Director – Mark A.Z. Dippé, Screenplay – Alan McElroy, Story – Mark A.Z. Dippé & Alan McElroy, Based on the Comic Book Created by Todd MacFarlane, Producer – Clint Goldman, Photography – Guillermo Navarro, Music – Graeme Revell, Visual Effects – Industrial Light and Magic (Supervisors – Christophe Henry & Habib Zargarpour) & Santa Barbara Studios (Supervisor – Steve Williams), Makeup Effects – KNB EFX Group (Supervisors – Howard Berger, Robert Kurtzman & Greg Nicotero), Production Design – Phillip Harrison. Production Company – Todd MacFarlane Entertainment/Juno Pix/New Line Cinema.
Michael Jai White (Al Simmons/Spawn), John Leguizamo (Clown), Martin Sheen (Jason Wynn), Theresa Randle (Wanda Simmons), D.B. Sweeney (Terry Fitzgerald), Nicol Williamson (Cagliostro), Melinda Clarke (Jessica Priest), Sydny Beaudoin (Cyan Fitzgerald), Miko Hughes (Zack)
Jason Wynn, head of the covert government agency A-6, is in league with Clown, a demonic envoy from Hell. Wynn agrees to betray his top agent Al Simmons, whom the powers of darkness want to subvert to their side so that Simmons can head the armies of Hell in the war against Heaven. Simmons wants to retire from the business to be with his family but agrees to do one last job for Wynn – destroying a North Korean chemical warfare plant. However, this is a trap set by Wynn and Simmons ends up being hideously burned in a fire. He comes around in a netherworld city. As he tries to make his way back to the life he knew, Simmons discovers that he now has mysterious abilities. Beleaguered by Clown, who at every step tries to fool him into giving himself over to darkness, Simmons finds hope from a mysterious envoy of light who shows him that he can channel the demonic powers he has been given to fight for good.
Spawn is a film is based on the comic-book series created by Canadian comic-book artist and writer Todd McFarlane. McFarlane gained some acclaim in the late 1980s for his work on various Marvel titles, in particular Spiderman. In 1992, McFarlane and six others left Marvel to form the independent Image Comics. Spawn was their first produced title and it has gone onto become one of the most successful independent superhero titles in modern comic-book publication, producing a number of spin-off titles. After several issues of Spawn, Todd McFarlane dropped back into an overseer role and allowed the series to be developed by other artists and writers. These days, McFarlane spends more of his time developing ancillary merchandise, including videogames and a popular series of Spawn-related figurines, through his companies Todd McFarlane Productions and McFarlane Toys. (In fact, the Spawn toys were so well received that McFarlane Toys now produce figurines of other film and tv franchises, horror figures and sports stars).
When I first saw the advance material for the Spawn film, I became immensely excited. What a cool concept for a superhero – a Batman-esque dark avenger who was a demonic entity fighting for his own soul. Unfortunately, the film on screen remains considerably less than the possibilities inherent in its concept. It comes out as being, well, too comic-bookish. It may seem a little fatuous to accuse a film adapted from a comic-book of being too comic-bookish but if you compare Spawn to the dark, psychologically intense nihilism of other comic-book film adaptations like Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992) and Batman Begins (2005) or The Crow (1994), in comparison to these, Spawn‘s darkness comes out with all the depth of a four-colour comic panel.
Spawn could have been like the abovementioned Batman films, which gave grim, soul-scouring psychological depth to the comic-book characters, but it only comes out on screen as being The Punisher with horns. The intensity and complexity the film aspires to is no more than a kickass pose. Any question of damnation, redemption and the choice between good and evil that the film touches upon is rendered entirely in black-and-white action hero morality – where damnation is represented by surrendering to consuming mindless anger and all moral complexities are dealt with in a hail of justly avenging gunfire. This is exactly what people are pointing to when they accuse comic-books of being two-dimensional and written to an adolescent level.
While director Mark A.Z. Dippé has no feel at all for the graphic novel and Gothic horror element, he does okay when it comes to the action scenes. Spawn is not unenjoyable when taken purely on this level. The film is best when it comes to some of the marvellous images of the title character whipping clawed chains out of his body and flying about on a huge billowing cape-come-parachute of red silk, or a sequence where a motorcycle morphs into an armoured battle beetle. There is a marvellous scene where Spawn bursts into a ballroom through a skylight, falling to the ground in a swirling silk cloud, snapping clawed chains at Melinda Clarke, followed by his being blasted out a window and halting his fall down the side of a building by digging his chained claws into the wall and then flying off in a cloud of silk.
Michael Jai White is blank and brings nothing to the title character. However, the greatly underrated John Leguizamo has a great deal of fun and steals the show in the role of the demonic envoy Clown. Alas, Martin Sheen, who has made a career out of roles as a patiently understanding nice guy, is badly miscast and gives one of his worst performances trying to act tough and play the super-villain of the piece. Not even an actor like Sheen can make anything of lines like “When the whole world is mine, I’ll personally fry your lard ass.” The CGI effects used to represent Hell and the devil that appears at the climax are cheap and unconvincing, despite coming from the usually reliable Industrial Light and Magic.
An infinitely superior version of the comic-book was the eighteen episode made-for-cable animated series Spawn (1997-8), which was conducted with a strong adult element and did a beautiful job in investing the character and milieu with all the dark nihilistic angst that the film here completely misses. The concept of the demon superhero has proven surprisingly popular since then. Other films with the same concept, all also adapted from comic-books/graphic novels, are Faust: Love of the Damned (2000), Hellboy (2004) and Ghost Rider (2007).
Mark A.Z. Dippé was a former Industrial Light and Magic visual effects supervisor who made his directorial debut with Spawn. Dippé later went onto make the tv movie Pixel Perfect (2004) about a holographic rock star, the Disney Channel movie Halloweentown High (2004), the monster movie Frankenfish (2004) and the animated Garfield Gets Real (2007), Garfield’s Fun Fest (2008) and Garfield’s Pet Force (2009), and the animated The Reef 2: High Tide (2012), The Boxcar Children (2014) and The Boxcar Children: Surprise Island (2018).
(Nominee for Best Makeup Effects at this site’s Best of 1997 Awards).