The F*cking Black Sheep: Spawn (1997)

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!

SPAWN (1997)


With comic book movies all the rage these days - and frankly remaining so for the past 20 years – it’s a bit of a surprise that the popularity of Todd McFarlane’s SPAWN didn’t translate very well to the big screen. Or is it? Granted, the movie doubled its relatively modest budget of $40 million at the U.S. box-office, but meritoriously, the flick got panned harder than the Yuba in '49. Personally speaking, I never saw the flick until it recently hit Netflix. And while I can’t say I fell head over heels in love with it, I do think the movie is better than its reputation would indicate. If only slightly. Why? We’ll expound on the particulars below, but it mainly comes down to adequately echoing a comic-book tone – goofy, campy, cartoonish – while still delivering a few respectably raucous R-rated action sequences. A great movie? Hell no. A good one? Perhaps not. An unfairly castigated F*cking Black Sheep? Abso-f*cking-lutely!

Released on August 1st, 1997 – it’s worth noting not just the 20 year anniversary of SPAWN, but also its dead-of-summer release date. Remember when big, dumb, brainless movies were restricted to the summertime only? Well, by design, SPAWN knew its place. This is meant to be a piece of amusing escapist entertainment, the difference being it was R-rated for adults rather than, say, its 1997 counterpart, BATMAN & ROBIN. We can at least agree that SPAWN is superior to that indefensible shit-show, right?


Tonally, I was struck when watching SPAWN by how much it reminded me something like DICK TRACY or even Tim Burton’s 1989 BATMAN (makes sense then that Tim Burton was the original choice to direct SPAWN). There’s an immediate playfulness, a knowingly campy sense of humor to the dialogue and slapstick characterizations that declare, upfront, that the movie isn’t to be taking seriously. At all. Not sure about you, but I’m already tired of the overly austere Christopher Nolanization of comic book fare…the kind where need a goddamn P.H.D just to follow the plot. Realism has replaced escapism in the realm of comic-book movie tableau, needlessly so, and in SPAWN, it’s kind of nice to just enjoy a self-consciously cheesy R-rated action spectacle. Specific in-jokes include no less than two APOCALYPSE NOW references, to which a tanned and bearded Martin Sheen as the sinister Wynn slyly winks at. There’s also the cameo appearance of McFarlane himself as a homeless man during the final battle in the end.

As for Michael Jai White as SPAWN, it doesn’t help matters that he resembles a melted, chewed-up-and-spit-out tootsie roll for half the flick. Dude looks like Hot Mug Shot Guy if he was slow-roasted in a furnace for 12 hours. Hard to ride with a dude like that! Well, that is until he suits out and masks up, surges those green eyes and goes on a COMMANDO style arms-raid of abject vengeance after the halfway point. The movie picks up steam, giving us some hardcore action blitzes while still retaining that silly cornball sense of humor. Once White comes back as the hellacious Hellspawn, he boasts the requisite physicality needed to make the character a force to be reckoned with. His martial arts background (BLACK DYNAMITE yo!) pays off on this front, especially when sparring with the Violator – aka the “overgrown gecko” – against a backdrop of licking flames of hell.

Really though, most of the amusement, or bemusement, comes from the utterly unrecognizable John Leguizamo as the primary foe, Clown – a flatulent waddling blob that resembles a repugnant cross of Krusty The Clown, Devito’s Penguin and DOGMA’s Golgothan Shit Demon. Or worse. This f*cker’s so odious he actually eats live maggots onscreen (Legz, that’s crazy son!) Hell, John would go on to say wearing the fat suit was akin to a penis wearing a condom. We can’t refute it. Dude even took a piss in the suit when unwilling to wait the full hour it took to remove. That’s Oscar worthy dedication right there, and really, the only proper way to follow up TO WONG FOO!

Another aspect of the flick that struck me when watching it, aside from the deliberately animated cartoon shots, was the decent VFX work. Not great, but at least director Mark A.Z. Dippe, who worked on the FX of such flicks as BACK TO THE FUTURE II, T-2: JUDGMENT DAY, JURASSIC PARK and others, had experience and foreknowledge on how to make certain CG shots work. There’s one inexcusable stint where the Clown’s tongue lopes over Wanda’s face, but other than that, the visuals made in 1997 aren’t as dated as you might think today.

All in all, I threw on SPAWN as a laughable lark, not expecting much to speak of. Call it the soft biggotry of low-expectations. And while I’d never go so far as to say it’s a great film (as Roger Ebert all but did, awarding it 3.5 stars), I will say it supersedes its shat-upon reputation. Not as a horror comic, mind you, but as an overtly comic-book toned piece of escapist fun for the over PG-13 crowd. It knows how silly and stupid it is, which makes it faults largely excusable and allows for its mindless entertainment to take hold. Shocking to say it, but SPAWN registers as a forgotten F*cking Black Sheep of a comic book movie!



Extra Tidbit: Word is a draft for a new SPAWN film by writer Todd McFarlane has been punched up as recently as February 2016. Down to see another?
Source: AITH



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