I have, of late, become embarrassed to admit I’m a comic-book fan. Not that there’s anything wrong with comics, it’s just that the movies made from them keep getting worse. Sure, I fight the good fight, defending graphic storytelling against those who would use ”comic-book” as a blanket adjective to describe all that’s wrong in Hollywood filmmaking. Then Judge Dredd, The Phantom, and Batman & Robin put me up against the ropes. Finally, like a shot to the groin, along came Spawn, and down I went.
The vision of market-savvy writer-artist Todd McFarlane, a live-action Spawn—which he executive-produced—was highly anticipated. A renegade in the comic industry, McFarlane broke from Marvel Comics in 1992 to found his own company, Image Comics, and went on to outsell chapters of Batman, Amazing Spider-Man, and X-Men. With Spawn‘s big-screen debut, he had the chance to prove that he could create a better brand of superhero movie, too.
The ingredients for success were there. McFarlane’s antihero was created to be all things to all teens: a black (to get the urban market) CIA assassin (good guys are boring) who gets killed by his greedy boss, sent to hell (hey, kids, hell!), returned burn-scarred (insecure about your looks?) and hungry for vengeance (wanna get even?). He’s armed with pseudo-magic armor (Dungeons & Dragons geeks’ll dig it), lots of guns (of course!), and a handy imperviousness to injury (all teens like to think they’re invincible). In short, Spawn kicks a lot of ass in an endless search for self. Sounds unbeatably simple, right?
Well, it is simple. And for the past five years, McFarlane has compensated by making the comic’s artwork the rich tapestry that the plots sorely lacked. Beautifully colored and insanely detailed, Spawn‘s visuals sweep readers through the skimpy stories. Stuck with that skeletal premise for the movie, though, director Mark A.Z. Dippé used everything in his arsenal to try to distract you: actors (Martin Sheen, as the villainous Jason Wynn; John Leguizamo, as the Joker-like Clown) willing to go way over the top, a mind-splintering techno soundtrack, and computer effects that sadly sacrifice quality for quantity, never once making you think a superhero saga is spooling out before your eyes. Instead of being a paean to tortured youth—like the much-better-but-still-not-that-good The Crow—Spawn is just a garish failure, and the F/X-heavy extra footage the R-rated director’s cut offers doesn’t help.
Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, a collection of HBO’s six-episode animated series, comes a bit closer to capturing the comic’s elusive vibe. Working in the style of for-adults-only Japanese animation—supervised, ironically, by Batman: The Animated Series vet Eric Radomski—and taking advantage of Keith David’s powerhouse of a voice, some scenes give you the cartoon continuity McFarlane must have had in his head all along. The series’ leisurely pace allows you to become entranced by the mood, too, as you wait forever for the anemic plots to thicken. I still like comic books, and deep down, I really want to be captivated by the good guy in the cape. And when the powers that be remember that a comic-book flick needs to have as much integrity as any other, I’ll be the first guy on line to see it, wearing my Green Lantern Underoos with pride. Spawn: D Todd McFarlane’s Spawn: C