Original US release date: August 1, 1997
Production budget: $40,000,000
Worldwide gross: $87,840,042
For those who don’t remember, Spawn was a big deal back in the nineties. Created by comic book legend Todd MacFarlane for the Image Comics series of the same name, Spawn was easily the biggest and most popular comic book character of the time that wasn’t under the Marvel or DC banners and even rivaled many of the most popular characters from those two companies in terms of fanboy notoriety. It was New Line Cinema’s hope that the same excitement being felt for the character within its original medium would translate to the big screen.
For all the hubbub about recent R-rated films based on popular comic books, Spawn did it way back in 1997, over twenty years ago. (Well, kind of. In theaters, it was PG-13. But on video, it was rated R. So it took the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice route.) It should also be noted that this film also beat Marvel to the big screen in all of its modern forms, including its licensed properties, as the world was two years away from seeing the first Marvel property hit the big screen as a feature film in the form of (the legitimately R-rated) Blade. To make this film even more groundbreaking, Spawn’s civilian identity, Al Simmons, is an African-American, predating the theatrical debut of Black Panther by over twenty years (and, again, Blade by two). So, in other words, to present some context, there weren’t any other films like Spawn, either before nor at the time of its release. This movie was essentially the first of its kind. Yet, it met with only moderate success.
To be completely straightforward and honest, Spawn is mostly not what one would typically consider “good”. But to be equally straightforward and honest, I hadn’t seen this movie in what felt like forever, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, anyway. I even loved it. And, much like a significant other, I largely loved it not in spite of its flaws but because of them.
The biggest issue with the film is that New Line simply didn’t pour the necessary money into it to make the visual effects as convincing as they would have liked – if that was even possible in 1997. Spawn’s iconic cape doesn’t even slightly resemble fabric. The demonic Malebolgia looks like he’s coming straight out a video game. And I mean that literally; he’s clearly digitized and completely lacking in any lifelike textures (though not flawless, the Vindicator fares significantly better). All the scenes that occur in Hell are just a step or two away from having the green screen fall down in the background to reveal a boom mic operator zoning out on his nineties Discman. The burn prosthetics Michael Jai White wears as Spawn are a little too thick, adding mass to his head and making him just disproportionate enough to look a little off. The effect is not negated when Spawn’s mask covers his face.
The (human) characters are carbon-copy stereotypes as seen in many of the other mid-budget nineties action films, from evil business men who laugh maniacally while they puff their cigarettes to the vivacious femme fatale with a small firearm tucked inside the top of her thigh-high stocking. The dialogue isn’t the absolute worst ever committed to film. Any given line taken by itself, while clichéd, wouldn’t come off too terribly poorly. But when one timeworn line after another pours out of the cast’s mouths, it becomes obvious that the screenwriters have an incredibly limited vocabulary and imagination.
Essentially, all of this combines to give the film an air of having been produced by a bunch of high-schoolers who have some potential but haven’t ever taken the time to understand what exactly goes into quality filmmaking. They watch a lot of movies, say, “I could do that!”, then borrow money from mommy and daddy and proceed to actually do so. Or, in other words, it feels like the kind of movie all of those know-it-all Facebook commenters would make. On the best day of their lives.
But, you know what? To me, none of that matters. Despite the many, many shortcomings of the movie, it’s not all bad. The cast is strong, even if they don’t always have the best material to work with. Michael Jai White is solid as Spawn/Al Simmons, Martin Sheen slips easily into the villainous role of Jason Wynn, Theresa Randle gives a surprisingly relatable and memorable performance as Wanda considering how little screen time she gets, and I can’t forget John Leguizamo! Leguizamo is completely unrecognizable as Clown, the malevolent general of Malebolgia, and it’s not only because of the tremendous makeup and costuming work. Leguizamo puts so much life and energy into his performance that he steals the entire movie. He even gets top billing. Chomping on dialogue like it’s a Charleston Chew (look it up), I’ve rarely seen someone have as much fun in a movie as Leguizamo has here. It’s a shame that this film is so often forgotten because Leguizamo deserves to be remembered for this. I’m as guilty of it as anyone and, had it occurred to me, I would have included him in my list of The Ten Best Comic Book Movie Castings. He deserves it. I’m sorry, John. I formally apologize. (Now it’s up to all of you to share this to the point that he somehow sees it.)
Besides that, even if the effects aren’t always great, the action scenes are still a lot of fun. Director Mark A. Z. Dippé’s career didn’t exactly take off after this film, but I have to say that he has a decent eye for choreographing comic-book-style battles. The final climactic encounter in Hell isn’t quite as good as the rest but, otherwise, the action doesn’t move too fast and it isn’t shot too close. These beings feel like they’re powerful and they have true presence. I find Spawn, himself, to be a bit too mopey and lacking of an edge as a character, but once he leaps into action, the film attains a cool factor that sometimes feels muted in modern blockbuster cinema.
But even if the film didn’t have those high spots, I still would love it. Spawn is one of those classic nineties movies that set out to do nothing but entertain. The filmmakers weren’t concerned with critics. They weren’t concerned with awards. They weren’t worried about turning audiences off by being “too comic-booky”. The film doesn’t just embrace its comic book roots – it holds them gently, caresses them lovingly, and whispers impossible promises that it knows it can never keep. But the intent is there. There’s an authenticity to the movie that has to be admired. The love is evident. I wouldn’t want the effects to be perfect. I wouldn’t want the dialogue to be brilliant. I wouldn’t want Spawn’s head to be normally proportioned. Because then it would feel like everything we get today. It would lose its identity.
Spawn is not a “good” film. But I love it, anyway. A film doesn’t need to be great to be enjoyed. (I wish more people could understand that. I have no problem with someone enjoying Suicide Squad. Just stop feeling the need to justify your love by insulting my intelligence and trying to convince me it’s an excellent film. It’s not. But love it, anyway, if that’s your inclination.). There are a lot of these nineties films that aren’t good, but I still love. Maybe I’ll do more of them in future #ThrowbackThursday columns. The emerging technology of the decade caused people and studios to get ahead of themselves in trying to make films like this when they only almost had the ability to get it right, instead of waiting until they fully could.
But the excitement is there. It’s palpable. And it adds an intangible element to films like this that simply can’t be duplicated, today. Others might hate Spawn. You might hate Spawn. And that’s okay. I understand. But this might have been the most fun I’ve had watching a movie for #ThrowbackThursday in quite some time and I’m just going to keep on loving it for the nostalgia, its heart, and its unyielding earnestness. And Clown as a cheerleader. Remember that?!
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