Joel Schumacher’s much maligned 1997 war crime, Batman & Robin, is often touted as one of the worst comic book movies of the modern age. It’s a title the film works overtime to achieve, but I’ve always maintained that because of it’s flaws, it’s actually a valuable tool to show directors what NOT to do when tackling a superhero movie and in that respect is actually useful in a weird kind of way… it may be a backhanded claim at best, but it’s one that the aggressively wonky Spawn can’t even hope to make on it’s best day.
Spawn, of course, is the brainchild of Todd MacFarlane, the comic book wunderkind who’s game changing art for Marvel got him in a position to take some fellow illustrators, jump ship and create upstart company Image comics back in 1992 and the Canadian artist had big plans to take them to the top. A movie based on their most famous character should surely shoot them into the stratosphere. Yeah… about that…
We meet government super agent Al Simmons mid-mission as he missiles a target with maximum casualties and then heads home to nonchalantly chill with his wife, Wanda. Al is maybe starting to question his life of snuffing political targets for his ice blooded boss Jason Wynn (a massively over qualified Martin Sheen) and agrees to do one last shifty job before retiring, seemingly unaware that the silly bugger’s just given himself a cinematic death kiss. Betrayed by his boss (who’da thunk it!), Al is set ablaze and left to die in a chemical explosion, but awakes in Hell looking like an overdone lamb chop (if Hell looked like a poorly designed Playstation One game) and manages to score a job offer by the Malebolgia, the lord of the underworld who takes the form of a CGI muppet with the voice of Frank Welker. Returning to earth five years later as Spawn, Al is beset on both sides by people trying to change his outlook on his new gig as Satan’s favourite general: on one side is Cogliostro, a homeless man with a mysterious, Spawny past and on the other is The Clown, a short, fat, face-painted pervert that makes Frank from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia look like Ryan fucking Gosling in comparison and who can turn into a spindly-limbed demon called The Violator at will. As Spawn struggles to make his mind up – his best friend marrying Wanda and having a kid certainly doesn’t help – he focuses on learning how to use his suit’s awesome powers (living cape only in emergencies thanks to budget limitations) in order to get revenge on Wynn who has cooked up a Doomsday plan with The Clown in order to save his skin….
I used to read Spawn back in the day (it’s still going, btw) and became fairly apparent that MacFarlane’s ambitions often out stripped his talent – let’s be honest, he’s great with a pencil and he’s great in the boardroom but he often writes like it’s fan fiction by a 13 year old – but the announcement that his hellspawned baby was heading to Hollywood was a sign that Spawn was ready to ascend.
However, the end result turned out to be as palatable as the maggot-infested pizza John Leguizamo actually ate on camera for his role as the film quite possibly has a legitimate claim to be the worst comic book movie ever made.
“Directed” by ex-ILM employee Mark A.Z. Dippé into an unfathomable mess, then edited further into oblivion and finally coated in some of the worst usage of CGI in a major motion picture, watching Spawn as a fan of the comic book is like paying to be repeatedly kicked in the balls by a man wearing skis – it’s uncomfortably awkward and always excruciatingly painful.
It’s also agonisingly frustrating, because despite it’s flaming dumpster fire full of flaws, it’s also suprisingly faithful to the comic and gets the basics pretty much bang on (screenwriter Alan McEllory also penned the R-rated Spawn animated series so he knows his stuff); Simmons, The Clown, Wynn, all the major players act just like their comic counterparts and all look pretty accurate too but that actually turns out to be a major part of the problem. In the years since, Christopher Nolan and Kevin Fiege have worked tirelessly to make characters from the comic page into three dimensional personalities, Spawn makes it characters feel as real as a three dollar note who retch up such tin-eared dialogue it could set off a metal detector. This proves to be especially bizarre considering how well the film is actually cast with bulging man mountain, martial artist Michael Jai White seemingly being tailor made for the similarly bass-voiced lead. John Leguizamo plays the clown as if he’s been main-lining Monster energy drink directly into his veins, but considering he had to play the role caked under layers of prosthetics while remaining on his haunches the whole time (the clown is a poster child for short man’s disease) maybe his endless – and frequently irritating – ad-libbing was a way for him to block out the pain. However the real head scratcher is the appearance of Martin Sheen as Jason Wynn who attacks the role admirably with a gravelly voice and a ton of black hair dye presumably because he has a nephew or grandson somewhere who loves comics…
So does Spawn have any redeeming features? To the uninitiated – fuck no. It just plays like a horrible mess that’s desperately trying to be edgy, like someone’s taken The Crow onto Pimp My Movie and it got a horrible, garish paint job that looks like shit – but for fans there’s the odd glimmer of a thrill seeing this character on screen even if his suit looks as rubbery as a pile of discarded tyres. The fact that the budget would only stretch to having the character’s signature cape appear a handful of times but feels the need to add a random, supernatural glow to Cogliostro whenever he appears is pretty much the best metaphor you could place on an unsubtle turd like this. That being said, off-putting, cartoon transformation aside, the film realises the malnourished underbite of the demonic, insectoid Violator pretty well….
1997 was a fairly lousy year for cinematic superheroes – not only did Batman & Robin rub it’s day-glow stink all over the place but we also weathered the release of Steel too – and while Spawn may not be quite as bad as the sight of Shaquille O’Neal shuffling around in a clunky metal suit, it was still enough to inflict further damage to a genre that didn’t regain it’s dignity until 1998 with the arrival of Blade. The fact that this dark superhero movie headed by an black lead portraying a character with supernatural abilities was able to crack the box office only a year later, just goes to show exactly how much of a missed opportunity Spawn really was.
Still, ever the determined optimist, MacFarlane is convinced his spikey, charred baby is ready for another shot a Hollywood with names such as producer Jason Blum and Jamie Foxx being bandied about, but if Spawn wants to hang with the big boys, he’ll need to put in a hell of a better showing than this – budget restraints be damned…