Welcome to Adventure(s) Time's eighty-sixth installment, a retrospective of animated heroes of the past. This week, we're closing up our look at the first season of Todd McFarlane's Spawn. Of course, '90s fans know other early Image heroes made it to the small screen. If you have any suggestions for the future, just leave a message or contact me on Twitter.
Truthfully, HBO's experimentation with adult-oriented animation didn't last long. Yet, the impact of this series is still felt today. The idea of comics-accurate adaptations of Dark Knight Returns or Killing Joke were unthinkable in 1997. And presenting an early Image hero in expressly R-rated material (as opposed to the normally PG-13 comics, which were still marketed towards younger fans purchasing Marvel's line) didn't feel entirely safe at the time. Now, for better or worse, going R-rated is often the default for much of this material.
Watching the episode on streaming today, the first thing to stand out about the season finale is its title. Yes, this is truly the "Endgame" for the show's first season. Written by showrunner Alan McElroy, the episode ties up most of the season's plot threads, while still hinting at a direction for a possible second season. (Presenting the six episodes as an extended arc is another indication the show was ahead of its time in some respects.)
The opening of the episode has Spawn investigating the kidnapping of his widow's daughter, Cyan. The little girl is just one element of the conspiracy that's been unraveling in the previous episodes. The slow burn of this mystery has been spotty at times, but there is a real sense of payoff here. What's rewarding for those familiar with McFarlane's original stories is just how McElroy has threaded together the opening issues of the comics into this arc.
United States Senator Scott McMillan uses his power to cover for his illegitimate son's child killings. Shady bureaucrat, and Spawn's former boss, Jason Wynn, does McMillan's dirty work, reveling in the influence he has over the senator. Reporters surreptitiously get word of McMillan and Wynn's arrangement. They're murdered by mobsters, hired indirectly by Wynn, on the night Spawn returns to Earth. Detectives Sam and Twitch catch the case, assuming this man in a red cape is the culprit. Spawn, however, doesn't act as much of a hero, remaining more concerned with reclaiming his old life. He doesn't investigate the reporters' murder; he'd rather visit his grave to confirm he isn't truly dead. (He's wrong.)
Meanwhile, a patsy framed for Billy Kincaid's murders is represented by Wanda Blake, Spawn's former wife. She uncovers the truth, just as her husband, Spawn's former best friend and employee of Wynn, is stumbling across some of Wynn's dirty dealings. Their daughter Cyan is kidnapped as a intimidation ploy. Spawn's demonic trainer, Violator, arranges for child killer Billy Kincaid to steal Cyan away from Wynn's agents.
This brings us to "Endgame." Spawn pursues Cyan, just as Sam and Twitch uncover the truth about Senator McMillan. Spawn confronts Kincaid in his home, only to find himself dragged along the back of the killer's ice cream truck during a police chase.
It's the most kinetic the show's been for the first season, as the producers intentionally evoke the feel of a live-action cop drama. The heavy percussion is likely inspired by the opening of NYPD Blue, escalating as the truck careens out of control into Spawn's adopted alleys. Then, the score shifts into a bizarre, almost evil chanting, as Spawn confronts Kincaid.
He's saved Cyan; the question now is if he's going to kill the wounded Kincaid. For a show that's been light on musical accompaniment, the score truly enhances the tension here. (It's hard to determine if Batman: The Animated Series alum Shirley Walker contributed more than the main theme, but this feels worthy of her work.)
The opening of the episode has Todd McFarlane speaking to camera, asking if killing a killer adds or subtracts from the evil of the world. Previous episodes have teased the idea of Spawn cultivating a new moral code, developing a new appreciation for human life in death. It's not the clearest character arc ever written, but McElroy's going somewhere surprising with this. Surprising, if you're familiar with Spawn's comics incarnation.
Spawn makes the call not to kill Kincaid. He guides Cyan out of the alley, into her mother's arms. In Cyan's hands is a gift from the man who could've been her father. Cyan presents to her mother the wedding band Spawn stole from his own corpse in the opening episode. Wanda asks Cyan where she got this. Cyan responds it was a gift from "The Sad Man."
Meanwhile, Violator pitches an HBO-ready fit. He proclaims Spawn failed his test -- of course he was supposed to kill Kincaid. Declaring that good help is hard to find, Violator pulls out a small revolver and blasts Kincaid in the brain. Season 1 concludes, with a reminder of the brutality of this world, but also a note of hope.
The inspiration for this episode, and much of the first season, comes from one comic. October 1992's Spawn #5 introduces child killer Billy Kincaid. And it very clearly ends in his death. However, let's say there's less...nuance in McFarlane's original story.
Alan McElroy's most notable alteration to the backstory is making Kincaid the son of a senator. In McFarlane's original concept, Kincaid murdered the daughter of a senator. One who hired Spawn in his previous life, government assassin Al Simmons, to kill Kincaid. The police find him first, Al Simmons is murdered by his own agency, and five years pass.
Due to the senator's enemies within the government, evidence against Kincaid goes missing. He's freed from a mental hospital not long after Simmons returns to earth as Spawn. Detectives Sam and Twitch, who initially investigated Kincaid, are furious. Their paths cross with Spawn's, as he decides to take care of Kincaid today.
Is Spawn goaded by Kincaid targeting Wanda's daughter? Not really. He just considers the possibility and decides to act.
While Sam and Twitch stake out Kincaid's home, Spawn sneaks in. No moral quandaries about killing here. Spawn savagely impales the child murderer. And, for some ungodly reason, strings his body up in Sam and Twitch's office at the police precinct. (Sheesh, what have they done to you, Mr. Moody?)
Calling Spawn #5 controversial would be an understatement. The graphic depictions of dead children, and the closing image of Kincaid's lifeless body impaled with popsicle sticks, genuinely stunned readers. Depicting Kincaid's idea of "finger paints," and naming his child victims after current Marvel freelancers and higher-ups...let's say that didn't go unnoticed.
Many comic shops refused to sell the issue to readers under eighteen. Fans in Australia reported the government was prohibiting the issue from entering the country. And Todd McFarlane's wife, the nominal editor of the series, demanded he take her name off the comic when she saw its content. But if you think this is controversial, just wait until McFarlane creates an electric chair themed action figure...
THE WRAP -UP
I'm not sure if the character models have been tweaked, but there's a cartoonier look this episode. The show's struggled with just how graphic (as in "abstract"...it has no issues with nudity or gore) it wants to be. There are still some bland designs, but also specific images that closely resemble Greg Capullo's work.
Spawn's showdown with his earthly killer Chapel is left for the next season. It's very possible those issues of the comic haven't been published when McElroy's mapping out Season One.
NO "FINGER PAINTS" ON HBO, SURPRISINGLY
So, obviously, the comics do not present killing as a great moral dilemma. And that's one of the fundamental flaws in the series' initial conception. Spawn is a character with no truly heroic motivation -- he only wants his wife back, something he can't have. He doesn't want to defend the innocent (unless he has a personal connection to the individual) or engage the evil in battle. Without his wife, Spawn desires only solitude. And when he is drawn into battle, killing his opponent means nothing to Spawn.
There's no real conflict here. He wants something he can't have, and this romantic desire doesn't exactly lend itself to the visuals readers expect in action-oriented comics. Additionally, death doesn't appear to change Spawn's moral point of view at all. He still has no issues with killing, and doesn't appear to have any deep thoughts on the difference between right and wrong.
The comics evaded addressing this for years, coasting on the stunning visuals and impressive production values. Eventually, many fans detected an emptiness to the concept and bailed. When creating the adaptation, Alan McElroy recognizes these problems. Unfortunately, he doesn't stick around to provide a way for McFarlane to move forward. The comics' sense of aimlessness, regrettably, slowly enters the animation in the coming episodes.