I came to this movie knowing basically nothing about the Spawn character, the comic strip, and the whole story behind Todd McFarlane’s vaunted modern-day hero. I am familiar with McFarlane’s work on Spiderman in the early nineties, but that’s basically it. My reaction may thus be much different from devoted Spawn fans who had definite expectations from this film. Fans are apt to either love or hate the real-life movie dramatization of a favorite character, and this movie had definite limits that could easily rub fans the wrong way. I understand that there are some significant differences between the Spawn storyline we see here and that of the comic book series, that this is a much more linear retelling of the legend, one that could not afford to leave many unanswered questions at the end because the chances of making a sequel were unquantifiable at the time. The special effects are not bad at all, but the movie suffers from the overinflated billing of these special effects; if the studio hadn’t overplayed their hand by naming this “the special-effects movie of the year” 1997, all of the computer animation would have been scrutinized less completely by moviegoers. The limitations imposed by the MPA ratings board in securing the film a PG-13 rating also basically ruined the film that was shown in theatres; this “director’s cut” of the film is a complete and much, much better version than fans originally paid to see.
Spawn, for those who don’t know, is not your typical superhero. Trained to be an elite assassin for the CIA, he ultimately decides to get out after a mission that kills a lot of civilians who, he was promised, would not be in the area of operations. His boss, played quite wickedly by Martin Sheen, basically sets him up and has him killed. Al Simmons, our hero’s real name, goes from being burned alive to the always-flaming pits of hell, where he agrees to lead the devil’s army in return for getting his wife back. While no time has passed for him personally, five whole years have come and gone back on earth, his wife is married to his best friend, he’s horribly burned and disfigured, a rude and crude Clown keeps pestering him, and some old guy in a long coat keeps giving him the business about taking the wrong path. John Leguizamo is brilliant as Clown, the devil’s representative on earth who has a hilarious yet nasty nature to match his dramatically strange appearance. It is his job to make sure Simmons, now being reborn as Spawn, acts according to plan and starts Armageddon as scheduled. Spawn isn’t happy at all, despite the painfully new amazing armor his body begins to grow, and he lashes out in anger at the man he blames for his death. There is still a lot of Al Simmons underneath the scars and living armor, however, and the ultimate test will find him choosing whether to accede to the devil’s plans or betray his evil covenant and become a dark angel for good in the world.
There are a lot, and I do mean a lot of CGI effects in this movie. Most of them are quite good, but as a whole the effects do not live up to their over hyped billing. The scenes taking place in the pits of hell, in a sense thrown in during the final stages of production, do not look very real at all; in truth, they look like the kind of animated sequence you might find in the computers games Doom or Diablo. Spawn’s living armor is capable of extraordinary things, as is his vintage red cape, but some of the effects are a tad rough around the edges and all of them look and feel cinematic rather than truly realistic. As explained in the film’s commentary, time and budgetary constraints explain the limits seen in this regard. Don’t expect to see the world’s greatest CGI here, and you stand less chance of being disappointed. The human side of this story is a compelling one, even though the film does not allow for the type of exposition found in the comic book series, I am sure. Spawn truly is a new kind of hero, a hero created from the pits of hell itself. For my money, though, the antics and unforgettable performance of John Leguizamo as Clown steal the show.
There are oodles of special features included on the DVD. I made a point of listening to the commentary because I wanted to know more about Spawn’s story, and it made for fascinating listening. Featuring all of the men who basically created the movie, the most remarkable thing about the commentary is the list of all the cuts that had to be made in order to get a PG-13 rating for the film. Many of these cuts are frankly ridiculous and show just how out of touch with reality the censors have become these days. This theme is further expounded upon by Spawn creator Todd McFarlane in a series of fascinating interviews; you have to love the guy because he is anti-corporate to the core, fearlessly pointing out many of the problems with moviemaking today. The making of featurette is good, the music videos are must-see (especially Marilyn Manson’s), and there are loads of original sketches and illustrations that will be of interest to hard-core Spawn fans.