When most people think of superheroes, they usually think of the characters that populate the Marvel and DC Universes. But Picture Comics has developed an impressive roster of characters over the 30 years since its inception, and one of the most notable is Spawn. Created by Todd McFarlanethe infernal anti-hero was the focus of his own feature film, 1997 Spawnwhich is not only a perfect distillation of the Spawn mythos, but also perfectly captures the heavy metal aesthetic that was present in the comics.
The general plot of Spawn follows the comics: US Marine Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) is betrayed and left for dead by his boss, Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen). Simmons ends up in hell but manages to make a deal with the demonic Malebogia (Frank Welker): He will lead the armies of Hell into battle if he can see his wife Wanda (Therese Randle) again. Sent back to Earth, Simmons must learn to master his new Hellspawn powers while dealing with the machinations of the Violator (John Leguizamo), a hell-born being disguised as a grotesque clown who aims to reignite the apocalypse.
From the start, the inherent tragedy of the character is present and acted out directly by the director. Marc AZ Dippe. Although Malebogia sends Simmons back to Earth, it is five years after his death. Wanda moved on, marrying Simmons’ best friend Terry Fitzgerald (DB Sweeney) and even give birth to a daughter, Cyan. And as if that weren’t enough, Simmons retains his horribly charred appearance, so even if he could meet his wife face to face, she wouldn’t recognize him. Factor in his desire for revenge on Wynn, along with the powers he has no idea how to control, and you have a character whose angst dwarfs other brooding crusaders such as Batman and Moon Knight.
Casting is also on point, as White brought the necessary gravitas to his role as Simmons. Perhaps the best scene in the movie comes when he discovers his grave and falls to his knees, screaming in agony, and that anguish then leads to his first full Spawn transformation. White’s booming baritone also gives him the appropriate amount of threat as a Spawn; every line of it sounds like it would put the fear of God in an ordinary man. As The Violator, Leguizamo gives anyone who’s ever played The Joker a run for their money. He doesn’t leave an ounce of landscape unchewed, and his Spawn Torment looks like a warped version of It’s a wonderful life. Suffice it to say, when Violator and Spawn finally fight, it’s immensely satisfying to watch Spawn fill his nemesis with bullet holes. And Nicholas Williamson serves as a mentor to Spawn, Cogliostro, tapping into the same sense of mysticism that helped fuel his turn as Merlin in Excalibur.
The film is also loaded with special effects, which is unsurprising given that Dippé previously worked at Industrial Light and Magic before directing the film. ILM designed a Spawn costume that perfectly matched the jet black uniform that Simmons wears in the comics; the added texture serves as a tribute to the fiery fate that Simmons suffered at the hands of Wynn. The most impressive visual effects come when the Violator takes on its true form. Thank you MLI Veteran Steve “Spaz” Williamsbest known for his work on jurassic park, the Violator’s non-human form looks just as terrifying in real life as it does on the page. His gray, clammy skin is lined with scaly bumps, and his red eyes look like those of an insect. The battle between Spawn and Violator manages to tap into comic book horror elements, and it does so brilliantly.
But the visual effects aren’t the only thing that gave the film its signature. A makeup department that included The Walking Dead‘s Greg Nicotero among his acts also provided prosthetics to transform White into Simmons and Leguizamo into the earlier, more human version of the Violator. As a result, the two look totally unrecognizable. White looks like a burn victim and Leguizamo is short, round and covered in clownish face paint. The duo were quite open about the challenges that prosthetics presented, with Leguizamo, in particular, find them extremely uncomfortable. Perhaps Nicotero should return to the world of Spawn, as he’s been tapped for visual effects on a reboot that McFarlane hopes to co-write and direct.
When it came to translating the complicated mythology of Spawn comics on screen, Dippé had the help of Alan B. McElroy. McElroy kept most of the original intact, while updating some elements. In the comics, Al was killed by Chapel, an enemy of Rob LiefeldYoungblood’s superhero team. In the movie, he was killed by Jessica Priest (Melinda Clarke), an assassin whose body count rivals that of Simmons and whose morals are the opposite of his own. Priest will later be incorporated into the Spawn comics and currently holds the mantle of She-Spawn. As for McElroy, he would go on to write Spawn, serving as the anime series’ showrunner. The offspring of Todd McFarlane for HBO and penning Curse of spawn for picture comics.
Spawn (which is available to stream on Netflix) was less than well received when it premiered. Critics criticized the story, although the visual style was praised. In the years following its release, White said he was not a fan of the film, and Leguizamo believes the film – which was rated PG-13 – lacked the edge that made comics so beloved. But even if it’s not perfect, Spawn still manages to capture elements of what made Spawn a breakout character. Not only that, it was the first major comic book movie to have a black protagonist – long before Blade and Black Panther took the world by storm. As this year marks the 30th anniversary of the debut of Image Comics and Spawn, this movie deserves another look because its heavy metal aesthetic and gothic drama stand out from its camper cousins. batman and robin and Steeland paved the way for the character to truly gain a foothold in pop culture.
A brief history of picture comics, told by co-founder Rob Liefeld
About the Author