On Spawn

I remember fondly when Spawn came out, it was not what I had expected, but it also wasn’t considerably horrible. According to CrypticRock‘s article, “This Week In Horror Movie History – Spawn (1997)“:

This week in Horror movie history, back on August 1st of 1997, Fantasy Thriller Spawn hit theaters. Based on the supernatural Comic Book character created by Todd McFarlane, the film’s script was drafted by Alan B. McElroy (Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers 1988, Wrong Turn 2003). Directed by Mark A.Z. Dippe in his most high-profile directorial gig, it was was produced by Clint Goldman in also his most high-profile producing gig, and had high exceptions. Adding to the buzz, it featured a cast that included Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now 1979, The West Wing series) and John Leguizamo (Die Hard 2 1990, Ice Age series). Despite these heavy-hitters, the New Line Cinema distributed Spawnwas thrashed with negative reviews. Still, it doubled its production budget at the box office and all these years later is considered a cult classic.

The story begins with Special Forces agent and Black Ops soldier, Al Simmons (Michael Jai White: Universal Soldier 1992, The Dark Knight 2008) who has been double-crossed and murdered. After making a deal with the devil, he must exact revenge on the perpetrators and save his surviving family: his widow Wanda (Theresa Randle: Bad Boys series, Space Jam 1996) and daughter Cyan (Sydni Beaudoin: 13 Going on 30 2004). Martin Sheen co-stars as Simmons’ boss, Jason Wynn, and John Leguizamo as the evil clown/Violator.

When Spawn, the Comic, came out in 1992, Columbia Pictures came calling, but creator Todd McFarlane pulled the plug when creative differences arose. The New Line head honcho, Michael DeLuca, an avid Comic collector, showed interest, so McFarlane sold the rights for one dollar with the stipulation that he be allowed carte blanche creatively as well as retaining merchandise rights. However, the studio had eyes for a PG-13 rating, a factor that perhaps hampered the film’s success.

With a modest estimated budget of $20 million, production was only given exactly three months from August 13th, 1996 to November 13th.  Most of that time was spent on digital effects that went from seventy to over 400 done by Industrial Light & Magic, and doubled the budget. These sequences consisted of the Hell world and Spawn’s transformations. Interestingly enough, these effects were reportedly turned in two weeks before release. Aside from the CG Hell world, the rest of the sets were shot in NYC and Hollywood Studios. Adding to the overall darkness of the film, these sets had a gritty, lived-in, futuristic feel.

As far as the cast, from the start, White took to playing Spawn as he saw Spawn as a tragedy as the character plays out. To that end, he plays him with rage and sadness with a bit of Comic Book overacting while Leguizamo was his usual manic self that he was in that stage in his career. Sheen, being one of the veterans on the production (the other being the late Nicol Williamson, who played another hellspawn, Cogliostro), played Wynn with much over the top bravado.

Like a Comic Book based film, upon Spawn’s theatrical release, there were obvious differences between the movie and the Comic that audiences did not like. For instance, Simmon’s friend, Terry Fitzgerald is black as opposed to D.B. Sweeney (The Cutting Edge 1992, Taken 2 2012), who is white, plays Fitzgerald in the movie.  The said reasoning behind this was the studio did not want to pigeonhole the movie to a certain demographic. Another difference was that Cyan is Fitzgerald’s daughter in the Comic as opposed to being Simmon’s daughter in the movie, which changes the emotional pull of the movie. Wanda’s and Simmon’s relationship changes from Comic to film too, in that they go from being married to being betrothed. Also, Simmons’ murderer was changed from Chapel, a character in the Youngblood Comic, to Jessica Priest, a character created for the film, played by Melinda Clarke (Return of the Living Dead 3 1993, Return to Two Moon Junction 1995) in the movie. In the film, Simmons worked for an agency called A6 as opposed to the CIA in the Comics, but most disturbing to audiences was Spawn’s powers were changed from Comic to movie.

When it was all said and done, Spawn bowed out earning approximately $87.8 million worldwide with most negative reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes and Internet Movie Database, both movie rating sites, has given the movie a 19% “Fresh” rating and a much more forgiving 5.2/10 respectively while becoming a merchandising bonanza with new comics still in print, action figures, clothes, and decorations that sell today.

Despite the negativity, through the years, Spawn has stayed relevant in audiences’ minds with spin-offs that include a 1997 Spawn TV series and three video games, like 1997’s Spawn: The Eternal, Spawn: In the Demon’s Hand, and Spawn: Armageddon, as well as references in TV and movies like the 2003Buffy the Vampire episode, “Slayer: Dirty Girls,” 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard, and video games like 2011’s Duke Nukem Forever.  There was a sequel in the works in 1998 with reports through 2011 just to have the potential movie never getting out of development hell. Then, McFarlane went on record to say the movie is going to be a reboot with production hopefully starting this year to keep Spawnalive to old fans, and bring new fans for the 21st century. With that said, 1997′sSpawn still holds a place in many fans’ heart.

According to Roger Ebert:

“Spawn” is best seen as an experimental art film. It walks and talks like a big budget horror film, heavy on special effects and pitched at the teenage audience, and maybe that’s how it will be received. But it’s more impressive if you ignore the genre and just look at what’s on the screen. What we have here are creators in several different areas doing their best to push the envelope. The subject is simply an excuse for their art–just as it always is with serious artists.

Still, we can begin with the story. A man named Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) is happily married and at peace with himself, when he’s recruited on a mission to destroy a biological warfare factory in North Korea. The mission is a setup. He is horribly burned and disfigured, and made captive of the forces of darkness. They offer him a deal: Lead the army of evil, and he can see his wife again. He loves her, and he agrees.

That’s what comic book writers call the “origination story,” and “Spawn,” of course, is based on a famous series of comic books by Todd McFarlane, who made “Spiderman” the top-selling comic in history before jumping ship at Marvel to start his own company.

After the setup, five years pass before the evil ones make good on their promise. Simmons by now is Spawn, seen either grotesquely scarred or in an elaborate costume. He goes to his old home, sees his wife (Theresa Randle) now happily remarried and is mistaken as a homeless man by everyone except his faithful little dog, Spaz.

Most of the movie involves Spawn’s efforts to break loose from his bargain with the devil, whose representative is Clown, a fat, wisecracking midget played with brilliant comic timing by John Leguizamo (who has little but his timing left to recognize after the special effects and makeup people have finished disguising him). Other key characters include Martin Sheen as Jason Wynn, a diabolical government agent who hopes to control the earth with biological blackmail, and Nicol Williamson as Cogliostro, Clown’s enemy and a counterforce for good. Spawn has agreed to lead Armageddon for the powers of hell, but now finds himself trapped between good and evil.

And so on. I am sure there will be some who get involved at the plot level, but in comic books, and movies spawned by comic books, few things are ever really settled forever; the ending has to be left open for a sequel, and of course whole story lines can be negated (as happened at Marvel recently) just by explaining that impostors were at work. What matters is style, tone, and creative energy.

“Spawn” is the work of some of the most inventive artists now working in the area of digital effects. Its first-time director, Mark Dippe, worked on the dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park” and the shape-shifting villain of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” The visual effects coordinator is Steve “Spaz” Williams, once a resident genius at Industrial Light and Magic. They’ve gathered an expert creative team, and what they put on the screen are vivid, bizarre, intense images–including visions of hell that are worthy of Hieronymous Bosch.

Spawn himself is an extraordinary superhero, with smoking green eyeballs and two looks–scarred skin, or a uniform that makes Batman look underdressed. Clown is a shape-shifter who can impersonate almost anyone else in the movie; Leguizamo’s features are buried in fat makeup and then transplanted by animation onto a grotesque clown’s body. There is a dragonlike thing, the beast of hell, that is all tooth and eyeball and disgusting coiling tongue (an “overgrown gekko,” it’s called). And there are vast vistas of the expanse of hell, with countless souls writhing on clouds of flame, tortured by the very anonymity of their suffering.

Against this, and preventing the film from being even better, is a pretty sappy plot. Yes, I said that the subject is just an excuse for the art, but audiences don’t always see it that way, and some are likely to complain that “Spawn” is basically just shallow set-ups for virtuoso special effects sequences. And so it is. Michael Jai White (who once played Mike Tyson on TV) makes a powerful Spawn with a presence both menacing and touching, and Clown is an inspired villain with one wicked one-liner after another (“You’re Jimmy Stewart–and I’m Clarence”). But the Sheen and Williamson characters exist primarily just to nudge the plot along, and Theresa Randle’s wife is underwritten; we want more about her feelings.

So the way to view the movie, I think, is to consider the story as the frame–necessary, but upstaged by what it contains, which in this case is some of the most impressive effects I’ve seen. The disciplines blend into one another: Animation, makeup, costuming, process shots, morphing. They create a place and a look as specific as the places evoked in such films as “Metropolis” and “Blade Runner”. As a visual experience, “Spawn” is unforgettable.

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One thought on “On Spawn

  1. Pingback: On Universal Soldier | The Progressive Democrat

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