SPAWN (1997)
Director: Mark A.Z. Dippé

When thinking of comic books, your mind may immediately wander to DC or Marvel. And that's perfectly natural. DC and Marvel are the biggest names in the game. But as with every other type of media, there are comic book publishers other than the most recognizable ones. Dark Horse Comics may be the most prevalent one, but also competing for the attention of readers is Image Comics. Formed in 1992 by seven disillusioned Marvel illustrators, Image was created to provide a forum for writers and artists to maintain freedom and control over their own creations without bureaucratic interference. Perhaps the most famous of Image's founders was Todd McFarlane, whose run at the "House of Ideas" helped establish the character of Venom as one of Spider-Man's most popular villains. When McFarlane departed from Marvel to co-found Image, the first character he created there would become one of Image's most enduring: Spawn. The demonically-powered antihero proved to be incredibly popular upon his debut, with the first issue of the Spawn comic (cover dated May 1992) sold almost two million copies alone. Though his popularity has cooled since then, Spawn's resonance with comic readers in the mid-'90s led to video games, a popular animated series that ran for eighteen episodes on HBO, and a line of toys designed by McFarlane himself. But perhaps the apex of Spawn's glory days was the live-action cinematic adaptation released by New Line Cinema in the summer of 1997. The movie was only a modest financial success, and generally isn't considered one of the more memorable comic book movies ever. So let's see if we can figure out just why that is.

SPAWN (1997)Our story follows Al Simmons (Michael Jai White), a deadly mercenary under the current employ of a covert government agency directed by Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen). Unhappy with the amount of unnecessary casualties caused by his most recent mission, Simmons has chosen to retire. Wynn is willing to allow this, but only after Simmons completes one final job: the destruction of a North Korean factory secretly producing chemical weapons. It turns out, though, that Wynn has lured him right into a trap. Wynn turns on Simmons and lights him ablaze before being left to perish in an explosion detonated by his scheming boss. The wages of Simmons's sins are great, and thus he is sent packing straight to Hell upon his death. Desperate to see his beloved wife Wanda (Theresa Randle) again, he strikes a deal with the demon Malebogia (the voice of Frank Welker). If he is allowed to return to Earth, he will lead the army of Hell in its final war with Heaven.

Of course, every Faustian deal comes with some kind of catch. A badly-scarred Simmons is returned to Earth five years into the future, where he is disappointed to discover that Wanda has moved on. She is happily married to his best friend Terry (D.B. Sweeney), and has given birth to a daughter named Cyan (Sydni Beaudoin). However, he also discovers that his deal with Malebogia has imbued him with vast supernatural powers. These powers have transformed him into Spawn, the embodiment of all of Hell's soldiers. Pestering him is Clown (John Leguizamo), an obnoxious little monster who pressures Spawn into accepting his position as the leader of Hell's agents of the apocalypse. But opposing Clown's efforts is Coligostro (Nicol Williamson), a knight who himself fell in with Malebogia's army centuries earlier before seeing the error of his ways. He assumes the role of Spawn's mentor, teaching him how to use his powers while pleading with him to utilize them for good instead of the evil they was intended for. But while Heaven and Hell battle for his soul, Spawn chooses to get revenge on Wynn for putting him in this position to begin with.

I said in the opening paragraph that Spawn has never really been considered a memorable comic book movie. And in my experiences, I've rarely ever seen it get mentioned at all. To that, I will posit that it's because Spawn isn't all that great. It's not that it sucks outright, but it's just a really mediocre movie that doesn't do a whole lot to make you remember it. There are a lot of tools here that could be used to craft a really great movie, but it simply doesn't do anything with them. And that's the most disappointing thing about the movie, too. The character of Spawn and the world he inhabits would make for an awesome action flick. I won't argue that. But unfortunately, we get a movie with half-assed acting, bad writing, and some of the most hideous CGI special effects I've ever seen.

Let's begin with the directorial work from Mark A.Z. Dippé. Dippé did a lot of work for ILM in the first half of the '90s, working as a special effects supervisor on such movies as Ghost, Terminator 2, Back to the Future 2, and Jurassic Park. He moves into the director's chair for the first time with Spawn, and his inexperience shows. Just because he worked on movies directed by Steven Spielberg and James Cameron doesn't mean any of their talent rubbed off on him. But maybe I'm being too hard on Dippé. This is his first movie, after all, so maybe I should cut him some slack. That's wouldn't be too much of a hassle, would it? I will say that, with help from cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, he manages to craft scenes with a certain dark grittiness to them. Dippé does seem to have a handle on what he's doing, but as I said, his inexperience does hinder him somewhat. There's also an acceptably-done score composed by Graeme Revell, but I could have done withoyt the lame techno music that was selected to comprise the soundtrack. 

It also doesn't help that the CGI effects are tremendously awful. The CGI is prevalent to the point of overuse, and it does far more to ruin the movie than anything else could. The CGI looks like bad leftovers from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where the human cast is stuck interacting with ugly cartoons that aren't really there. The only bad part is that Spawn's CGI is definitely less effective than Roger Rabbit's animation. There's one cool moment where Clown's monstrous alternate form, dubbed "the Violator," emerges from a wall during the climax. Other than that, the CGI ranges from unconvincing to downright hideous. How could a guy who worked for ILM for so long allow his movie to have special effects that look like the animators got halfway through before quitting?

Next on the list is the screenplay credited to Dippé and Alan McElroy. I don't want to stir the pot or anything, but I'm not exactly sure that McElroy writing the movie was a good thing. A quick look at his IMDB listing reveals that he's written such cinematic masterpieces as Left Behind, The Marine, and Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever. Granted, Spawn came out years before those movies, but it still isn't a very good omen in retrospect. But as far as his work on Spawn, the script could have been a lot better. To take a franchise full of potential and use it to craft a script full of cheesy dialogue and bad one-dimensional character constructs is a shame. And was there really a need for all the lame expository narration to explain plot points that could have been handled in a far more natural way? I know that it makes the movie more like a comic book, but not every comic book element can really survive a translation from print to film.

The last portion of the movie left to critique is the acting. First on the list is the star, Michael Jai White. Truth be told, there really isn't a whole lot that White needs to do. All that's necessary is for him to act really pissed off, and throw in some brooding and general grumpiness on occasion. And what he doesn't do, that cheap CGI can do for him. The character as written only needs someone who can convincingly be an angry killing machine from Hell, and in that regard, White does an acceptable job. Next is John Leguizamo as the utterly repellant Clown. I think it's funny that Spawn and The Pest were released in the same year, because both of them feature Leguizamo playing some of the most irritating characters is movie history. But while his character from The Pest was annoying because it was such a bad movie, Clown is purposely nerve-grating. He's sleazy, rude, uncouth, vile, and generally disgusting, and Leguizamo plays him with such energy and commitment that you can't help but hate the character's guts. So if that's what Leguizamo wanted to accomplish, he was successful.

The rest of the cast, however, is hit or miss (mostly miss). Nicol Williamson, playing the Obi-Wan Kenobi to White's Luke Skywalker, puts forth a credible performance despite being stuck delivering so much pretentious narration. Meanwhile, Martin Sheen is stuck playing a character whose master plan makes him look like a Bond villain wannabe. And unfortunately, Sheen's work is inconsistent. He's effective at times, but at others, you end up wishing they'd move along to the next scene and follow other characters for a change. D.B. Sweeney is okay in his small and thankless role, as is Miko Hughes, who plays a homeless boy that befriends Spawn shortly after his return from Hell. Bringing up the rear, I was less than impressed with Theresa Randle, and I'm bummed that Melinda Clarke was so wasted in her role. Her work in Return of the Living Dead 3 is one of my favorite horror movie performances, and the fact that she's playing a character who ends up having such little bearing on the movie.

The middle half of the '90s sucked if you were a fan of comic book movies. You had Tank Girl, Judge Dredd, Barb Wire, Batman & Robin, and Spawn seeing release all within a three-year span between 1995 and 1997. The Spawn comics were a huge success amongst Gen-X readers during the decade, but I'm sure even his most ardent fans would have to admit that the movie could have been a lot better. In all honesty, Roger Ebert is the only person I've ever seen who was actually willing to give the movie a glowing review. The biggest drawback is that Spawn just doesn't know what kind of movie it wants to be. Is it a horror movie? Is it an action movie? Does all the adolescent humor from the Clown character make it a comedy? I don't know, and neither does the movie. And if the movie isn't going to care, then neither will I. As a result, I can't give Spawn anything higher than two stars. I'd rather go watch the Hellboy movies or Ghost Rider instead.

Final Rating: **