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 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.
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.
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.