Because I Hate Myself - Spawn
Did you know that the eternal struggle between good and evil, the fight for the souls of humanity, the metaphysical conflict that has engulfed the minds of men for centuries all revolves around a single woman?
Yes, the never-ending feud between God and the Devil all rests on Wanda Blake. Oh, and it’s not for any typical reason like she’s a “chosen one” or anything like that. It’s mainly because all the pivotal people in this fight just really want to bang her or something along those lines.
This sounding stupid to you? Oh, don’t worry, it’s about to get worse.
First, though, let me introduce you to a new little segment here on Nuking The Cat, the “Because I hate myself” reviews. You see, there are movies I own…that I can honestly tell you that I have no good reason to own. But they’re in the collection. And they’re terrible. And sometimes, I don’t know why…god help me…I watch ‘em. And now…you get some insight into my suffering.
So, for this episode, we have 1997’s Spawn. Sure, it’s easy to dismiss Spawn as the product of its time, as superhero movies back then were geared toward a younger audience with studios insisting on nothing higher than a PG-13 rating. And while the only version available out there (that I know of) is the R-rated director’s cut…well, even in that you can definitely tell that they were aiming more PG-13 than R. The strongest bit of evidence? The introduction of the homeless kid as Spawn’s pal…fuck, I don’t even remember what the kid’s name was and I just watched the damn thing. Also, another stigma attached to superhero movies in the 90’s…TOYS! And, as it just so happened, Spawn creator Todd McFarlane was just getting his own toy company up and running: McFarlane Toys. All this said, we should be able to dismiss and possibly even forgive Spawn as being in the same batch of superhero movies that brought us the ungodly train wreck that was Batman and Robin…hell, the two movies even came out in the same damn summer! But we can’t.
First major crime? The writing. I remember from interviews around the time they were working on the film that, having already told the origin of Spawn in both comics and animation, they wanted to take a different approach to it for the movie. So we start out the movie with Al Simmons on a mission to take out what we assume to be a ‘bad guy’. I mean, he’s dressed like a well-to-do Arab…so OF COURSE he’s a ‘bad guy’! Okay, we can’t slam the film for that…plenty of entertaining movies (you’ll notice I didn’t say “good”) have stereotyped villains. But it dawned on me upon this most recent viewing…this opening really feels like the beginning of a direct to video 80s action movie starring some unheard of karate champion. Since, prior to this movie, the younger me hadn’t heard of Michael Jai White and it certainly didn’t surprise me that, gasp, he is indeed well trained in the martial arts…ahem…but we’ll cover that later. Back on topic with the writing. I get what they were aiming for. They wanted to give this a James Bond style opening. After all, Bond had just made a strong comeback with 1995’s Goldeneye. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Wow, really appropriate phrase for this article, eh? See, what ultimately makes this opening…and really the rest of the movie…unforgivable is one man, Alan McElroy. And no, I don’t mean that in a “dude is a really shitty writer” sense, I mean that in a “dude should’ve protected his work more” sense. Remember where I said they’d already done Spawn’s origin in both comics and animation? While McFarlane handled the comics version, it was McElroy that wrote the animated series…a series that is for the most part fondly remembered and can still hold together watching it today. And hey, maybe some people just have the one work in them, you know? Maybe the animated series was his definitive take on the character and he had nothing left to give…but I don’t think so, for a couple of reasons. First, he doesn’t hold sole screen-story credit. No, he shares that with the director. We’ll bitch more about him later. The second is that when it comes to anything that makes it to the screen, it isn’t the writer or the director that has the final say. The money has the final say…and the mouthpiece for the money is the producer. Producers have a nice long track record of fucking up potentially great movies (granted, Spawn doesn’t even remotely qualify as “potentially great”). The theatrical release of Blade Runner with the voice-over? Producers. The final product of 1984’s Dune and why David Lynch will NEVER revisit it and give us a proper director’s cut? Producers. At least 70% of the stupid shit in the three Transformers live-action movies? Producers…and before it makes it sound like I’m trying to shelter Michael Bay from any wrongdoing, he IS one of the producers too. The list is rather extensive, but you get my point. And I suspect that this is where all the tropes that emerge in this film come from. “Oh, we need a kid to appeal to the younger audience.” “Oh, put in a dog.” Yes, Wanda and Al had a dog in the comics and in the animation, but he appears for all of…eh…not very long at all. Just realized I was comparing two things where the passage of time really can’t be expressed the same way! “No, no…let John Leguizamo do whatever he wants, he’s going to be the next Robin Williams!” Ugh. We’ll go more into this later. “Oh, we need a car chase…wait, make it a truck hauling toxic waste!” I could go on. But the movie is just so damn formulaic that I can’t believe that the same guy that wrote the slow-boiling yet taut animated series wrote this shit. Or maybe he did. Because you also have lines in this like “I’m going to keep my eye on Wynn,” “Lead my army and I’ll let you see Wanda,” and so on. Apparently subtlety and the like are unheard of in the Spawn universe. Which brings us back to the point I opened on. Okay, we get that Al Simmons is the focal point of all this…or at least he’s supposed to be. The writing leads us in a different direction. And we get that the way to push Al’s buttons is to threaten, or, which happens with nauseating regularity, make a pass at Wanda…but…fuck…do you have to do it every five goddamn minutes? Yes. We get it. He’s protective of her. But, let’s count: well, at the very beginning Terry stares at her rather longingly, setting up Al’s post-mortem conundrum, so there’s one. Upon killing Al, his boss, Wynn, makes sure to tell Senior Flambé “I’ll be sure to take good care of her.” And even when she remarries Terry, well, when Wynn has to threaten him, let’s just say he doesn’t stray too far from what worked with Al. Of course, Clown makes repeated advances. Basically, every character with a dick in this movie wants to hit that. Oh, wait, Cogliostro doesn’t…and the kid hasn’t hit puberty yet. Ultimately our hero isn’t the three dimensional character he’s been portrayed as in other media, he’s a dude with anger and jealousy issues, which, sadly, aren’t totally unfounded because, again, anyone he knows with a penis wants to bone his wife. I can see how that’d make a guy just a wee bit testy.
Next up, directing. I’ve watched enough DVD/Blu-Ray special features to know that mainly there are two types of directors: actor-oriented directors and visual or effects oriented directors. And it’s very obvious where first-time director (and, spoiler, only-time director) Mark Dippe falls. A peek back behind the curtain into his past work experience only cements it, as he was a former animator at ILM. The…heh, heh…performances (and Christ I’m using the word very generously) he’s able to get from his actors is…ugh. I just can’t even finish that sentence. Now, I mean, sure, you have to take into account that this isn’t exactly an elite ensemble cast we have here. Michael Jai White, John Leguizamo, Martin Sheen, DB Sweeny, Theresa Randle and Nichol Williamson…and I believe my reaction back in 97 went a little something like this (respectively): Who? Oh, he’s okay…but he’s a skinny Mexican guy, how’s he going to play a short fat clown? That’s decent casting. The dude from the ice skating movie with the bitchy partner? Who? Hey, the guy who played Merlin in Excalibur…that’s cool. While, again, none of these guys will be making their way to the Oscar podium anytime soon…well, there are works that show that they can indeed act. White is amazing in Black Dynamite. Leguizamo…well, he does do good voice over work. (I’m reaching, I know.) Martin Sheen…Apocalypse Now, ‘nuff said. DB Sweeny…? Yeah, I got nothin’. Theresa Randle? I’m not sure if I’ve seen her in anything else. But you kinda have to give her a pass anyway. As I said in the above paragraph when I was bitching about the writing, she might be the world’s greatest actress but if the script only calls for her to be an object that every man in the picture wants to have sex with…well, not exactly the best role to display those acting chops, now is it? And with Williamson, again, I point back to Excalibur. So there’s something to work with here…right? Maybe not. White is too wooden (granted, some exception is allowed given that he's trying to act through extensive prosthetics). Leguizamo could stand to use some restraint. “Letting ‘em run loose” doesn’t work for Robin Williams, hell, it doesn’t really work for anyone, Mr. Leguizamo included. Sheen chomps on as much scenery as he can…and given the shit he has to try and make work, I can’t say I blame him. DB Sweeny makes White look like a goddamn Oscar winner. Randle…? Hot chocolate. Next! And I think Williamson, while glad for the work, was also glad that he wasn’t on camera for very long.
So, finally we come to the effects. For the most part, coming from a former ILM guy, they don’t disappoint. We’re in 1997, so CG, while not quite as refined as we know it today…well, we are in the post Jurassic Park world at this point, so while noticeable, they are solid. But Spawn proves to be a cinematic version of premature ejaculation. You have this great scene as Spawn and Cogliostro battle the Violator through various parts of Hell. Good stuff and I imagine that it’s this scene that caused Roger Ebert to give the movie 3 ½ stars…just based on the effects alone. But the final bit of that? Where Spawn’s about to get rushed by all the other hellspawn for giving Malebolgia the finger and reneging on the deal? Sigh. The best they could do was some green streamers going from Spawn to his numerous targets and they explode. Really? That’s it? He just essentially stands there while Ghostbuster proton streams come out of him and everyone blows up real good??? I’m thinking the planning discussion for that scene went a little something like this. Director: “So for the final scene where he fights all the other hellspawn, I want to see…” Producer: “Dude, we’re out of cash.” Writer: “Yeah, and I really haven’t come up with much of a good resolution for that. I’ve been busy rewriting so I could insert a damn kid.” Director: “Fuck it, they all blow up. The end.”
Okay…I’m tired of bitching about this. To sum up, yes, it is a product of its time. Comic book movies hadn’t quite gotten to the rebirth point they reached and needed with 1998’s Blade…they were still targeted at an “all-audiences” or teen demographic. Spawn, like Blade, has source material that is much more mature and graphic and as such, to stick it into a PG-13 movie is to only water it down to the point that all the flavor is gone. So yes, upon first glance, especially back in the day, it all looks very cool…but that smell? That ain’t brimstone my friend. That’s the shit just under the surface…and my god there’s a lot of it.