1997 was not a great year for superhero movies: not only did we get Batman & Robin but we also got Spawn and, although the latter was much more interesting and original than the former, it received some pretty rough feedback from critics and audiences alike.
Based on the dark supernatural comic-books, Spawn sees special forces soldier Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) get double-crossed by Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen), the head of the agency who sent him on his latest mission. Simmons is burned alive and left for dead leaving him not only horribly disfigured but undead as a short trip down to Hell dooms him to eventually lead the Devil's army. In retrospect, attempting to tell this story on a $40M budget was somewhat over-ambitious seeing as the film was not only packed with special effects but builds up to a climax set in Hell with Spawn fighting a demon.
Michael Jai White does a solid job as Spawn and it's pretty refreshing to see a film with an African-American superhero made back in the day. Incidentally, Steel also came out the same year, further proof that 1997 was the year of the comic-book movie dud. Casting John Leguizamo as a short, overweight demon Clown was a strange choice and yet he ends up being the best thing about Spawn by far. Leguizamo disappears under a fat suit and tons of make-up and, although the actor was probably uncomfortable throughout, he brings some much needed comic-relief and a cartoonish quality to what would have otherwise been a very grim experience. He steals every scene he's in and the fact he's both a good guy (of sorts) and the main villain makes him unpredictable.
Spawn is not a bad film, it's just unfortunately cluttered with lots of unfinished-looking visual effects which are not shy of popping up constantly. In fact, Spawn's costume is itself the source of countless CGI gadgets from a mask that moves organically to clamps that come out of his chest. He even turns into a motorbike at one point! Using cheap CGI is a decision which destroys an otherwise watchable movie as every time an effect is used it's at best distracting, at worst embarrassing. The climax is an ugly mess of pixelated backgrounds, badly rendered characters and rubbish fire effects and I frankly would not have been surprised if people walked out of the cinema by this point.
You can tell there was a good Spawn movie in there somewhere: good cast, cool practical effects, a simple yet effective story, creative visuals. If only the filmmakers had not opted for CGI that looks like it belongs in an early 90's PC game...
Promising but fatally flawed.