It's finally happened: Hell has frozen over (and not just Level 2), pigs are flying, and comic creator Todd McFarlane is writing and directing his own Spawn movie. Now, for anyone who has been following the happenings around the Spawn IP, or Todd McFarlane himself, this is simultaneously shocking and completely old news. McFarlane has been pushing for this movie since literally right after the first movie came out 20 years ago, but most fans had long since abandoned hopes that the project would get made since it's sat for years in development hell.
What Is Spawn?
Al Simmons, a high-level government assassin was killed and brought back by the forces of Hell to serve as a Hellspawn, a demonically empowered super soldier. He was given a magic, sentient suit and trained on Earth before being called back to Hell to await the eventual final battle with the forces of Heaven. This little equation I whipped up should help non fans understand the tone of the #Spawn comic:
Hellspawn are selected from the best warriors, soldiers and killers on Earth. Throughout the comics and toyline we've seen them in ancient China, the Viking age, feudal Japan, Egypt, medieval Europe, the Stone Age, the modern era, and even the future. We even got a mini-series about Vlad the Impaler coming back as a Hellspawn, inspiring the rumors of his vampirism.
The ongoing Spawn comic, starring the modern-day Hellspawn Al Simmons, has run continuously since its debut in 1992, and is the basis for every adaptation that has been released. It is one of the most successful non-Marvel or DC superhero comics in history.
Who Is Todd McFarlane?
Todd McFarlane is the Canadian born writer/artist known for a variety of projects. He was a fan favorite writer/artist for Spider-Man throughout the late '80s and early '90s, and he ran his own action figure empire throughout the 2000s, arguably single-handedly creating the market of high quality action figures based on existing pop culture properties.
He is certainly most famous for creating the Spawn character, and as a launching founder of #ImageComics, a unique, creator-based comic book company that started in the early '90s and paved the way for the indie comics scene we have today.
The First Movie
Surprisingly, while film adaptations of characters such as Spider-Man, Wonder Woman and Iron Man would spend literal decades in development hell, it only took five years from its first issue's release for Spawn to get adapted into a major motion picture. In 1997, Spawn was released by New Line Cinema, and while it was certainly an ambitious and heartfelt attempt at capturing the essence of the character, it comes off as devastatingly cheesy, with famously horrendous CGI destroying any element of horror it should have had.
It ended up as something that can really only be enjoyed by hardcore B-horror fans and masochists. It received poor reviews and only made $87 million at the box office.
Almost simultaneously with the movie, McFarlane released and animated series on HBO that was infinitely better. It took several liberties with the storyline from the comic, but was still beloved by fans of the character.
Even though the movie's performance was less than stellar, the talks for a sequel started right away in 1998, with actor Michael Jai White telling IGN he was still attached to play the character in 2001. McFarlane and everyone involved were all well aware that the next movie would have to be different, with McFarlane planning on using long-time Spawn characters detectives Sam Burke and Maximilian "Twitch" Williams as the film's protagonists. As early as 2002, screen writer Steve Niles had this to say to IGN:
"I think the biggest surprise will be how different this film will be from the first. I think 'Spawn 2' will be much more accessible to all types of movie fans because it will cross the lines between the superhero, horror and crime genres."
McFarlane himself told IGN he planned to get rid of the "action/special effects/fantasy" and make Spawn into an "R-rated thriller/suspense, with a little bit of horror mixed in." He went on to say:
"At no time, in my mind, will you ever see Spawn in his full regalia, standing there in his cape and his costume. You're not going to get that. I think the translation of the character may bug some people. But I'm more concerned about making the best movie possible."
This is the last we'd hear about any project that was related to the 1997 film.
It was in 2006 that chatter around another Spawn movie started up again. Unsurprisingly, given the recent success of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, the film was now planned as a reboot. This was when McFarlane started to put forth the idea of a much smaller movie, in the ballpark of $10 million, and — even more surprisingly — the idea of himself as the film's writer, director and producer. He even insinuated that he could put up the money himself if necessary.
“I’m in the middle of the script and will have to do some rewrites, but I’m hoping by the end of the year, I’ll be behind the camera. You can do wonderful movies for under $10 million…I’ve got the money, so I’m going to write it, produce it and direct it.” “Spawn doesn’t utter a word in this film…the guy with all the speaking parts is Twitch…"
Given this information it seems clear that Sam and Twitch were still planned to factor heavily in the film.
In 2008, with the release and success of Marvel Studios' Iron Man, there was renewed interest in comic book properties, and McFarlane was reportedly approached by several studio executives. He told GamePro:
“Yeah, you know…ever since Iron Man came out, the phone’s been ringing. A movie studio CEO called me today, actually: ‘I just wanna say we’re interested. But I think he was the last of the big studios to call me! But I’m still of the mind that [a Spawn movie sequel] is a lower budget, cooler, creepier movie. When we get there, it’ll get made. [This goes back to something I said a few years ago], which is that the movie studios will start burning through the A and A- characters. They did a fantastic job with Iron Man, who I don’t think many fans would describe as an ‘A+’ character, by getting him up to that level with the movie.”
McFarlane reiterated his earlier sentiment that he wanted to write, direct and produce himself on a budget of about $10 million.
”I tell everybody that in advance... The answer is, the only way anyone will say ‘yes’ to that is if I keep the budget low. If I make it an $80 million budget, they won’t let me direct it…nor would I want to direct it. There are too many guys who are smarter that can do it. But a $10 million dollar creepy movie? I can do that one….In the movie idea I have for Spawn, there is no super villain. It’s a completely real drama that happens to have a spook in it. And it doesn’t mean that the spook has an arch-enemy or a nemesis, or any of that. It just means that there’s a sentinel stuck in the middle of The Godfather.
In early 2013, McFarlane got back to talking about the project, stating he continued to make progress on the script, dropping the bomb that an Oscar-winning actor was apparently very interested in the role.
"I continue to write a page here and there. As I’ve said before, I’ve got a guy waiting on the sidelines who’s an Academy Award-winning actor who phones every three weeks going ‘Todd, where’s the script? Where’s the script?’… He came out to the office, he gave me his pitch, I gave him my pitch, and he’s like ‘Fine, let’s do your gig."
Later that same year actor Jamie Foxx claimed to be "aggressively pursuing the role," leading many to believe that he was in fact the actor McFarlane had been talking about. When asked about the prospect of Foxx in the role, his reaction was less than positive. This was surprising given his proposed budget balanced against Jamie Foxx's standard price tag.
Despite the arduously long time the film had spent in development, McFarlane admitted that he was still only about one third of the way through the screenplay. Something needed to light a fire under him and get him moving at a quicker pace. Cue the fans, and (surprisingly) 20th Century Fox.
Fans And Fox Give Todd A Shot In The Arm
In 2014, filmmaker and long time Spawn fan Michael Paris produced his own fan film entitled Spawn: THE RECALL. To say it was received positively is putting it lightly.
It was covered on all the major comic book movie websites and many fans even pushed for Paris to become involved in some capacity with the official reboot long in development. While McFarlane has never commented on the film publicly, it is almost a certainty that he was at least made aware of it, and very possible that it helped motivate him to finish the script. It was less than two years later that McFarlane finally announced that he'd finally finished his first draft of the script.
Another huge event that worked in this film's favor was Fox's release of the movie Deadpool, and the reaction, both critically and financially. This was another R-rated superhero. Violent, vulgar, definitely not meant for children, it also went through its own tumultuous production troubles, sitting in development hell for 10 years before Ryan Reynolds could get it into theaters. However, its release and subsequent success gave new life to comic book films not aimed at children or family audiences.
Where Are We Now?
So, that brings us up to news. that after 20 years in development and McFarlane's demands to produce, write, and direct a low-budget Spawn movie, it's finally happening. Spawn fans are delighted, but also cautiously optimistic. While we love the character (as well as the creator's work), Todd McFarlane has never directed a feature film before.
There's no telling how much of the previous comments made about this movie will carry over to the final product. We do know that they still want to make a small horror thriller rather than a high-budget action blockbuster. McFarlane recently confirmed that Twitch is still the main character, and that Spawn will be more of a menace in the background.
While there is certainly reason to be apprehensive, this could be another in a long line of false starts. It could also prove to be another disastrous comic book film, due to an inexperienced director taking control of something too big for them to handle. However, there is also reason to be optimistic. Todd McFarlane is a talented writer after all — he created the character, and he isn't trying to go for giant spectacle here. If anyone gets the character, it's him.