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Blu-ray Review: Spawn (1997)

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I was a fan of Spawn from the moment the comic hit the shelves way back in 1992. The 1990s were my heyday when it came to comic books. I had become a fan of Todd McFarlane from his work on Spider-Man and followed him when he split from Marvel with a group of other comic creators, and helped form Image Comics. So, when his creation, Spawn, arrived, I was hooked. This dark tale of a hero spawned from Hell with limited energy and a destiny to lead Hell’s army was just fascinating. It was that and much more. There is a lot of emotion to be found as well. It makes me wish I kept up with the series.

As for the movie, I remember being so excited when the movie was announced. It just seemed like such a good idea; the character has a great origin and a story involving heart and explosive, over the top action. Well, at least the potential was there. When the movie arrived in 1997, I have to admit to having been terribly disappointed. It felt like the lifeblood that made the comic so good had been sucked out in favor of bigger flash to attract an audience on the big screen. I guess I could understand the reasoning then, but it did not change my level of disappointment in the product. I had so much hope for it.

With the arrival of the film on Blu-ray, I wondered how I would feel about it now. I know there has been a DVD release, but it has been a long time since I sat down and watched it. I am happy to say that I kind of like it more now.

It probably comes across as faint praise to say I like it now, but it is true. It is like watching it with new eyes. Not every movie I revisit invites a reaction like this. What I can say is that the experience of having watched a lot of movies over the years can change perceptions. 

Spawn has a certain demented energy running through it. Take The Crow and Batman, perhaps a touch of Ghost Rider, and put them through a supernatural blender. The resulting goo might be something that could be formed into Spawn.

As the movie opens, we are introduced to Al Simmons (Michael Jai White), a skilled CIA assassin and loving husband to Wanda (Theresa Randle). On a mission to take out a weapons factory, his boss, Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen) turns on him. Al is sent to Hell where the devil, called Malebolgia, gives him a choice; If he agrees to lead Hell’s Army, he will be able to see love of his life Wanda again.

Needless to say, the devil does not follow through as you would expect. Al is returned to Earth as Spawn, a burned, costumed super-powered character. Of course, he has a mission; he is meant to kill Jason Wynn, secretly in league with the devil to release a deadly virus all over the world. Now, when Al learns the reason for his presence, he rightfully rebels and tries to do the right thing.

To help urge him down the road are two characters. One is Clown (John Leguizamo), the devil on Al’s shoulder. He has a twisted sense of humor, but also a chip on his shoulder as he wants to lead the army, not play right hand man to the interloper. On the other shoulder is Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson). He was another of Hell’s chosen who had rebelled and gotten away. He plays the role of mentor, teaching Al and helping him down the right path.

Everything builds up to a big climax as Al goes to Hell to fight for the safety of the entire planet. Of course, he has to go through Wynn and Clown’s alter ego, the monstrous Violator, first. There are plenty of big effects shots accompanying these battles, there is nothing subtle here.

Spawn is an interesting movie. Its main character is perpetually morose, regretful of his choices both in life and death, clinging desperately to his love of Wanda. The antagonist and protagonist work side by side much of the time; sure, hey, don’t get along, but how often are they together this much of the time?

What I see in the movie now that I did not see in 1997, the movie’s energetic visual style. It is simultaneously dark and colorful, in a constant state of motion. It is in this look that the narrative is carried, a style of cinema in which the plot is propelled no just by what people are doing but how they are doing it. It is not always easy to explain, but if you watch the film I am sure it will become clearer.

Is it perfect? No, not by a long shot. The character of Al Simmons is not always well defined. We get glimpses of his heart and innate goodness, but it does not always take a strong hold. The story seems rushed, we kind of fly through his relationships and charge headlong into the fights. On one level it works, but those glimpses of depth make me want more.

Audio/Video. The video is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and makes for a decent high definition presentation. This is very likely the best the movie has looked since it was on the big screen, but I cannot say that I am overly impressed with the result. At times detail is pretty impressive, there are some close ups of Al’s burnt face, or Clown’s bad teeth, or grimy nighttime silhouettes that look fantastic. There are other moments where the shadows get muddy and others that that just lack detail. However you slice it, the image is rather inconsistent. I suspect it as a lot to do with the source. here is a lot of CG work here and it was still early in the effects era. The bleeding of effects is likely a reason for the visual inconsistency. Still, it is ultimately pleasing enough and a worthy purchase for fans.

The audio track is of the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 variety. It is certainly a loud tack; prepare yourself for explosive blast of gunfire, shattering glass, screams, crashes, and other such noises. Dialogue is mostly clear, but on occasion some of the processed voices, like Malebolgia, are a touch hard to understand. There is not a lot of directionality, but the surrounds are pretty active, throwing you right into the middle of everything. Overall, it is a fitting track for the ever moving video.

Extras.

  • Commentary. The track features director Mark Dippe and effects director Steve Williams with scene-specific commentary, as well as others like creator Todd McFarlane edited into it. It is a good track as they talk about ratings issues, effects creation, and getting banned from the Lucasfilm ranch.
  • The Making of Spawn. This was a SyFy channel behind-the-scenes feature, which is good, but just scratches the surface of the production.
  • Todd McFarlane: Chapter and Verse. This guy is a talker and he rambles too. Still, he is worth listening to. He discusses the adaptation of the film, the animated series, and its place within pop culture.
  • Scene to Storyboard Comparisons. The sketches are cool, but I would have prefered a straight art gallery here.
  • Original Todd McFarlane Sketches. A few old art pieces; I love his work.
  • Spawn Concept/Sketch Galleries. A whole bunch of sketches and color artwork.
  • Music Videos. Filter/The Crystal Method – “Trip Like I Do” and Marilyn Manson/Sneaker Pimps – “Long Hard Road Out of Hell.”
  • Trailer.

Bottomline. Far from perfect, but perfectly entertaining. This is a fun, if simplified take on the complex comic book character. It is certainly different from most other heroes. It features strong comic work from John Leguizamo and an understated performance from Michael Jai White. This is certainly worth checking out on a lonely night.

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