The Beat’s Greg-Gory Pall Thrillber is a connoisseur of the dark arts who has been accused of… several crimes against God and nature. Each week in Silber Bullets, he takes a terrifying look at the spookiest, scariest, and most blood-curdling bits of suspense and horror that he refuses to let out of his head.
The 1997 Spawn film belongs more to the nascent (for film, at least) superhero genre than horror, but with a spooky aesthetic and a plot concerning a man seeking vengeance for his murder after being reborn as a hellish crusader imbued with satanic powers, it’s certainly Halloween-y enough to qualify for a Silber Bullets deep dive. That doesn’t mean I expected it to be good, though, and since I can’t watch bad movies alone, I brought along my friend Zack Quaintance, the founder of Comics Bookcase and a fellow member of the DC Roundup crew here at The Beat.
If you want to see what we’re talking about for yourself, Spawn is currently streaming on HBO Max. (You can subscribe to HBO Max at this link. Note this is an affiliate link and The Beat may receive a small commission if you subscribe). Directed by Mark A.Z. Dippé and based on the comic of the same name by Todd McFarlane, it’s not a movie I’d recommend, but like so many superhero movies of a certain era, it is a weirdly fascinating one.
Gregory Paul Silber: Hey Zack, thanks for joining me for this special edition of Silber Linings I’m calling SILBER BULLETS, with a different piece of spooky content every week in October. Should we explain to the fine readers how this chat about the 1997 live-action Spawn film came to be?
Zack Quaintance: Hey Greg! Thanks for having me, and yes, I think we should, a little mystery is nice but Spawn has so rarely been the place for nuance.
Silber: Well, there’s a new line of Spawn spinoffs coming out in comic shops as the character nears his 30th anniversary, and if I recall correctly, I think it was your idea to have me and The Beat‘s managing editor Joe Grunenwald do a roundup about those latest comics, even though neither of us had much familiarity with Spawn. That chat… didn’t go as planned, and as much as I thought it would be hilarious to publish, you and Joe vetoed it, and it’s now lost to time. I needed some spooky content for Silber Bullets, so I asked if you’d be interested in salvaging some Spawn thoughts as we watch the movie. Joe, in his editorial capacity, approved the idea, but politely declined to participate.
Quaintance: Yes, exactly, we are here because Joe is no fun…kidding, Joe! Kind of.
Silber: I mean, part of the problem was that you wanted that Spawn comic chat to be much sillier, and Joe and I mistakenly tried applying real literary and artistic analysis. So it’s my fault too.
Quaintance: I did. I thought irreverence and a bit of cheekiness was called for in discussing Spawn, and when I realized we were going to be applying the same critical lens to these comics that we would to most other books, I rapidly lost interest.
Silber: Well it’s also kind of your fault for not being clear enough about the tone you wanted. But we’re not here to relitigate the past! Although I guess we kind of are, because the Spawn movie came out almost 25 years ago. Zack, what’s your background with this film? Have you seen it before? I know you’ve read a little more Spawn than me, whereas the only one I read before this year’s Spawn’s Universe and King Spawn was Spawn/Batman by Frank Miller and Spawn creator Todd McFarlane from 1994.
Quaintance: So, I saw this movie in theaters at an age when my friend’s mom had to drop me and my buddy off at the show, which at the time I thought was a cool thing but I now realize was likely her way of not having to watch this movie. Aside from lighting that would have been right at home at a Rob Zombie concert, my only memory of it is two teenaged Spawn fans walking out, and overhearing one remarking defeatedly to the other that “it was very untrue to the comic.”
Silber: Well, it’s funny you mention that, because director Mark A. Z. Dippé did go on to direct three other movies based on comics: a trio of direct-to-dvd Garfield films written by Garfield creator Jim Davis himself.
Quaintance: Wow, Spawn and Garfield on the same resume. I know he already has two initials in there, but Mark Dippé should add versatile as a third middle name.
Silber: I’m excited to find out what Jim Davis saw in this Spawn movie that convinced him to bring Dippe into the Paws Inc. fold. Before we do, anything else you’d like to add?
Quaintance: Just that I have my nacho cheese Doritos, Diet Mountain Dew, and angsty attitude here with me as if it were 1997. Ready to go!
Silber: Oh hell yeah. It is on like Spawn! Okay so right off the bat, I notice that HBO Max says this is rated PG-13. That seems wrong. The comics are very R-rated. The comics that I read, at least.
Quaintance: Yeah, and actually I think Todd McFarlane has said one of the sticking points for a new Spawn movie is that he wants an R-rated film but the studios or whoever want PG-13.
Silber: That seems reasonable on Todd’s part.
Quaintance: I would guess he learned from his experience with this one? I suppose we shall see… Also, we’re 3 minutes in and this is both better and lamer looking than I expected all at once somehow.
Silber: It’s definitely lame-looking to me, especially the effects, so I’m curious which aspects seem better to you.
Quaintance: I guess the little bit of computer animation with the night vision POV shot there. Like, I’m definitely not impressed but somebody spent money on that. HOLY cow, this techno beat.
Silber: The soundtrack is an interesting mix of rock musicians collaborating with electronic artists. Kind of like what Judgement Night did some years earlier, with rock and metal bands collabbing with rappers. I know guitarists Kirk Hammett and Tom Morello are on this soundtrack somewhere, but I couldn’t tell you about the techno offhand. Not my genre. Anyway, these title credits. So cheesy.
Quaintance: So cheesy. The lightning strikes really elevated the cheese.
Silber: Man, Martin Sheen is too good for this movie.
Quaintance: John Leguizamo as well, really.
Silber: I read a quote from Michael Jai White, who plays Spawn, that he “never claimed to like Spawn.”
Quaintance: The ending of that scene was so ridiculous. The shadowy Clown faded into black, like in a cubicle where someone had a regular desk and everything.
Silber: It’s a poorly edited movie, on top of everything else so far.
Quaintance: I didn’t follow the Academy Awards closely at the time, but I would guess it was not up for anything, even the technical categories.
Silber: See, the movie I associate Michael Jai White with is Black Dynamite, which he’s amazing in. He’s also hilarious, so it would be great watching him be a more straightforward badass in this if the movie surrounding him was better.
Quaintance: Yeah, this is really not the best showcase for anyone here.
Silber: But by god they’re trying, even if the script isn’t. Even these sound effects are cheesy. Every time someone gets punched I have to giggle. Like, there might as well be Batman ’66-style “pow! Bang!”
Quaintance: It’s kind of a good reminder how utterly spoiled we’ve become with sci-fi, superhero, fantasy special effects of late.
Silber: We really have been. I don’t think a studio would let something like this he released today, production quality-wise. Like, there are certainly still bad genre movies, but the effects are usually passable at least.
Quaintance: There was a time it was sort of par for the course with these kinds of adaptations. The production of this movie is pretty close to the first Mortal Kombat film, which I also recently rewatched around the time the new one came out.
Silber: Oh man, I loved that movie as a kid but I’m afraid to revisit.
Quaintance: It’s fun! If you can get past the cheese.
Silber: Hey I have a question: did this movie scare you as a kid? Spawn’s makeup is pretty creepy. And it has that whole “hell” vibe.
Quaintance: It did! There were quite a few rainy dark grit movies back then that really frightened me. And this was one of them.
Silber: John Leguizamo’s evil Clown alone!
Quaintance: It’s very unsettling. Even now, honestly.
Silber: Yeah, especially now that I’m old enough to know about John Wayne Gacy. Side note, why would anyone in their right mind hire THIS clown for their kid’s birthday.
Quaintance: He had a whiskey in the last scene! Like, in a cocktail glass while he was performing for the children.
Silber: Not to mention the sharp teeth!
Quaintance: All of these things are big red flags that you’ve hired an evil clown.
Silber: Once when I was like 7 my parents hired a clown for my little brother’s birthday party and I dropped water balloons on him from the balcony. I still feel bad about that. This has nothing to do with the movie, I just felt now was a good time to confess that, I guess.
Quaintance: Hey buddy, it was a long time ago and you were just a kid. Also, in the spirit of childhood confessions, I should note that my fear of these sort of dark scenes dates back to when I saw Back to the Future Part II and the evil Biff-dominated future terrified me.
Silber: Okay but that’s a legit fear that came true when Trump was elected. Worse, we still don’t have those cool hoverboards.
Quaintance: We don’t even seem close. But back to the movie, I think John Leguizamo could have worked well as this villain.
Silber: He REALLY could have. He’s giving his all to this performance and honestly, it works as well as it could.
Quaintance: Exactly. It kind of gets lost in the general shoddiness of the rest of it, but he’s a really convincing maniacal evil clown.
Silber: Leguizamo is a bona fide comic book fan too. I think this film’s poor quality really upset him.
Quaintance: I kind of wish we’d read the first issue of Spawn for comparison sake going into this.
Silber: Same, but to be fair, I assume most audiences in 1997 hadn’t read it. Actually, I don’t know. That was a very good selling comic.
Quaintance: It was! That’s a thing that fascinates me about Spawn. It’s easy in online comics discussion circles to just dismiss it, but it has a sneakily large fanbase as a property, something I became aware of covering the Spawn #300 celebration at NYCC 2019. There was a long line to get in, and the people in it were very excited to be there.
Silber: It seems like a small but sizable community that’s been fans since 1992 and doesn’t really care if it’s no longer hip.
Quaintance: Very loyal fans. The thing about Spawn to me is that it’s not really interested in evolving or changing to fit the times. It just keeps doing 1992, and trying to do 1992 better and better.
Silber: And that’s part of the reason why I’d actually love to see Todd get the opportunity to direct that Spawn movie he’s been trying to make, even if it seems to be in development hell. His passion is undeniable. Unlike Martin Sheen, who has devolved to high school theater quality at this point in the film.
Quaintance: Todd McFarlane can only do things at full speed, total commitment. He doesn’t have a semi-interested or watered down mode.
Silber: Right. I’m not a fan of his work, personally, but you have to admire how hard he works.
Quaintance: There’s an earnestness to it. I’m certainly not a regular Spawn reader, but I can appreciate its place in comics and comics history.
Silber: Yeah, I think earnestness is the word. And while this film doesn’t have the sort of sneering “we’re too smart for this” quality a lot of comic book adaptations have, nobody’s heart seems to be in it.
Quaintance: Not at all. There’s almost a rushed feeling to it? Or maybe they were just aiming for the low bar that most comic book movies hung around at that time.
Silber: Hey I have another question: does Spawn normally use guns in the comics? I know Al Simmons did in his former life, but I thought Spawn mostly used fists and hell magic. Which is much more interesting than this film’s machine guns.
Quaintance: I can’t answer that question. I don’t think so? But also I know I’ve seen plenty of imagery where Spawn has a big gun, but that was also true of basically any superhero in the 90s. Even Superman had a gun for a minute.
Silber: Heh, you make an excellent point.
Quaintance: My thought just now though was, oh they’re going with guns in this scene because the cape and chains are more expensive.
Silber: That’s probably the most likely explanation.
Quaintance: I’ll say one thing, this movie is not interested in its female characters. I think Jessica here had three lines, walked around in leather, and then got shot in the head and wheeled away with minimal blood and makeup still intact.
Silber: The portrayal of Spawn’s former wife, Wanda, is even worse. She’s barely a person; just there to be an object of his affection from afar, and motivate him by marrying the best friend that betrayed him.
Quaintance: It’s bad. I have a question. The villains are calling him Spawn, but was there a scene where anyone gave him that name? They just seem to know it.
Silber: I guess Violator just spread the word really quickly? Because I don’t think anyone else had a way of knowing.
Quaintance: There’s a lot of totally bad movie stuff in this. Like that scene just now where Spawn’s daughter was in the gym. There were like 10 basketballs on the floor around her, even though in every traditional version I’m aware of, basketball tends to use just one ball.
Silber: It’s thoughtless and lazy. Also, I know cgi could only do so much in 1997 if you weren’t Steven Spielberg or whoever, but they couldn’t even bother to animate that horrible looking Devil’s mouth as he talked? And I have to say, this movie’s pretty mean spirited at times. The portrayal of the homeless here, for example. Or of the Middle Eastern characters who were merely cannon fodder at the beginning.
Quaintance: It is. I’m worried about the dog…
Silber: That little kid’s name is Zack. Was he your audience identification character?
Quaintance: No! I had a weird thing as a kid where I didn’t like when characters had my same name. I aggressively avoided ever watching Saved By the Bell or the obscure animated film Fern Gully because of this.
Silber: There are very few fictional Gregs for such a common name, so I never had that problem.
Quaintance: To add on to what you were saying earlier, there’s a lot made of the bad guy’s weight too.
Silber: It’s really gross. Literally. And I wish this dog would get out of this fight scene, he’s making me nervous for him.
Quaintance: I want to believe that the time to hurt the dog has now passed.
Silber: I hope you’re right. Can I just add that this movie is really poorly paced on top of everything else? It’s horribly written in general, but it doesn’t seem to have been written with any structure in mind whatsoever.
Quaintance: It feels a little like a rough draft for the way most (if not all) of the early Marvel movies were structured. Not nearly done as well, obviously, but the first 1/3 was an origin, then he started to use his powers a little, and now…well, I don’t really know where we’re at now. I guess he’ll start to triumph soon? I’m a little disengaged, to be totally honest.
Silber: I am too but somehow there’s another 30 minutes left of this thing.
Quaintance: It’s a very long 90 minute movie. I don’t really know who the true bad guy here is either. There’s a whole lot of them. Obviously, evil monster clown is evil. But then there’s that bad CGI devil, Martin Sheen, Spawn’s old best friend…it’s a lot.
Silber: Spawn himself isn’t very likable either.
Quaintance: Oh look! They’re addressing our guns question.
Silber: Did they? I was spacing out.
Quaintance: This mentor figure is explaining to him that guns are no good, and his armor – which he notes has “trillions of neuro-connections” – is the way to fight.
Silber: Gotcha. Side note, I just found out that mentor figure is a Neil Gaiman co-creation.
Quaintance: There was that time when Spawn was making so much money that they paid Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison to all write some Spawn.
Silber: It’s wild. I’d be interested in reading those issues, although I’m sure they’re not the best work by any of those great writers. And Gaiman ended up winning a lawsuit against McFarlane over the use of the character Angela, who weirdly became a Marvel character as a result.
Quaintance: I remember that, although I’d be lying if I said I understood it.
Silber: I love this movie’s version of Zoom. No lag at all, in 1997.
Quaintance: Truly ahead of its time. They would have really been prescient if someone in that scene had been muted.
Silber: I’m just now realizing: I think John Leguizamo was trying to do an evil version of Robin Williams’ Genie from the Disney Aladdin movie. Weird impressions out of nowhere, bouncing around from silly voice to silly voice.
Quaintance: I could see that. Same kind of madcap energy. Also, of course they fridged Spawn’s wife.
Silber: This movie is both boring and exhausting.
Quaintance: The writing is ROUGH. They have now used the phrases “feel the burn” and “no guts no glory.”
Silber: I don’t think Todd McFarlane is a good writer but even he would write this better. Hey, you know who actually liked this movie? Roger Ebert.
Quaintance: No kidding? What did he say?
Silber: “As a visual experience, Spawn is unforgettable”. Three and a half stars! This climactic battle in hell is certainly visually distinct… but I don’t think that means it’s good.
Quaintance: The effects may have been strong at the time, certainly less commonplace.
Silber: I don’t know… I always think back to how good Jurassic Park’s effects still look, including the early 90s CGI. This must have looked dated the moment the PlayStation 2 came out.
Quaintance: I can’t impugn the work of Roger Ebert, even in this instance. Have to stretch a little to see where he’s coming from.
Silber: I hear ya. If I saw this in 1997 (as an adult, at least, since I was 6 at the time) I’d likely feel different.
Quaintance: Greg, my friend, we certainly watched Spawn just now.
Silber: We sure did. How did this compare to your childhood memory of it?
Quaintance: I guess about the same? I don’t have much of a memory to compare it to, and I’m at home, so I don’t have any grumbling fans to overhear on my way out.
Silber: It’s comforting to know that superhero movies, and perhaps genre films in general, are by and large much better now.
Quaintance: So much better. I’m kind of rooting for them to figure out how to get an updated Spawn movie made now, just to see what would come of it compared to this.
Silber: Yeah, who knows if it’ll ever happen, but I would like to see it. And I know Todd wants it to be more of a horror film than a superhero movie, which intrigues me. Anyway, I’m left feeling weirdly numb. Do you have any final thoughts?
Quaintance: Well, I think it’s kind of an interesting artifact. It somehow predates any major big budget attempt at a movie based on marvel characters, but something you said just now shook it into place for me. I think this movie struggles because it doesn’t go all the way into horror. I mean obviously there’s a lot of shoddiness to how it was made, but the strongest bits were when it goes full on disturbing, like John Leguizamo’s character eating a piece of pizza covered in maggots, which is absolutely horrible and kind of shocking for a PG-13 movie. Does any of that make sense? I just watched 1997’s Spawn and my brain hurts.
Silber: It absolutely made sense. I think we’re two guys who, besides living in 2021, know superhero tropes well enough that by-the-numbers superheroes bore us. If they leaned more into the horror, we might have had something more special. Instead this movie merely gestures towards horror in its aesthetics.
Quaintance: That’s it for me, though. This sure was a thing we did.
Silber: Maybe we’ll fare better with that Garfield movie. In the meantime I just want to sleep and dream of a future where Todd gets to make his movie. Thanks for joining me Zack. Have a hell of a great night!
Quaintance: I can’t believe we just now had our first hell pun, but yes, thanks for asking me to be part of this! Let’s make sure we watch that Garfield movie on a Monday…
[One week later…]
Silber: Zack, I think both of us were feeling a little defeated by the end of Spawn (1997). And who – other than Roger Ebert – could blame us? It’s a bad movie, and not even in a particularly fun way. However, after sitting with it for over a week, we may have overlooked the most historically significant aspect of this film. I’m talking, of course, about the fact that Garfield creator and Paws Inc. founder Jim Davis apparently liked Spawn (1997) enough that when he wrote his trilogy of animated direct-to-DVD Garfield films, he entrusted none other than director Mark A. Z. Dippé the helm each epic installment. So let’s try viewing this film from another lens. What do we think Jim Davis liked about Spawn?
Quaintance: My initial reaction is to google the box office haul.
Silber: What’s the damage? My assumption would be that Spawn bombed but I could be wrong.
Quaintance: Okay, so I did that and not to be cynical but I think maybe this is the answer… “grossing $87.9 million worldwide against a production budget between $40–45 million.”
Silber: That’s not bad actually! It more than made back its budget.
Quaintance: But that’s not a fun answer…if we’re going to be cheeky about this, I might suggest that the movie — seemingly against all odds, given what all else happens — does not harm the dog.
Silber: Holy cow, that’s legitimately a great point. I really was worried about this dog. Despite the PG-13 rating, there’s more than enough edgelord sensibilities to have justified those fears.
Quaintance: It’s true, I was worried as well, though I had seen the movie before many years ago and I think I would have remember dog harming, as it’s a thing I very much do not enjoy. That’s my theory, though…for Jim Davis (and the producers he was working with) it was maybe as simple as comics + dog scene = hey!
Silber: Well not to be reductive, but I do think we can agree that Spawn probably hates Mondays too. There doesn’t seem to be much Spawn doesn’t hate, with the possible exception of his wife and daughter.
Quaintance: Chains. Spawn loves chains.
Silber: True. And dramatically flowing CGI capes.
Quaintance: There’s no canonical basis for any of this, but I also submit that spawn enjoys Oakley sunglasses, Mountain Dew (of any variety), and the music of Limp Bizkit.
Silber: Oh almost certainly. And the song “Dragula” by Rob Zombie, which I listened to repeatedly while reading those Spawn comics a few weeks back. Spawn loves digging through the ditches and burning through the witches.
Quaintance: I just involuntarily started head banging.
Silber: SLAM in the back of my DRAG-U-LAAAAAA!! Do we think Spawn likes lasagna?
Quaintance: Maaaaybe. I’m almost more curious, however, whether Garfield likes “Dragula.” Thoughts?
Silber: I don’t think Garfield listens to much music at all actually because John is such a square. But he carries a lot of barely-repressed anger so heavy metal could help him get that aggression in a healthy way.
Quaintance: So we think Garfield WOULD like Dragula.
Quaintance: That seems right. He’s always lashing out at Odie and Nermal.
Silber: Exactly. Anyway, unless you have any other thoughts, I think we’ve taken this about as far as it can reasonably go.
Quaintance: I might argue we have taken it a bit further, but no, I’m all done here.
Silber: In that case, I leave readers with these classic “Dragula” lyrics. Ahem: “Dead I am the rat / Feast upon the cat / Tender is the fur / Dying as you purr.” Have a great night!