This is one film where calling it 'hellish' is actually appropriate.
In 1992, Marvel comics nearly ceased to exist. The current flagship books such as the X-Men series and the best-selling Spider-man were increasingly being written by the artists over the guys who had been writing the series for years. Long standing X-Men writer Chris Claremont was particularly peeved by his editors allowing artist Rob Liefield unprecedented latitude, allowing him to re-write swathes of the comic before it goes to press, not necessarily following Claremont's visions for the series, causing his resignation. Marvel execs had decided McFarlane's art was now the main reason for the success of the Spiderman, and gave him this creative freedom also. They weren't quite so accommodating when he started demanding a cut of the substantial merchandise market for these characters, refusing outright hoping to call McFarlane's bluff. Todd put his money where his mouth is, leaving with many writers and artists from the top selling titles of both Marvel and DC, including Rob Liefield, creator of the very popular X-Force series to create Image comics. They enjoyed success straight of the bat, with Liefield's Youngblood and the company flagship title, Mcfarlane's own Spawn.
Spawn went from strength to strength, being the number one selling independent comic. Given the success of the then still dark and broody nature of the Batman films, it wasn't too surprising that the very dark and broody Spawn was eventually optioned by New Line.
Mr. Spawn's story starts as a government assassin, Al Simmons played by Michael Jai White (both the Spawn character and the human). He undertakes the dirty missions and of course is the best at what he does. His boss is Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen), head of a secretive US government 'defence' agency of the 'best defence is a strong offence' school. A mysterious figure , cloaked in shadow tells Wynn he wants Simmons to be some kind of super soldier. A clumsy voice over before the credits ensures we're aware that this is so the demon Malebolgia can use change Simmons into a hellspawn to lead the assault on Heaven. To this end, Wynn sends Simmons in to take out a North Korean biological weapons plant. He sets a trap, assisted by his sidekick Priest, shooting him then leaving him to burn for a little while before the plant explodes, taking out a nearby village with it's deadly contents, just so we really know that Wynn's evil. Sheen has the good grace to look embarrassed by his presence in this film, phoning home an uninspiring performance.
Spawn is reborn on earth five years later as a hellspawn, a rather hideous looking chap, reminiscent of a doll that's been left on the radiator too long. He tries to reclaim his humanity by visiting his ex-wife, now married to Simmons former partner Terry. He gatecrashes their kid's birthday party, but unsurprisingly no one recognises him. The clown present at the bash drags him away, turning out to be, well, Clown (John Leguizamo), the demons agent here on Earth. He prods at Spawn's memory explaining what's happened to him and why he's growing a natty black armoured exoskeleton, and his current mission to take vengeance on Wynn and then assault the gates of heaven. As he wanders off to find him, Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson) appears, warning him not to turn to the dark side. He had been in a similar situation to the ex-Simmons only 500 years earlier, eventually becoming a force for good and watching for others like him to try to aid them. Spawn is suitably dismissive of this hammy fellow.
Speaking of hammy, Wynn is gloating about his impending plan to take over the world with the threat of some new supervirus that only he has the cure for, giving absolutely the worst maniacal laugh in the history of maniacal laughs. Spawn's mate Terry, now public relations officer wanders in after the evidence of Wynn's vanishes off screen, and is upset about lying to the press about their dubious operations. He's suitably bitch-slapped down and they head to a plush reception for well-heeled evildoers. Spawn crashes yet another party, but can't kill to Wynn before Priest's security forces appear and provide a momentary distraction for Wynn to scarper, at the cost of Priest's life, Spawn being more than happy to off her.
I'd like to take a break to point out two things. Firstly, the Simmons family dog is called Spaz. Secondly, the demon Malebolgia looks as threatening as Snoopy.
At Clown's insistence, Wynn has a heartbeat monitor installed linked to the viral bombs. If he dies, the virus is released and a lotta people get dead quick. Spawn decides that he doesn't particularly wish to lead an army to Heaven, and informs Clown of this. This perturbs Clown, who deals with this by transmogrifying to become the Violator, a more threatening beast indeed. He beats up Spawn to empathise the point, leaving him impaled on the church gates with symbolism laid on with the subtlety of a brick through a window. Cogliostro wanders by again after Clown has departed, and again warning him about following the dark path of vengeance the hellbound are leading him down and teaching him how to control his powers after establishing that Spawn wants to be a good guy. His powers are considerable, essentially limited only by his imagination. We've witnessed a regenerative capability that puts Wolverine to shame, the ability of shoot chains from his body (replete with little snappy jaws on the end of them), his hard, spiky body armor and his cape that give him a limited flying ability. Nifty in anyone's book, but they're never explored to the extent they could be, which will always be a problem if there is a wide range of powers available rather than say, the X-Men who generally only have one or two each. The effects for most of these powers is more than adequate, but the effect department falls down in their portrayal of the other demons, which are laughable, possibly due to striving for a low, teen-friendly classification.
Spawn nicks a motorbike and tracks down Clown, who's inexplicably driving a tanker full of 'ectogoo'. A brief and unimpressive fight ensues, serving largely to establish that Spawn' cloak can turn into a rather nifty invulnerable shield. Back at Chez Simmons, Wynn holds Al's ex-girl Wanda, now with Terry hostage to establish some leverage over Spawn. It works, briefly, but Spawn gets tired of his antics, subdues him and removes the heartbeat monitor with his new-found telekinetic surgery skills. Clown returns to this merry scene, and nearly kills Spawn, making the fatal mistake of gloating allowing Cogliostro to run in and smite him. Clown sends Spawn and Cogliostro to hell for a battle in which it seems the CGI budget ran out, as it really isn't impressive at all. Spawn defeats Clown, or the Violator as he is here, and escapes back to Earth, taking Cogliostro's place as a hero; a protector of the world.
Spawn still sells well in the comic book and action figure arena, and a new movie co-written and co-produced by McFarlane is in the works from Columbia. McFarlane says it will have a darker tone than this effort, which can only be a good thing. There are many interesting ideas in the comics, with Spawn fighting for good causes while being hunted down by agents of heaven, sworn to destroy all hellspawn. They are set in a dark world, with dark characters, and shades of grey abound, not the clear cut good/evil divide of Superman, et al. It is monumentally unsuited for a PG-13 movie.
The director's cut on the home formats bumps up the ratings to US-R and UK-15 (from a 12) yet still can't capture the necessary tone and atmosphere needed to make the film a success. There are a few bright spots, as most of Clown's asides are moderately amusing and a few outright hilarious as Leguizamo milks them for all they're worth. However the film generally fails to be anything particularly special throughout it's 95 minutes, seeming largely lifeless. Martin Sheen's role is particularly ill-defined, putting him in the generic power-hungry would be dictator role with no particular distinguishing features. It's perhaps the effects that disappoint most - if the film is going to rely on them rather than have an interesting conflict to centre on it'd better make sure they're spiffy, and while they generally aren't awful they aren't superb either. Director Mark Dippe never brings them sense of drama and scale necessary to create memorable images, and as such the film remains forgettable. This version of Spawn seems to have a sensibility stuck somewhere between the dark, broody Batman of Burton's film and the action figure he turned into later in the series, and doesn't make for enjoyable watching. The whole movie seems mired deeply in mediocrity.
Some comic pundits reckon this series is unfilmable, and this movie does little to disprove it, failing as an action movie and due to the lack of fidelity in the translation, failing as a comic book adaptation.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 1/5 TippyMarks.
John Leguizamo (Clown)
Martin Sheen (Jason Wynn)
Theresa Randle (Wanda Blake)
Nicol Williamson (Cogliostro)