*** Originally published on Beyond the Marquee, 07/31/12 ***
Popular culture is a funny thing. Certain trends hit wildly popular and often come back to haunt us years later. The 90′s was all about pop-rap, flannel shirts, depression and ultimately a corporate sponsored faux 1960′s “raging against the machine”. A bohemian lifestyle reminiscent of Paris in the late 1800′s flourished – not in saloons or parlors, but in Starbuck’s coffee shops peddling overpriced java on every other block. A General in the fight against corporate culture on an artistic front was Todd McFarlane, famed Canadian comic book artist. Working with major publishers on books like Batman and Spider-Man, McFarlane broke away and co-founded Image Comics. Self-publishing what would become his signature title, McFarlane was able to retain all rights to Spawn - allowing him to be choosy in selecting a studio to bring his creation to the big screen. In 1997, New Line Cinema released the PG-13 adaptation and now, 15 years later, it debuts on Blu-Ray in the form of an R rated Director’s Cut courtesy of Warner Bros. Now in the comfort of your home theater you can revisit another 90′s cultural phenomenon: the sell out.
Michael Jai White (The Dark Knight, Black Dynamite) plays Al Simmons, an elite assassin who’s betrayed and killed by Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen), the head of a shadowy government agency. In hell, he makes a deal with Malebolgia, the Devil (Frank Welker): if he leads Hell’s Army in Armageddon, he’ll be allowed to return to his fiancé Wanda (Theresa Randle). On his reincarnation, Al, now a Hellspawn, has transformed into a badly disfigured creature with shape-shifting skin. When he seeks out his beloved, he learns she has moved on, marrying his best friend Terry (D.B. Sweeney) and given birth to the child Al never knew. Filled with rage at the Devil’s betrayal, he is ushered down the road to evil by his “guardian demon” The Violator (John Leguizamo), a disgusting clown from hell who has the propensity to change into something that resembles the demon dogs from Ghostbusters. Not knowing that Malbolgia has rigged Wynn’s body to trigger a world-wide biological attack (the start of Armageddon), Al, now known only as “Spawn” sets out to get revenge on the man who killed him. When he finally learns of what his actions may bring to the world and his daughter, Spawn joins forces with Cogliostro (the late Nicol Williams) a fellow Hellspawn who escaped Satan’s grasp and now fights for good. Colgiostro teaches him how to use his necroplasmic armor and serves as Spawn’s mentor as he attempts to assassinate the ultimate mark: the Devil himself.
Convinced that Batman (up til that time) hadn’t evolved to his darkest potential, McFarlane created his own sort-of rendition in Spawn, a creature actually born in hell. Of course, he switches sides and chooses to defend humanity, but his very nature is violent and vengeful. Additionally the villain is the biggest baddie the world has ever known: Lucifer. Fans immediately took to the character and Spawn became a huge success for McFarlane and his companies. In an attempt to further publicize the property, McFarlane agreed to make a Spawn movie… basically a 60 ft. t-shirt with a moving decal, as he puts it. Of course, to reach the largest audience, a PG-13 rating was agreed upon by all. Knowing that this would create a rift in the fan base, McFarlane decided he would attempt to make a film that would keep the source material’s spirit, while keeping it in the parameters of the rating. As noble as that sounds, it’s still comes down to watering down your product for financial gain. Of course he also pushed out toys and video games based on the title in an attempt to build an empire, not unlike George Lucas or Walt Disney. Seeing as how McFarlane toys is as big as it is, I’d say he’s succeeded – but at the end of the day, the film version doesn’t quite live up to the potential of the source material (see: HBO’s animated series). That’s not to say it’s all that bad and this R-rated cut gives a little more edge, though mostly in the language department. You could argue that at the time they made the movie, the darker vibe of Spawn was preferable to the colorful fluff of the God-awful Batman and Robin and might have influenced WB’s decision to later reboot that franchise with Christopher Nolan at the helm.
While The Dark Knight it’s not, this is no Daredevil either. The acting is decent (John Leguizamo isn’t as annoying as usual) and the movie maintains a comic book feel without being cartoony or sappy. For being an origin story, it’s fresh enough to be interesting, unlike say, Spider-Man, who’s radioactive birth is known by all and rehashed every few years. Back in 1997, Spawn‘s extensive use of CG was a spectacle and seemed to make up for some of the films weaker moments. Unfortunately in 2012, this digital ketchup makes the film look more like Nintendo 64: The Motion Picture. The soundtrack is also pretty dated, featuring artists like Marilyn Manson and Incubus. It feels weird to me how much the 90′s stand out here, but it was 2 decades ago.
The Blu-Ray’s video quality is incredible. It literally feels like you’re watching Spawn in the theater – however that also brings more attention the outdated CG. The DTS-HD 5.1 MA soundtrack is loud, clear and spacious. This is a disc that looks and sounds like that of a film released in the last 5 years, not 15. Warner did a bang up job on this one.
There are also a good number of extras, many of which already existed on New Line’s DVD release. There’s a low-res theatrical trailer (which, while I’m glad it’s on here, I’m not sure why they couldn’t have given us one with better quality), a Sci-Fi channel “making-of” featurette, interviews with creator Todd McFarlane and a commentary with McFarlane, Director Mark A.Z. Dippe, producer Clint Goldman, visual effects supervisor Steve “Spaz” Williams. While Spaz’s effects are as dated as his nickname, the commentary track (recorded for the DVD) is somewhat refreshing in how the filmmakers acknowledge problems with the PG-13 cut due to ratings board interference. It’s not the best commentary I’ve listened to and I find McFarlane to be kind of annoying (both here and in the interviews), but it’s worth a once over. There are also two music videos from Filter and The Crystal Method which just scream 90′s. The most enjoyable extras, however, are original McFarlane sketches, a sketch gallery of concept illustrations and scene to storyboard comparisons. No matter how you feel about the film (or the character’s creator), you can’t deny that the artwork is awesome.
I’ll round the Spawn – Director’s Cut Blu-Ray, up to 3 ironic angels. The presentation is flawless and while the extras (and static image menu screen) are nothing to write home about, they’re passable. Despite some distracting, outdated CG F/X, the film is still a fun superhero flick with decent action and several good laughs. This would great movie to watch with The Lawnmower Man or The Long Kiss Goodnight for a 90′s movie night (don’t forget the alcohol!) Fans of the genre will agree it’s enjoyable, but die-hards obviously won’t be any more interested in this than the prior sub-par releases. Sadly, the hero from Hades’ biggest sin was being restrained to cash in on a wider audience. Here’s hoping to a fitting reboot… and that all Hell breaks loose with it!