There was a time when comic books were not celebrated. When only the disenfranchised cared or knew about them instead of the mainstream. And in those ancient times — let’s call them 1992 — no news was bigger than when Marvel’s biggest creators left en masse to form Image Comics. At the time, these artists were derided as style over substance. Many of them weren’t known for hitting their deadlines. Or even how to draw feet properly. But one of them — Todd McFarlane — took the opportunities that his new home presented and made the most of them, creating his signature character: Spawn.
Spawn is everything that McFarlane loved to draw: a muscular hero covered in spandex, chains and a cape that seems to be way longer than it should be. It was an instant hit, giving birth to a toyline, an HBO animated series (which still holds up) and finally, this movie.
Al Simmons (Michael Jai White, playing one of the first African-American superhero to be a movie lead, as this movie and Shaw’s Steel came out at the same time) is a black ops soldier assigned to a mission to investigate a North Korean biochemical weapons site. But he’s been set up by his boss, Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen) and is killed by Jessica Priest, Wynn’s new top assassin. After being set on fire, he winds up in Hell, where Malebolgia offers him a deal. If Simmons will lead his armies to Heaven’s gate, he can see his true love, Wanda, one more time.
You know how those deals with demons work. They’re rarely fair. When he returns to Earth, Simmons learns that Wanda is now married to his best friend Terry(D.B. Sweeney, Fire in the Sky, The Cutting Edge), who is raising his daughter, Cyan.
Malebolgia sends one of his demons, Violator (John Leguizamo), to mentor Simmons. But there’s also Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson, The Exorcist III), who also sold his soul to become a Hellspawn but who has found his way to Heaven.
Meanwhile, Simmons becomes Spawn and attacks Wynn, now a powerful arms dealer. He easily defeats his killer, Jessica, and escapes an attack by an army of mercenaries thanks to his new powers.
Violator — who either appears as a clown or an Alien-esque demon — gets Wynn to add a device to his heart that will release Heat 16, a biochemical superweapon, if he dies. Malebolgia wants Simmons to kill Wynn and start the end of the world. But Violator has his own agenda and nearly kills our hero before Cagliostro saves him. As he learns how to use his powers just as he also learns that Wynn plans on killing everyone he loves.
What follows is a battle on our earth and in Hell, where Spawn denies his contract with the Devil, bests Violator and returns to our reality, ready for the sequel which never came.
Spawn is very of its time, a film packed with early CGI (nearly half of its effects were unfinished until two weeks before it was released) and a soundtrack that mixes techno with hard rock and metal (the Atari Teenage Riot/Slayer mashup “No Remorse” is a highlight). It’s a decent enough film but is a sanitized version of the chaos inside every panel of the Spawn comic. It just feels like something is missing. There’s no real heart in the film, nor any real threat to our hero.
After years of talk of a sequel, McFarlane announced a new Spawn adaptation in 2015, with the goal of the creator writing the script and directing. In July of this year, it was confirmed that this was true, with the film being produced by Blumhouse. Here’s hoping for something great.