Revisiting the Reviled – 1997’s Spawn Provides John Leguizamo in a Fat Suit, Little Else

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He makes one hell of an entrance.

After leaving Marvel Comics to start his own company, Todd MacFarlane revolutionized the comic industry with his new brand of books. Heavy on intricate art and light on story, Image Comics landed on shelves with bangs that echoed through comic shops and school yards. With MacFarlane Toys, he ushered in the end of cheap-looking generic action figures that never resembled the characters they were based upon. In 1997, MacFarlane had his chance to do with cinema what he’d accomplished with toys and comics. The result: eh, not so revolutionary.

As far as superhero cinema is concerned, 1997 was a year of growing pains. Joel Schumacher had killed the Batman franchise with Batman & Robin. The attempt to start a new Superman-based spin-off starring Shaquille O’Neal, Steel, was a non-starter, grossing just over $1 million at the box office. A few of the more important superhero films – Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man – were a few years away. What Spawn does is occupy the middle ground between the effects-driven superhero films of today with the middling superhero fare of yesteryear, encapsulating the best and worst of both eras. As effects-driven spectacle, Spawn highlights the possibilities and limitations for digital effects in its time. At moments the effects are still dazzling, at others it is as laughable now as it was then.

spawn-1

“Is there a way to get out of the dungeon without using the wizard key?”

First time director Mark A.Z. Dippé, whose previous experience came in working on the computer effects for Jurassic Park and Terminator 2, presents an interesting parallel to MacFarlane. When given total control the two know what looks cool, but are incapable of telling a good story. Whether talking about Spawn the movie or Spawn the comic book, one can recall unique visuals yet cannot recall anything of consequence that happens in the story. In the case of Dippé, his experience in effects did little to boast his direction. The film is present almost entirely in close ups, the frame completely lacking depth. With no prior experience Dippé was allowed to direct and co-write Spawn with Alan B. McElroy, whose prior experience was writing Halloween 4 and the animated Spawn television series. Producer Clint Goldman’s only prior experience to Spawn was as an effects producers for The Mask and Fire in the Sky. Their cumulative work leads the film to feel like a rudderless production, floating towards whatever someone thinks will look cool.

The story is a rambling mess that always leaves more questions than it could possibly answer. Opening with a loud, aggressive narration, Spawn is about the never-ending battle between Heaven and Hell. The Devil, referred to here as Malebolgia, has one of his lieutenants, a short, fat, grotesque clown named Clown (John Leguizamo), aligning his pawns on Earth as he prepares to unleash Armageddon. After telling his superiors, Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen) and Jessica Priest (Melinda Clarke), he wants out of the black ops racket, Al Simmons commits to one final mission. According to his profile at work, Simmons is a “borderline psychopath” and a “killing machine,” so he’s naturally desired by Malebolgia. At the behest of their dark overlord, Wynn and Priest double cross Simmons, killing him in an exploding North Korean chemical weapons factory. Simmons then makes a deal with Devil that results in his resurrection 5 years later as horribly scarred hell spawn. Meanwhile, Simmons’ best friend, Terry (D.B. Sweeny), has started shacking up with his wife, Wanda (Theresa Russell). So Clown is playing Wynn to set up a worldwide chemical time-bomb while also encouraging Spawn to kill Wynn. All of this is with the goal of basically killing every human on Earth, and unleashing an invasion from Hell’s army to Heaven’s gates. There’s also two kids, a dog, and a 500-year-old Scottish Yoda from Hell (Nicol Williamson). Typing all that out, it becomes rather clear why nobody actually cares for this movie.

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That awkward Midnight Cowboy homage.

Spawn is hard hero to root for because he’s really quite stupid. Angry that he killed a bunch of people under false pretenses, he still agrees to go on one final mission which results in his death. He follows that brilliant logic by making a deal with the Devil. Throughout the film he’s so easily manipulated, to the point he almost fulfills the Devil’s ultimate plan. Making the film an even weirder look at a battle between Heaven and Hell, the film only presents characters from Hell. There’s no divine entity fighting the forces of evil, only former agents of evil. Hell just can’t get its act together and destroy Heaven while God is watching Ally McBeal.

Nobody was going into theaters for nuanced, theologically inspired storytelling, they came for action. As an action spectacle, Spawn can’t consistently deliver what’s necessary. The film presents just how dependent superhero films are on photorealistic CGI, but it was made before the effects were completely ready. The result is, as I said earlier, some moments featuring some stunning work that stands the test of time – certain transformation scenes are still effective – but when it falters, hoo boy, it’s really bad. The sequences that take place in Hell aren’t worthy of Doom II, let alone a major motion picture. The makeup effects that cover both Leguizamo and Jai White are also impressive, however, Dippé’s reliance on close up centric framing leaves the effects on display for closer examination, like they’re daring you to find the seams.

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I was onboard until this happened.

This film reminds me why I started this column. At once, Spawn shows the early cinematic potential to tell superhero stories and the early cinematic failings of the genre. Spawn isn’t a timeless film. Not at all. Everything in this film – the effects, the cast, and the soundtrack – screams, “1997!” For Mark A.Z. Dippé, Spawn was his career apex. He’d never direct another major motion picture, and has been doing nothing but straight-to-video sequels like Garfield Gets Real. For Michael Jai White, Spawn was a launching point. Despite being cut out of Kill Bill, he’s recently starred in the Blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite, as well as voicing its subsequent animated series. Spawn the movie has become like Spawn the comic, a relic of little importance from another era.

The 2nd induction to the Revisiting the Reviled Hall of Fame: John Leguizamo

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Based upon the strict criteria – appearing in the column 3 separate times – that resulted in Mark Goldblatt’s induction, John Leguizamo has earned his place in the Revisiting the Reviled Hall of Fame. With his drug addled, wise cracking convict in Assault on Precinct 13 remake, his grotesque, makeup assisted performance as Clown in Spawn, and his drunk-on-set indifference as Luigi in Super Mario Bros., Leguizamo has earned his place. Congrats, John. You did it.

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