Spawn and the "Missing" Black Superhero

Curator's Note

The Making of Spawn” (1997), a 21-minute documentary feature detailing the production of the film which originally aired on the Sci-Fi Channel, largely emphasizes the film’s “groundbreaking” CGI. The effects, rather than anti-hero Spawn himself, are promoted as the main draw of the film. Spawn, released in 1997 as a mid-budget (approximately $40 million) superhero blockbuster, was positioned mainly as a testing ground for special effects, with its Black superhero main character a seemingly secondary focus.

Toward the end of the documentary, an effects artist from ILM describes the animating of Spawn’s cape, concluding that the cape “[is] like another character, almost.” Indeed, the film’s intended visual spectacles, including Spawn’s cape and main antagonist The Violator’s demonic creature form, appear to be more “main character” material than Spawn himself. Given that the film’s effects were generally panned upon the film’s release, it is not surprising that Spawn is remembered more as an artifact of the (largely failed) mid-range blockbuster trend of the late 1990s than as a Black superhero film. In terms of shaping later films, Todd McFarlane’s proposed Spawn remake is being promoted as a “low-budget” project where Spawn will largely remain off-screen (despite the casting of Academy Award-winner Jamie Foxx as Spawn, announced in May 2019). Yet again, it appears that Spawn will not be the main character in his own film.

In the case of Spawn, binding the two “experimental” elements of heavy visual effects and Black superheroes together ultimately hurt the prospects of Black superhero films by associating Black superheroes with poor CGI and underwritten characters. A look at Warner Bros.’ production diary (available via the Internet Archive) for the Shaquille O’Neal-led Steel (1997) shows a similar focus on visual effects and stunts, with little emphasis on the Black superhero as a character. This provides some explanation for the limited staying power of these films. The subsequent decline of the mid-budget film further marginalized Spawn and other contemporaneous Black superhero films (Spawn, Steel, and Blade were released within a year of one another, all with low-to-mid-range budgets). While some have predicted a mid-budget action renaissance, it is unlikely that studios will look to either Spawn or Steel for mid-budget superhero inspiration. Blade (1998) fared better both critically and commercially, but its R-rating placed it outside the boundaries of the standard PG-to-PG-13 superhero film.

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