Who here remembers an era before Marvel pulled it’s thumb out and started to make awesome movie adaptations of its comic book properties? It’s not easy. For the most part, the comic book genre has been white hot for so long that it’s impossible to imagine a time when the funny pages weren’t simply a blank cheque for the movie industry.
But no matter how much we may choose to deny it, there was a time when films based on superheroes were the lowest of the low, and the so-called A-List actors wouldn’t give them the time of day. There were exceptions, Batman being the prime example, but for the most part the term “straight to video” sprung to mind, irrespective of how good the source material might have seemed on paper.
One such example was New Line Cinema’s heavy duty spin on Spawn, Todd McFarlane’s ultra-violent cash cow. In the world of comics, Spawn could do no wrong. Having worked in a comic book store around that time, I can attest for the rabid enthusiasm readers had for McFarlane’s work. Adapting the book for the big screen seemed a logical next step, especially after the world had gone bonkers for Tim Burton’s suitably dark interpretation of Batman, but the resulting mess would kill the character dead in the water, and it is only now, almost 20 years later, that it’s finally starting to show signs of life once more.
So, what was Spawn all about? For the uninitiated, Spawn started life way back in May of 1992. Created by McFarlane following his split from Marvel Comics, the comic tells the tale of Albert “Al” Simmons, a Black Ops soldier whose soul is sent to Hell after being killed in the line of duty. Once in Hell, Simmons makes a deal with a malevolent being called Malebolgia, who promises Al the opportunity to see his wife and child one last time, but at a price. When Simmons is returned to the Earth, a hideously disfigured shell of his former self, he finds that 5 years have passed, his wife has moved on and another man is raising his daughter. Mistakenly believing this to have been the price that Malebolgia was referring to, Simmons soon learns that as per his contract he is now a weapon for Hell. He had become the Hellspawn. And man, he was bad ass.
There was talk of a live action movie almost as soon as the first comic had left the shelves. Columbia Pictures were the first production company to approach McFarlane, but he turned them down believing they wouldn’t give him enough control over the way his characters would be used. He would eventually sell the rights to Michael DeLuca, president of New Line Cinema, who had promised the film would retain its darkness and satisfy the established audience.
With a heavy hitter like New Line behind the project, the next step was to bring on a director who knew a little about mixing live action with CGI, which was still relatively new at the time. After some deliberation, it was eventually agreed that Mark A.Z. Dippé, who had worked alongside Industrial Light and Magic, would direct. This was Dippé ‘s first stint in the director’s chair, having previously provided special effects on productions like Terminator 2, The Abyss and Jurassic Park. He would not direct another movie for 7 years.
Soon after, Michael Jai White (The Toxic Avenger Part II) signed on as Al Simmons, making him the first ever black lead in a superhero movie. John Leguizamo (Romeo & Juliette) would follow in the role of The Clown/The Violator, and Martin Sheen was horribly miscast as Jason Wynn, the villain of the piece.
The film worked as a setup for a whole new franchise, focusing largely on the origin story of the character. Even way back in 1997 there was enough source material to work with to create a compelling follow-up. However, after failing to make a dent at the box office, any hopes of a sequel were quickly squashed. How had such a promising project gone so wrong?
To understand the failings of the Spawn movie, you must look at the way the studio tampered with the original idea. The script, which had been written by Alan B. McElroy of Spawn the Animated Series fame, was changed from a dark, brooding, faithful interpretation into a PG-13 popcorn movie that leaned too much on cheap humour (Yoda jokes?) and genre clichés. White and Leguizamo were both perfect choices for their respective roles, but Sheen just looked out of place, too old school to be a fit for such a movie.
There was also the question of how the effects budget was spent, as they looked out of date as soon as the film found its release. How so much money could be pumped into an area for the results to be this bad is one of life’s great mysteries. It is no exaggeration to say that the CGI in Spawn looked dated compared to the graphics on a 32-bit games console! They brought the whole project to its knees, and were a truly awful representation of the capability of the team who created them. Oh, and whoever decided to have Simmons escape Hell by propelling himself with a gassy green fart should never be allowed to work in Hollywood again.
Some films fit in the “so bad they’re good category”, and from time to time I remember Spawn in this way. Even writing this retro, talking about how poor it was, I’m already planning on watching the film again. Nostalgia does that to you. But no amount of nostalgia will ever take away the sheer shittiness of this movie.