Spawn (1997)

D: Mark Dippé
S: Michael Jai White, Martin Sheen, John Leguizamo, Nicol Williamson

Colourful and imaginative computer-generated special effects are the raison d'être of this comic-book adaptation, and they almost manage to keep it going. But eventually the confusing and ill-worked-out storyline sinks the film, leaving a deflated and disappointed audience wondering whether or not they enjoyed themselves. Essentially an advertisement for Todd McFarlane's popular character, played here by Michael Jai White, the film requires foreknowledge of the intricacies of the comic book before it even begin to make sense, yet it alters several details of the print mythology in order to make itself reasonably marketable. Either way it's meant to lead you back to the books, because while there are intriguing elements to this concoction of Batman, The Crow, Spiderman, Hellblazer and Nemesis the Warlock, the film does little justice to itself on a textual level, and doesn't work on its own.

The plot concerns the origins of the titular character, a murdered U.S. Government assassin whose soul is harvested by the forces of Hell in preparation for the battle with Heaven which will soon occur. In order to complete his training to lead the armies of darkness, he must kill his former boss, Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen), who ordered his death and is about to unleash a deadly virus which will kill most of the population of the earth. Against this backdrop of pending apocalypse, Spawn must come to terms with what has happened to him and decide whether or not to abandon his humanity and forget the life he led as a human being, including his wife (Theresa Randle). He is taunted and encouraged in his task by representatives of both darkness and light. The former is the grotesque, gag-dropping clown, played by Leguizamo (who is the best carbon-based element in the movie), the latter is the sinister Cagliostro (who is not quite the same as he is in print), played by Williamson in a performance not too far removed from his stint as Merlin in Excalibur.

It's all very interesting, but very poorly presented on the level of story. Though it starts off well enough, it quickly becomes a mishmash of flashbacks and violent confrontations which seem just about ready to start becoming a workable story when the movie suddenly reaches its unsatisfying climax. It really needed to go on about an hour or so longer to flesh things out, which would be a self-defeating exercise in the market this film is aimed at (where the attention span is relatively limited and highly specific). It eventually crosses the line between tolerable horror fantasy and laughable farce with a cop-out ending involving the control of Sheen's doomsday weapon and a disappointing and inexplicable escalation of Spawn's powers just in time to save the day.

But special effects designer Dippé has made this film to showcase his splendid effects and imagery, and these are quite stunning. From the opening credits, which detail a fiery descent in a maelstrom, to the climax in the pits of Hell itself, everything looks great. The direction is slick and lively, and there is a good variety of incident. It can be viewed as experimentation on the cutting edge of the digital image, but the question must be asked whether it would have therefore been better off abandoning the trappings of classical narrative altogether and going full bore into McFarlane's comic-book world.

Though it deals with material which could easily have sparked controversy, there is actually a strong moral base to the film, and it eventually comes down hard on the side of righteousness. It continually emphasises that human beings must chose their own destiny, and while giving due credit to the eternal forces, proves that there is power in humanity.

In a sense, this is a tad too easy, as there are many unresolved questions and unsatisfying resolutions to those it does choose to deal with. It never really comes to terms with the subtle mechanics of evil and damnation, or defines the thin line between doing justice and finding salvation. It is not dark enough to grab the audience by the throat, but is too weird to negotiate its way through conservative reactionaries. Yet the film earned a surprising '12' rating in this country from a censor poised to pounce heavily on material deemed 'indecent, obscene or blasphemous'. Of course, it does play up to conventional Christian mythology with its invocations of Hell (and even throws in a joke at the expense of would-be Satanists), in the same way that The Exorcist sparked a wave of interest in the the Catholic church. It forms part of the recent resurgence of films dealing with this subject, including Seven and Event Horizon, and may form an interesting footnote when the moral history of this period is written.

But it is finally not much of a film. Though it has its visual pleasures, it never comes together or assumes direction. It will please neither comic-book fans (who are impossible to placate anyway) nor general audiences. Despite its technical wizardry, it is not really that impressive overall, and despite its debates on morality, it never really engages on a human level. A lot of time and effort has gone into its creation, but one senses that it remains part of a larger project on the part of McFarlane to continually expand and promote his mini-Empire (an animated series already runs on cable, the toys are automatic collector's items). And no matter how far he takes the material, he can't put help treading familiar ground. Spawn, both as a comic and as a film, is partly a worthy effort to expand the parameters of the comic-book industry, partly an exploitative commercial enterprise, and it never really reconciles the two sides with a fully satisfying product. The result is a general discomfort which stems not from daring originality or challenges to expectations, but from a sense that we've actually seen it all done before with characters whose motivations were more clearly explained even within the confines of a comic-book movie (even though those characters and films never tried to go as far as this does into a comic-book world). Those hoping for something a little bit different will find only more of the same, and those without expectation will find nothing at all.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.