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)
Directed by Mark A.Z. Dippé

“It goes into dark places where few comic movies ever attempt.”

Let’s get something straight. Spawn isn't a perfect movie. It isn't an awesome movie. What Spawn ends up being is an entertaining movie, one that isn’t particularly bright, but just wants to have a good time at the party. Now I grew up reading Todd McFarland’s comic (I still have the first 50 issues I think) and this isn’t that. It can't match the highly stylized look and feel of McFarland's art world. Oh sure it follows the basics, but the movie is its own thing, defining a moment in time for a number of different mediums.

On one hand, there's the previously mentioned comic book world, where Spawn represented a Kim Kardashian-sized birth for Image Comics and the indie comic market, showing that creators didn't need a Marvel or DC to move a shit ton of books, which Spawn sure as hell did. It was a flash moment that didn’t last, but comics at that time where the biggest thing in the collectable market. Then there’s the there's the comic book movie world, which went into a state of limbo in 1997 as Batman and Robin temporarily killed the market, and Spawn didn't set the world on fire though it didn’t bomb.

Lastly, Spawn also had one of the last heavy rock event soundtracks that I can remember. If my memory hasn’t completed failed, there was a time right after The Crow that every genre flick had THE big ass rock CD, and Spawn had a good one with mashup of Filter, Tom Morello, Henry Rollins, Marilyn Manson, and others.

Back to the actual movie…I dig Spawn. I think it works on several different levels as it goes into dark places where few comic movies ever attempt (well minus Hellboy of course). The idea of selling your soul for love and a second chance isn’t new, but the idea that you’d get spawned back all burnt and crispy AND have to lead Hell’s army is some heavy shit and the drama plays out on screen. Michael Jai White, who does his best as Al Simmons/Spawn, has some moments where he tries to define that feeling of loss and regret. While Spawn isn’t a smart movie, it’s smart enough to move right along and never be cheap about the action. We don’t have time to question too much, which is probably a good thing. Instead, lots of bullets flow and chains get shot out of Spawn's chest, which is pretty damn cool even if the rest of the effects don't hold up. 

The cast is game here, especially John Leguizamo as the Clown/Violator. The fat suit doesn't really work (it looks like a fat suit) but dude sells it, even famously eating maggots on a slice of pizza and taking a massive, man’s sized bite. Leguizamo is so damn over the top that he nearly becomes Jar Jar-ish. Some might say he killed the movie, but I think he added the life that the film needed. And besides, he played what’s seen in the comic book. The Clown is...a clown, and one from hell so he should be annoying...to a point. Then there’s Martin Sheen, who hams the shit out of his role as Wynn, the obvious big shot bad dude. Sheen plays it like he’s the villain in that Baby Genius movie, trying perhaps too hard but what the hell he's still Martin Sheen, and he looks like he's having a blast.

White as Simmons/Spawn does a decent job trying to display the torrent of, you know, going to hell and all that. However, he doesn't display any of that Black Dynamite charisma, but he kicks a lot of ass and sounds the part. To be fair, with a better script dropping the cheese dick dialogue, this would have been something and maybe made White a star. But we don't have that. Instead, just gotta roll with the stupid. For example, when Simmons is murdered by getting "left in the oven too long" as the Violator jokes, he screams "Wanda!!!!!" in a moment we’ve all scene in 8984 movies before.  Or when the Clown dons a cheerleading outfit, spitting out rhymes like dimes. But like I said, you gotta dig the cheese.

Now Spawn does have problems, mostly with how the film looks. CGI could do anything in 97, right? Well, almost as Spawn’s outfit looks pretty cool, but the nasty world of hell...ugh. Doesn't exactly hold up (I’m looking at you, Satan.They didn't even bother to make him look like he's speaking.) and at times is laughable (also looking at you, random helicopter). With a first time director, everything looks cheap, especially the special effects, which is surprising considering director Mark A.Z. Dippé's background in...special effects. For $40 million this thing looks like it was shot on $10 mil or less. Where’d the money go?

Creator Todd McFarland has been pimping a sequel for years, but nothing yet. The man has big ideas. Originally, Crow/Dark City director Alex Proyas was attached to this movie, along with Ed Norton and Richard Harris. I like what we have, but with Proyas, that could have been a masterpiece. I've heard McFarland's idea before where Spawn stays in the shadows and make the movie more like Seven than Batman. It's something I'd like to see, but he doesn't have to be ashamed of what's already out there. 





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