The Devil Wears Spandex

by Monte Williams

29 November 2010


Evil Insight

I also remember a brief note a year or so back on Topless Robot about a company-wide event wherein Al Simmons becomes the Big Bad of the entire Image Universe. Hasty research reveals that the event in question is called Image United, and apparently the series has received poor reviews, and it’s been plagued by publishing delays. Sounds like Image’s glory days.

The first six issues of the Spawn comic book represent only one version of the character’s origin. There is also the Hollywood adaptation, which I recently purchased to watch for the first time in a decade.

Like Heath Ledger’s Joker, Clown is scary because his criticisms of goodness and sanctity are so insightful.

If all one can say of the Spawn comic is that Spawn’s cape looks wicked-keen, all the movie has to recommend it is stylish opening credits. The story is the same: Al Simmons kills people, dies, goes to Hell, wants to see his wife. This time, though, when Simmons wakes five years later as Spawn, Marilyn Manson’s “Long Hard Road out of Hell” plays on the soundtrack. And just as “Long Hard Road out of Hell” is a pale imitation of Danzig’s “Long Way Back from Hell”, Spawn is derivative of any number of better superhero movies: Batman, The Crow, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The script seems to be made up of arbitrary lines of dialogue that could be rearranged with no ill effect. Having encouraged Spawn to let his costume’s powers do his fighting for him, Cogliostro warns Spawn that his powers are finite, and when he drains them, he’ll die. Spawn’s response is to hand Cogliostro his guns and say, “I won’t be needing these.” Cogliostro says, “Now you’re catching on.” If draining your superpowers kills you, I should think that guns are exactly what you need.

Most scenes are stolen—faint praise—by the fat, demonic clown, named Clown in a typical bout of McFarlane literal-mindedness. Clown is occasionally funny, as when Spawn complains that he feels like his skin is about to explode, to which Clown replies, “That’s just your viral necroplasm going through its larval stage. Pretty soon you’re gonna get hair in funny places, and you’re gonna start thinking about girls.”

Alas, Clown also farts and gleefully displays the “skid marks” on his underwear. Indeed, he is mostly a tiresome, idiotic character, and it is a testament to the charisma and comic timing of John Leguizamo that he steals the show with such bad dialogue while buried in make-up that completely obscures his identity.

Spawn calls Clown a “fudge-packing midget” in just one of many instances of homophobia in Spawn’s history. In the animated series, Overtkill dismisses Spawn as a “no-talent asshole in a faggy outfit”, and the special features of the Spawn DVD offer an interview with McFarlane wherein he suggests that Batman is more “kooky” than Spawn because Batman “doesn’t even like girls”. (The special features also include a Sci-Fi Channel documentary filled with nonsensical quotes from McFarlane, such as his assertion that Spawn “has a more intelligent, sophisticated sense about it”, and that it’s “really more sci-fi-ish instead of comic book-ish”.)

I have always wondered about the relevance of Al Simmons’s race. It’s interesting and arguably admirable that McFarlane opted to make his protagonist black, along with the protagonist’s wife and best friend. But when the protagonist’s identity is literally burned away, how much impact can it have? (To be fair, McFarlane has always minimized the impact himself, insisting that he’d never intended Simmons’s race to make any sort of statement.) But apparently Simmons is just black enough to be threatening to producers: not only is Spawn’s black identity obscured by burns in the live-action movie, but Al Simmons’ best friend Terry is now a white man, portrayed by D. B. Sweeney. More than a decade later, Hollywood may still be uncomfortable with black heroes; Wesley Snipes’ Blade is soothingly subhuman, and Will Smith’s Hancock is a f*ck-up.

The cover of the Spawn DVD reads, “The Special Effects Event of the Year”, which is doubly embarrassing in light of how poorly said effects have aged. The Clown make-up is flawless, as is Simmons’ scorched flesh, but Spawn boasts some of the worst CGI I have ever seen. Sadly, Spawn’s cape, such an integral part of the character’s mystique in the comics, is the fakest-looking thing in the movie—not counting every scene set in Hell; Malebolgia looks like a grouchy-voiced monster from an old Crest commercial.

As a film, Spawn doesn’t work as action or comedy, and it certainly isn’t scary. The only terrifying thing on the DVD is McFarlane’s claim that the movie represents “chapter one of about a two hundred-chapter story”. 

This summer, as I first considered revisiting Spawn, I browsed the bookshelves at a Deseret Industries store in Idaho and discovered a lightly battered copy of the novelization of the Spawn film—the irony of procuring a book about a hero from Hell in a Mormon store was not lost on me. The author is Rob MacGregor, and his bio offers a funny double-take moment: “He has written seven Indiana Jones titles, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as well as The Crystal Skull, a novel of adventure and intrigue.”

MacGregor’s adaptation is about as memorable as you’d expect a Spawn novelization to be. Spawn’s mentor Cogliostro narrates a short introduction and only makes brief, sporadic appearances after that, which is unfortunate because he has far more personality than the title character. Cogliostro acknowledges that the reader might dismiss him as “just another hell n’ brimstone preacher” and then, in perhaps the only cute moment in the novel, he says, “allow me to offer my credentials”. His history is more interesting than Spawn’s, too: “I was the Roman soldier who speared the side of a man named Joshua, later called Jesus of Nazareth.”

Cogliostro calls himself “Hell’s first turncoat, a Lucifer to the Dark Lord himself.” Fascinating stuff, but little ever comes of it, because Cogliostro is Spawn’s Supernatural Aid, and a Supernatural Aid cannot be a protagonist, so we are stuck with Spawn.

Al Simmons detects, in the novelization’s opening paragraph, “the faint odor of smoke from a major fire”. That meager bit of foreshadowing is about as literary as Spawn gets.

Here, for example, is an inept description of Clown:

He went by the name Clown, partly because he looked like one—the scary kind of clown from nightmares, a dwarf. He was no more an ordinary man than he was an ordinary dwarf. He even scared himself sometimes.

And here’s a sex scene between Wanda and Al that’s even worse:

She murmured that he was bigger than she remembered him. “Bigger all over,” she whispered after running her hands over and down beyond his flat belly.

Then he filled her desires with his own as they eagerly entwined. She primed his passions and he answered with great ecstatic thrusts, until finally they could wait no longer and threw themselves into wave after wave of gushing rapture.

Inevitably, Al Simmons has a dog, a terrier named Spaz. Simmons affectionately calls the dog Knucklehead, and MacGregor writes, “Simmons grinned like a kid as he rubbed and patted his excited little dog.” This reminded me of the David Cronenberg interview in the eXistenZ graphic novel, wherein Cronenberg criticizes the shallow character development in action films by noting that the viewer will usually see the protagonist play with his dog at the start of the film, so that we know he’s basically a great guy.

Simmons’ boss Jason Wynn is not a great guy. Nor is he original, where villainy is concerned: “Simply put, he wanted to be the most powerful man alive.” And here’s MacGregor on Wynn’s relationship with Clown: “Wynn didn’t like dealing with the insidious demon-dwarf, but he endured it for his own dark reasons.”

Interestingly, the female villain who kills Simmons is called Chapel in the novelization, whereas her name in the movie is Jessica Priest. In the Spawn comic books, Chapel was a bald dude with a skull painted on his face, and he was indeed responsible for the murder of Al Simmons. But Chapel was the creation of Rob Liefeld, for his Youngblood comic book. When McFarlane and Liefeld’s relationship grew strained, McFarlane created Priest the female assassin to replace Chapel in the film; the novelization must have been written during some midpoint when the rift between McFarlane and Liefeld had just started to develop. (Melinda Clarke plays the role of Priest/Chapel in the film, and with her teased hair and exaggerated smirks, she looks and acts like a professional wrestling manager.)

I enjoyed the scene, unique to the novelization, where three punks—called punk-1, punk-2 and punk-3—pour gasoline on Spawn and urinate on him and then toss him into a dumpster. It reminded me of the never-ending series of mustache-twirling street toughs who accosted Bill Bixby’s hapless David Banner through several seasons of The Incredible Hulk.

When Simmons is killed, MacGregor writes, “His scream faded back into the depth of his lost soul.” There’s writing like this on every page, though I’m uncertain as to the extent to which we should hold MacGregor responsible; as a writer-for-hire, it would be difficult to make much of the material provided, in the case of Spawn.

Here’s more: “the demonic gaze of eyes that pierced his heartless carapace like hot coals” and “he screamed, louder than any previous howl, as spikes burst out of the backs of his hands” and “his words flayed Spawn, ripping him apart from inside out” and “the roaring wails of Hell’s hordes pounded in his head” and “Hell hovered close to a sizzling death star that scorched its rugged surface and fried its ghastly condemned inhabitants” and “his red compound eyes flashed with hell-fueled rage and he let loose a loud, unearthly screech that momentarily paralyzed Cogliostro with dread” and, my easy favorite, “Then Simmons wailed in agony as something horrendous and totally unexpected happened.”

Spawn even shouts “Never!” at one point. All we’re missing is for an injured good guy to say “Leave me,” only for the other good guy to refuse to leave anyone behind. I’m frankly shocked that never happened, though Cogliostro does enter a scene by stabbing Clown and then saying, “Mind if I cut in?”

Here’s a brilliant exchange between Spawn and Clown:

“Oh God,” Spawn screamed.

“Did you have to use the G word?”

Spawn dropped his head back and yelled in despair, “Wanda, what have I done?”

Some equally magical banter between Spawn and Chapel:

“Well, it’s a little early for Halloween, Al.”

“Where you’re going, Chapel, everyday is Halloween, but it’s all tricks and no treats.”

Soon after: “She spun around and delivered a swift kick to Spawn’s groin. To her astonishment, a skull emerged from his groin area and its jaw clamped down over her leg.” This scene occurred in the movie as well—this is notable, because MacGregor’s story includes a few scenes that do not appear in the film—but it’s even clumsier when some poor work-for-hire writer has to make it work as prose.
Here’s more from Clown, out to prove that McFarlane’s villains are as subtle in their menace as the Addams Family:

“All right, all right. Enough of the sentimental crap,” Clown said. “Heart lockets and sweetheart pictures. Oh, puke!”

Like Heath Ledger’s Joker, Clown is scary because his criticisms of goodness and sanctity are so insightful:

Clown had power and he certainly was no angel from the heavens. As he figured it, the dark side was the way to get what you wanted fast. Suffering, sacrifice and the pious crap wasn’t for him. The same for peace and love. Sorry, but the weak and meek were never going to rule anything, much less the Earth.

I find Dark Helmet’s speech on the same theme more stirring. From Spaceballs: “Evil will always triumph, because good is dumb.”

As is the case with the Spawn comic books, one need never read between the lines when it comes to the novelization:

Spawn looked up to see Wanda’s entire body growing fuzzy as a dark energy swirled around and around her, whirling faster and faster. When the whirlwind died away, Wanda was gone, and Clown stood in her place. The knife fell to the floor. Of course. It was Clown the entire time. He’d shape-shifted to look like Wanda.

Thank god that last sentence was added, otherwise scholars would still be debating the implications of that scene today. Earlier, after a two-paragraph description of Simmons’s transformation into Spawn, the too-helpful narration concludes, “Without a doubt, he was being savagely transformed into a new being.”

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