Spawn is a 1997 American superhero horror film based on the comic book character of the same name. Directed and co-written by Mark A.Z. Dippé, the film stars Michael Jai White in the title role, and is one of the first films to feature an African American actor portraying a major comic book superhero.
Spawn depicts the origin story of the title character, beginning with the murder of soldier Al Simmons. He is resurrected as Spawn, the reluctant, demonic leader of Hell’s army. He ultimately refuses to lead the army in the war against Heaven and turns away from evil.
Part of the Spawn franchise.
Special forces agent and black operative Al Simmons is assigned by his superior, Jason Wynn, to infiltrate a biochemical weapons plant in North Korea, despite Simmons’ growing moral qualms with the nature of his work. Unknown to Simmons, Wynn has ordered his top assassin Jessica Priest to murder him while he is on the mission. After Simmons dies, he is set on fire by Wynn and the flames cause the plant to explode. Simmons arrives in Hell, where one of the rulers of Hell – Malebolgia – offers him a Faustian deal: if Simmons becomes his eternal servant and leader of his army in Armageddon, he will be able to return to Earth to see his fiancée, Wanda Blake. Simmons accepts the offer and returns to Earth.
Upon his return, Simmons learns that five years have passed since his death. Wanda is now married to his best friend Terry Fitzgerald, who is living as the father to Al’s daughter Cyan. Soon Simmons encounters a clown-like demon named Violator, sent by Malebolgia, who acts as Simmons’s guide down the path to evil. He also meets and befriends a young homeless boy named Zack and a mysterious old man named Cogliostro, a fellow Hellspawn, who has successfully freed his soul and now fights for Heaven. Simmons learns that Wynn, who is now a weapons dealer, has developed a biological weapon called Heat 16. During a reception, Spawn attacks Wynn, kills Jessica, and escapes with the help of his necroplasm armour.
Following the attack by Simmons, Violator convinces Wynn to have a device attached to his heart that will release Heat 16 worldwide if his vital signs flatline as a deterrent against assassination attempts. However, Malebolgia wants Simmons to kill Wynn and initiate the apocalypse. Spawn confronts Violator, who turns into his demonic form and beats Al down. Cogliostro rescues Al and teaches him how to use his necroplasm armour with Zack. Simmons learns that Violator and Wynn are going to kill Terry, Cyan, and Wanda.
Terry sends an email incriminating Wynn to a fellow newsman. Just as the email is sent, Cyan and Wynn enter the room. Wynn destroys Terry’s computer and takes the family hostage. Spawn, Cogliostro and Zack arrive and nearly kills Wynn, but Al extracts the device from Wynn’s body instead and destroys it. With his plan foiled, Violator sends Spawn and Cogliostro to Hell, where they both battle the demon before subduing him. Spawn is then confronted by Malebolgia, who tells Spawn that he will never lead Hell’s army. Spawn escapes with Cogliostro just before they are overwhelmed by Malebolgia’s forces. Violator, having recovered, follows them. A final battle ensues, ending with Spawn decapitating the demon with his chains. Violator’s head taunts the group and threatens his return before melting and returning to Hell. Wynn is arrested, and Spawn, realizing there is no place for him in Wanda’s world anymore, dedicates himself to justice rather than succumbing to his lust for vengeance and returns to the streets with Cogliostro and Zack.
- Michael Jai White as Albert Simmons/Spawn.
- John Leguizamo as Clown/Violator.
- Martin Sheen as Jason Wynn.
- D. B. Sweeney as Terry Fitzgerald.
- Theresa Randle as Wanda Blake.
- Nicol Williamson as Nicholas Cogliostro.
- Melinda Clarke as Jessica Priest.
- Miko Hughes as Zack.
- Sydni Beaudoin as Cyan Simmons-Fitzgerald.
- Michael Papajohn as Glen.
- Frank Welker as the voice of Malebolgia.
- Todd McFarlane as Bum.
Columbia Pictures showed interest in making a film adaptation of Spawn when the comic book was launched in 1992. Negotiations fell through as Todd McFarlane felt that the studio was not giving him enough creative control He eventually sold the film rights to New Line Cinema for $1 in exchange for creative input and merchandising rights. New Line president Michael DeLuca, a comic book collector himself, expressed interest in having “a character that has as established an audience as Spawn”, while declaring that success hinged on an adaptation that “maintains a PG-13 rating but retains its darkness.”
As visual effects were an important production concern, the film was to be produced by Pull Down Your Pants Pictures, a company formed by former Industrial Light & Magic artists Mark A.Z. Dippé, Clint Goldman, and Steve ‘Spaz’ Williams. Dippé was slated to direct the film, with Goldman as producer, and Williams as second unit director and visual effects supervisor. Dippé and Williams, who at the time was the only one of the three still attached to ILM, called the film opportunity “our ticket out of the company”. The script would be written by Alan B. McElroy, who, along with writing the Spawn comic book, also wrote many episodes of the Todd McFarlane’s Spawn animated series.
Michael Jai White found Al Simmons’ character appealing; he described Spawn as “the most tragic character I’ve encountered in any cinematic production.” He says it was a challenge to make audiences sympathize with a government assassin who comes back from hell. White had endure two to four hours of make-up work, including a full glued-on bodysuit, yellow contact lenses that irritated his eyes, and a mask that restricted his breathing. He said that his long-time experience with martial arts helped him to endure the uncomfortable prosthetics, giving him “strong will and unbreakable concentration.” The makeup for the clown took eight hours to apply at first, but they later got the process down to about four hours. It left him with blisters and callouses on his face and neck. Leguizamo found the heavy prosthetics of his costume for the Clown to be claustrophobic, and the costume lacked any kind of a cooling system so he would sweat excessively. He compared the situation to wearing a full body condom.
Spawn was originally green-lit with a budget of $20 million. The scale of the visual effects led New Line to continually increase the project’s budget, which grew to $40-45 million – a third of which was spent on the effects. The shooting schedule was only 63 days. To cut production time by a week, Goldman lent $1 million to engage John Grower’s Santa Barbara Studios to develop the digitally produced Hell sequences. The visual effects shot count increased from 77 to over 400, created by 22 companies in the US, Canada and Japan, requiring 70 people and nearly 11 months to complete. Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) did most of the work, creating 85 shots at a cost of $8.5 million. More than half of the final effects shots were delivered two weeks before the film’s debut.
The most difficult sequences to render in the film included the Violator, Spawn’s digital cape, and some of Spawn’s transformations. Visual effects supervisor ‘Spaz’ Williams, with his previous experience of creating the T. Rex in Jurassic Park, was responsible for realising the reptilian Violator. Working with KNB EFX Group over several months they created a small 24-inch reference model, as well as a full size 11-foot model for use in some of the practical shots. The small model was cut up and laser scanned, the data was then used by a team at ILM to create a digital armature of the creature, and to paint and give texture to the digital model. Only then could the character be animated, after which the work had to be converted to regular film stock. Further work was needed to integrate the footage with the rest of the scene, such as matching the lighting and grain of the other footage. The final shot of The Violator was delivered on 21 July 1997. A team at ILM supervised by Christopher Hery and Habib Zargarpour modelled, animated and rendered realistic looking robes, glass elements and a computer generated Spawn. Originally intended as one long shot, the scene was later recut and extended.
Spawn: The Album was released in July 1997 and featured popular rock / metal group of bands at the time including: Metallica, Korn, Slayer, Marilyn Manson, Stabbing Westward, Filter, Soul Coughing and Silverchair in collaboration with well-known electronica/techno producers such as The Crystal Method, Roni Size, The Prodigy, DJ Greyboy, Atari Teenage Riot, Moby, Orbital and 808 State. A similar concept was previously implemented on the rock/hip hop-infused Judgement Night soundtrack. The album debuted at #7 on the US Billboard 200 and stayed on the chart for 25 weeks. The album is certified Gold for selling over 500,000 copies in America.
The US version of the album features different cover art and the bonus track “This Is Not A Dream” by Morphine and Apollo 440. The Australian and Japanese versions, besides the bonus track, feature cover art based on images in Spawn #39 and a marquee of Spawn: In the Demon’s Hand. The Japanese version contains a third disk with three remixes. The McFarlane Collector’s Club made an LP release available to its members, featuring the standard album art and a translucent red vinyl disc. In 2017 a 20th Anniversary edition was released with a translucent blue vinyl disc.
Differences from the Comic
Terry Fitzgerald, Al Simmons’ best friend before his death, is black in the comics. In the film, he is white, portrayed by D.B. Sweeney. Todd McFarlane explained that this change was made by the studio to avoid having too many black leads, as they believed this would give the false impression that film’s target audience was the African American demographic.
In the comics, Al Simmons’ murderer was Chapel, a character created by Rob Liefeld for the comic Youngblood, while Jessica Priest, a character created for the film, took Chapel’s place in the movie.
The original cut of Spawn earned an R-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America resulting in the producers toning down the violence in the film to get a PG-13 rating.
Spawn was released on 01 August 1997. It grossed $19,738,749 that opening weekend, ranking it second behind Air Force One. For its second weekend, the film dropped to number three in the box office, reflecting a decreased earnings of 54.7% and a gross of $8,949,953. The film grossed $54.9 million in the US and Canada and $32.9 million internationally, grossing $87.9 million worldwide against a production budget between $40-45 million.
At the Saturn Awards, Spawn was nominated for Best Make-up. The film was also nominated for three Blockbuster Entertainment Awards for Favorite Male Newcomer (Michael Jai White), Favourite Horror Supporting Actor (John Leguizamo) and Favourite Horror Supporting Actress (Theresa Randle). At the Sitges – Catalan International Film Festival, Spawn was nominated for Best Film; the film was also nominated for & won the Best Special Effects award.
The film was released on VHS on 05 May 1998 in a PG-13 version and an R-rated Director’s Cut version. The Director’s Cut version included 45 minutes of additional footage, a “Making of Spawn” featurette, an interview with Todd MacFarlane, a music video for “(Can’t You) Trip Like I Do” performed by electronica duo The Crystal Method and featuring alternative rock group Filter, and a soundtrack promo. The Director’s Cut version was released on DVD on 09 January 1998 and on Blu-ray on 10 July 2012.
Spawn is one of the first films to feature an African American actor portraying a major comic book superhero. Although preceded by other black superhero films such as The Meteor Man (1993), Spawn was the first to be based on a major comic book. Steel starring NBA basketball player Shaquille O’Neal based on a DC character, was also released later in the same month as Spawn. Writing in 2018, Barry Hertz of The Globe and Mail was critical of the fact that Michael Jai White was barely seen, and his face hidden by a mask or prosthetics. Unlike Blade (1998) which came later and was promoted based on the popularity of action star Wesley Snipes and happened to be based on a comic, Spawn was promoted based on the popularity of the McFarlane comic. Film critic Scott Mendelson says that Spawn and other films not only paved the way for films such as Black Panther (2018) but that success of Black Panther represents a return to the status quo.
A sequel, tentatively titled Spawn 2, has been in development hell since 1998. Producer Don Murphy maintained that he was part of the project in 2001. McFarlane stated that the film would have centred primarily on the detective characters Sam and Twitch, with Spawn only as a background character.
In 2007, McFarlane Funding announced development of a new feature film adaptation of the character, titled Spawn, scheduled for release in 2008. During an interview on the Scott Ferrall show on Sirius radio, McFarlane said: “It’s coming out no matter what. Even if I have to produce, direct and finance it myself, it’s going to come out.”
McFarlane announced on 23 August 2009 that he had begun writing the screenplay for a new movie based on the character, saying that “The story has been in my head for 7 or 8 years”, that “The movie idea is neither a recap or continuation. It is a standalone story that will be R-rated. Creepy and scary”, and that “the tone of this Spawn movie will be for a more older audience. Like the film The Departed.” Michael Jai White said in July 2011 that he was interested in returning to the role, expressing his support for McFarlane’s film. In July 2013, Jamie Foxx said he was “aggressively pursuing” the Spawn reboot. In August 2013, McFarlane discussed his progress with the script, stating that the film would be “more of a horror movie and a thriller movie, not a superhero one”.
In February 2016, McFarlane announced he had completed the film’s script. In July 2017, Blumhouse Productions confirmed their involvement with the film, while announcing that McFarlane had also signed on to direct the project. The movie was expected to begin production by February 2018. In May 2018, it was announced that Jamie Foxx would portray the titular character. In July 2018, it was reported that Jeremy Renner would be starring alongside Foxx as Detective Twitch. On 25 October 2018, the filming start date was delayed to June 2019. The film ended up missing its start date. In November 2019, the film restarted development due to the financial success of the R-rated comic book film Joker. In December 2019, McFarlane hired an additional writer to help polish the script, before presenting it to a major Hollywood studio. In March 2020, McFarlane stated Spawn will go into production sometime in 2020 with the intention for him to direct and Jamie Foxx still attached for the lead role. In May 2020, producer Jason Blum stated that “There has been an enormous amount of activity on Spawn……But, suffice to say, it is a very active development.”
- Spawn was theatrically released on 01 August 1997 to negative reviews and grossed $87.9 million worldwide against a production budget between $40-45 million.
- The film was Williamson’s final film appearance before his death on 16 December 2011.
You can find a full index and overview of the Spawn franchise here.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Mark A.Z. Dippe.
- Producer(s): Clint Goldman.
- Writer(s): Alan B. McElroy and Mark A.Z. Dippe.
- Music: Graeme Revell.
- Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro.
- Editor(s): Rick Shaine, Michael N. Knue, and Todd Busch.
- Production: New Line Cinema and Todd McFarlane Entertainment.
- Release Date: 01 August 1997.
- Running Time: 96 minutes.
- Rating: PG-13.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.