Michael Jai White Says What Made Him Proud About 'Spawn'
Michael Jai White didn’t just play one of the first black superheroes in a Hollywood movie. Before Black Panther, White was among the first modern movie superheroes, starring in the 1997 horror-action movie, Spawn, based on Todd McFarlane’s Image Comics anti-hero a few years before the superhero movie boom kicked off.
Although it was a box office hit, grossing $87.8 million atop a budget of $45 million, the movie was doomed to the nether realm by critics. More than 20 years later, while promoting his latest action film, Triple Threat, out now on video-on- demand, White looks back on his major superhero role with mixed feelings.
“To have the distinction of the ‘first black superhero’ is something I’m extremely proud of,” White tells Inverse. “I’m proud to see what the superhero movie has come to. It’s a huge genre now.”
But the film itself left White wanting. Directed by Mark A.Z. Dippé, Spawn holds an abysmal 18 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. “The only people who understood what the hell was going on already knew who Spawn was,” White says. “It suffered for people who didn’t know. I just felt like there was a classic structure that was thrown away.”
White, an actor whose career began in the New York theater scene, is also a martial artist with black belts in Okinawan karate disciplines, including Shōtōkan and Goju-Ryu. It was these skills that allowed White to inhabit the role of boxer Mike Tyson in the 1995 HBO film, Tyson. That role led White to Spawn, where he played decorated US Marine Al Simmons, who is betrayed by his government and returns from hell as a supernatural being.
While filming Spawn, White was fond of the human story of Al Simmons, which he found compelling as a dramatic actor.
“There was a version, early on, that had the story intact: About a man who was in love with his wife, so much so he decided to leave what he had been doing for a living that was questionable to his soul,” he says.
“In the first iteration of the movie, those elements were intact, but the final version, all of the backstory was taken out. You couldn’t even see the life that Al Simmons was trying to get back to. The director crowded the movie with so many special effects that the story got lost. You lose empathy for the main character.”
White admits that upon seeing the final cut of the movie, “I didn’t know what was going on.”
“I was one of the people privy to the first cut of the movie,” he adds. “You never see Al Simmons or Spawn with [his wife] Wanda. You only see her married to his best friend afterward. I just felt, ‘Wow, I didn’t really like that choice.’”
As superhero films have evolved in the two decades since Spawn, White’s film is often forgotten despite being among the first hit films that also wasn’t another Batman movie. It was also one of the rare black superhero blockbusters, alongside the Wesley Snipes vehicle Blade.
“Spawn happened to be black. It didn’t matter at all,” he says. “There were only a handful of superhero movies at the time anyway, and the fact that we had Spawn and Blade, well, we were damn near half the superhero franchise.”
Since Spawn, White has kept a foot in the superhero world, including his roles as Bronze Tiger in The CW series Arrow and as a crime lord in Christopher Nolan’s influential 2008 film The Dark Knight. But he’s also expanded with dramas and comedies, such as Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? films and the TBS spin-off series For Better or Worse.
In 2009, White created his own cinematic hero in Black Dynamite, an action comedy that paid homage to the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s. Shot in 20 days and with a modest budget under $3 million, the film became a cult hit, spawning an animated series on Adult Swim.
White hopes to return to the world of Black Dynamite sooner than any other superhero. “It’s a fun world,” he says. “It’s something I’m very close to. I’m planning on doing something in that world.” He’s also at work at an original horror project, King of Vampires, with Green Book screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, which he describes as a cross between Predator and Blade.
“For folks who love superheroes, I think it’s going to be what we’ve looked for for a long time,” he teases. “Great character and kick-ass action. I daresay it’ll be better than the studios would ever do.”
Until then, White knows what’s in front of him. In his latest film, Triple Threat, White plays a ruthless mercenary hired to assassinate a billionaire Chinese heiress. He co-stars with some of the best action stars today, including Scott Adkins, Tony Jaa, and Iko Uwais, of the cult Indonesian movies, The Raid.
White says he based his role on several real-life people he knows who actually live the lifestyle of soldiers for hire.
“In their view, they’re in the right,” White says. “They have total justification for the things they do. They look at survival of the fittest. Alphas run the world and betas take their place in the pecking order. They’re big-picture thinkers, and that big picture justifies everything.”
When asked if he agrees with that mindset, White is quick to denounce it. “No,” he says, laughing. “In every role you look at, you’re forced to look at life from another perspective. I’ve accepted a great deal lately. I’ve had to try to understand Trump supporters; I’ve had to use every ounce of my being to try to understand. That’s tested my limits.”
With a career that’s lasted two decades, White has become a mentor to this generation’s action stars.
“I feel like the big brother,” he says. “They come to me because I made a living as an actor unlike most of the people in the martial arts world. It feels great to have that in common with people who look up to you. I’m just super happy to be helpful.”
Triple Threat is available now on VOD.