Spawn (1997)

Never mind the acting, look at the graphics!
Never mind the story, look at the graphics!

“From flesh to steel. From blood to blade. From man…to Spawn.”

Directed by Mark A. Z. Dippe
Starring Michael Jai White, Martin Sheen, Nicol Williamson and John Leguizamo

Al Simmons (White) is a top operative for A-6, a government deniable black ops group with huge fricking signs on their building, run by Jason Wynn (Sheen) and his pet psychopath Priest (Melinda Clarke). When he learns that A-6 is using him to run ops with heavy civilian casualties, Simmons announces his intention to retire and marry his fiancee Wanda (Theresa Randle).Unsurprisingly, Wynn and Priest murder him up a treat.

Simmons wakes on Earth as a vagrant, close to a shelter run by the engimatice Cogliostro (Williamson). He tries to return to Wanda, but finds that five years have passed and she is married to his best friend Terry (D.B. Sweeney) with a daughter, Cyan. Moreover, he is a Hellspawn, a rage-fuelled soldier of darkness (basically Venom from Spider-Man with a serious chain fetish) destined to lead the armies of the Devil, Malebolgia. The demon Clown (Leguizamo) dubs him ‘Spawn’ (original) and attempts to goad him into a reckless act of vengeance while Cogliostro urges him to move on and not serve Hell’s purposes.

In a series of action set pieces, Spawn pursues his vengeance while Clown is intensely annoying and spends most of his screen time explaining what is happening. Ultimately, Spawn opts not to murder Wynn, thus breaking his deal, leaving Wanda’s life and devoting himself to justice in the place of the almost spent Cogliostro and Terry dobs Wynn in to the authoritah.

What’s wrong with it?

Billed as ‘the special-effects movie event of the year’, Spawn trades heavily on the titular antihero’s mind-guided fighting chains and vast, CGI cloak, and both effects are a little dated in today’s market.

Worse still is Clown’s demon form, the Violator, and beyond that Malebolgia himself. In fact, all of the Hell effects in the final battle look almost half-finished, as if the film just ran out of money halfway through post.

The movie never shows what it can tell, and it tells almost everything by having Clown explain it as if narrating to the audience, or Cogliostro actually narrate it to the audience in v/o.

The crux of the movie is Spawn’s choice between vengeance and justice, but in the end the choice he actually makes comes down to dooming the world – including his daughter – or not. He doesn’t spare Wynn so as not to do Hell’s dirty work, but because by the time he’s done removing the doomsday device from Wynn’s heart, the rage is more or less spent (and because Hell – in the form of Clown – is constantly telling him what he ought to do in terms that would make you want to contradict them even if the speaker wasn’t a grotesque demon in the form of a flatulent clown.)

Being based on a 90s Image concept, the grimdark occasionally throws up some jarring homophobia.

All villains in this story appear to be contractually required to threaten Wanda with rape.

What’s right with it?

Nicol Williamson was ‘the Hamlet of his generation’, described by John ‘Look Back in Anger’ Osbourne as ‘the greatest actor since Marlon Brando’ and by Samuel Beckett as ‘touched by genius.’ This was his swan song, but by gum he plays the role of Cogliostro to the hilt. Similarly, Martin Sheen apparently can’t play banal however humdrum his material, with the drawback that Devil’s lackey and would-be genocide Jason Wynn comes across as one of the few characters with genuine vision.

The film has some interesting ideas. Spawn is one of the few seriously 90s antiheroes to make it to the big screen and there was definite mileage in a tale of a man so nearly damned by his actions as a human seeking redemption as a monster.

How bad is it really?

On rewatching Spawn you can almost see the point where the money ran out. It’s a film with ambitions which outreached its grasp, leaving substantial portions of the movie (anything in Hell, for instance) half-finished, and perhaps as a result the final cut is a voiceover-laden mess of excessive exposition, and Clown narrates constantly as if still in the sequential art medium.

Best bit (if such there is)?

Cogliostro cautions Spawn that his guns are useless. Spawn gruffly asks if he has a better idea and Cogliostro promptly binds him in a web of chains.

Cogliostro: I might.

What’s up with…?

  • A-6’s vast public presence? They’re supposed to be a super-secret black-ops agency, yet they have big signs outside the office and an official spokesman. They are also at one point refered to as ‘the A-6′, which just makes me think of the main road from Luton to Carlisle.
  • Clown? Yay! Gross-out humour and slapstick; that’s what this brooding tale of a tormented antihero needed. Also, if the party clown turns out to be that creepy, you don’t let him give the birthday girl a doll. Hell, you don’t let the creepy clown stay that long. Terry and Wanda are apparently upper middle class British; it’s the only explanation for the fact that they seem on the verge of apologising to Clown for throwing him out.
  • Priest? Having been beaten by Simmons, she goads him, claiming he doesn’t have the guts to kill her, which seems odd given that even before she set him on fire she knew he was a borderline psychopath who only ever had qualms about ‘collateral damage’. Also, the fuck is up with her outfits?
It's what all the professional assassins are wearing this year, dahling.
It’s what all the professional assassins are wearing this year, dahling.


Production values – For the time, the effects by Industrial Light and Magic were pretty slick, or at least the effects on the core character were. The sequences in Hell… not so much. 10
Dialogue and performances – The dialogue in this film often seems to be lifted directly from the comic, with no understanding that the two are vastly different media. The actors on the other hand are pretty solid, with Williamson and Sheen backed up by solid b-listers. 9
Plot and execution – This is where it all falls down, because the film is a hot mess held together with forced exposition, and because the central conflict is resolved through an unrelated deciding factor. 19
Randomness – Clown. The random cameo by a statuesque redhead (see below) who might be Angela the angelic bounty hunter, except that she was tied up in work-for-hire copyright disputes with Neil Gaiman at the time, and who therefore looks significant and then never appears again. 14
Waste of potential – Despite coming from the grimdark excesses of the Dark Age of Comics, Spawn has a lot of potential mileage, but the timing was wrong and the resulting film is too short, too garbled and honestly looks half-finished. 17

“Who is this girl, Brown?” “That’s the producer’s girlfriend, sir.”

Overall 69%


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