Spawn (1997) — CGI stands for ‘Can’t Get It done’

“S to the P to the A to the AWN! S to the P to the A to the AWN! Go Spawnie, go Spawnie!”

Justin’s rating: Little did they know that video game culture would reappropriate the term “spawn”

Justin’s review: Part of the goofy landscape that is ’90s cinema was the way-too-quick embrace of CGI after everyone saw Jurassic Park and figured that the technology was the solution for all issues. Of course, they did this without realizing how sparingly and shrewdly Spielberg employed computer imagery, which meant we got a ton of late-’90s flicks that boast flat-out awful CGI. I’m talking Jumanji, Deep Rising, Star Wars Special Edition, and so much more.

Another part of the landscape was the lawless, chaotic field of superhero flicks. Nobody really knew how to put together a good comic book adaptation, and so we had efforts all across the board in quality. But if it wasn’t Batman or Blade, it was bad. Even if it was Batman in the ’90s, there was a 66% chance it was bad too.

These two factors came together for the screamingly terrible — yet terribly entertaining — 1997 outing of Spawn. Geeks back then wet their underoos for artist-writer Todd McFarlane, especially when he hopped over to Image Comics to create the insanely popular and derivative character of Spawn. New Line, which was on fire for grabbing up interesting properties, successfully negotiated a film adaptation, although with the caveat that it would be aiming for an audience-friendly PG-13 by dulling the edge of the comic’s more violent tendencies.

Michael Jai White (Universal Soldier, The Dark Knight) is Al Simmons, a CIA assassin who gets kicked to hell after a mission goes bad. He’s a little bummed about this, to be sure, but even this movie hell has a silver lining. Simmons gets a pass to go back to earth to stalk his now-married ex-fianceé, but only as a superpowered weirdo in a full body suit that includes the most CGI cape that ever cape’d. And he gets to do this only if he agrees to lead hell’s armies against heaven.

Seeing as how Spawn is nominally a good guy at heart, Simmons attempts to use his newfound powers to figure out who stabbed him in the back (certainly not his boss who has scorpions and tarantulas on his desk!) and stop a biological weapon from literally killing every last person in the world.

It won’t be easy, even when Simmons isn’t pining over his ex. He’s got to face off against a beardy Martin Sheen, fellow assassin Jessica Priest (Melinda Clarke), and best of all, John Leguizamo as a super-obese demonic clown named Clown (McFarlane didn’t have a lot of time to spare for naming, I guess).

Now when it came out, Spawn was the target of heavy dunkings. It was an ambitious yet garish film with loads of poorly done CGI that happened to be based on a property that most people outside of the comics world didn’t know. For years — for decades — people felt quite confident giving this film the business without worrying about any significant pushback.

Yet a strange thing happened. Even as the computer graphics aged more and more poorly, some people genuinely started to champion Spawn as a fun guilty pleasure of the ’90s. The over-the-top design — often employing comic book panel conventions — and outlandish characters found an audience. The look of Spawn’s suit is pretty awesome all on its own. Leguizamo is so quotable and hilarious as Clown that I wish he got his own spin-off flick. The soundtrack is absolutely crazy at times, and the prosthetics are quite impressive. Even the CGI wrapped around to “so bad it’s good” if you squint hard enough.

It’s clear that there wasn’t the production budget or technology to do this the right way, but you know what? They clearly tried — and sometimes got a lot closer than they had any right to. It was also pretty gutsy to put a black man as a superhero lead a long time before Black Panther (and give the ’90s credit for doing this thrice more with Blade, Meteor Man, and Steel).

This messy, entertaining “why not?” attitude is why I loved New Line back in the day, particularly when the end result is oddly more entertaining than modern slick superhero tales. Is this a bad movie? Oh, definitely. But is it a bad that I can live with? Almost certainly.

Didja notice?

  • Exposition opening IN YOUR FACE
  • Why shoot one rocket when you can shoot one that becomes four?
  • Cue ’90s techno opening credits
  • “Why ask why when how is so much more fun?” huh?
  • D.B. Sweeney in a goatee alert!
  • “You don’t quit us, son. We are not the U.S. postal service.”
  • Scorpion ash tray
  • Apparently the minimum safe distance from a blast that would impact everyone in the town nearby is “outside in a hallway”
  • Good guys from heaven have a magical chime associated with them
  • Don’t trust obese clowns at your birthday party
  • So many flashback moments, especially to scenes which were never shown
  • Lots of green farts and skidmarks
  • They didn’t even have the money to animate the lead demon’s mouth, so he just leaves it flopped open
  • Worst satanic ritual ever
  • Maggot pizza!
  • The ritzy scene transitions
  • That belt can bite
  • It’s an invisibility cloak GET IT
  • Clown cheerleader
  • “You pukin’ up decent food?”
  • Always a good idea to put a weapon trigger on your heart
  • Allegedly there were two sequels being planned for 1998 and 1999, but they never got made

One comment

  1. I’m not 100% sure, but I think I heard that they left Malbolgia’s mouth hanging open because he wasn’t supposed to be physically speaking — he was using telepathy. Which sounds like a cop-out to me.

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