Look, I'm not going to lie to you. Some movies are bad.
The question with bad movies often becomes, “What type of bad are they?” There are bad serious movies, which can lack the nuance, understanding, and ability to deliver on their promises fully. There are bad movies, period, which somehow make two hours pass without a single thing of note occurring.
And there are also the much-ballyhooed movies that are “so bad they’re good,” the type made famous by Mystery Science Theater 3000 and countless midnight movies. These types of movies, their fans will rave, have to be seen to be believed.
Spawn, the Mark A.Z. Dippé’s 1997 movie, has to be seen to be believed. Here’s why you should watch Spawn, now streaming on HBO Max.
Spawn is not a good movie, but it is a movie that is hard to forget — a reminder of how genuinely bizarre superhero movies were before they became the most popular movies in the world. This is, for the most part, a compliment to modern movies. You wouldn’t want a world where every movie is Spawn, but it’s easy to be thankful for a world where Spawn exists.
Spawn, the character from Hell, started in the mind of a 16-year old Todd McFarlane, the Canadian cartoonist who would become a whiz kid for both Marvel and DC barely out of college in the late ‘80s. He quickly made a name for himself on Amazing Spider-Man, where he helped develop the now-popular Eddie Brock, better known as Venom.
After a page where Juggernaut got stabbed through the eye with a sword got censored, McFarlane made a decision that would change comics in the ‘90s: With several other spurned Marvel creators, he helped form Image Comics, intending to transfer more control to artists. To start things off with a bang, one of the first releases would be Spawn.
Spawn is from Hell, but before that, he was Al Simmons. Sent to Hell after being a CIA agent, he comes back to Earth after making a deal with the devil Malebolgia to come back for his wife, Wanda. Upon his return, he is accompanied by a gross demonic bodyguard of sorts, called the Violator.
Spawn became a hit, and Hollywood came calling. For McFarlane, what mattered most was keeping his artistic vision. With assurances from the studio New Line Cinema, he recruited a top team of special effects artists from around the industry to help bring his vision to life. That includes Dippé, who was a veteran of George Lucas’ famed Industrial Light & Magic.
The set of Spawn, by all accounts, appeared to be a creator’s paradise. Visual effects supervisor Stephen Williams, who had worked on Jabba the Hut with ILM, told the LA Times in 1997 that with Spawn, he could “finally stick my digital actors in a play that I do like. We have control of the stage and shape it every step of the way.”
All of that control ended up being a mess. Spawn, which became the first black superhero movie adapted from a comic book (beating Blade by a year), does indeed have incredible effects. While Michael Jai White is stoic and cool as Simmons, he absolutely gets out-shined by John Leguizamo, whose Violater is genuinely the stuff of nightmares.
The plot of Spawn, which loosely revolves around stopping bioweapons and the Apocalypse, doesn’t really matter. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, the movie is “best seen as an experimental art film,” one where the story is “simply an excuse” to see what the team could do.
For both Jai White and Leguizamo, that meant long hours in makeup and sweltering bodysuits. Leguizamo’s transformation into the unnerving Violator was “truly grueling.” He would later tell the AV Club:
I had blisters on my face—blisters, calluses on my neck. Oh, it was brutal...I had giant contacts and fake, giant teeth. I had a prosthetic head. My whole face was covered up to my eyeballs. It would become too much, and they didn’t have a great cooling system back then. So I was sweating up a storm. You would see water leaking out of my costume, and I wasn’t urinating. That’s just how much sweat was coming out. It was like a human condom. It was like wearing a human condom.
This is the reason to watch Spawn — as horrible as it was for Leguizamo, it is a truly unpleasant experience for the viewer in the best way possible. Given free range by Dippé, there’s also a comedic element in his character, like when he suddenly breaks into a Jimmy Stewart impersonation.
Jai White tries his best, and the special effects surrounding Spawn’s transforming cape are pretty cool. But don’t come to Spawn expecting something great — rather, come expecting to see a visual language that is entirely its own. It didn’t earn enough for a sequel, but the stakes for the remake are certainly high.
Spawn is now streaming on HBO Max.