Judge Patrick Naugle proclaims, "Repent! The hour of the comic book movie's demise is nigh!!!"
Imagine a hero on the verge of creation…
Remember the summer of 1989 and a little movie called Batman? The following year it was Dick Tracy, and soon each summer delivered a new comic book movie. Then as the summers progressed, the studios gave us two comic book movies. Then three. Then five. Today we can't get through one weekend without yet another superhero adaptation opening five minutes ahead of the NEXT comic book being made into a franchise. It's all so exhausting.
What does this have to do with Spawn? Not much, except to say I want to go back to the days when Hollywood was only making one superhero movie a summer.
Oh, and Spawn is now available on Blu-ray care of New Line Cinema.
Facts of the Case
Lt. Al Simmons (Michael Jai White, Black Dynamite) is one of the best soldiers/assassins at America's fingertips. When Simmons is double crossed by one of his government bosses—Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen, The West Wing)—and left to die in a fiery explosion. That's when things get interesting.
Sent to the bowels of Hell, Simmons is offered a Faustian deal by the vile Malebolgia (The Devil): Lead his army to the Armageddon or forsake ever again seeing his beloved fiancée Wanda (Theresa Randall, Bad Boys II). Simmons agrees to the deal, except his return to earth is five years later than anticipated with Wanda now married to his best friend (D.B. Sweeney, The Cutting Edge). Simmons meets up with one of Malebolgia's minions, a demonic fat Clown (John Leguizamo, Land of the Dead), as well as the mystical Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson, Excalibur) who helps him discover the newfound powers of Spawn, a superhuman anti-hero who must stop Wynn from releasing a biological weapon ("Makes the Ebola virus look like a skin rash!") upon all of humanity.
Spawn is one of those movies I have a lot of history with, mostly peripheral. Creator/comic book artist Todd McFarlane is a name I know because my brother is a comic book nut, and McFarlane's artwork was all over our house when I was a kid. I can also vividly recall seeing the trailer for Spawn online in my parent's basement. Although that sounds rather uneventful, at the time it was a huge deal; the first movie trailer I ever saw on a computer (I recall watching it many times, mostly out of fascination that you could do that on a computer in a window the size of four postage stamps).
I remember seeing the film while in California working internship and being fairly indifferent. Spawn was not the hit audiences or critics anticipated. Although it was a modest money maker (grossing a little under $100 million), the disappointment was palpable. What was supposed to be a huge new superhero franchise ended up being a one-off cinematic curiosity. After sitting through Spawn again almost fifteen years later, I can see why the movie never caught on. Frankly, it's a really weird hybrid of horror, action, sci-fi, and comedy. It's as if the filmmakers tried to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, just to make Spawn work, and it wound up pleasing no one.
Let's start with what does work. John Leguizamo, as the sadistic Clown, is a real treat every time he shows up. Spewing one-liners faster than the screenplay can offer, Leguizamo inhabits this vile creature (aka Violator) with teeth gnashing glee. If the film has one true saving grace, it's easily Leguizamo's unhinged performance. Also impressive (at times) are some of the visuals; McFarlane clearly wanted Spawn to be a grandiose palate of color and blood, and to some extent he achieves that goal.
Sadly, the problems plaguing Spawn are many and ultimately outweigh any good the movie has to offer. Michael Jai White plays Al Simmons/Spawn with nothing more than disgruntled anger. The character of is never given room to grow or develop; all he does is leap from scene-to-scene beating the hell out of anyone who gets in his way. Simmons is 100% pissed off and it's hard to relate to someone who's half an emotion shy of going postal. Also, not to nitpick, but if you want your superhero to move without being seen, what good does it do to have an enormous bright red cape that trails two miles behind you?
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Martin Sheen plays a one-note villain in Jason Wynn, and that one note cigar-chomping growl gets old fast. Theresa Randall has little to do as Spawn's wife except look pretty and scared. Melinda Clarke (Return of the Living Dead Part III) pops up as Wynn's sexy lackey, but is disposed of quickly. And there are a lot of extras (government henchmen, homeless people, party guests) on tap so they can scream, flee in terror, or be shot and killed. It's a thankless, job but somebody's gotta do it.
Because Spawn was made as CGI was in its infancy, many of the special effects look not only cheesy but downright amateurish. The scenes that take place in Hell appear to have been rendered for some unreleased 1995 video game. Much of the practical effects—the make up and physical prosthetics—are top notch, but the CGI (performed by the usually reliant Industrial Light and Magic) is just laughable by today's standards. The actions scenes become repetitive without much flair. Director Mark A.Z. Dippé (this being his first and last major theatrical release) never shows much of a distinct style; the just jumps from one scene to the next without a lot of internal logic (one minute we're in Hell, the next we're inside a smokestack laden refinery, then at a child's birthday party). The Spawn costume, while decent, appears cumbersome and clumsy during any of the real-life actions sequences. Leguizamo's make-up is the real showpiece. If the filmmakers did anything right, it's making that Clown character truly come alive from the pages of the book.
Although I don't think Spawn is a very good movie, I have to admit to rarely being bored. The dark story and weird characters offer enough entertainment to warrant a viewing. McFarlane's creation offers an alternative to all the clean cut Supermen and Spider-Men of most comic books movies. While it doesn't stand the test of time as a work of art, even with its collection of flaws and pockmarks, Spawn works well enough as a B-movie.
Presented in 1.85:1/1080p high definition widescreen, I wouldn't say that this transfer is a home run, but it does look good for its age and budget. Small amounts of grain can be seen, although they are minor. Colors look vibrant while black levels are deep and solid. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix fares slightly better than the video, as an aggressive mix that rocks both the rear and side speakers. If nothing else, Spawn should give your home theater system a heavy workout.
Bonus features are ported over from the original DVD release, including a commentary by Todd McFarlane, director Mark A.Z. Dippé, producer Clint Goldman, and visual effects supervisor Steven "Spaz" Williams; a couple featurettes on the making of the film ("The Making of Spawn", "Todd McFarlane: Chapter and Verse"); some storyboard comparisons; original McFarlane sketches and concept galleries; a preview for Spawn: The Animated Movie; two forgettable music videos; and the film's original theatrical trailer.
Spawn isn't a very good movie, but it's a relatively entertaining bad one. Fifteen years have not been kind to this minor comic book flick, although fans will most certainly be happy to see it show up in high definition.
Sentenced suspended. It'll do when every other superhero movie in your
Netflix queue has been exhausted.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
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