Background: One of my favorite types of movie these days is that of the comic book hero translated for the big screen. Recent successes with Superman, Batman, The X-Men, and Spiderman are only the tip of the iceberg for characters that could (should!) be given more exposure to the masses but as with all things, there have been many failures too. One of the worst translations of a comic book to the big screen was Spawn, a movie about a hellspawn on Earth out to get revenge on those who killed him. Inspired by the long running comic book series helmed by the wildly talented Todd McFarlane, the movie was decidedly watered down to make it to a mainstream audience but it was merely a means to promote the characters in another medium at about the same time as McFarlane spent considerable time & resources on another project being reviewed here today called Spawn: 10th Anniversary Signature Edition; a complete set of the 3 seasons of the animated HBO series from the late 1990's.
Series: Spawn is a sort of anti-hero character as envisioned by creator Todd McFarlane who dreamed of success as an artist. His skillful work for Marvel in revitalizing Spiderman back in the late 1980's led to him becoming noticed, eventually bumping heads and deciding to start a new studio with his high school creation, a devilish man with twisted morals who sold his soul to the devil. Each version of the character has been a bit different, geared to the medium it was in but back in 1997, HBO gave Todd the green light for a darker kind of animated series that would be shown only at night and contain the kind of edge that the live action movie was unable to present. It gave the basic version of the character's history but only in a slowly paced, methodical manner that initially seemed to take the comic book approach but evolved over the three seasons to become more of a gothic horror drama that won awards (even an Emmy!) and showed that independent comic books could offer something the watered down big players in the field were usually too afraid to provide fans with.
Spawn is short for "hellspawn" and that is exactly what the being is. Once a governmental covert operative that took care of those nasty little problems no one likes to acknowledge, Al Simmons found himself on the wrong side of his agency one too many times. He was killed and at the moment of death, he was offered a deal by a shadowy character known only as Malebolgia (essentially the Devil). In exchange for seeing his loving wife, Al agreed to serve as needed and the result was his being brought back to animated form as Spawn. In this demon form, Al was granted substantial powers of strength, healing, teleportation, flight, and such but as he slowly figures out; there were more strings attached than he agreed to. He was brought back after a five year absence where his wife Wanda is now happily married to his former best friend and they have a precious child. Al retained his burned and scarred face and his corporeal body is so hideous that he'd make a maggot gag. His fleeting memories are scattered and make no sense, providing the backdrop for the series as one of self exploration as much as the darker themes most of you will notice on the surface glance. Unlike the courts where McFarlane has fared so poorly in recent years, Spawn's agreement with the devil is such that it has a bit of an enforcement clause to it in the form of a jolly little, pot bellied man known as Clown. On the surface, he seems to be a weak, nasty little loser that Spawn could pummel easily but underneath his slight exterior is a full bred demon of significant power too, one quite jealous of the fact that hellspawns must be former humans with some spark of chaos to their personality; a spark capable of igniting wholesale carnage on the levels that impress even the devil himself.
Spawn is most notable for the cloak he wears that is wrapped in chains and seemingly has a mind of its own, serving to protect Spawn and attack those that would do him harm. He is also notable as a catalyst for others as he fulfills his duty by sending evil souls to hell faster than they would have otherwise gone, boosting the ranks of the stygian depths as the final conflict between Heaven and Hell approaches. A new hellspawn is a rare occurrence, according to the series, the last one was four hundred years ago, and Al is destined to be the last for when his ticking clock runs out, he is set to lead the hordes of Hell on an assault of the Heavens, this time in a winner takes all gambit. As the show progresses, a series of numbers appearing on the screen provides the only evidence as to just how closely Spawn is to going back to his new home, starting off with 9:9:9:9 and counting down every time he uses his abilities in significant amounts. Much of the detail is left for the viewer to interpret but even as Spawn howls in agony over his plight, no matter what he does, his fate is sealed since killing the bad guys is what he's there for (and they sure seem to want to kill him, making it tough to resist his calling).
The strength of the series is the mood it invokes, McFarlane even suggesting the series be watched with the lights out at night to set the conditions just right. Slowly sucking the viewer in, the creator also referenced that he started off by immediately (and intentionally) dividing those watching it into two groups; the ones who would follow along and the ones who would be repulsed and change the channel. The carnage and foul language might appear a bit juvenile in that sense but his reasoning was sound in that it appeared to work well. Once the core audience was established using the super hero turned on its head angle, he took his time over the three seasons to pull them into the core group of fans with Spawn spending less time fighting powerful super villains and more driven to looking for the loopholes needed to duck out of his deal with the devil while realizing that Heaven wasn't such a sweet ride either. This was evidenced in his battles of the third season where his heavenly stalkers show a remarkable clarity of vision and similarity to his own methods of take no prisoners that set the metaphorical debate up; blurring the lines between them to the point where neither is substantially different from the other (even making pointed references to the guy with the sandals, if you catch my drift).
If you're already a fan of the comic book series, you might take issue with some of the elements of the series, especially given the changes in the last ten years and the differences between how an animated series is to a written work but the spirit of the show is decidedly similar compared to the live action movie. I hesitate to go into any significant detail and spoil it for those of you that have yet to learn about the character and the HBO series here but here's a little more overview for those who care:
Coming back to life (as it were), Al Simmons pieces together his fragmented memories of a happier time when he was married to the love of his life and his work held deep meaning for him. He resides in an alley way where homeless people congregate, proving to be similar to Al in a great many ways (for all his power, Al is as trapped as they are in his current circumstance). He ends up swearing to protect them from gangsters and his own enemies; enemies that prove to be much like Al in that they don't care about the collateral damage caused by their acts of aggression. He also seeks to protect Wanda and her family which gives Clown and other dark forces a means to manipulate him, with advice from a mysterious stranger called Cogliostro who seems to know more about Al than he himself does. The biggest problem the series had was ending too soon, far before any reasonable ending could have come about, though recent developments appear to favor the series making a comeback of sorts so who knows what the outcome will be. This series has all eighteen episodes in the order they were shown, uncut, and looking better than ever with four commentaries and other extras of note, proving to be one of the most faithful comic to animation series you will find. For that alone the four disc set earned a rating of Recommended from me but see it for yourself and you'll know why it was so popular when it aired on HBO.
1) Burning Visions (May 16, 1997)
2) Evil Intent (May 23, 1997)
3) No Rest, No Peace (May 30, 1997)
4) Dominoes (June 6, 1997)
5) Souls in the Balance (June 13, 1997)
6) Endgame (June 20, 1997)
7) Home Bitter Home (May 15, 1998)
8) Access Denied (May 22, 1998)
9) Colors of Blood (May 29, 1998)
10) Send in the KKKlowns (June 5, 1998)
11) Death Blow (June 12, 1998)
12) Hellzapoppin (June 19, 1998)
13) A Made Guy (May 23, 1999)
14) Twitch Is Down (May 24, 1999)
15) Seed of the Hellspawn (May 25, 1999)
16) Hunter's Moon (May 26, 1999)
17) Chasing the Serpent (May 27, 1999)
18) Prophecy (May 28, 1999)
Picture: Spawn was presented in the usual 1.33:1 ratio full frame color it was shot in for airing on HBO, the premium cable channel, back in the 1990's. While animated overseas, the basis of the animation was drawn by the series artist(s) and as the seasons progressed, the show looked more and more menacing; mimicking the storylines in terms of their darkness very nicely. I'll be the first to admit that the first season had plenty of rough edges in need of working out (some of the animated sequences were less fluid than others, some of the details were missing, and some of the care was lacking in the quality control departments) but overall, this was the best looking version of the series on DVD to date with no observed compression artifacts and all the ambience you could expect of the show. Each season had a slightly different look to it and this evolution showed that McFarlane took an active role in the production, albeit not as active as possible due to his many commitments.
Sound: The audio was presented in a newly remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital English (in 448 Kbps) or 2.0 Dolby Digital Spanish (192 Kbps) with optional subtitles in English, Spanish, and French. I listened to the primary track (spot checking the Spanish dub) and found it substantially improved over what I remembered when it first aired on HBO ten years ago. The depth of the track, the separation, and the dynamic range were all nicely done and for those who remember it as well as I do, keep in mind that the audio aspects were always touted as a big selling point for the show. The manner in which the eerie score and vocal acting were fused together to make the series an excellent representation of the comic series it came from. Like the visuals, the audio aspects of the show evolved over time too and all for the better, so the 5.1 version was made all the better by actively using the surround channels (even if not as aggressively as it could have were show originally recorded in the format).
Extras: I liked the four audio commentaries to Burning Visions, Home Bitter Home, A Made Guy, and Prophecy the best. Each of them had Todd McFarlane providing more detail to what went on with the series, how it evolved, and some of the ideas he was trying to instill in the character. There was also discussion about how some of the audience wasn't enthused with the live action movie (count me as one of them) but more information about the cancellation of the series would have been appreciated too. The next extra was the featurette called The McFarlane Process: Step by Step that outlined the manner in which the show was made which was followed up by a storyboard for the first episode done in a frame by frame comparison to the running episode. I've never really seen a lot of value in storyboards but it was interesting to see the raw art compared to the finished project. There was also an extended interview and BTS feature starring Todd McFarlane where he gave a career overview. What he left out was almost as interesting as what he discussed, especially matters like creator's rights but this is probably to be expected given his legal troubles in that regard over the years. He kept it light and did not dwell on the negative, pointing out how he created Spawn from the comic book elements he liked at the big companies and took them further as he pressed others to find their own muse and direction in the field (blowing off the professional training schools in favor of the self taught for those interested in the industry). There was also a set of character profiles but they were not all that comprehensive and will serve best to help the newcomer to the Spawn Universe. Lastly, aside from some trailers, I feel it is important to acknowledge the metal DVD case (the Steel Book variety) as looking really sharp even if the hubs held the discs on too tightly, increasing the likelihood that a disc eventually snaps.
Final Thoughts: Spawn is one of the relatively newer "dark" comic anti-heroes that have been influencing the comic field so much since 1992 when the first issue of the series was released. The Spawn: 10th Anniversary Signature Edition of all 18 episodes from the HBO series was a nice collection that fans can enjoy repeatedly and the technical values all managed to improve on the dynamic of the universe the material was taken from. I would have liked to have seen all the extras from the previous releases, that being the only reason coming to mind why I didn't feel this double dip merited a rating of highly recommended, but fans will already have picked up a copy of this one along with all the other paraphernalia that McFarlane offers up on his website and I hope Home Box Office (HBO) really is releasing another set of episodes as has been reported.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, Best of Anime 2005, and Best of Anime 2006 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.