You know, here’s a compliment. I do think there’s a type of color blind casting here that’s pretty admirable. In a way it’s impressive to have a movie where the hero is black even though there’s nothing culturally African-American about the story and race is never an issue, even to the vile characters around him who you’d think would say some racist bullshit to him to rile him up. No one would dare accuse any character played by Michael Jai White of not being down, yet he lives in the suburbs and has a white best friend Terry (D.B. Sweeney, CHI-RAQ) who, after his death, marries Wanda and becomes father of Cyan (Sydni Beaudoin, 13 GOING ON 30). Apparently Terry is black in the comics, and they cast him as white so this wouldn’t be perceived as a movie aimed specifically at black audiences. Not a good reason. Yet it ends up being progressive because yeah, the girl has a white daddy, so what? People fall in love sometimes. Even D.B. Sweeney.
Screenwriter Alan B. McElroy’s first produced movie was HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS; his best was RAPID FIRE. Director Mark A.Z. Dippé had only directed a Grammy-nominated, computer animated video for Herbie Hancock’s “Dis Is Da Drum” that I can’t find online. He came from Industrial Light and Magic, where he started by writing code used for the groudnbreaking animated alien in THE ABYSS, which incidentally was animated by SPAWN producer/effects supervisor Steve “Spaz” Williams. The two also worked on T2 and JURASSIC PARK, so despite what this movie would have us believe, they were involved in some of the best and most important digital effects of their time.
(We also saw Dippé’s work earlier in the Summer Flings series – he was the visual effects supervisor for THE FLINTSTONES.)
Dippé and Spaz, along with Clint Goldman, left ILM to form Pull Down Your Pants, and on the commentary they boastfully tell the story of being banned from Skywalker Ranch for stealing cognac and drunkenly snooping around George Lucas’s shit in a section they weren’t supposed to be in. It doesn’t seem like they’ve ever stopped to consider if they’re really the heroes in that story. But there must not have been hard feelings, because ILM did work on SPAWN for them.
Together they made another movie that’s painfully ’90s, including but not limited to Kyle Cooper’s SE7EN style opening and closing credits with jiggly, smeary typewriter fonts. Following in the footsteps of JUDGMENT NIGHT‘s hip hop/rock combos, the soundtrack teams up bands with DJs or dance producers: Marilyn Manson and Sneaker Pimps, Korn and the Dust Brothers, Metallica and DJ Spooky, Tom Morello and Prodigy, even Butthole Surfers and Moby!
SPAWN did have action figures, but that’s no surprise since McFarlane had founded his own toy company in 1994 that pioneered more detailed toys aimed at adult collectors. That year they were on their 7th series of figures based on the Spawn comic books, and also did lines based on reinterpretations of classic monsters and Kiss.
I’m guessing these are probly the only action figures Michael Jai White and Martin Sheen have had?
Retaining the merchandising rights was part of McFarlane’s movie deal – like George Lucas – but he didn’t do anything else with it. There was a novelization by Rob MacGregor, author of several Indiana Jones tie-ins. But no pajamas or anything. No neon green soft drinks. They cut the movie to get a PG-13, and I guess that was genuinely so that the people who would like it the most would be able to see it easier, not to sell toys.
It might’ve worked. According to Wikipedia, SPAWN “was considered a modest box-office success,” but I think it’s fair to say that it didn’t really catch on in the sense of “many human beings watched it and felt good about that decision afterwards.” Weirdly one exception is Roger Ebert, who gave it 3 1/2 out of 4 stars. He said to watch it “as an experimental art film” and praised its “vivid, bizarre, intense images–including visions of hell that are worthy of Hieronymous Bosch.” He claimed that “They create a place and a look as specific as the places evoked in such films as METROPOLIS and BLADE RUNNER. As a visual experience, SPAWN is unforgettable.”
McFarlane has been talking up allegedly-in-the-works sequels or remakes ever since. Seeming to recognize a need to distance it from this first one he always says it will be darker and/or stripped down, less super hero, more of a horror movie. Over the years he has compared his vision to everything from SE7EN to THE DEPARTED to THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. White was interested in playing Spawn again, but in 2013 so was Jamie Foxx. At that time, McFarlane wanted to direct it and said he’d been devising the script in his head for ten years.
Dippé didn’t direct another feature until a 2004 Disney Channel movie called PIXEL PERFECT. “When holography is used to create a new pop star, things start to go awry!” He soon found a niche as director of low rent computer animated kid’s cartoons, such as a trilogy of GARFIELD movies culminating in GARFIELD’S PET FORCE 3D.
McElroy has kept himself busy, not only adapting SPAWN into an animated series, but writing LEFT BEHIND: THE MOVIE and BALLISTIC: ECKS VS. SEVER. And also WRONG TURN and THE MARINE and since those have three and four DTV sequels respectively I assume he always has food on his table. He also wrote THE CONDEMNED 2.
In a way MJW got the rawest deal, because this was his shot at a big iconic character in a theatrical release, and he had to wear all that fuckin makeup, and he did action, and had to give a performance that’s part super hero and part Frankenstein’s monster, and even though he did a good job it was not necessarily good to have “(Spawn)” written after his name. After many more years of hard work he became well enough known as one of the great screen martial artists and actors that you don’t necessarily think of or mention SPAWN when you discuss him anymore. But if this movie was better it could’ve pushed him into headlining action movies in that era when Seagal, Van Damme and Snipes movies still came out in theaters. Instead he got betrayed and went away to Hell for a long time and came back and everything had changed, he had to live on the outskirts using his new DTV powers for good.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.