The day Spawn opened, I saw two very different reviews. Roger Ebert gave it 3½ stars because it was a good-looking exposition of the state of the art in special effects; a melding of costumes, acting, models, and computer effects in a hellish landscape worthy of Hieronymous Bosch. Steven Rosen of the Denver Post called it an incoherent waste of time that suffers from an overdose of special effects.
I suppose they were both right, but Roger Ebert had much more fun.
If I had to guess, I would say that Ebert also liked William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet (1996), and that Rosen hated it. Like Romeo & Juliet, Spawn is a movie where style and pacing are given center stage. The style is comic book and the pacing is fast, fast, fast.
Spawn is based on comic books by Todd McFarlane. The story opens with hired killer Al Simmons being betrayed by his superiors. He ends up badly burned before he dies and goes to Hell. Hell sends him back to Earth with a new suit of “necroplasmic” armor and a mission. His mission is to ensure that a certain chemical weapon will wipe out Earth’s human population. (The sudden influx of billions of souls will allow Hell’s army to wage war on Heaven’s fortress, you see.) But Simmons has his own noble motives for wanting to return to Earth: he wants to see his wife again. That, and to murder the bastards who did this to him.
Because much of the motivation in Spawn comes from Hell’s plan to attack Heaven, the gates for religious interpretation are wide open. When a character exclaims “Jesus!” or says that the place is going to “hell in a handbasket,” there is a certain resonance that is usually absent from such words. Whether or not it is intentional, the extra emphasis is not lost.
Perhaps because of the extra emphasis on these words, I wondered why the demons did not rear back from their utterance. Vampires fear crosses and holy water. Why do these demons from Hell not fear the muttered “Christ!” The message seems to be that while Hell is going strong, Heaven is weak, tottering on the brink of oblivion. If this movie has a big box office, it’ll be a telling sign of the adolescent worldview in 1997.
It is interesting how closely Spawn parallels the traditional “hero’s journey.” The hero hears the call to adventure, refuses at first, then finally sees that the journey is inevitable. Along the way he is helped by a spiritual guide who will show him the way. Luke Skywalker had his Obi-wan. Disney’s Hercules had his Philoctetes, even King Arthur had his Merlin.
What sets Spawn apart from other heroes is that his spiritual advisor, Clown (John Leguizamo), is Evil’s representative, not Good’s. Clown is a teacher, but Spawn doesn’t get his lessons for free. He must distinguish between the lesson and the propaganda. It is a simple twist on a storytelling tradition that works very well for this movie. (One could argue that this is a parallel for the influx of information we get in this day and age. We have to learn to glean good information from those messengers who have ulterior motives, be they government, media monopolies, or Internet wackos.)
When he’s on the screen, Clown steals the show. Leguizamo, who is almost unrecognizable as the stunted pear-shaped demon, looks like he had a great time with the part. He is rude and crass, which is only appropriate for a guardian demon. He teaches and guides the hero, but unlike a guardian angel, he gets to mock the hero’s shortcomings. Clown has a lot of good lines, and many of them draw attention to the fact that this hero’s teacher is hell-sent, not heaven-sent.
But what really makes Spawn stand out is its look. Spawn looks like a heavy metal fantasy. It is a black and orange Halloween explosion. It looks like the latest series of Batman movies, only set in the most horrible Hell Christianity can come up with. It looks like the Hell of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (“our album covers lied to us, dude”) without the levity.
Rosen said the movie was incoherent, but the style was very coherent. There isn’t one special effect that stands out above the rest (i.e., is out of place). The look and tone of the movie is consistent from scene to scene, presenting the audience with a single, integrated visual “message.” Even the opening and closing credits are designed with the same edgy feel and look. (Maybe credit design should be the next category for the Academy Awards©™®.)
For the record, the production designer (the person in charge of the overall look of a film) was Philip Harrison, a veteran from The Relic, Timecop, and other films going back as far as Outland (1981). The rookie director is a former special effects wizard. The cinematographer, Guillermo Navarro, has worked with Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.
Add up all that experience and you can please a lot of 13-year old boys. But Spawn can have a broader appeal, if you let it. Expectations are everything, so do see this movie, but make sure you know what you’re getting into.