Looking back, the year 1997 was not a good one for superhero movies. Of course, Joel Schumacher’s (Flatliners) Batman & Robin is the fiasco with which cinephiles are most familiar. But 1997 is also the same year that dropped Mortal Kombat: Annihilation later in the fall. Somewhere in between these two turkeys, New Line Cinema teamed up with comic creator Todd McFarlane to adapt McFarlane’s Spawn for the big screen. Though its story of an assassin turned into a Hellspawn in the Devil’s army would certainly fit in the superhero-saturated movie market today, audiences showed only modest interest in the late 90s. Neither were critics who hated the adaptation.
Al Simmons, a CIA operative and world-assassin, has grown increasingly weary with the nature of his work. Fearing Simmons has become a liability, his superior Jason Wynn orders his death. When Simmons finds himself banished to Hell itself, he agrees to return to Earth as a Hellspawn – a soldier in Malebolgia’s army – in return for seeing his wife again. Caught in the middle of an ongoing war between heaven and hell, Simmons must choose between justice and his personal quest for vengeance.
Spawn And Its Obscure Comic Property Were Released 20 Years Too Early
When Spawn hit the cineplexes in the summer of ’97, audiences weren’t used to a never-ending carousel of superhero movies. Kevin Feige and Marvel can throw together B- and C-level comic book characters into big-budget movies today and audiences will show up. However, Batman was the only A-list superhero showing up in big-budget movies in the 90s. And even the Caped Crusader wasn’t bulletproof. Comic creator Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn was an odd choice for a big budget summer release. Its grim mix of horror and action worked for the very good HBO cartoon adaptation. Yet 90s’s filmgoers didn’t seem too sure what to make of a ‘serious’ comic book movie starring a largely unknown character and a rotund demon clown as the villain.
…Dippé seems more interested in visual spectacle and, as a result, Spawn plays more like a music video than proper narrative.
None of these strikes necessarily doomed Spawn to disaster. No, director Mark A.Z. Dippé and writer Alan B. McElroy (Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Wrong Turn) took care of that themselves. With dialogue that’s almost entirely dedicated to exposition and world-building alongside an oddly paced and edited story, Spawn often borders on incoherence. That is, Dippé strings together his scenes in ways that sometimes feel random. ‘Stuff sort of just happens’ feels like the best way to describe the movie. In fact, Dippé seems more interested in visual spectacle and, as a result, Spawn plays more like a music video than proper narrative.
Spawn Is Probably Best Remembered For Its Soundtrack, Not The Movie Itself
And the music video label seems pretty fitting. Twenty five years since its release, audiences arguably best remember Spawn for its soundtrack that fused together the biggest acts in heavy metal and electronica at the time. It was a similar approach adopted by the Judgment Night soundtrack a few years earlier that featured collaborations between hip hop and rock artists. Near the end of 1997, much of the 90s alternative and grudge movement was coming to an end. Nevertheless, Spawn The Album, which featured metal acts like Korn, Silverchair, Metallica, and Marilyn Manson collaborating with trip-hop bands including The Crystal Method, Sneaker Pimps, and The Prodigy, was a hit with music fans. Arguably, the album’s legacy far outpaced the movie itself.
This should have been a Rated-R mix of action and horror. Instead, Spawn showed up in theaters with a PG-13 tag and suffered for it.
Another major problem that emerged with Spawn was its treatment of the violent subject matter that defined the comics upon which it was based. To be fair to Dippé and McIlroy, the studio neutered the movie. This should have been a Rated-R mix of action and horror. Instead, Spawn showed up in theaters with a PG-13 tag and suffered for it. Outside of the soundtrack, John Leguizamo (Violent Night) shines under a lot of makeup as the irreverent Clown/Violator. Though he often veers toward being a bit too much, Leguizamo is consistently a fun part of a movie that feels like a slog. Everyone else in the cast feels wasted. Worst of all, Spawn’s state-of-the-art visual effects have aged poorly. This leaves little to recommend to contemporary audiences.
Spawn Feels Like a Comic Property Ripe for a Reboot
From start to finish, Spawn stands as an absolute mess of an action-horror movie. Simply put, a multitude of problems plagued this early superhero adaptation. Among its major problems, McElroy’s story is borderline incoherent and Dippé’s direction makes it worse resulting in an oddly paced, poorly edited mess where each subsequent scene feels only loosely connected to the previous one. What passed for state-of-the art effects now look terribly dated. And only Leguizamo walks away unscathed with his wildly fun performance. Well, Leguizamo and its electronica-metal mixed soundtrack survive intact. But Spawn is 90s movie that absolutely benefit from a reboot to cash in on the superhero craze before it runs out of gas.