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Spawn (1997)

PG-13 · 96 minutes

Directed by Mark Dippe
Written by Todd McFarlane(comic book), Alan McElroy(screenplay)

 · Michael Jai White
 · John Leguizamo
 · Martin Sheen

Review by Jeff

In keeping with our "Year of the Hero" event, let's take a look at another comic book adaptation, one that is a technical achievement but so hollow that it virtually echoes. Spawn is artist Todd McFarlane's contribution to the venerable genre of the anti-hero. Michael Jai White plays Al Simmons, a hit man whose death is orchestrated by his boss and mentor Jason Wynn, as played by Martin Sheen. Simmons strikes a deal with Satan to lead Hell's army against the forces of Heaven in return for a chance to return to Earth, where his wife Wanda has since married his former friend Terry. Returned as a mishapen freak with extraordinary powers, Simmons slowly begins to realise that he has been granted a unique opportunity to actually atone for some of his past sins. Having been only a mild fan of the comic book upon which it was based, I caught Spawn sometime after the fact and immediately dismissed it as being an inferior addition to the comic book genre. However, upon a second viewing, I was able to appreciate what McFarlane tried to do with the film, and enjoyed it as a dark and violent popcorn flick, albeit one with virtually no emotional resonance. It would also appear that its makers tried to remain faithful to the source material, but it seems the movie was a victim of that classic struggle between the artistic aspirations of its creators and the economic concerns of a nervous studio.




The first thing I noticed about Spawn was its technical brilliance. The movie looks and sounds great! Director Mark Dippé was able to work within his budget and create an appropriately dark and dank back alley world for Spawn to inhabit. Borrowing heavily from Tim Burton's far superior Batman, Dippé combines the gothic flourishes with glimpses of modern technoclogy that create a timeless mileu appropriate for the material. The depiction of Hell is truly inventive as well, a tribute to the advances that had been made in computer generated imagery at the time. Dippé also wisely avoids turning the film into a stinking campfest, instead chosing to emphasize the predicament of the character. No, this film's shortcomings have more to do with the interference of the studio and the inherent weakness of the source material than the direction. The main problem with Spawn is that it is almost impossible to sympathise with the protagonist, as he is not a likeable character in death or in life. Al Simmons was a cold-blooded killer as a man, who opts to return to Earth for purely selfish reasons. Unlike Eric Draven in The Crow, Simmons was not a regular guy who found himself in a hellish situation through no fault of his own. Simmons earned his ticket to Hell, so his entire existence as Spawn is neither ironic nor tragic. A powerful actor may have been able to wring some sympathy out of the audience, but the acting betrays the movie further.

As Al Simmons, White plays the tough guy well but is almost invisible as a leading man. Fortunately he spends most of the movie as the burnt and decaying title character, so his acting is not quite the distraction it could have been. Having said that, his performance lacks the haunting, tragic element of Brandon Lee's, just as the entire movie misses the dark beauty that The Crow achieved. The remaining performances fare little better. Actually, watching this film I was mildy surprised at how flat and listless the acting really was. Theresa Randle as Wanda and D.B. Sweeney as Terry barely register at all, and even little Cyan fails to elicit much of a reaction as the requisite child in jeopardy. Only Sheen as the loathsome government supervisor Wynn and John Leguizamo, wonderful as always as the disgusting, murderous Clown, make any impact, and even they are basically two-dimensional comic book characters. The parts of Spawn that work (photography, designs, effects) are so good that they make the parts that don't all the more frustrating.




Spawn is a farely entertaining romp, although it has little to no lasting effect upon the viewer. It is fun primarily due to the great effects, with the depiction of Hell and the graveyard scene being standouts. The film pushes boundaries by playing up the horror angle and not shying away from gore or the desire felt by Spawn for revenge against Wynn. Visually quite stunning, Spawn himself is a triumph of CGI, and the action is appropriately cartoonish for the genre. However, the film fails as a faithful recreation of the comic itself, though this is more the fault of New Line Cinema than the creators. There is an interview with McFarlane at the end of my Special Edition VHS version that sheds some interesting light on the entire production of this movie. It is easy to see what the makers of Spawn were trying to achieve, but, according to McFarlane, the studio insisted that the violence and gore be toned down in order for the film to be granted a PG13 rating. This, more than anything, is what McFarlane believes contributed to the movie's lukewarm reception. He feels that the excessive violence that did make the final cut, along with the inherently dark subject matter, possibly alienated mainstream audiences who were searching for another Batman or Superman. At the same time, McFarlane received numerous complaints about the sanitized approach from the core audience of the comic book, who were used to a much more horrific experience. Ultimately, his verdict is that Spawn falls into this strange netherworld where it is too alternative for the mainstream, yet too watered down for its core fans. The result is a film with good intentions yet an unsatisfying execution, which makes you wonder why they even bothered.



In all, I would have to say that Spawn is worth the price of a rental, but little more. It is an example of a studio that was not in synch with the intentions of the filmmakers. However, even an immensely stylish director with complete artistic autonomy would have been hard pressed to sell a story as fundamentally weak as this one. Whatever the reasons, Spawn is undeniably a failure, but an interesting failure that is definitely worth an afternoon viewing.

1048 Words · Published: 9 January 2003

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