Over the weekend, Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn, revealed he was hard at work on a live-action Spawn script, which we’ve been hearing for a while. But it’s worth asking, why bother with a movie, when animation would suit Spawn so much better?
Spawn is the story of Vietnam vet Al Simmons, unjustly killed and brought back to life in a demonic suit covered in burn scars. Simmons has access to near-limitless power, from magic to super-strength, but every power he uses costs him a little bit more of his soul. And since the devil doesn’t offer a paycheck, Michaels lives among the homeless, and often finds himself defending them against threats both demonic and all too human in nature.
Thanks to McFarlane’s muscular, scratchy and kinetic art, which revitalized Spider-Man for Marvel, Spawn was an immediate hit, with Spawn #1 selling millions of copies, moving piles of toys, and even getting a live-action movie in 1997.
The movie, much like the grimdark Spawn himself, was very much of its era, right down to the soundtrack that teamed up the likes of the Crystal Method and Filter. (Yes, “Can’t You Trip Like I Do” is from this movie’s soundtrack.) The film was scorned by some fans, but director Mark Dippe, a seasoned special effects expert, used cutting edge CGI in a noble effort to translate McFarlane’s art to the page, and screenwriter Alan McElroy, writer of several Spawn comics, worked to stay faithful to the comic. The movie struggled with its budget and translating a comic that was very much about the tropes of comic books, and ultimately fell apart in theaters, grossing $54 million against its $40 million budget.
It also overshadowed a more successful translation to the screen. Around the same time, McElroy also wrote several episodes of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, a traditionally animated series that debuted on HBO the same year as the live-action movie and ran for three abbreviated seasons. In fact, unlike its live action partner, it even took home major awards, winning an Emmy in its final season for Outstanding Animated Program. Despite only running for a total of 18 episodes, it did a surprisingly effective job of both translating McFarlane’s art into motion and in capturing the sometimes cheesy vibe of the original comics.
McFarlane has, off and on, attempted to revive the series. And though his attention has now turned to movies again, it’s hard to see how it would fit into an already crowded superhero marketplace. In a time of streaming services, it seems like television, specifically animation, is a better way to bring back Spawn. The biggest roadblock, by far, for any live action show is that capturing McFarlane’s art is tricky even now. McFarlane’s ability to imbue even inanimate objects with character and pack the frame with detail makes replicating his visuals, whether you use CGI or practical effects, a daunting task. Animation is a better tool to capture the character faithfully, while it also frees up the creative team to worry less about budget and more about telling the story.
And for all the ’90s-ness of the series, Spawn rarely gets enough credit for featuring a non-white superhero in a genre that still struggles with diversity, or for that matter one who struggles with homelessness, an issue you rarely see outside the occasional indie movie on the screen these days. Superheroes offer not just a bit of action here and there, but a useful step back for audiences that need to be eased into looking at some hard issues: Jessica Jones, for example, uses its superstrong heroine to examine the effects of psychological abuse. There’s genuine potential there, for the right showrunner, to dig into some very important social issues that we often ignore, and a series would give them more room to explore those and let them mix more comfortably with the superhero from hell and the angels and demons he squares off with.
Spawn has lasted for more than 20 years in the pop cultural consciousness because he offers something genuinely different in the realm of superheroes. Why should he come back in the standard superhero mold? Bringing back the animated series would be a good way to underscore that Spawn can be far more than just chains, capes, and grit, and help the ongoing elevation of the superhero from disposable pop culture to useful prism through which we can view the world.