I watched Spawn this evening (1997, the live action film, not the animated one).
I had been thinking of watching the picture upon the advice of a friend who recommended it as a movie that can still be enjoyed for how bad it is (he enjoys Howard the Duck in that way, for example). On the heels of just having strongly liked the critically savaged I, Frankenstein, I figured, hey, maybe I can get a streak going.
Before I discuss Spawn, please allow me a digression first: although it was mainly a coincidence taking place alongside my decision to watch Spawn (a superhero who is black), over the last week I read two articles that got me thinking about the casting of African American actors in the superhero film genre: Michael B. Jordan: Why I’m Torching the Color Line and Selma’s Ava DuVernay tipped to direct Marvel’s Black Panther. I’m very much looking forward to seeing Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in the upcoming Fantastic Four (newest) reboot set for release August 7th. And while I know nothing about Marvel’s Black Panther character, I’m eager to see an African American superhero that really catches on in the mainstream in light of the recent popular explosion of superhero films and TV series. Perhaps Black Panther will be that superhero. Or maybe not. But Black Panther appears in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War (May 16, 2016) and he gets a film of his own slated for release Nov. 3, 2017. Time will tell.
African American stars have not had a particularly easy time getting great roles in superhero films, although arguably the best well established ones to be found in the source material are white characters. Hancock did not work for me, as likeable as Will Smith always is as an actor. Nor am I particularly a fan of the Blade film series. Wesley Snipes does a fine job portraying the character, but I just don’t care much for the character himself–nor the whole vampire thing, for that matter. And as much as I like Halle Berry, Catwoman was a pretty lackluster film for me. However, Halle Berry’s Storm in the X-men series has been a lot of fun to watch unleashing her powers, even if Storm hasn’t been a central character.
(Spoiler ahead for Avengers: Age of Ultron !)
Anyway, I feel some weirdness about how things are going regarding efforts to give moviegoers a truly popular African American superhero. At the close of Avengers: Age of Ultron we are shown that the new team adds Iron Patriot (aka “War Machine” played by Don Cheadle) and Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie). But both of those characters have thus far in the Marvel films played second fiddle to superhero A-listers Iron Man and Captain America, respectively. Honestly, neither of those character concepts (Iron Patriot or Falcon) excites me much. Both basically assume the mantle from an established popular white character. I realize I must wait and see how the new Avenger team gels, though. It is a fairly oddball group overall. And that might work out pretty well for various storylines and character development, actually.
Okay, anyway, on to Spawn… Which, um… well… it’s… just really, really bad.
You can read a synopsis of the film here at IMDb.
When I first started watching this movie I immediately tried shifting into a mental framework of imagining that the film was simply the pages of a comic book brought to life. That is, I pictured in my head that that every scene I was watching was a projection of the distinct panels from a Spawn comic book. Comic books are usually intentionally corny and melodramatic–it’s a convention of the medium. And Lord knows this film is as well. So I played with the idea that it was the intention of the director to depict the comic book style of dramatic overstatement. So that actually kind of worked for a little while… maybe for about 15 minutes or so. But as time wore on, it just took too much effort to conceptualize the film in that way.
The film was made at a time when comic book superheroes were portrayed more whimsically, with a kind of wink and a nod, i.e., they were self-consciously more ‘spoofy’ than they are today. It was shortly after this film was made that the broad shift toward a more confidently serious storytelling sensibility began with, I would say, 2000’s X-men, followed by 2002’s Spider Man, 2004’s Hellboy, and consolidated by Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy beginning with Batman Begins in 2005. (Arguably 1978’s Superman and 1989’s Batman helped set a more serious dramatic standard as well, but both still had strong whimsical overtones.)
The Spawn character concept is fairly interesting actually, at least at a broad level. There’s something to work with there, I think. But as Spawn is portrayed in this film, I did not feel very sympathetic toward him. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to? He was apparently a heartless and cold-blooded killer in life, after all. But I think I was supposed to have sympathy for him. We’re supposed to root for the superhero usually, right? You can’t really root for his enemies here (unless you are seriously jacked up). You sort of have to root for him by default. But whether the blame falls mostly upon Michael Jai White, or the director, or script writers, or all of the above, the character didn’t really make me feel for him much.
For all I know, maybe the main villain the “Violator,” a hideously grotesque clown, was portrayed by the usually excellent John Leguizamo consistently with how the character appears in the comics. But what I am certain of is that at least in this film version, this is just one of the most downright annoying villains I have ever seen. The Violator is certainly evocative and memorable. But it’s tiring to watch him unleash one bad joke after another.
Also, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Martin Sheen give such a hammy performance before. The performances by everyone else are fine, though.
The story does not unfold in a way that gradually builds tension or increases emotional investment. It’s sort of a perpetual miasma experience.
The special effects are underwhelming. The CGI is not too bad for Spawn’s armor, which does help a bit. But the CGI for the Violator’s true form is on the ‘meh’ side. And the CGI of the devil is actually poor.
So what do we have when we add all this up? For me… we have 1) a main character that I don’t care much about, 2) just about the painfully worst villain I have ever seen, 3) a story that fails to gradually build and increase my interest, and 4) (on the whole) poor special effects.
The film ironically (i.e., in terms of how bad it is) does work toward making me want to finally one day see some African American superheroes that are truly A-list. So the film has that value for me. And I actually do think the Spawn character concept has potential if it were in better hands, and with a decent budget. Although after this debacle I doubt we’ll ever see that.
Here’s where Spawn falls on my favorites list for superhero genre films:
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- The Avengers
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Iron Man
- X-Men: First Class
- The Wolverine
- Sin City
- Daredevil (Yes, and I realize few fans share my appreciation)
- Man of Steel (when grasped as setting the stage for Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice)
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
- X2: X-Men United
- Iron Man 2
- Thor: The Dark World
- Superman (1978)
- The Dark Knight Rises (Yes, ranked here, above The Dark Knight and Batman Begins)
- Hellboy II: The Golden Army
- I, Frankenstein
- Batman Begins
- The Dark Knight
- Superman Returns
- The Amazing Spider-Man
- Batman (1989)
- The Amazing Spider-Man 2
- X-Men: Days of Future Past
- X-Men: The Last Stand
- Iron Man 3
- The Fantastic Four (2005)
- Spider-Man 2
- Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
- Spider-Man 3
- Kick-ass 2
- Green Lantern
- The Incredible Hulk
- The Phantom
- The Crow
- The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
- Mystery Men
- The Punisher
- Judge Dredd
- Batman Forever
- Batman and Robin
- Batman Returns
- Superman II
- Superman III
- The Shadow
- Superman and the Mole Men
- Batman (1966)
- Howard the Duck