Todd McFarlane and a group of fellow comic creators with lofty ambitions launched their own independent publishing company, Image Comics. Their new venture was an instant success, due in no part to the high sales of McFarlane’s brand new series depicting a darker breed of superhero – Spawn.
The debut issue of Spawn sold 1.7 million and the series remained a top-seller throughout the ’90s, competing with – and regularly beating – stiff competition from Marvel and DC’s latest titles. The series told the story of Al Simmons, a government assassin viciously murdered by his own employers, who returns from the grave as a demonic anti-hero. But his soul belongs to the Underworld after he reluctantly agrees to lead their army against the forces of good.
It was only natural that Hollywood studios would show interest in releasing a movie. New Line Cinema eventually acquired the rights and a live-action movie was released in 1997, directed by special effects artist Mark A.Z. Dippé and starring Michael Jai White. People… did not like it.
Spawn might not be the best adaptation it could have been, but here we are 20 years later and the film is far from forgotten. With the comics still going strong, the film’s latest milestone anniversary and a long-awaited reboot finally happening, Spawn is relevant again.
Is Spawn a good flick? No way. Is it a fun? Very much so. Therefore, to celebrate its anniversary, here are 15 Shocking Things You Never Knew About The Disastrous Spawn Movie.
15. MICHAEL JAI WHITE WASN’T THE ORIGINAL CHOICE TO STAR
Say whatever you want about the quality of Spawn as an adaptation, but Michael Jai White is one of the greatest unsung action stars on the planet and it’s hard to imagine the movie without him as its lead star. That said, he had to beat off some stiff competition to land the gig.
Before Jai White was cast as the shadowy crusader, a “who’s who” of popular ‘90s African American actors were considered, including Wesley Snipes, Cuba Gooding Jr., Snoop Dogg, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Ving Rhames, LL Cool J, and Will Smith. Suffice it to say, their careers turned out just fine by missing out.
If Spawn turned out better, maybe Jai White would have gone on to become the blockbuster leading man he deserves to be. But at least he’ll always have the cult classic Black Dynamite to his name, and that’s a great legacy to have.
14. IT COST $40 MILLION TO MAKE
By today’s standards, $40 million is pocket change compared to the budgets for most superhero movies, but it was double of what Spawn’s was originally supposed to be. When New Line Cinema green-lit Dippé’s movie, they did so with a $20 million budget in mind. However, the scale of the special effects demanded some extra funds.
Approximately one-third of the film’s production budget was spent on special effects, which were handled by 22 different companies and took nearly a year to complete. Sure, some of the scenes are reminiscent of PlayStation 1 cut-scene graphics, but you can’t fault the film for trying.
It isn’t all bad, though. In fact, while some of the special effects are very poor and dated by today’s standards, Spawn’s costume and the demonic transformation scenes hold up pretty well.
13. TWO CHARACTERS FROM THE COMICS WERE ALTERED
Filmmakers taking liberties with the source material is nothing new in comic book adaptations, and Spawn was no different. In this instance, the primary differences revolve around race and gender.
The first notable change from the comics pertains to Al’s best friend, Terry Fitzgerald. In the film, he’s portrayed by white actor D.B. Sweeney, whereas in the comics the character is African American. The next significant alteration relates to Simmons’ assassin. In the comics, he is murdered by Chapel from Rob Liefeld’s Image series, Youngblood. However, the film introduces a brand new assailant in the form of Jessica Priest.
The reason for the gender swap was to avoid paying licensing fees for the rights to Chapel, but Priest ended up becoming ingrained in the Spawn mythology afterwards as McFarlane retconned the origin story to make her Simmons’ killer after all.
12. TIM BURTON AND ALEX PROYAS WERE RUMORED TO DIRECT AT ONE POINT
While Spawn will never be as revered as Burton’s Batman flicks or Proyas’ The Crow, the film’s gloomy urban cityscapes and Gothic sensibilities are stylistically reminiscent of those movies to an extent. Therefore, it isn’t too far-fetched to imagine the aforementioned directors being approached to helm the project. According to the pop culture grapevine, the opportunity presented itself to both men, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Allegedly, Burton was approached following the success of his movies featuring the Dark Knight, but he was unable to fully commit to the movie at the time, while Alex Proyas dropped out to work on his sci-fi noir mystery, Dark City.
The ‘90s was arguably the peak decade for both filmmakers, so perhaps under the supervision of either Spawn would have turned out to be the adaptation the popular source material deserved. We can only sit back and wonder now.
11. COLUMBIA PICTURES WANTED TO ADAPT IT FIRST
If the history of the Spawn franchise has taught us anything, it’s that McFarlane is attached to his grotesque creation. The recently announced reboot has been 20 years in the making because he refused to compromise his creative vision with producers, and he wasn’t too willing to negotiate the first time, either.
When the comic was at the height of its popularity, Columbia Pictures was interested in purchasing the film rights. But their vision didn’t correspond with McFarlane’s, so he sold the rights to New Line for (supposedly) $1 dollar and a percentage of the merchandising.
10. A SEQUEL WAS ORIGINALLY PLANNED
Spawn ended with continuation in mind, with Simmons having harnessed his newfound demonic powers and ready to conquer the forces of hell in their CG-enhanced demonic swarms. It was very much an origins story, but despite promises from cast and crew for years afterwards, the sequel never came.
Back in 2001, Jai White told IGN that Sony had purchased the rights and a more faithful adaptation of the comics was in the works. He also revealed that he would reprise the role of the scorched crusader. “[T]hey’re thinkin’ they’ll make the movie SERIOUS, like horror/action; very much like the comic book. And that’s the way you do it.”
9. IT WAS NICOL WILLIAMSON’S FINAL ACTING ROLE
Nicol Williamson – the Scottish character actor who starred in classics like Excalibur, Hamlet, and Return to Oz – was considered by peers and critics as one of the finest talents of his generation when he rose to prominence during the ‘60s and ‘70s. John Osborne once described him as, “the greatest actor since Marlon Brando.’’ It’s just a shame that his final performance wasn’t a swan song befitting of his talents.
In the film, he plays Cogliostro – a homeless man who knows more about Spawn and his powers than the titular character himself. The character was first introduced to Spawn lore by Neil Gaiman in 1993, but he is arguably more synonymous with the lawsuit between Gaiman and McFarlane over rights than he is for Williamson’s portrayal.
8. IT WAS ONE OF TWO SUPERHERO MOVIES RELEASED THAT YEAR ABOUT AN AFRICAN AMERICAN HERO
1997 won’t go down in history as the year for African American superheroes getting iconic screen adaptations, but you can’t fault filmmakers for trying. In addition to Spawn underwhelming disappointing audiences and critics alike, that year also saw DC’s much-maligned Superman spin-off Steel, starring Shaquille O’Neal in one of his earliest acting roles.
Based on the character of the same name, Steel was panned by critics upon release and O’Neal’s performance was widely regarded as one of the worst of the year. If it wasn’t for Kevin Costner taking home the gong for his unfortunate role in The Postman, the basketball player might even have won a Razzie.
7. SCENES WERE CUT FOR A PG-13 THEATRICAL RATING
The Spawn comics are dark, gritty, demonic and violent. That’s what makes them so enjoyable. The film evokes their spirit through its gloomy visuals and the familiar origin story, but the gore and splatter depicted within the pages of the books didn’t find its way to the screen. That blows – a blood and guts fest could really have elevated the film.
The original cut of the movie, however, did contain some edgier moments in regards to violence and naughty words. While it was nothing to write home about or enough to make your stomach churn, it would have been enough to warrant the R rating originally envisioned. Unfortunately, the studio opted to cut those scenes out for the purpose of targeting a younger audience.
6. THERE ARE REFERENCES TO APOCALYPSE NOW
One of the biggest questions Spawn haters often ask about the film is why did Martin Sheen choose to star in such dreck? Sporting an awesome goatee for the ages, he gives a wonderfully hammy performance that’s mostly overlooked when discussing the actor’s work. Maybe that’s for good reason, but it’s great fun to watch regardless.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece, Apocalypse Now, is arguably Sheen’s finest hour as a performer. It earned him some prestigious award nominations, including one for the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year, and a legacy most actors would be proud of.
Spawn acknowledges this with two references to Coppola’s masterpiece. The first references the memorable “asphalt’‘ line, whereas the second name drops the film when Sheen’s character is ordered by a demonic clown to “start the apocalypse, now.”
5. ROGER EBERT GAVE IT A POSITIVE REVIEW
As previously mentioned, Spawn wasn’t a critical darling. To this day, it holds an 18% score on Rotten Tomatoes, with critical consensus describing it as, “an overbearing, over-violent film that adds little to the comic book adaptation genre.” It is therefore surprising that one of the most respected critics of all-time awarded it three-and-a-half out of four stars.
In his review for the Chicago Times, Roger Ebert described Spawn as an “unforgettable” visual experience and compared it to Metropolis and Blade Runner. While he was critical of the undercooked plot and one-dimensional characters, he did praise it as an “experimental art film” with inventive special effects.
4. JOHN LEGUIZAMO ATE LIVE MAGGOTS
There is a scene in Spawn where Violator, played by John Leguizamo in a wonderfully animated performance, finds some pizza covered in the trash and decides to treat himself to a tasty snack. What you might be surprised to hear, however, is that it’s an example of method acting being taken to gross extremes. Those maggots he was stuffing in his mouth? That actually happened.
In 2014, the actor boasted about his disgusting accomplishment on Twitter, claiming that he did indeed put the maggots in his mouth, though it is worth specifying that he denied swallowing. Thankfully, no maggots were harmed as a result of the actor’s insatiable hunger and dedication to his craft.
3. TODD MCFARLANE HAS A BRIEF CAMEO
Comic creators have a habit of briefly appearing in the film adaptations of their properties. If you scour through every frame of Marvel movies, for example, chances are you’ll see Stan Lee’s warm, wise grandpa face make an appearance. On the subject of Stan Lee, Todd McFarlane wants him to make a cameo in the next Spawn film, so let’s pray to the dark gods that happens. Now, enough about Stan Lee and back to McFarlane.
In a blink and you’ll miss it performance, McFarlane briefly appears in Spawn as one of the vagabonds of Rat City. To this day, it’s the only credit listed to his name as an actor. However, given that he’s writing, directing, and producing the upcoming reboot, maybe he’ll take on another job and appear on screen in some capacity.
2. WILLIAMSON REFUSED TO GROW A BEARD
In the Spawn comics and the animated television series, Cogliostro has a spectacular beard, which suggests wisdom and sound morals. In the film version, he was a cleanly shaven hobo as Nicol Williamson refused to grow a beard or wear a fake one.
Interestingly the late Richard Harris – who played Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – was originally offered the role, but it didn’t work out. That’s a shame, as we could imagine him as Cogliostro. In addition to being a great actor, Harris was more than covered in the facial hair department. He could have embodied the role of the old homeless warrior as it was originally written – in all its hairy glory.
1. THE DIRECTOR HATES THE FILM
At the beginning of Spawn’s DVD commentary, director Mark A.Z. Dippé acknowledges that the film is heavily flawed and takes full responsibility for its shortcomings. The track opens with him saying, “You can blame it all on me.” We’ve all heard that artist’s are their own worse critics, and most directors have things they’d change about their films if they could go back. But Dippé doesn’t give his debut feature-length any credit whatsoever.
It is unfortunate that Dippé career was relegated to direct-to-video fare afterwards because despite Spawn’s numerous flaws, it is an ambitious effort that’s not nearly as bad as critics – or himself – made it out to be. Here we are 20 years later, and it’s still a topical film with an appreciative cult following.
That’s better than having a film to your name that ends up forgotten, so maybe Dippé – and others – can appreciate Spawn’s bizarre legacy.
Where do you stand on the Spawn movie? Let us know in the comments below.
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