SPAWN was one of those films that really seized the attention of the country when it was released back in 1997. Were people talking about its engrossing storyline? It's caliber acting? It's cultural resonance? Nope, they were talking about how cool the hero's cape looked. Superman must be miffed!
SPAWN showed the country just what CGI was capable of, and the country was impressed. It's not a stretch to say that SPAWN was the TERMINATOR 2 of its era, the kind of film which really pushed what was visually capable to new heights. Of course, T2, despite its visual extravagances, was really a movie not about machines, but about heart. SPAWN isn't about machines either… in fact it's not really much about anything.
The plot follows black-ops agent Al Simmons who just happens to work for a guy who also just happens to be working for a guy who happens to work for Satan. Simmons is needed by Satan to lead his new army to break down the gates of Heaven. This is apparently accomplished by biological warfare. Because in 1997, that seemed new and scary, and Satan's all about using the latest and greatest to get the job done. Simmons is murdered and thus is reborn as Spawn, a superhero with a really cool red cape.
Roger Ebert gave the film an admirable three and a half stars likening it to an avant garde art film rather than a blockbuster comic book movie. I can understand his sentiments, if I think back to the CGI of the late 90s, SPAWN is impressive. But in retrospect, I also see SPAWN as the start of a terrible trend in Hollywood which has continued to this day: the exchange of human drama for computer graphic driven action sequences. Even in 1997 Ebert warns filmgoers not to bother with the plot, a phrase I take to be frankly damning seeing as how Hollywood took this mentality as an excuse to stop bothering with plot so long as it gave audiences enough addicting eye-candy.
In 2007 SPAWN strikes me as a dull film filled with plenty of camp and frankly bad CGI (there are literally on-screen frame rate drops, especially in the all-CGI Hell scenes). The CGI textures, too, are noticeably blurry. But hey, I could forgive all of that if the film were shot with some directorial nuance or at least provided some emotional umph. As it is, though, SPAWN is a bad movie through and through. Even it's historic accomplishments smell of an impending zeitgeist no one in Hollywood should be proud of.