I’ve never read the Spawn comic books, but I remember that when the movie adaptation came out in 1997, I felt a sense of eager anticipation because it was a black superhero film that wasn’t a cheesy kids flick like The Meteor Man, a silly spoof like Blankman and, although Steel wouldn’t hit theaters until two weeks after Spawn, I could tell that it wasn’t…whatever THAT was. With his Snake Eyes-meets-Hellraiser couture, Spawn was the first black cinematic superhero who actually LOOKED cool enough to rival the best of the movies featuring white heroes. And then…I watched it.
Thankfully, Blade came out the year later, ensuring that not all black superhero movies would be tarnished by Spawn’s God-awfulness — since Hollywood tends to lump films with non-white leads together by race, as if they all spring from a single shared frontal cortex.
Like Blade, Spawn is a horror-tinged comic book film, the titular character (Michael Jai White) an antihero who’s sent to Hell due to his crimes against humanity committed as a black ops assassin. He makes a deal with “Lord of Darkness” Malebolgia to return to Earth to see his wife, Wanda (Theresa Randle), in exchange for agreeing to lead Hell’s army during the impending Armageddon. Unbeknownst to Spawn, Malebolgia and his hench-clown Violator (John Leguizamo) have hatched an unnecessarily convoluted plot to trigger said Armageddon by egging both Spawn and his backstabbing ex-boss Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen) into killing each other.
While the stakes in the film are grand in scale, the action is disappointingly small and unimaginative, with lackluster, syndicated TV-level execution. And when things do get grander, as with the climactic showdown in Hell, this is what we get:
No, that’s not a mid-’90s video game trade school commercial; it’s the (sigh) “Lord of Darkness.” And he’s even worse on video; they couldn’t bother to make his mouth move when he talks, and I swear they just re-use the same animation on a loop; in one scene, he’s talking to Violator, who’s standing to his right, but apparently they didn’t animate him looking in that direction, so they just show him facing straight ahead like he was in a previous shot. Reportedly, they outsourced the Hell scenes to an effects company that had only six weeks to pull it all together with a modest $1 million budget…and it shows. (To be fair, the rest of the CGI in the movie looks better — not great, but good enough to cull together some clips to make the trailer moderately appealing to suckers like me.)
If only those roadblocks could explain a script packed with wall-to-wall cartoonish lines like “We have harvested the ultimate weapon from those diseased bodies; now we have the only vaccine! BWAHAHAHAHAHAAA!!!” Writer Alan McElroy actually has a decent track record — including Wrong Turn, Halloween 4, The Perfect Guy and Rapid Fire — so he’s capable of much better than this, but on the other hand, he also wrote Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever and the Kirk Cameron vehicle Left Behind, so he knows a thing or two about cinematic apocalypses.
It’s almost as if the filmmakers thought that a comic book movie necessitated a simplistic, dumbed-down approach: stiff dialogue, one-note characters, pompous narration, gimmicky transitions and an avalanche of flashbacks that insult the intelligence of the viewer. Do we really need a flashback to Wanda’s face 13 minutes into the film, as if we wouldn’t remember who she is after seeing her five minutes earlier? My God, there are even flashbacks to scenes that AREN’T IN THE MOVIE.
Director Mark A.Z. Dippé would go on to helm the entertaining creature feature Frankenfish, but he’s out of his element here in his debut film, delivering sterile action scenes and even more sterile performances. Thersea Randle seems like she just emerged from a coma, and you can just FEEL poor Martin Sheen repeating the words “Sound evil, sound evil, sound evil…” to himself during every line. (His character keeps pet scorpions and tarantulas on his desk, so that helps clue us in.) And the less said about John Leguizamo’s mercilessly moronic stream of flatulent “comedic relief,” the better. I would say I feel bad for a cast that’s clearly above this material, but at least they got paid for it; I ended up in the red.
I do, however, feel for Michael Jai White. Spawn should’ve been the catapult that propelled him into action movie stardom in an era when that meant a lot more than it does today. He had the looks, the charisma, the acting talent and the physical ability to be a top-tier mainstream action star — a genuine Rambro, as it were. While he’s had a solid, mostly direct-to-video career, when I look at how much success America has heaped on a one-note Neanderthal like Mark Wahlberg (An Oscar nomination? Really?), I can’t help but wonder if White would’ve achieved his career potential had he been, well, white.