GET OFF MY LAWN: Spawn (1997)

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Spawn High Res

Welcome fellow internet users! Each installment of “Get Off My Lawn” will examine a superhero movie of the pre-2008 MCU era. This week we are going to look at 1997’s Spawn directed by Mark A.Z. Dippe and featuring Jai Michael White as Spawn and a heavily made up John Lequizamo as The Violator.

Context:

A Spawn movie had been bandied about since the character’s inception in 1992. Various hangups occurred that stopped the movie from going into production. These hiccups mostly stemmed from one of two problems, special effects or creative control. Todd McFarlane, the creator of Spawn and one of the founders of Image Comics, eventually became frustrated by the stops and starts and reportedly exchanged ownership of the film rights for 1 dollar(!!!). McFarlane gave away his creative input and full merchandising rights to New Line Cinemas. Shades of Lucas perhaps? Not really. The film didn’t achieve those heights but it did end up on screen. Spawn made it to theaters in late summer of 1997, premiering after early summer’s Batman and Robin but before Steel. The film credited itself as the first Black superhero on the big screen and indeed Spawn does slide in a full 14 days before Shaq put on his big metal suit and almost a year before the first Blade came out.

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Story and Reception:

Spawn tells the origin story of how Al Simmons, black ops CIA super assassin, and how he becomes an undead vessel empowered by the evil CGI beast Malebolgia. He is returned to Earth to avenge his own death and win back his wife. As far as origin stories go, this one is pretty straightforward with more than two trips to CGI Hell thrown in for good measure. Spawn must learn to master his abilities with the help of his enigmatic quasi-British mentor Cogliostro. Spawn has to defeat both Jason Wynn, his clove smoking old boss played by an energetic Martin Sheen, and the clownish/ghoulish Violator played by the scene stealing, scenery chewing, 4th wall flexing John Leguizamo. By the end of the 97 minutes Spawn has accomplished these tasks with varying degrees of satisfaction and he has decided his family is better off being raised by his former best friend who married his widow (just go with it). The movie was produced on a 40 million dollar budget and ended up grossing 87 millon dollars creating a minor financial hit. There are rumors of more than a third of said budget was devoted to special effects shots. The movie was panned by both critics and fans, with a few notable exceptions including Roger Ebert who gave the film “3 and a half out of 4 stars” and was enthralled by the visual effects, calling them “unforgettable.”

How does it hold up:

You know…not too badly. This movie is very much maligned for it’s CGI (we’ll get to that in a second) but the rest of the movie ranged from pretty decently average to kind of fun. I would say there are two things to consider when looking at this film.

Number one is individual performances. The actors in this weird film with kind of weird dialogue really decided to bring it and show maximum effort to that weird dialogue. Martin Sheen is saying some real weird stuff in this movie but he’s digging himself in and selling his sliminess. Jai Michael White has above average action bravado lines in this movie and even infuses a little “blacksploitation” language into some of his character reads and reactions. Definitely a script choice I didn’t notice as a young teen watching this. And finally John Leguizamo just freaking nails it as a super weird and creepy clown, Violator. He had the best one liners, the best villain tirades and I counted 2 inside joke “Apocalypse Now” references in Martin Sheen’s presence but IMDb alerted me to one more I didn’t catch. This is a solid performance.

The second idea to consider is this movie is not so much a 90’s superhero flick as I believe it shares more DNA with 90’s action blockbusters like Cliffhanger, Demolition Man or Sudden Death. None of those movies are making anyone’s critical top 10 lists but they are all super fun products of their time that are care more about audience enjoyment and blowing up set pieces than it necessarily cares about coherent storytelling. I feel like if this movie was mentioned with 90’s action titles instead of other superhero movies it would be remembered more fondly.

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But Is this movie really as bad as I have heard it is, ’cause I heard the CGI was real freakin bad.

Oh man, the CGI is so bad, and I was watching it knowing that, so I steeled myself! About halfway through the movie I was ready to say people were just being haters…then the second fight in Hell happened and it was suuuper rough, like really really bad effects, too much clumsy green screen. Other than that most of the other effects were okay for their time or just kind of aged pretty poorly. Reportedly the heads of effects and CGI for this movie contracted with more than 21 different companies to get the effects done on time, and this inconsistency shows. Worst effects are definitely the trips to Hell and the rendering of Malebolgia who I think would be more convinicing if his giant mouth moved when he talked, all of his lines just eminate from the giant scraggly haired demon. Interesting fact, Malbolgia and original Scooby Doo had the same voice actor, Frank Welker. The coolest effect might have been the cape but it is so much more fluid and cool than everything else in this movie it kind of sticks out like a sore thumb, kind of making it a bad effect.

Why am I hearing about the Spawn movie so much right now?

Todd McFarlane announced he’ll be directing a Spawn remake slated for a 2019 release date. The even bigger news is that he has tapped Jamie Foxx to star in it. My reaction…meh. I would have gotten more hyped if a younger talent had been tapped. The internet wanted Trevante Rhodes from Moonlight to get the nod but I still believe Marque Richardson who plays Reggie on Netflix’s Dear White People is gonna be the breakout star from that show —  it could have started with Spawn, but oh well.

McFarlane Spawn

Where do I find it:

Spawn is availble for digital download on iTunes, Google Play and for rental on Youtube. It is also available for digital purchase or DVD purchase on Amazon and will continue to run on Hulu for the rest of the month and beyond.

For more GET OFF MY LAWN articles, examining all the superhero movies from before the platinum age of comic book movies started in 2008 click here.

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