How 'Spawn' Can Broaden the Expectations of a Black-Led Comic Book Movie

Jamie Foxx and Spawn -Split - Getty-Photofest - H 2018
JB Lacroix/ WireImage; Photofest
Jamie Foxx's film has the chance to tap into the urban ruin that exists on the streets of America and break past the supposed barriers of superheroism.

The '90s are back in a major way. Well, at least they are when it comes to comic book adaptations. With Thanos taking down the Avengers in Infinity War; Deadpool 2 cutting its way through the box office; Venom set to be released this October; and Aquaman, complete with the character’s long locks and attitude, ready to take December by storm, there’s a lot at stake for '90s comic characters, concepts and costumes. But no resurgence of that era's comic properties would be complete without Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, which changed the industry and created a short-lived, though significant, boom across multiple platforms. Tuesday's news that Oscar winner Jamie Foxx would be taking the lead role of Al Simmons/Spawn in the Blumhouse-produced feature adds a level of prestige to the project that will hopefully see Spawn’s popularity rise in the way some of his other '90s contemporaries have in recent years. Spawn, will also mark the directorial debut of McFarlane, who had tried to get the project out of development hell for years before Blumhouse announced the project last year. While the superhero market is undoubtedly crowded, Spawn, particularly with Foxx’s clout behind it, has a chance to offer a unique experience for audiences, particularly those looking to get acquainted with other black comic heroes after the success of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther.

Spawn first hit the stands in 1991. The title was one of the breakout books at Image Comics, the creator-owned company founded by then former Marvel artists, McFarlane, Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino and Rob Liefeld. McFarlane, who had become a superstar at Marvel working on The Amazing Spider-Man and Spider-Man, experienced the popularity of '90s anti-heroes with his co-creation of Venom. Spawn tells the story of former CIA black-ops agent Al Simmons, who is betrayed and killed by his agency, and sent to hell for the murder of innocents during his time working for the government. In hell, Simmons makes a pact with the devil, Malebolgia, to see his wife and child again, with the cost being his transformation into a demonic creature that hunts down sinners as Spawn. Like most comics, Spawn became an increasingly complex title over the years, unleashing a whole host of demonic characters and concepts. But McFarlane’s original blend of street-level crime, espionage and horror proved to be quite the hook, and Spawn, for lack of a better word, spawned spin-off comics, video games, an action figure line, an animated series on HBO and a film starring Michael Jai White as the character. The 1997 film, directed by Mark A.Z. Dippe and distributed by New Line Cinema, was a modest box-office success but was torn apart by critics. Plans for a sequel were scrapped. Spawn, while still a comic book mainstay, never quite recovered the same popularity after that. But the perfect storm has been created to lead to his resurgence.

The 1997 film attempted to be a special-effects-driven superhero movie without the budget to meet those ends. McFarlane's upcoming film is said to lean more into the horror angle. One of things that set Spawn apart from the DC and Marvel books when it made its debut in 1991 was how grounded its exploration of crime could be. Much like Frank Miller had done with Sin City at Dark Horse that same year, Spawn didn’t flinch at the ugly and often graphic nature of crime. Following in the footsteps of Miller and James O’Barr’s The Crow, Spawn tapped into urban dark fantasy, and with McFarlane’s dramatic line work and compelling creature designs, really felt unlike anything else on the stands. Plus, Spawn was black. While this factor may not have had a huge impact for white readers, it was a major deal for black comic fans of a certain age, as Spawn was an introduction to black superheroes. In the PBS documentary, Superheroes, McFarlane discuses being tired of the stereotypical white superheroes and the inability to offer commentary on race with mainstream characters like Spider-Man. But McFarlane didn’t want race to be the defining issue for his character, citing examples like Black Panther and Luke Cage, which ultimately led to Spawn. Simmons, stripped of his skin to become Spawn, was McFarlane’s way of showcasing that the character could be just as compelling as a white character, particularly for the white-dominated comic readership.

Blumhouse, with the release of Get Out and its relationship with writer-director Jordan Peele, has shown a clear interest in tackling topics and themes that go beyond the traditional horror tropes. While the company continues to release plenty of traditional horror films, its relationship with Peele and the increasingly racially charged Purge movies, show a studio that not only recognizes its significant black horror audience, but also its ability to explore race in a way that few other mainstream horror production companies are doing. While there’s no confirmation that Spawn will tackle race directly, Foxx’s presence certainly suggests that the film won’t allow audiences to forget it. Foxx has frequently sought out racially charged roles or ones that have helped redefine blackness onscreen through Collateral, Ray and Django Unchained. Even studio misfires like White House Down or The Amazing Spider-Man 2 provided some way for Foxx to break away from certain expectations that come with casting a black man in a traditionally white role. There’s little doubt that he will find a way make a statement with Spawn.

Black Panther and its $1.35 billion global box office opened doors for black superheroes to take larger roles in Hollywood, not just as supporting characters but as leads. Within those open doors is the space for black superhero stories to be just as diverse as their white counterparts. While many rival studios will surely try to capture Marvel Studios' success with Black Panther, and some might succeed while others fail, Spawn has all the makings of a film that broadens the expectations of black-led comic book films. Where Marvel’s film tapped into the dream of a black-led country and monarchy, Spawn has a chance to tap into the urban ruin that exists on the streets of America breaking past genres and supposed barriers of superheroism. Perhaps, given the current political climate of America, it’s time for a black superhero that doesn’t play nice. While it may not always be a pretty sight, McFarlane’s world is a necessary one that can prove why Spawn doesn’t just belong to the '90s – he belongs to now.