I have been a big fan of Todd McFarlane's work since the time he began working on Spiderman and made it one of Marvel Comics' best-selling titles. McFarlane then left Marvel, citing policies that inhibited his creativity, and formed Image Comics, whose first comic book was Spawn. Spawn, the character, went on to a become a huge success, spawning (pun intended) a line of action figures, clothing, a video game, a popular and acclaimed HBO animation series, and, now, a movie. Today, Image is a comic book company right up there with Marvel and DC. But amongst all the characters that have been created for this company, Spawn still remains a cut above the rest and it is with great excitement and anticipation that I went to see one of my favourite comic book characters on the big screen.
I've always thought of McFarlane as a great artist but I found his story-telling ability a bit lacking. Thus I was pleased to hear that Alan McElroy (who currently works on the title Curse of Spawn) would be writing the screenplay. I believe the writers and artists who have come after McFarlane have done a better job on Spawn and raised it to greater levels than McFarlane himself ever could have.
As I watched this movie, I realised that understanding it depended quite heavily on knowing the exact story behind the character. Failing this, the movie would be doomed to negative criticism. I can't think of a better way to give the background than to read the 60+ issues of the Spawn comic book, but here's a short summary: Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) is an agent working the CIA, an efficient killing machine used by his boss Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen) to get rid of people he opposes. Simmons is killed by Wynn, right after he announces he wants out of the agency, and goes to hell, where he encounters Malebolgia (the devil, voice by Frank Welker). Simmons makes a deal with Malebolgia to become an Hellspawn and lead the forces of evil in Armageddon in order to see his wife again.
However, the devil, being the eternal schemer, returns Simmons (now Spawn) disfigured and without his memory, with super powers including the ability to teleport and a "living" armour that obeys Spawn's mental commands and instinctively acts to protect him. Spawn slowly regains his memory and finds that things have changed on Earth since his death five years ago.
Here, the movie diverts from the story outlined in the comic book and goes downhill (though as a Spawn fan I found it acceptable). The main reason I think Spawn was initially successful is because McFarlane was able to create suspense with each issue as Spawn regained his memory bit by bit. In the movie, this happens in a matter of minutes. Also, the huge stock of Spawn characters, such as Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson) and the Violator/Clown (John Leguizamo) were introduced slowly in the comic book; the movie audience has no time to assimilate these characters or their relevance to the storyline. Finally, the most philosophic aspect of the Spawn comic book is illustrating that there is no true "good" or "evil"; in the Spawn universe, Heaven is just as willing as Hell to go any lengths to win the war for its side (the notion of a despotic god has been introduced previously to us in Stargate and The Prophecy). This aspect is also not explored in the movie.
This is a movie I think that would please the comic book fans to a certain degree, but not appeal to a more general audience. While I think McElroy did a fine job trying to be as faithful as possible, I think the solution would have been to make a longer movie that was more detailed, and eliminated the extraneous characters. In fact, the movie should have just been a separate story about Hellspawn, like in the Curse of Spawn comic book series.
The visuals and effects are quite spectacular and live up to what one would imagine had they read the comic book. The acting is decent, and an unrecognisable Leguizamo as the Clown stole the show. Worth the matinee fare.