Spawn (1997)

CapeCapeHalf a cape

Based on a comic that has perhaps been the only independently published book to match the DC and Marvel characters in popularity. This goes farther than most of these films in bringing unearthly powers into the everyday world. The premise — that behind these exotic characters is none other than Satan (though not known by that name) makes this possible. Our hero is an intelligence-agency assassin named Al Simmons, who gets killed by his boss. But dying horribly is just a prerequisite for the chance to be resurrected as a “hellspawn” — a soldier in Satan’s army of demons.

Some people give this movie a lot of crap, but I find it distinctly above average, at least for its time. The most divisive aspect is probably John Leguizamo’s performance as the Clown — the obnoxious agent of evil who mentors and hectors our hero. If you hate it, I totally understand where you’re coming from, but for me, the role is a blast — more fun than a barrel of skunks.

And as his opposite, the old warrior who leads Spawn toward doing good, we have the final film performance of the great Nicol Williamson. And as Spawn/Simmons is Michael Jai White... yeah, Black Dynamite himself.

This was an early example of a serious action movie — especially one with a moderate budget — relying heavily on digital animation for depicting unearthly effects... most notably Spawn’s cape, which is cooler than any other superhero’s because it’s prehensile. Nowadays the digital look has dated and the limited budget is obvious, but in spite of that, the makers of this film created a visual style that remains distinctive. I think it’s the first major use of CGI for superhero effects, and you could say it’s not bad for just fifteen years after the paltry polygons that got people excited in Tron, and two years after the feeble animation effort of Casper. But on the other hand, it’s still five years after Jurassic Park, so you can only give it credit relative to its budget. And it’s four years after The Mask, which had a similar level of CGI but used it comedically.

The practical effects and makeup are generally good. But that CGI is very uneven. Some bits are okay, some are dated... and one, namely the effect used to create the pseudo-Satan that Spawn meets in Hell, is just appallingly bad. It’s about at the level of the video games coming out at that time, such as the original Unreal.

The story is pretty well constructed. The human bad guys are somewhat too bad to believe, but if you acccept the premise of Satan giving their orders, it makes sense. The usual overwrought superhero origin story comes across with less of a sense of cliché in this case than in most others, especially since it’s not settled whether the protagonist really belongs on the side of the good guys until fairly late in the movie. If your tastes run more towards the really comic-booky side of the comic book film, as opposed to the movie-ish side — if you value Sense of Wonder above believable realism — then, unpretentious B-movie though it is, this has plenty to enjoy.

And it has exceptionally cool-looking ending credits.

Hey, this reminds me: you know what comic book character I’d really like to see them make a movie of? Etrigan the Demon. “Gone! Gone! the form of man...” As long as it’s the original Jack Kirby version and not the poseur-ass nineties Demon who always speaks in rhyme. Pretty unlikely they’ll ever give either one a movie, I suppose.