The Spawn comics first premiered in 1992 from artist Todd McFarlane and the property fully embraced all the 90s clichés that comic books had to offer. While I did enjoy McFarlane’s art, I never really was that interested in the book. Sure, I dig supernatural tales and the idea of a man rebelling against the evil being that granted him his powers—and making full use of those powers against them—was a neat one but everything about Spawn always felt too Dues Ex Machina for me. While I was always told that his powers basically had a “counter” to them before he used up all his abilities, it never really felt like this was the case and I found I just couldn’t get behind a character that too often felt unstoppable and felt like a walking plot device. Recently, McFarlane has boasted that there is a planned reboot of the movie and even though it is in the “take it with a huge grain of salt” rumor stage (since he’s claimed this several times before) we decided that the 1997 original film adaptation would be the next addition to Was It THAT Bad?
The film is a fairly faithful adaptation to the source material (but it does have some noticeable changes) and centers on a special forces agent named Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) who wants to leave his black ops life behind in order to be with his wife and daughter. However, his boss (Martin Sheen) has secretly made a deal with the devil for Simmons’ soul and he betrays the man and murders him. Simmons suddenly finds himself waking up several years later and in possession of some supernatural powers granted to him by a really bad CG devil who has a mouth that is incapable of lip syncing with words named Malebolgia (voiced by famed voice actor Frank Welker). One of Malebolgia’s minions named Clown (John Leguizamo) informs Simmons that he will lead the devil’s armies but Simmons refuses and aims to use the evil powers for good and avenge his death.
Now the question: Was it THAT bad?
Short answer: Dear God, yes!
When the film came out in the late 90s, it was marked with overwhelmingly bad reviews and was disliked even by the fans to such a degree that the studio cancelled a proposed sequel. It has a 19% on Rotten Tomatoes and one of the few good reviews it got was from Roger Ebert, for some reason. One of the many criticisms at the time by mainstream critics was the fact they felt it was hyper-violent but, to be honest, this film isn’t violent enough and that’s only the beginning of its problems.
Spawn is an awkward mess of a film that feels like it was made-for-TV as a pilot for a show but was accidentally released in the theaters. All the film’s transitions, edits, fades, and wipes all feel like they are designed for a commercial to immediately follow them and that’s only when they aren’t the silly edits that involve Spawn’s cape wiping across the screen or fire burning away the one scene and introducing the next. This is all a part of a whole with the horrible technical elements as it is just amateurish with its editing in general—hell, the scene where Spawn fights Violator in the slums is cringe-worthy as it is terribly paced, generically shot and just absolutely dull.
That is really the heart of why Spawn wasn’t good then and is still not very good now: the whole film is awkward. The acting isn’t terrible but there’s only a single man that is really that commanding of attention. The film’s leading actor; Michael Jai White, is very wooden and stiff and Martin Sheen is doing the polar opposite and chewing every bit of scenery he can cram into his gullet. The special effects are in the early stages of computer graphics and do not age well at all—try not to wince whenever Malebolgia is on the screen and try not to laugh whenever he speaks (Frank Welker, you are a talented voice actor but you didn’t fit the film’s tone and made the devil himself sound like a cartoon character). Additionally, a majority of the makeup effects are fairly disappointing. John Leguizamo looks cool as Clown but Spawn himself looks rubber and like wet latex—like he hasn’t fully dried yet. His suit doesn’t look realistic and has the appearance that it was purchased from a Halloween costume shop—it looks high-end for a commercial shop but not high-end for a movie production. Matters aren’t assisted by the fact that White looks like he can’t move in the thing and the fight sequences are clumsy due to the obvious reality that the stuntman couldn’t operate and probably couldn’t see in it. It makes the already forgettable action moments even that much more groan-inducing and hard to sit through.
The final nails in this poorly constructed coffin come in the form of this movie having epically lazy exposition. This was an element that I didn’t fully understand when it came out because I was a dumb high school kid but after going to college and studying filmmaking, writing and the rhetoric of film, I’ve realized that this film doesn’t think too highly of its viewers. Literally every plot point and moment of story progression it takes is explained by the characters like they are actually holding the audiences’ hand. Moments like this can be expected to get mainstream audiences invested but having the whole movie this way is actually quite insulting and made for a film that is mind-numbingly tedious and almost torture to sit through. That sounds like hyperbole but I realized that it really was a lot worse than I remember.
If there’s any shining lights peeking through the mess that is Spawn it’s the fact the film has a decent soundtrack and one performer steals the show. While the soundtrack is clearly a product of its time, the mixing of electronic, techno and heavy metal works really well for the images and compliments the material on screen. Finally, John Leguizamo is, in my opinion, the best thing about this movie. He is endless entertaining as Clown and offers up some scenes that are genuinely amusing and fun in a sea of awkward storytelling, bland characters, and clumsy action and CG.
Spawn is sadly a product of its time. It was created and release during an era when comic book adaptations were made for “dorks” and “geeks” that the studios just didn’t respect all that much. They thought just the name and the bare minimum would be enough and what we’re left with is a incomprehensible mess of a film that barely even registers as remotely serviceable. I remember thinking it wasn’t too good when I saw it in the theaters years ago but watching it now I’ve realized that it really was THAT bad.