Welcome to Adventure(s) Time's eighty-third installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. This time, we're going back to the debut season of Todd McFarlane's Spawn, the HBO adaptation of the '90s hit comic. Obviously, much of the show's inspiration came from the Image comic series. However, this specific episode seems to also be borrowing from a particular storyline going back to McFarlane's Marvel days.
"Souls in the Balance," from writer Gary Hardwick (later an executive producer on the LL Cool J sitcom In the House) and animation studio Ko-Ko, is the penultimate episode of the first season. Several plotlines intersect, paving the way for the next episode's climatic finale. Like the previous installment, we have numerous scenes of shadowy conspiracies unraveling, with evil bureaucrat Jason Wynn in the center. But, unlike last time, there's more action here, and more for the title character to do.
The episode opens with a deranged priest escorting a child hostage through Spawn's alleys. The police corner the madman, only to discover he's carrying a personal armory of grenades. After destroying a sector car, the priest and his hostage bump into Spawn during their escape.
Our undead protagonist's brave response is to... do nothing and let him go. This plays as just dumb, but it's fairly consistent with how Spawn's been portrayed so far. He doesn't view himself as a hero, has no motivations outside of getting his wife back (something that simply cannot happen) and refuses all human contact.
Still, you'd think even the most misanthropic of violent antiheroes would do something when they see a sadistic priest dragging a mute boy around the back alleys. Spawn's frustrated mentor, Cogliostro, berates him, telling Spawn he must defend these alleys if he's making them his home.
What does push Spawn over the edge is an unhinged uniform cop shooting up the alleys, looking for the bomber. Spawn responds by restraining the cop against a wall, unaware the officer is now an easy target of the mad priest. When the cop's body is found, police swarm the alleys. Spawn, reflecting on Cogliostro's lecture, flashes back to his life with Wanda. Specifically, to the day they decided to start a family. Of all the scenes to adapt from the comics, we see the story of Wanda's puppy brought to the screen.
That's from Spawn #43, during the days of McFarlane inking Greg Capullo's pencils.
Meanwhile, Jason Wynn schemes. It's decided that both Wanda and her husband Terry have become a nuisance. After murdering the detective investigating the truth behind the child killings pinned on Wanda's client, Wynn orders his men to kidnap Terry and Wanda's daughter, Cyan. Violator, with his magic ability to just know these things, intercepts the plot. He makes contact with child murderer Billy Kincaid and sends him to the safehouse where Wynn's flunkies have taken Cyan.
Back in the alleys, Spawn witnesses the final showdown between the police and the bomber. There's an eerie sequence where a sniper takes out the priest... only for him to abruptly come back to life. It's a well-executed sequence, one I'd compliment the director for, if only he'd been credited.
The undead priest commits his final sickening act, pulling the pins of numerous grenades simultaneously. Spawn actually acts as a hero and saves the boy from the explosion. We're to believe this is a significant event for the character. The moment he finally realizes the importance of taking a stand. But, really, Spawn's still pretty much a jerk by the episode's end.
And, the kicker for all this? Turns out the mad priest was no priest at all. Just another human form taken by the demonic Violator. (Though, really, why? What's his motivation for forcing Spawn into becoming more heroic?)
Now, an insane religious zealot taking a boy hostage, casually destroying bystanders with explosives... why does that sound oddly familiar? Well, it's the hook for two issues of McFarlane's Spider-Man series, back in 1991.
Spider-Man#6 introduces a new take on Hobgoblin. One that's very much in line with McFarlane's sensibilities, not Gerry Conway's or David Michelinie's. Previously, the Hobgoblin had been unfazed by his transformation into a literal goblin. If anything, he seemed to enjoy the reactions it provoked.
In McFarlane's story, we learn it's actually driven him insane. He now views the world in strict religious terms, having convinced himself he's no demon at all. No, it's all of the pretty people who are truly devils in disguise.
Hobgoblin takes it upon himself to rescue a child from his corrupted mother. And, just like the kid in this Spawn episode, he's even named Adam!
Although Spider-Man was a mainstream, Comics Code Approved series, it actually took one aspect of the story further than HBO's Spawn. The final page of Spider-Man #6 reveals Hobgoblin has remade Adam in his own image. Pretty disturbing stuff for the time.
Spider-Man #7 presents the climactic battle between Spider-Man, Ghost Rider (hunting Hobgoblin, who's spilled innocent blood), and the villain. There's a bit of forced drama here, as Spider-Man spends the issue attempting to rescue bystanders caught in Ghost Rider's way. And to stop the Spirit of Vengeance from killing Hobgoblin.
Actually, concurrent issues of Ghost Rider showed him as unwilling to kill, and certainly not as someone who'd casually allow an innocent to be harmed.
McFarlane was attempting to make a statement about the unheroic vigilantes of the era, contrasting them against the morally pure Spider-Man. A nice idea for a story, but not executed particularly well.
There is a great significance to this two-parter, however. McFarlane has acknowledged Ghost Rider's chains and spikes inspired elements of Spawn's final design. We also have what appears to be a prototype of Spawn's Detective Sam Burke in this story. And the kind of "media montage" often used in Spawn, as well.
As much as fans might've wished for a Spawn/Spider-Man crossover, it'd seem Spawn/Ghost Rider would be a natural fit.
THE WRAP -UP
Visually, "Souls in the Balance" is more consistent than the previous episode. But if we're to compare this to McFarlane's visual style, allegedly the inspiration for the show...there's something missing. The extreme features and expressions that define McFarlane's work just aren't translating to the screen at this point. The next season does a better job figuring this out.
HEY, I KNOW THAT VOICE
Hollywood veteran Ronny Cox voices Senator McMillan and his illegitimate son Billy Kincaid. Cox is best known for the roles of Drew Ballinger in Deliverance and Richard "Dick" Jones in RoboCop.
FORGET YOUR EARTHLY WANTS
Todd McFarlane's Spawn, frankly, does a better job than Todd McFarlane's Spawn comic in expressing the themes of the early issues and connecting plot threads. That doesn't mean the sudden appearance of a crazed priest and his child hostage flows organically from the previous episodes. It doesn't. But it's likely the jarring appearance from the villain is an intentional choice. It is memorable and disturbing, which is what the creators were going for.
What doesn't work quite as well is the larger point the story's apparently trying to make. Is this the moment Spawn stops acting like a selfish jerk? When he finally decides to use these abilities to help others, even if it means damning his own soul? Not really. Maybe the creators are attempting to foreshadow his decision to rescue little Cyan in the next episode. Even in that case, I don't think Spawn at his worst would allow his ex-wife's daughter to be harmed, so it doesn't exactly work.
There is a larger question of heroism that McFarlane occasionally explores. Ironically, he comes out strongly against Spawn's brand of anti-hero in those Spider-Man stories. Were the two characters ever to meet, it'd make a nice angle to explore. But, still, Spawn/Ghost Rider would look cooler.