With Netflix’s "Luke Cage" gearing up for a second season, Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ "Black Panther" comic flying off the shelves and Ryan Coogler‘s "Black Panther" film on the way, show business and audiences appear increasingly ready to embrace Black superheroes. Yet as "Spawn," Hollywood’s first major live-action superhero movie to star a Black actor, turns 20 today (August 1), there’s surprisingly little fanfare. There’s no anniversary restoration or nationwide midnight screenings, just comic creator Todd McFarlane’s plan to make a new Spawn film that de-emphasizes the title character, and the movie being added to Netflix. I found the lack of attention strange, especially given how the power of ’90s and Y2K nostalgia makes classics out of other mediocre films. But then I streamed "Spawn," on HD, and immediately understood why it’s not getting the 2017 victory lap.
Based on the character McFarlane developed in the 1990s for his own Image Comics, the "Spawn" movie stars actor and martial artist Michael Jai White ("Black Dynamite") as Al Simmons, a mercenary working for a government agency whose boss betrays and murders him by immolation.
Simmons arrives in Hell, where the demon leader Malebolgia offers a deal he can’t refuse: He can return to Earth to see his beloved fiancé Wanda (Theresa Randle, "Spawn’s" only other Black star) as long as he agrees to lead Hell’s army in the impending Armageddon. Simmons accepts, only to return to Earth a grossly deformed being far from the handsome Black actor playing him:
Simmons then becomes the masked, rage-filled Spawn. He balances his quest for revenge with the conspiring of his demon handler, The Violator, (John Leguizamo), his Hellish superiors’ war plans and his pain at seeing his fiancé married to another man.
Sounds ripe for quality explorations of mortality and existential desolation, right? Both the comic and concurrent HBO adult cartoon did run with those themes. The film, however, suffered from corny dialogue, a convoluted plot and horrifically outdated CGI sequences. Dspite the film’s $87.8 million box office take —more than twice its budget—its critical rejection destroyed chances for a sequel.
But "Spawn" left something good in its ashes. Its failure opened a door for future creators of color to make their own comic adaptations. Its misfires illuminate missed opportunities for character development that others can pick up in this era of superheroes for whom Blackness isn’t a benign quality but a narrative asset.
"Luke Cage" creator and showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has a unique connection to "Spawn": the former Los Angeles Times staff writer interviewed McFarlane, White and other principals on the film’s set for a 1997 profile. The article asks if "Spawn" can revive what was then a struggling comic film market—something that Coker now doesn’t have to worry about.
"The thing about ‘Spawn’ is that—whether it was the HBO cartoon version, the comic book or the movie—Al Simmons happened to be Black. His cultural background wasn’t a central part of his essence," says Coker, who worked with a predominantly Black writing team on "Luke Cage" to flesh out the bulletproof Black characters’ identity and conflicts.
Coker contrasts "Spawn" with the Wesley Snipes vehicle "Blade," which came out a year later and led to a successful movie franchise: "[‘Blade’] had a sort of swagger that was the bridge towards what it would be like to have a Black superhero, given a quality platform."
Journalist, screenwriter and comic author Selwyn Seyfu Hinds also views "Blade" as the film "Spawn" should have been. "The climate 20 years ago is not the same as today, but even then, there was a distinct sense of what more people wanted from ‘Spawn’ when ‘Blade’ came out," he says. "’Blade’ was the creme-de-la-creme in Hollywood: a franchise that’s capable of generating more films and other things connected to that brand."
Hinds also laments that the "Spawn" movie Whitewashed two of the comic book and HBO cartoon’s most important Black characters. Simmons’ best friend, Terry Fitzgerald, who marries Wanda while Simmons languishes in Hell, is played by White actor D.B. Sweeney ("Two and a Half Men"). And Chapel, the Black mercenary who killed Spawn in the comic universe, was replaced by a White character, Jessica Priest, portrayed by Melinda Clarke ("The O.C.").
"There’s an inherent power to seeing the palette of brown faces, in looking at a comic that has these three very different Black men," explains Hinds. "I can imagine what [studio or casting executives] might have said back then, that if you throw two more Black male characters in that movie, then all of a sudden, you’re making a ‘Black’ movie—which feels like a different proposition and maybe a bridge too far for where they wanted to be at the time."
Hinds does not lay the blame for "Spawn’s" problems with its lead actor, White, whom he calls "great, independent of the film." Coker goes even further to say that White could have been even more famous "if he came five to seven years later." "He’s one of the best martial artists in the world, and he’s not a bad looking dude, but he’s basically stuck in this character that has charred skin, so there’s no sex appeal," he opines.
Both Coker and Hinds describe "Spawn" as a missed opportunity, but something changed in the intervening two decades to put Hollywood projects that embrace a hero’s Blackness and nuance on big and little screens. Hinds traces it in part to superhero films’ current economic value in Hollywood. "Marvel‘s success over the last decade has become the dominant paradigm at studios," he says. "Even behind the scenes, Marvel did a lot of their development through the Marvel Program, where they signed writers to term deals and turned them loose on Marvel’s intellectual property. That’s the system that produced ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ and every studio in town then copied that model."
He also stresses how important activist and audience calls for racial diversity, empowerment and equity in Tinseltown helped make this present context possible. "We’re in a more hyper-aware, hyper-politicized and attentive state where the industry realized that diversity—although that term is used in loaded and, frankly annoying ways—is good for business. And 20 years on, we live in a much Browner pop culture than we ever did. You have the combination of an audience ready for certain stories, a business structure that is more and more willing to provide them with certain stories and a creative class with people of color who are anxious to tell them."
Coker believes in the change too. "Nowadays, if you want to deal with a character’s essence outside of the superheroes, you can. Commercially, there’s a bandwidth that you didn’t necessarily have when you were just lucky to have anybody that looked like you with powers."
Even though McFarlane, who many accuse of being prejudiced, wants to downplay Spawn in his upcoming remake, the film introduces the character to the 21st Century. Hopefully, that means treating Al Simmons with depth and incorporating his Blackness into that treatment, for even if Hell’s fire incinerated Spawn’s skin, he’s still Black—and still capable of contemporary relevance.
"There are characters that transcend eras and time," says Coker. "You can revisit ‘Spawn’ differently now and have an audience ready for it, and explore things that weren’t explored the last time around—the complexities of being a Black super soldier, the whole notion of selling your soul, who Al Simmons is."
Al Simmons is, at the very least, a Black man who served his country only for it to mercilessly kill him. He’s condemned to serve Hell. He cannot die again and seeks beneficence in revenge. In 2017, that’s more than enough reason to justify his significance—and a far better film this time around.