It’s no coincidence that Spawn’s reboot film was thrust into development again during the same year that superheroes across comics and film adaptations struggled to redefine good vs. evil. The grey area between is where Spawn has always been most comfortable.
In Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, no one character was undeniably in the right. Perhaps Steve Rogers, for all his good intentions, acted selfishly because of his love for Bucky. Perhaps Iron Man was too quick to compromise for government oversight.
Batman and Superman fought each other for strange reasons, and DC laughed all the way to the bank telling a story about its group of ragtag villains in Suicide Squad, which was billed as a film about the “worst heroes ever.”
Todd McFarlane — the comics artist who famously defected from Marvel to co-found revolutionary Image Comics — has been open recently about his efforts to direct a new movie based on Spawn, a “superhero” powered by the forces of hell. Aiming to be low budget and rated R, McFarlane wants folks “spooked” by his superhero film. Spawn has always inspired horror fans moreso than fans of the Golden or Silver age heroes from DC and Marvel. A 2014 fan film, Spawn: The Recall, looked like it had similar goals to McFarlane’s project, which he says won’t appeal to fans of Captain America.
McFarlane released Spawn #1 in 1992, and it remains one of the highest-selling independent comics of all time. It’s also one of the most famous examples of the over-exaggerated “anti-hero” archetypes from ‘90s comics. But what really allowed Al Simmons — a decorated Special Forces soldier who makes a deal with the devil to “live” past death — to stand above his contemporaries was that Spawn hovered exclusively over the tightrope of right and wrong. At the very least, superheroes are questionably fascist with no authority as vigilantes, and Spawn brought brimstone and hellfire to the debate.
More than 20 years worth of Spawn comics deal with such stories, but just the first volume brings Spawn’s vengeance, distilled to its essence, as the character’s thesis. In Spawn #5, Spawn brings “justice” to child molester Billy Kincaid, hanging him up by chains and stabbed by popsicle sticks (Kincaid lured children as an ice cream man).
Coming off the heels of an era obsessed with dark, masculine heroes in bleak stories, Spawn #5 is dreadfully uninspired but still remains what ambiguity looks like to superheroes favored by the coveted young male audience. For all its revolution, Spawn is one of the comics ComicsAlliance wrote as drawing readers in, and compelling them go elsewhere for better things. (But oh man, that HBO series was fucking awesome.)
In the field of ambiguous superheroes, Black Widow, the Russian spy Natasha Romanova (Romanoff in the films), is perhaps the most compelling character as a spectre of Cold War era spy fiction and one of the rare female superheroes who kills, or has killed. Compared to Spawn, Black Widow’s stories have been more grounded in personal vendettas borne from her assassinations. But in that regard, Black Widow also isn’t exactly a superhero either, just like Spawn. And despite appearances in five movies — four more than Spawn! — and the legitimate star power in Scarlett Johansson, Disney doesn’t look eager to get Black Widow produced anytime soon.
So perhaps it’s up to Spawn to save the day. And he’s got a lot to atone for.