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Guilty Pleasures: Spawn 

When? 1997

What's it rated? PG-13 (theatrical release), R (director's cut)

Where's it available? Hulu, DVD

Some of you may be too young to remember this, but there was once a time when not every comic book movie was a smash hit. In fact, in those dark days most attempts to translate comic-book heroes to the big screen produced disappointing flops.

It is in this era that we got a movie adaptation of artist Todd McFarlane's stylish and ultra-violent 1990s comic Spawn. The film, which debuted to much fanfare in 1997, was released at the height of the comic's popularity, and sadly, well before Hollywood landed on the successful formula to translate popular comic books to the big screen.

The plot of the Spawn film hews closely to that of the comics, and tells the story of highly skilled, government-trained Special Forces assassin Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) who is betrayed and killed by his boss, Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen). Simmons finds himself in hell, where he strikes a deal with the powerful demon Malebolgia to return to Earth with supernatural powers and a cool-looking costume to seek revenge. In return, Simmons, now called Spawn, agrees to lead Malebolgia's demon armies in an apocalyptic war against heaven.

As in all deals with the devil, Spawn gets more than he bargained for. He wakes up with his demonic powers, but no memory of his previous life and he's horribly disfigured to boot. The movie follows Spawn's attempt to recover his memory, kill Wynn, and win back his wife, Wanda (the late Theresa Randle)—all while two supernatural sidekicks, a reformed Spawn Coglisotro (Nicol Williamson) and a murderous demon in the shape of a fat clown named the Violator (John Leguizamo), fight over the fate of his immortal soul.

Despite all it has going for it (a good cast, cool story, smash hit comic cache), the film Spawn simply failed to live up to its source material. McFarlane's comic mixed dark, gory, and gritty themes with colorful and dynamic images that exploded off the pages of the comic book. The movie failed to capture that energy, and in its theatrical release, toned down some of the violence and other elements to get a PG-13 rating. HBO's animated Spawn series did a far better job and is the superior adaption of the two. To its credit, the film does have decent acting, and its special effects (Leguizamo's makeup specifically) and computer-generated graphics still hold up pretty well for being such an old film.

Also, there are hints of what was to come for comic book movies in Spawn. It was one of the first big-budget comic book adaptations to feature a black main character, paving the way for the much more successful Black Panther more than 20 years later. While the theatrical release was rated PG-13, the director's cut of the movie was rated R, and showed that there was, and would be, an adult audience for R-rated comic book movies like the more recent Deadpool franchise.

There has been news that a new Spawn movie with a 2019 release date is in the works, starring Jamie Foxx in the titular role. In a post-Avengers world, maybe the comic book will finally get the cinematic treatment is truly deserves, but Spawn wasn't and will never be your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, and maybe his best look should remain in the pages of McFarlane's comics instead of the silver screen. (96 min.) Δ

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