Spawn (1997) is a movie based on the comic book from Todd McFarlane and Image Comics of the same name. As such, it is inevitably considered not as a movie on its own merits, but on the basis of its similarity to the comic book. While a more innocent viewing of this movie does not suffice to make it great cinema, it does rank it much more highly than a comparison to the comic. McFarlane himself says in the extras on this version of the DVD that he never intended for the Movie Spawn to be identical to the comic book.
One particular statement that caught my attention, that surely infuriated purists everywhere, is that he didn't care if the cape was in the movie. Long-time Spawn comic book fans are somewhat obsessive about the cloak in particular, and this is something that McFarlane knows well, being a total comic book nerd himself (a significant chunk of the extra included video includes a rant about the relative merits of Spawn and Batman.) Spawn is actually McFarlane's first property developed for Image comics, which he helped create just as he stopped drawing Spider-Man, which was responsible for much of McFarlane's early fame. McFarlane's intricate, dark style brought a new feel to Spider-Man that helped revitalize the webslinger's image and eventually contributed to the desire for a Spider-Man movie.
The movie itself has its ups and downs. On the up side, we have Malbogia, portrayed by John Leguizamo, who easily delivers the best and most convincing performance in the movie. He's followed only by Martin Sheen, who plays Jason Wynn, Spawn's primary antagonist after Malbogia, and the devil himself. Naturally, Spawn doesn't get so big for his britches that he goes after the big guy downstairs; this is a very good thing, because the devil is by far the worst piece of CG in the movie, and might be the worst CG for its time that I've ever seen in my life. This is particularly striking because with few exceptions, the rest of the CG work is utterly brilliant. And well it might be, as it was done by ILM.
Spawn and his living counterpart Al Simmons is portrayed by Michael Jai White, who holds black belts in seven different styles of karate and occasionally does his own stunts. His break into acting was through Troma films Toxic Avenger, Part II and The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie. 1 Troma actually can be credited with discovering or significantly advancing a great deal of talent, including Kevin Costner, Samuel L. Jackson, Marisa Tomei, James Gunn, Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Enough explanation, let's get on to plot. There isn't all that much of it, but it is at least somewhat convoluted if not complicated; As is explained to us, the war between heaven and hell has already begun and is well in progress. Each army is staffed with the souls of the freshly dead. Next, we're introduced to Al Simmons, a government assassin who uses some very fancy-looking toys to blow some things up, and it creates a political incident. Shortly thereafter it is revealed that his boss, Jason Wynn, is in league with the devil (literally) and is part of a scheme to deliver more souls to Hell. Malbogia, who resembles a rotund clown with a sort of viking pattern painted on his face and teeth inspired by H.R. Giger's designs for the movie series Alien, is a minor demon who is placed on Earth to keep tabs on Satan's projects here.
Satan, it turns out, would like to recruit Simmons for his army, and instructs Wynn (via Malbogia) to lead him to the slaughter, which he accomplishes by first setting him on fire and then blowing him up along with a Chinese biological weapons laboratory that Simmons has just helped him secure, in the process releasing the bioweapons upon a town of some 8,000 people. Wynn considers it a valuable test, while Simmons considers little more than his swift trip to hell, rendered in all its computer-generated cinematic glory. It is amazing that, as good as the environs of hell look, its leader looks like something out of an Unreal-engine video game from about 1999; the polygon count is low, it doesn't move much, and the textures are exceptionally flat. But anyway, back to plot... Spawn is returned to Earth several years later, sans pieces of his memory, which Malbogia returns to him: After being sent to hell, he sold his soul to the devil and agreed to lead his armies in the attack against Heaven in exchange for the chance to see his fiance Wanda Blake (Theresa Randle) again. Stuff ensues, but I don't want to turn this into one big spoiler.
All in all, this movie was a worthy effort. I've been putting off watching this movie until now, because everyone I talked to about it told me it was garbage, often saying that it was pretty good until about halfway through, at which point it came apart. I disagree with this opinion; I think that certain portions of it (again, the CG Devil) are terrible all the way through, but in general the overall quality of the movie does not change substantially from one portion to the next. In general, however, the only parts of the entire movie that really feel inspired to me are the demon-form of Malbogia and Spawn's cloak. Even the cloak, at times, betrays its low polygon count with stiff, awkward transitions, although they are very rare and pretty much restricted to moments at which the cloak is entering or leaving Spawn's body.
If you are a comic book purist, you should probably consider checking out the animated series instead, which is supposed to be much closer to the comic.