Movies that were supposed to launch franchises (but didn’t): Spawn


In the early 1990’s, comic book artist Todd McFarlane started a revolution.  He took on the publishing giant that was Marvel Comics and against all odds, he won.  His creation, Spawn, became the number one selling comic book on the shelves out-selling Spider-man, the X-Men and Batman on a regular basis.  Toys, video games and of course movies followed.  Sequels were part of the plan.  A thriving Spawn movie series was supposed to be the final step in McFarlane’s victory over his former employer.  Instead, the Spawn movie was a disappointment and Marvel slowly grew to dominance at the box office.

The story of Spawn is the story of Todd McFarlane.  The Canadian-born artist started working at DC Comics in the late 80’s before defecting to Marvel Comics where he found success on titles like Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man.

McFarlane's Spider-man

McFarlane’s work on Amazing Spider-man made him a star in the industry.  His distinctive style put the wall-crawler in bizarre, creepy poses surrounded by thick, knotted spider-webs which became known as “spaghetti webbing”.  During this time, McFarlane became the first artist to draw a full appearance of Eddie Brock, aka the popular villain Venom.  As a result, McFarlane has been credited as one of Venom’s co-creators.  Like a lot of things with McFarlane, this claim has been disputed.

It didn’t take long for McFarlane to get frustrated working as an artist for Marvel.  So her gathered together a coalition of Marvel’s most popular artists and they went off to form their own publishing company.  Image Comics consisted of McFarlane, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino.  The new company was initially very successful.  Each new issue from Image shattered previous sales records.

McFarlane Spawn

The first issue of Spawn was released in 1992 and it sold 1.7 million copies.  Not coincidentally, McFarlane’s Spawn looked a lot like McFarlane’s Spider-man.  The “spaghetti webbing” was replaced by chains and the most out-of-control cape and collar in all of comics.  But the mask and poses were familiar.  The character’s popularity continued to grow through the release of the movie.  The book launched several spin-off titles, a toy line, video games and eventually an animated mini-series on HBO.   In 1997, Spawn and his creator seemed poised to take over pop culture.

In 1992 after the first issue became the best-selling comic book of all times, McFarlane was approached by Columbia Pictures for a movie deal.  The artist passed on the offer because he wanted to retain creative control of his character.  Instead, he sold the movie rights to Spawn to New Line Cinema for $1, creative input and the merchandising rights.

spawn movie

Given McFarlane’s involvement, it’s not surprising that the movie was pretty faithful to the early Spawn comic books.  Michael Jai White starred as a mercenary who is double-crossed by his boss played by Martin Sheen.  When he is killed, he makes a deal with the devil so that he can see his wife again.  White’s character comes back to the world as Spawn, a soldier of the devil destined to determine the fate of the world.  John Leguizamo co-starred as an evil clown who gives Spawn his orders.

The film’s original budget was set at $20 million dollars.  But it was gradually doubled to accommodate the many special effects required to bring McFarlane’s vision to life.  The visual effects were raised from 77 shots to over 400 with 22 companies working in the US, Canada and Japan.  More than half of the movie’s effects were completed within week’s of the movie’s debut.

Despite a few changes (some of which were necessitated by McFarlane’s falling-out with Image co-founder Rob Liefeld) the movie is a pretty accurate representation of McFarlane’s comic book.  Unfortunately, the primary selling point of the comic book was McFarlane’s art.  The characters and plot were about as interesting as you would expect coming from an untrained writer.  When McFarlane’s detailed artwork was translated to the big screen with a relatively modest budget, the end result was a lot of rubber suits and cheap CGI.  The comic book’s success was based on its visual appeal and the movie looked like crap.


The movie version of Spawn disappointed fans and critics alike.  It opened in second place and ended up grossing a little over $50 million dollars which was just enough to spark talk of a sequel without the sequel ever actually happening.  McFarlane, who is primarily invested in his successful toy company these days, has never stopped talking about making a sequel to Spawn.  He has a completed script which he says is darker and more like a horror movie than a super hero movie.  This sequel/reboot has been announced so often that it is bound to happen eventually.

Today, both Spawn and McFarlane have cooled off.  Image Comics still publishes Spawn, but it’s no longer a top-selling title.  McFarlane, who took up the mantle of creator’s rights when he left Marvel, ended up in a lawsuit with writer Neil Gaiman over the rights to a character Gaiman created while working for McFarlane.  McFarlane lost that lawsuit as well as another high-profile suit over the use of a hockey player’s name for a villain.  McFarlane is even suing his former friend, Al Simmons, who the character of Spawn was named after.

Neither Spawn nor his creator is going to dominate pop culture these days.  But they sure did come close.

More Movies that were supposed to…


Posted on September 23, 2015, in Movies, movies that were supposed to... and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. I viewed “Spawn” again about two months ago. I think it’s alright, though the more I think about it, the clown reminds me of John Wayne Gacy. It’s definitely one of those films that was meant to have a sequel. I mentioned my friend Jose, and he was big on the comic “Spawn”, but just didn’t like this film that much. That seemed to be the consensus. The more I think about though, Martin Sheen played his character in a way that reminds me of his Greg Stillson character in “The Dead Zone”.


  2. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if his role in The Dead Zone lead to him being cast in Spawn. At the time Spawn came out, I was reading comics. I wasn’t a fan of McFarlane per se, but I was following the book just because there was so much buzz around it. I actually saw Spawn a week before it opened and I thought it was going to be a hit. I was getting ready to unload some Spawn comics and merch because I thought demand was about to go up. As often happens, I was dead wrong.


  3. I saw Spawn once, towards the end of 1997. I was vaguely familiar with the comic book. The movie wasn’t that impressive to me. The basic story seemed like a loose cross between The Crow and Darkman, Leguizamo’s clown character was pretty annoying actually. A Spawn movie could work with a Sam Raimi or an Alex Proyas at the helm; they would know how to translate McFarlane’s vision to the screen.

    One thing that did impress me at the time was the soundtrack, which I bought before I even saw the movie. It was dominated by industrial rock (the type of stuff that Nine inch Nails does for those not in the know) that was created by teaming rock and techno artists. I still have the soundtrack around somewhere. One song I remember from it is “Can’t You Trip Like I Do” by Filter, those late 90s alternative rock soundtrack kings.


    • There was some buzz that the Clown was going to be Leguizamo’s Joker-type character and that it would finally make him a star. Obviously, it didn’t work out that way. I think a lot of people reacted as you did.

      I think a Spawn movie could work. But then, I think in the right hands ANY concept can be made into a good movie. There’s a lot of characters more deserving of the big screen treatment than Spawn. There’s also a lot of characters less deserving.


    • Yup, the soundtrack was pretty much the most memorable thing about the whole enterprise. It was executive produced by Happy Walters, who’d already worked the same mashup concept (years before mashups were even a thing) previously with the Judgement Night soundtrack, which was a congregation of rap/rock collaborations.
      I’d say both soundtracks came to be, if not influential, at least premonitory in the long run. Rap/rock became the thing in the late 90’s/early 00’s with the whole nu-metal movement and that still manages to hold some influence these days. Spawn, on the other hand, although not directly influential, did help to open doors to the whole EDM thing of the 10’s.


  4. Saw this in theaters as a pre-teen never having even heard of spawn. It was weird, dark and badly paced. And sort of cheap looking. It suffered from Man Of Steel syndrom ie not really clear what the super powers are and what actually would kill the bad and good guy. Tension out the window.


    • That stems from the source material. Spawn could basically do whatever the plot needed him to do at any given moment. His weaknesses were also dictated by the plot. In theory, he had limited power and once he exhausted it the world would end. But in practice, who care? You know they are going to keep selling Spawn comics as long as they keep selling. At some point, the timer actually did run out but I had long since abandoned ship by that point. Over the years, the comic book has reinvented itself several times. I’m not even sure any of this still applies to the current incarnation.


    • 12 Superhero Movies That Should Have Been Rated R

      SPAWN (1997)

      Again, there technically is an R-rated version of Spawn. The original PG-13 theatrical release failed to match the tone set by the Todd McFarlane comic book series and was a disappointment to many. The R-rated version, while much better in many ways, merely added some extra elements to the movie without adding much in the way of substance or changing the general tone.

      Spawn hasn’t aged too well in the years since its release, with the CGI looking very dated now. But that’s the least of its problems when viewed through 21st century eyes. For its era, it was a brave effort. Comic book movies weren’t as fashionable as they are now, nor were there as many great examples to borrow ideas from.

      A true R-rated version, not a director’s cut but a total remake, could re-invigorate the franchise. With the success of this year’s Deadpool, and studio chiefs now looking at ways to capitalize on its success, a Spawn remake is more likely than ever.


  5. Spawn Movie Commentary Podcast:

    Spawn Year Day 100:

    Are Characters Like Spawn Trapped in the 90s?


  6. As a lifelong comic book fan, I have to point out two things:

    You forgot to mention Marc Silvestri as one of the Image founders. He was a fairly popular artist who worked on “The Uncanny X-Men” and “Wolverine” before co-founding Image with the others. I met him once and he was a nice guy, so I just want to make sure to give him a shout-out 🙂
    By 1997, the comic series “Spawn” was already on the decline. Some comic stores already only ordered copies to sell to their customers who specifically requested it (to keep the store from having unsold copies sitting around forever). Spawn’s “hot” phase was 1992 to maybe 1994. Once the Batman/Spawn crossover comic came out, Spawn’s popularity started going downhill pretty quick.

    Okay, enough of my nerding out. LOL! I love your work; please keep it up!


    • I felt like I was forgetting someone. Thanks for the reminder. Silvestri has been added. Thumbs up for you.

      That Batman/Spawn crossover was a let-down. I did check and the book was still a regular on the top 10 list when the movie came out. Definitely not at the peak of its popularity. But then by 1997, the comic book industry was in a bad way. Marvel filed for bankruptcy in December of 1996. Image had started to splinter with Liefeld’s departure. The following year, Jim Lee sold Wildstorm to DC Comics. But the outlook for Spawn outside of comics was looking pretty rosy. McFarlane had set up his own successful toy company to produce his own toys, there were video games and the HBO cartoon series. All he really needed was for the movie to be a hit so that the average non-comic book reader would be familiar with the character. But obviously, it didn’t work out that way and McFarlane has been at it ever since.


  7. Awful special effects even for that time. They looked like a crappy video game. That movie was terrible. No loss in getting zero sequels.


    • Other than McFarlane, I doubt too many people were concerned about Spawn being a one-and-done. But I do find it interesting that at the time, Marvel was on the ropes and Spawn seemed like he might be the next big thing. Now, Spawn is a footnote and Marvel is a dominant force in pop culture.


  8. Spawn: did the movie deserve more love?

    1997 wasn’t the best year for comic book movies. Spawn certainly didn’t do much to help. We revisit the film…

    Mark Dippè made his directorial debut with Spawn. He introduces himself on the film’s commentary track on the DVD by suggesting that “You can blame it all on me.” Very kind of you, Mark.

    Listening to a commentary on a film like Spawn is interesting. It reminds us of something we already know, but that we can lose sight of when our patience is stretched like mine was with Spawn. That’s that nobody sets out to make a bad movie. Listening to the team behind Spawn chatting about the film, they clearly went for it, and it’s not a film that fails for a lack of ambition. Argue with the results all you want, and I’m about to, but they cared about what they were doing.

    I care about what I’m doing too, though, and so empathy will have to sit the rest of this article out.

    Spawn is a staggeringly poor film.

    Creator Todd McFarlane developed the comic book Spawn after leaving Marvel, where he’d gained acclaim writing and drawing Spider-Man comics. McFarlane released the first issue of Spawn (cunningly titled so that it would be alphabetically close to the Spider-Man title he made his name on, but just before it, on comic book store shelves) in 1992. The Spawn comic was a huge hit and a big budget movie and a cartoon version soon followed.

    McFarlane, who released the Spawn comics as part of the newly formed Image comics (McFarlane set Image up with fellow comic artists dissatisfied with working for larger comic publishers), opted to make Spawn with New Line Cinema, a deal that secured him less money than going with a larger studio but afforded him more creative control over the film.

    Director Dippè, who came from a special effects background, would work with screenwriter Alan B McElroy to come up with the story for the adaptation. Al Simmons (Michael Jai White), a mercenary, is set up and killed by his own team at the request of a demon. The demon needs him to lead his army of demon warriors from hell into a war against the army of the good or whatever. Goodness me.

    Anyway, Simmons comes back to the normal Earth for living people where he’s meant to learn how to be a great demon warrior, but a mysterious guy teaches him how to be good guy Spawn, an undead costumed ball of power-sadness. He fights a deceptive demon monster guy called Clown (John Leguizamo), who isn’t a clown but dresses up as a clown for child’s birthday party in one scene. Then he has to save his family and slay the demon monster in hell.

    That might sound all over the place and awful, and it is, but it’s worth remembering what comic book films were like in 1997.

    The most notable comic adaptation of the year was Batman And Robin, although it didn’t crack the end of year top 10 highest grossing films of the year. That’s a weird movie. Steel, starring basketball playing rapper Shaquille O’Neil as the lead hero, also debuted in 1997. Men In Black is based on a comic, too, which makes it the biggest comic book hit of the year, albeit one that’s not commonly associated with its little known source material. MIB aside, then, clearly no one had a clue what they were doing when it came to comic adaptations in 1997.

    There are lots of small things that make Spawn terrible, and I’ll cover some of them shortly, but there’s one big standout. Spawn is an effects movie, but a good number of the effects aren’t good. Some are flat out awful. When the effects do look good, they’re dead impressive, such as when Simmons first sprouts his Spawn costume (this is well executed, if odd). More often than not, though, they look like very early CG at a time when other films were starting to get it right. When you consider other films of the time period, Spawn looks bad. The previously mentioned Batman And Robin or Men In Black both have effects, either practical or CG, that hold up. It’s also helpful to consider a film like Jumanji, which had a slightly higher budget than Spawn but came out a couple of years earlier, which never looks as ropey as Spawn often does.

    Sock puppets sometimes get together to snigger at how unconvincing the demon in Spawn is take the demon in hell. Sock puppets sometimes get together to snigger at how unconvincing the demon in Spawn is. This might sound like a joke, but it actually happens; they’re my sock puppets. The demon monster looks so unconvincing that the Sega Mega Drive game Altered Beast threw pixels at it and booed it on opening night. The mouth doesn’t even move in time with the dialogue. The hell fight sequence at the end of the movie, where Spawn has his big showdown with the beast, has to be seen to be believed. But who gives a shit if you believe it? Just don’t make the mistake of seeing it.

    I think the worst thing about Spawn, worse than the often dodgy effects and the frustrated-shrug inducing story, is John Leguizamo’s Clown.

    God bless Leguizamo, it’s not his fault. He does what he can with the role, which he performs while squatting to make Clown short and stout. He’s a little teapot. Clown’s look is straight out of a low budget horror film, but in one scene he has cartoon eyes that pop out of his head, an effect that would be more at home in Jim Carrey’s The Mask (although it looks less accomplished than the effects in that film). Even when Clown just looks normally evil, though, he never strikes you as intimidating. It’s never apparent as to why Spawn doesn’t just pull his head off. In the scenes where he’s attempting to trick Spawn into believing he’s an ally, he’s still irritating enough that you don’t buy that permanent grumpy-guts Spawn wouldn’t just decapitate him for the quiet.

    In one sequence Clown morphs into a giant monster which looks a bit like a sinister version of Randall from Monsters Inc. The monster version of Clown actually looks pretty cool, and the morphing effect is one of the rare efforts that impresses, but the action sequence that follows fizzles out unremarkably. By the end of it, he’s chased Spawn down and Spawn magics his cape into a protective cocoon and then I buried my head in my hands and missed what happened.

    In another scene, Leguizamo’s Clown pulls off his underwear and shows us all a fresh, streaked stain. “Skidmarks!” he says.

    I legitimately can’t tell how I’m supposed to respond to this. On what level was this meant to land? As funny? As provocative? As outrageous? As silly? Someone wrote this, it got approved at every level and then it got filmed and made it through the edit. The film is constantly playing for a moody, cool vibe but then they also included a clown demon pants crapping joke. I honestly can’t think of a film that’s got a less firm grip on tone than Spawn. It’s the cinematic equivalent of asking Danny Dyer to scream Shakespeare’s soliloquys at the funeral of a beloved relative.

    There are some fart jokes in Spawn and they’re not funny. How do you make farts not funny? People have been laughing at farts since the first guff crept out from between a caveman’s buttocks. Bum noises are funny to us in a primitive way. In including farts that aren’t funny, they’ve managed to subvert the very core of human programming. And here was me thinking Spawn had achieved nothing.

    There are failures all over Spawn. I could tell that you a lot of the dialogue is poor, but I’d be better off demonstrating with an excerpt. This comes from a news interview that takes place at the end of the film. This is not played as a joke.

    Interviewer: “Do you have any further comments?”
    Interview subject: “Something I should have done a long time ago.”

    Spawn also features a baffled looking Martin Sheen sporting a beard so awful you could justify turning the film off in response to it. His character is working in cahoots with evil forces, as was, I suspect, his agent. Spawn came along only one year after Sheen’s appearance in the television movie Project: A.L.F., a belated follow on of the beloved puppet sitcom. It would be fair to say that this isn’t the strongest period of Apocalypse Now star Sheen’s career, even accounting for the quality of Project A.L.F. (I’d certainly recommend watching it before I would suggest watching Spawn).

    Then there are the voice over sections, which are a genuine disaster and seem to be present to tell us what’s happening in lieu of the story making any sense. They’re occasional intermissions, likely adapted from a melodramatic angsty teenager’s poetry journal, that explain how the next vignette is actually part of the plot somehow.

    Is there anything to like about Spawn?

    It pulled in a surprising amount at the box office, taking $55m, although with a $45m budget it can be described as a modest hit at best. It received the odd positive review, including one from noted critic Roger Ebert, so apparently there’s something about it. I can’t imagine what, though. The soundtrack, maybe? The soundtrack is pretty cool.

    Spawn, the character, looks great for much of the film, so perhaps that’s part of it. He’s duller than dust, though. Even when he’s Al Simmons, he’s a grumpy, tough mercenary with strict morals and he loves his family, and nothing else. There’s not a single member of Sylvester Stallone’s team of Expendables who has less personality than the hero in Spawn. The only other thing we know about Al Simmons is that he has a small fluffy dog called Spaz. F*** this film.

    Spawn has a shiy plot, shitty effects, shiy characters, shiy pacing, shiy dialogue, shiy voice over, shiy shiy underpants jokes, shiy Clown with shiy farts, shiy demons and shiy action sequences. It’s just all shiy.

    My suggestion would be that we not worry about looking back at Spawn any further. We always try and look for the positives in these pieces, but Spawn can be left where it is.


  9. Todd McFarlane finishes script for new Spawn film.

    Todd McFarlane has been talking about a new Spawn movie for a few years now, but he told in an exclusive interview that 2016 is the year he makes it happen. At Toy Fair New York, McFarlane sat down and talked toys, branching out, and his first love, Spawn.

    “I’ve finished the script, and I’m in the process of editing,” McFarlane told ComicBook when asked for an update. “It’s 183 pages, and [producers] usually like 120. I still think it’s going to end up being about 140, because I’m putting in details for myself.”

    That’s because McFarlane also hopes to direct the film, so he’s writing the script as “a director’s script.” The trimming is still necessary so he can get it to “a spot where I can walk this into Hollywood and start hooking the actors,” he said.

    The writer/artist/creator/toy magnate wants to direct the film, and is trying to keep the budget low because of it.

    “I want to keep it small, keep it tight, so they’ll let me direct it!” he said. His goal is to see production start in 2016. “I need to get him back up on the big screen again to make him relevant in a big way, which we will do,” he said.

    McFarlane will also be releasing his first Spawn action figure in a few years, as part of his new “Color Tops” line, which will see waves of figures from different brands like Gears of War and Assassin’s Creed released alongside his own Spawn and his popular The Walking Dead figures.

    “I’m curious to see what happens when we go, ‘Spawn’s back and there’s only one,’ to see if we can get a little stampede, get people interested,” he said of the new figure.


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