In order to properly analyze films, it is imperative that someone know what is good and what is bad. People are always eager to share their favorite films. But their most hated is buried in the same place as childhood trauma. There are some smart-alec writers who pride on watching and surviving bad films. But this is different. This is something that is as personal, and wounds as deeply.
For many years, I thought the worst movie I would ever see was the 2002 live action version of Scooby Doo. Now, I have seen films more ineptly made and I have seen films that are just as frustrating to watch. But this was different. This was a bunch of people acting stupid for the sake of acting stupid. It’s rare for me to see someone treat a film with such disrespect. Every single decision made was done out of laziness and sloppiness. In some cases, a film is bad because the people making it are in over their heads and don’t have a clue what they are doing. In other cases, people are there to collect a paycheck. But Scooby-Doo tried to pretend to have some sort of love for the original (stupid) cartoon but did not want to examine why it may have worked and what, if anything, needed to be said about it. The result is unwatchable and offensive. In a medium that has produced artists like Ingmar Bergman, the fact that something like Scooby Doo can exist is something I cannot comprehend.
But I now have a new reigning champion by which all awful films will be measured from now until the end of time. It is a film that fails on every level. It is a film filled with bad performances, even for those actor who are bravely trying to have fun. It is a film that I hated looking at. It is poorly written and poorly plotted. It shows the same disrespect as Scooby Doo but takes it to another level.
That movie is 1997’s Spawn.
You may not remember Spawn. The Todd MacFarlane created comic is still being published today, but I don’t know how often it is discussed. Still, back in the ’90s, the character looked to be the next great super hero. MacFarlane had become an artistic superstar and the comic was being written by some talented writers including Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison. This is the part where I say that I have never read the comic and I don’t know anything about the mythology. But it’s easy to see why it attracted its audience.
It’s also easy to see how the film was greenlit. I learn from Box Office Mojo that it made twice its production budget during its theatrical run. It was made at a time when comic book movies were not taken seriously. (It was released the same year as Batman & Robin.) And considering its themes about hell and redemption, as well as being the first movie with a black superhero, it should have been very popular.
But something went wrong.
I’m not even sure what. Sure, the graphics are among the worst I’ve ever seen in a high budgeted film. The scenes in hell are woeful – the Satan character has a mouth that does not move whenever it speaks. I cannot tell what anyone is standing on at any given time. And remember how, in Citizen Kane, Orson Welles would suggest crowd scenes by waving lights at the camera and dubbing in cheers? Spawn does that too – except it gives us long shots of the lights being shaken. There are no crowds and no suggestions of actual beings.
But that was just a preamble. Spawn’s flaws goes far beyond visuals. For one, the main hero has no arc. It’s not that he has a bad arc. It’s that his arc doesn’t exist. Al Simmons is a special ops soldier who is betrayed and burned to death. He comes back to life after he agrees to lead Hell’s army. Why would he agree to do that? We are never told. He does have a mentor who’s name I can’t pronounce (Cogliostro?) but that man never actually mentors him beyond showing him the magic of chains that fire out of Spawn’s nipples. We are also never told what changes his mind and why he decides betraying Satan is a good idea. The ending fight (which takes place in hell) is terribly anti-climatic. Parts of it takes place in the leading lady’s apartment. Spawn promptly leaves after the big bad is defeated and (I’m going to have to take Wikipedia’s word for it as I sure couldn’t figure it out) “dedicates himself to justice.” He doesn’t even get the goodbye kiss. At this point in the movie, I desperately wanted something so lowbrow and hackneyed.
I guess that was Spawn’s motivation – his girlfriend. He thinks leading hell’s army is the only way to get back to get back to his girlfriend, but other citizens of Hades seem to be able to leave the realm just fine and…oh, never mind. It’s not even until the last twenty minutes that he learns about his powers. You would think that vengeance drives Simmons, but that’s not the case. He does attack the people who wronged him (and kills one of them) but it’s quickly forgotten as we get more scenes with the atrocious clown character.
Ah yes. I have not even mentioned John Leguizamo’s clown character. I think he has a name, but I really don’t care to look it up. (OK, it’s Violator. You’re welcome.) I have never seen a more loathsome character in a film. He is meant to be the comic relief but never once delivers a funny line. He is massively obese and short – and constantly brings attention to that physical attribute. Now, this could be made funny in more talented hands, but I was distracted with my endless questions about the character. He is meant to be a denizen of Hell. What did he do? Why does he look like an obese clown? Was he created that way? Is that part of his punishment? What sort of powers does he have? Why, at times, can he turn into a giant monster? And why does he think that eating maggot covered pizza is funny?
Do you see what I mean? There are some intriguing questions to be asked, but the film just can’t be bothered. It doesn’t realize what about the original material worked. It was replaced with junk. It’s not even cliched – cliches are above the film.
There will be other bad films. There will be other films that give me certain physical reactions that are best not described in great detail. There will be other films that insult the audience watching and anyone who harbors a notion that films are meant to be enjoyed.
But none of them will be as bad as Spawn.