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This Week in Genre History: Spawn was ahead of its time (but also bad)
Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
Michael Jai White has never been shy about his feelings regarding Spawn, one of the first Black superhero movies, which starred him as the titular leader of Hell's army. "The only people who understood what the hell was going on already knew who Spawn was," White has said. "It suffered for people who didn't know. I just felt like there was a classic structure that was thrown away."
He's not wrong. But, to be fair, it was a different time.
We're deep into comic book films' stranglehold on Hollywood, which has been going on for so long that it might be hard to remember when they were a disrespected genre. For a long time, the release of a new superhero movie wasn't exactly a major event (with the possible exception of a Tim Burton Batman flick). In the '90s, the big studios weren't interested. But the smaller companies were willing to take a chance on superhero movies, video game adaptations, and other genre fare. And one of the most prominent of the period was Spawn, which hit theaters on Aug. 1, 1997. Hardly as famous as Superman or Spider-Man — who, by that point, had yet to be turned into the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi franchise — Spawn was someone primarily beloved by hardcore comics fans, and who cares if the wider world even knew who he was?
White played Al Simmons, an elite government operative who, after being betrayed by his superiors, is killed and sent to Hell. Once there, he's offered the opportunity to return to Earth to see his beloved fiancée Wanda (Theresa Randle) if he agrees to be the devil's eternal servant. It's a horrible deal, but Simmons has no choice, being turned into Spawn in the process.
For those who get tired of the endless CGI that overwhelms most modern superhero films, it's important to note that, a generation ago, comic book films also had lots of special effects ... which were much, much worse. It's not just Spawn's confusing story that's the problem: This remains one of the most garish, strained, pitiful superhero movies of all time. But it's also a fascinating snapshot of an era in which Hollywood was trying to figure out how to make edgy comic book films during a time when superheroes weren't guaranteed at the box office. If anything, Spawn was probably too ahead of the curve. If made today, it would probably be a lot better. It certainly couldn't be worse.
Why was it a big deal at the time? Todd McFarlane knew he wanted to get into comics since he was a teenager living in Calgary. "I was flipping through TV channels, and on the public access channel someone was holding up a comic book," he recalled, "but not just any comic book, it was Uncanny X-Men, my favorite series at the time. The guy who was holding the book was John Byrne, the artist on Uncanny X-Men and I was astounded. There was no internet back then, so I had no idea what he looked like but soon after the moment that changed everything for me came. He mentioned that he was from Calgary and I went, 'Wow!' You're saying that you can live in Calgary, Alberta, and not only work for a New York firm that does comic books, but you can also get to draw the best comic book on the stands? That blew my mind."
A co-founder of Image Comics, he helped propel the independent publisher to prominence thanks in large part to Spawn, which debuted in 1992. It was notable that the character was Black, but McFarlane, who's white, insisted that there wasn't anything intentional in that choice. "I had a chance to create a hero who just happens to be Black," he told The New York Times in 2019. "I don't want that to be the reason that anybody buys the book. Maybe somebody who is Black will say, 'Todd, you're doing us a disservice,' but I didn't live the experience, and I don't think I could write it."
The comic was a hit and Image earned plaudits for allowing its creators to be more involved in the profits off their work — as opposed to bigger companies, like Marvel, which kept those profits for themselves. That attitude served McFarlane well when Hollywood came calling: He steered clear of bigger studios, which would most assuredly assert control over his intellectual property. Instead, he went with New Line, a scrappy up-and-comer who'd had success with funky genre films like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Mask. For the Spawn film, McFarlane negotiated to have control over who was cast and who the creative team would be. And he made sure to own the merchandising. ("With me in control, you'll never get Spawn toothpaste," he declared.) Others might have been afraid to be so bold, but McFarlane was protective of his baby, and also deservedly cocky. "Spawn was the No. 1 character when [New Line] bought it, and it's still the No. 1 comic and toy," he said in '97. "What could they say?"
In keeping with a lower-budget action film, Spawn went with a relative unknown for its star. White had played Mike Tyson in a 1995 HBO biopic before signing on to play Simmons, while one of the film's principal villains, the scheming national security agent Jason Wynn, was portrayed by Martin Sheen. ("I came to realize that this extraordinary cult was out there [of Spawn fans]," the Apocalypse Now star later said, "and it was not confined to children. I discovered that it was a lot of older people, too. I was in Washington last week, and I was just walking down the street, and these two guys followed me and they said, 'We work at this place called Other Planet, we've got Spawn all over the place, and we sell your doll.'") As for Violator, the horrifying, flatulent clown who terrorizes Spawn, John Leguizamo eagerly signed up. "I couldn't believe I got that part," he said in 2020, professing his love for McFarlane's work. "He brought vulgarity, he brought death — real — that was lacking in the comic books, because they were all like Superman and Peter Parker. They were all kind of cute, and you didn't really feel the reality. … I got a chance to be in the movie of that series. That was an incredible opportunity for me."
Spawn would be the feature directorial debut of Mark A.Z. Dippé, an effects supervisor who worked for ILM for nearly a decade. (Among his credits were The Abyss, Terminator 2, and Jurassic Park. Not too shabby.) And the film was going to feature a soundtrack of cutting-edge metal and big-beat/techno acts working together. (Butthole Surfers and Moby! The Crystal Method and Filter!) Clearly, Spawn was catering to a hipper audience that wasn't necessarily mainstream. And New Line president Michael De Luca, himself a big comics guy, was confident the film could deliver.
"Any character that has as established an audience as Spawn has great chances," he told the Los Angeles Times a few months before Spawn was released. "The key to the movie being a success is that it maintains a PG-13 rating but retains its darkness."
What was the impact? Spawn landed in second place in its opening weekend, bested by Air Force One, which had debuted the previous weekend. There's no better indication of how 1997 was different than 2021 than the fact that an action film, based on no pre-existing material, featuring a movie star was a bigger hit than a superhero film. Back then, a star was the key draw — especially one as huge as Harrison Ford. (Also worth remembering: The weekend Spawn came out was the same one that the venerable franchise Air Bud made its debut.)
All told, Spawn pulled in about $88 million worldwide, which considering the film cost around $40 million, meant it wasn't going to spur sequels. Still, the movie was notable for featuring a Black superhero — and unlike The Meteor Man and Blank Man, it wasn't a comedy. You can argue that Spawn helped open the door for the success of the following year's Blade, which similarly adapted a gritty comic book character for an edgy big-screen experience.
But while it's important to acknowledge the cultural importance of the Spawn film, it's also worth pointing out that it's not a good movie. De Luca's hope that they could retain the material's dark spirit despite a PG-13 rating proved unfounded. Instead of feeling legitimately grown-up, Spawn just postured, pretending to be brooding when it was actually mostly very silly and cringe-y.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Spawn is one of those films where just about every creative decision seemed ill-advised. Whether it was Sheen's goofy facial hair or Leguizamo's horribly over-the-top performance as Violator, the movie suffered from sophomoric jokes and tiresome side characters. The dialogue is incredibly dopey. And although White did what he could as the tormented Simmons, there was very little to be interested in about Spawn beyond the fact that he had a cool cape. Then there are the special effects, which are atrocious, both today and 24 years ago.
White isn't the only one to criticize Spawn who worked on it. Famously, in his DVD commentary for the film, Dippé opens by saying, "You can blame it all on me." So what went wrong, exactly? According to White, "There was a version, early on, that had the story intact: about a man who was in love with his wife, so much so he decided to leave what he had been doing for a living that was questionable to his soul. In the first iteration of the movie, those elements were intact, but [in] the final version, all of the backstory was taken out. You couldn't even see the life that Al Simmons was trying to get back to. The director crowded the movie with so many special effects that the story got lost. You lose empathy for the main character."
But despite Spawn's marginal commercial success — and the soundtrack album's strong sales — the movie was in some ways emblematic of the creatively grim era in which it was released. As Den of Geek's Matt Edwards pointed out, 1997 was (with the exception of Men in Black) a pretty terrible year for comic book movies between Batman & Robin and Steel. They were treated like campy jokes or undernourished B-movies — maybe our current culture is unhealthily obsessed with superheroes, but back then, there wasn't enough respect (or ingenuity) paid to these properties. It wasn't until 2000's X-Men that comic book cinema finally found its footing. It's been going strong ever since.
Ironically, the good Spawn of 1997 was actually Todd McFarlane's Spawn, an animated series that was far moodier and more graphic than the corny movie. "The one thing that was sorta fun and kinda cool and a bit of a badge of honor, it was the first show that [HBO] ever had that had all the possible warnings that you could put on a TV show," McFarlane recalled. "And it was an animated show."
Has it held up? Sorry, no, which is why Spawn is an excellent candidate to be rebooted. For a while now, McFarlane has talked about doing a fresh big-screen take on the property, and even last year, he vowed that the new film would be happening. Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx is set to play Spawn, and is really excited about it.
"I surprised Todd McFarlane," Foxx said in 2020. "I said, 'Bro, I know that one day you will do this movie, and I hope you will keep me in mind.' What Black Panther did was let us know that it's so necessary, and it's the time. And Spawn is just an interesting character in itself. The heads that are being put together to bring you something special — look out."
As bad as the 1997 Spawn is, there's reason to be hopeful about a new take. The idea of a tortured hero who risks eternal damnation for the woman he loves remains a powerful one. Plus, the Spawn comic book continues to be incredibly popular. In our current climate, there might be a much more receptive audience for the film, which means that the talent involved, both in front and behind the camera, may be more impressive than in 1997. Nowadays, the notion of a hard-R superhero movie featuring a Black main character won't be such a hard sell. Much like Al Simmons, Spawn may yet find redemption.
Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site. His new book, This Is How You Make a Movie, is out now.