The 1990s are not looked at warmly in comic fandom and with great reason. The comics of the 90s are by and large atrocious. Try reading early Image and your eyes will bleed from the jagged lines and nauseating colors. They were testosterone defined. Thus even with the major boom in comic book movies, while almost every era of comics has been represented, the 90s are essentially ignored.
Essentially because in 1997, New Line Cinema gave us an adaptation of the quintessential 1990s comic Spawn. Dripping with all of the excess of Dark Age comics, the film was a modest success and pretty much instantly became a joke due to effects which dated poorly. Today it’s looked at as a misstep, overshadowed by the acclaimed animated series and often linked with 97’s other CBM Steel.* In fact when I sat down to watch it, I expected to hate it as much as that abomination.
I don’t hate Spawn though. In fact I’m eager to make the case this is about as solid a comic book movie as we got in the 1990s aside from Blade. Spawn is a bold, gloriously gothic horror action film that oozes atmosphere. Every frame of the film is loaded with marvelous things things to take in. In the age of Batman and Robin, this was a blast of energy.
The film admittedly has a standard story. Black ops agent Al Simmons is betrayed and killed by his peers but is enlisted by a demon to serve as his leader in exchange for getting to see his fiancee again. He reemerges severely disfigured but gifted with necroplasm armor that gives him magic powers. Simmons sets out to kill the people who killed him but discovers he’s a pawn to bring on the apocalypse and opts to use his hell given powers to serve good.
OK, so the elephant in the room about 90s comics is how ridiculously over the top “edgy” they were. Spawn’s a KILLER with powers from HELL leading DEMON HORDES and he’s all BURNT UP AND DISFIGURED with a BLACK COSTUME and GLOWING EYES and a GIANT STUPID CAPE! He fights a VULGAR DEMON CLOWN WHO CAN TURN INTO A GIANT DEMON! And he’s gotta stop THE APOCALYPSE! This is silly stuff.
But here’s the thing about that. If you try to ground it, you blow it by trying to do the impossible. If you try to laugh at it then you insult people who love it. What Spawn did right was to wholeheartedly embrace what it is. It’s “edgy” but dammit it’s proud to be that. As a result the film never pulls its punches.
The film is thus a masterwork of excess. Spawn’s ludicrous cape and the chains he flings out of his body look wild but also undeniably awesome. The demons of the film are giant grotesqueries out of nightmares. A key event takes place in a lavish ballroom. Hell itself is straight out of Bosch. Alleys in the film seem to exist as post apocalyptic wastelands. This is the dark age aesthetic done as much justice as we’ll get until Spawn creator Todd McFarlane directs the reboot next year (which I can’t wait for.)
The excess spreads to the film’s effects. The complaint I often hear is that they’re dated. That’s undeniably true but that’s also true of most films. I mean even Star Wars has matte effects that scream 1977. What I love is that they tried. How easy would it be to make this a conventional action movie with mild hints of the supernatural? Maybe he fights a normal gang with superweapons like in Steel! No, the movie goes all out depicting Spawn’s powers and it’s awesome for it. I especially love his bizarrely tactile costume that looks like something living.
I really love the film’s color scheme too. Director of Photography Guillermo Navarro worked for years with Guillermo Del Toro and knows how to shoot a film. There are a lot of dark colors in the film but also brilliant oranges and neon greens. The blue of Clown’s face feels wrong in this world. Movies rarely use color this well.
But now to address the acting. This is the film’s unsung strong spot. John Leguizamo is usually the only one cited and I was actually a bit unfair in the podcast. He’s annoying but so what! That’s the character and he hammers it home. Leguizamo should’ve broken out into one of our great leading men but at least we got awesome work like this. As great as he is, let’s talk about Michael Jai White. I asked this on the cast and I’ll ask it again: Why the hell did he get trapped in direct to video action? White should’ve been as big as it got. Handsome, charming, and believable in the action, the guy was a star. Here he gives the movie its utter soul. Even under the fantastic makeup, he sells you on Al Simmons. This guy hurts and with good reason.The rest of the cast is solid too, though nobody really stretched themselves.
Does the film have its faults? Of course. It’s actually a bit too quick moving and would’ve benefited from a longer runtime, which I say even having watched the longest cut out there. It’s also a tiny bit restrained in the violence. This needed to be R-rated and gory. And honestly, I can see how many of the things I love about it annoy people. It’s a loud movie.
But I love it without reservation. It’s over the top. It’s ridiculous. It’s the definitive 1990s comic book movie.