When most people think of superheroes, they usually think of the characters that populate the Marvel and DC universes. But Image Comics has grown an impressive roster of characters in the 30 years since its inception, and one of the standouts is Spawn. Created by Todd McFarlane, the hellish anti-hero was the focus of his own feature film, 1997’s Spawn, which 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: U.S. Marine Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) is betrayed and left for dead by his boss, Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen). Simmons winds 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 (Theresa Randle) again. Sent back to Earth, Simmons has to learn to master his newfound Hellspawn powers while also dealing with the machinations of the Violator (John Leguizamo), a hell-born being disguised as a grotesque clown who aims to jumpstart the apocalypse.
From the very start, the tragedy inherent in the character is present and played straight by director Mark A.Z. Dippé. Though Malebogia does send Simmons back to Earth, it’s five years after his death. Wanda has moved on, marrying Simmons’ best friend Terry Fitzgerald (D.B. Sweeney) and even giving birth to a daughter, Cyan. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Simmons retains his horrifyingly charred appearance, so even if he could meet his wife face to face, she wouldn’t recognize him. Factor in his desire to take vengeance on Wynn, along with powers he has no idea how to control, and you have a character whose angst eclipses other brooding caped crusaders such as Batman and Moon Knight.
The casting is also on point, as White brought the necessary gravity to his role as Simmons. Perhaps the best scene in the movie comes when he discovers his grave and sinks to his knees, howling in agony, and that anguish then leads to his first full transformation into Spawn. White’s booming baritone also gives him the appropriate amount of menace as Spawn; every line of his feels like it would put the fear of God in an ordinary man. As the Violator, Leguizamo gives everyone who’s ever played the Joker a run for their money. He doesn’t leave an ounce of scenery unchewed, and his torment of Spawn feels like a warped version of It’s A Wonderful Life. Suffice it to say, when Violator and Spawn finally do battle, it’s immensely satisfying to see Spawn fill his archnemesis with bullet holes. And Nicol Williamson serves as Spawn’s mentor Cogliostro, tapping into the same sense of mysticism that helped fuel his turn as Merlin in Excalibur.
The film is also chock-full of special effects, which isn’t surprising given that Dippé previously worked at Industrial Light and Magic before helming the film. ILM crafted a Spawn costume that was a perfect match for the jet-black uniform Simmons wears in the comics; the added texture serves as a homage to the fiery fate that Simmons suffered at Wynn’s hands. The most impressive visual effects come when the Violator assumes his true form. Thanks to ILM veteran Steve “Spaz” Williams, best 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. Its clammy gray skin is lined with scaly bumps, and its red eyes resemble an insect’s. The battle between Spawn and Violator manages to tap into the horror elements of the comic, and it does so with gusto.
But the visual effects aren’t the only thing that gave the film its signature look. A makeup department that included The Walking Dead‘s Greg Nicotero among its numbers also provided prosthetics to transform White into Simmons and Leguizamo into the earlier, more human version of the Violator. The two look utterly unrecognizable as a result. White looks like a burn victim, and Leguizamo is short, rotund, and covered in clownish face paint. The duo were quite open about the challenges the prosthetics presented, with Leguizamo, in particular, finding them extremely uncomfortable. Nicotero is slated to perhaps return to the world of Spawn, as he has been tapped for the visual effects on a reboot McFarlane is hoping to co-write and direct.
When it came to translating the complicated mythology of the Spawn comics to screen, Dippé had help from Alan B. McElroy. McElroy kept most of the origin intact, while updating certain elements. In the comics, Al was killed by Chapel, a foe of Rob Liefeld‘s superhero team Youngblood. In the film, he was killed by Jessica Priest (Melinda Clarke), an assassin whose body count rivals Simmons’ and whose morals are the opposite of his. Priest would later be incorporated into the Spawn comics and currently holds the mantle of She-Spawn. As for McElroy, he would continue to write Spawn, serving as the showrunner of the animated series Todd McFarlane’s Spawn for HBO and penning Curse of the Spawn for Image Comics.
Spawn (which is available to stream on Netflix) was less than well-received when it premiered. Critics found fault with the story, though the visual style was praised. In the years following its release, White has said he’s not a fan of the movie, and Leguizamo feels the film — which was rated PG-13 — was missing the edge that made the comics so beloved. But even though it isn’t 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. With this year marking the 30th anniversary of Image Comics and Spawn’s debut, this film deserves another look as its heavy-metal aesthetic and gothic drama stood out from its campier cousins Batman & Robin and Steel, and paved the way for the character to truly have a foothold in pop culture.
A Brief History of Image Comics, As Told by Co-Founder Rob Liefeld
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