Al Simmons is a Force Reconnaissance Marine Colonel and Black Ops operative. Jason Wynn, the head of the covert government agency for which Simmons works, assigns him to infiltrate a biochemical weapons plant in North Korea. Unknown to Simmons, Wynn has ordered his top assassin Jessica Priest to murder him while he is on the mission. After Simmons dies, he is set on fire by Wynn and the flames cause the plant to explode. Simmons arrives in Hell, where one of the rulers of Hell - Malebolgia - offers him a Faustian deal: if Simmons becomes his eternal servant and leader of his army in Armageddon, he will be able to return to Earth to see his fiancée, Wanda Blake. Simmons accepts the offer and returns to Earth.
Upon his return, Simmons learns that five years have passed since his death. Wanda is now married to his best friend Terry Fitzgerald, who is living as the father to Al's daughter Cyan. Soon Simmons encounters a clown-like demon named Violator, sent by Malebolgia, who acts as Simmons's guide down the path to evil. He also meets a mysterious old man named Cogliostro, a fellow Hellspawn, who has successfully freed his soul and now fights for Heaven. Simmons learns that Wynn, who is now a weapons dealer, has developed a biological weapon called Heat 16. During a reception, Spawn attacks Wynn, kills Jessica, and escapes with the help of his necroplasm armor.
Following the attack by Simmons, Violator convinces Wynn to have a device attached to his heart that will release Heat 16 worldwide if his vital signs flatline as a deterrent against assassination attempts. However, Malebolgia wants Simmons to kill Wynn and initiate the apocalypse. Spawn confronts Violator, who turns into his demonic form and beats Al down. Cogliostro rescues Al and teaches him how to use his necroplasm armor. Simmons learns that Violator and Wynn are going to kill Terry, Cyan, and Wanda.
Terry sends an email incriminating Wynn to a fellow newsman. Just as the email is sent, Cyan and Wynn enter the room. Wynn destroys Terry's computer and takes the family hostage. Spawn arrives and nearly kills Wynn, but Al extracts the device from Wynn's body instead and destroys it. With his plan foiled, Violator sends Spawn and Cogliostro to Hell, where they both battle the demon before subduing him. Spawn is then confronted by Malebolgia, who tells Spawn that he will never lead Hell's army. Spawn escapes with Cogliostro just before they are overwhelmed by Malebolgia's forces. Violator, having recovered, follows them. A final battle ensues, ending with Spawn decapitating the demon with his chains. Violator's head taunts the group and threatens his return before melting and returning to Hell. Wynn is arrested, and Spawn, realizing there is no place for him in Wanda's world anymore, dedicates himself to justice rather than succumbing to his lust for vengeance.
Columbia Pictures showed interest in making a film adaptation of Spawn when the comic book was launched in 1992. Negotiations eventually fell through as Todd McFarlane felt that the studio was not giving him enough creative control. He eventually sold the film rights to New Line Cinema for $1 in exchange for creative input and merchandising rights. New Line president Michael DeLuca, a comic book collector himself, expressed interest in having "a character that has as established an audience as Spawn", while declaring that success hinged on an adaptation that "maintains a PG-13 rating but retains its darkness."
As visual effects were the main production concern, the film was to be produced by Pull Down Your Pants Pictures, a company formed by former Industrial Light & Magic artists Mark A.Z. Dippé, Clint Goldman, and Steve 'Spaz' Williams. Dippé was slated to direct the film, with Goldman as producer, and Williams as second unit director and visual effects supervisor. Dippé and Williams, who at the time was the only one of the three still attached to ILM, called the film opportunity "our ticket out of the company". The script would be written by Alan B. McElroy, who, along with writing the Spawn comic book, also wrote many episodes of the Todd McFarlane's Spawn animated series.
Michael Jai White found Al Simmons' character appealing; he described Spawn as "the most tragic character I've encountered in any cinematic production." He says it was a challenge to make audiences sympathize with a government assassin who comes back from hell. White had endure two to four hours of make-up work, including a full glued-on bodysuit, yellow contact lenses that irritated his eyes, and a mask that restricted his breathing. He said that his long-time experience with martial arts helped him to endure the uncomfortable prosthetics, giving him "strong will and unbreakable concentration."
Spawn was originally green-lit with a budget of $20 million. The scale of the visual effects led New Line to continually increase the project's budget, which grew to $40 million — a third of which was spent on the effects. The shooting schedule was only 63 days. To cut production time by a week, Goldman lent $1 million to engage John Grower's Santa Barbara Studios to develop the digitally produced Hell sequences. The visual effects shot count increased from 77 to over 400, created by 22 companies in the United States, Canada and Japan, requiring 70 people and nearly 11 months to complete. ILM did most of the work, creating 85 shots at a cost of $8.5 million. The most difficult sequences to render in the film included the Violator, Spawn's digital cape, and some of Spawn's transformations. More than half of the final effects shots were delivered two weeks before the film's debut.
Terry Fitzgerald, Al Simmons' best friend before his death, is black in the comics. In the film, he is white, portrayed by D. B. Sweeney. Todd McFarlane explained that this change was made by the studio to avoid having too many black leads, as they believed this would give the false impression that film's target audience was the African American demographic.
In the comics, Al Simmons' murderer was Chapel, a character created by Rob Liefeld for the comic Youngblood, while Jessica Priest, a character created for the film, took Chapel's place in the movie.
The original cut of Spawn earned an R-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America resulting in the producers toning down the violence in the film to get a PG-13 rating.
Spawn was released on August 1, 1997. It grossed $19,738,749 that opening weekend, ranking it second behind Air Force One. For its second weekend, the film dropped to number three in the box office, reflecting a decreased earnings of 54.7% and a gross of $8,949,953. The film was considered a modest box-office success. Based on a $40 million budget, it grossed $54,870,174 domestically and $32,969,867 overseas for a worldwide total revenue of $87,840,042.
The film received negative reviews from film critics. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the film is rated at 18% on the Tomatometer, based on 44 reviews with the consensus: "Spawn is an overbearing, over-violent film that adds little to the comic book adaptation genre." It holds a score of 34 out of 100 from 17 critics on Metacritic indicating generally unfavorable reviews. One of the few positive reviews was from Roger Ebert, who awarded the film 3½ out of 4 stars. He ended his review with "As a visual experience, Spawn is unforgettable."
At the Saturn Awards, Spawn was nominated for Best Make-up. The film was also nominated for three Blockbuster Entertainment Awards for Favorite Male Newcomer (Michael Jai White), Favorite Horror Supporting Actor (John Leguizamo) and Favorite Horror Supporting Actress (Theresa Randle). At the Sitges - Catalan International Film Festival, Spawn was nominated for Best Film; the film was also nominated for & won the Best Special Effects award.
The film was released on VHS on May 5, 1998 in a PG-13 version and an R-rated Director's Cut version. The Director's Cut version included 45 minutes of additional footage, a music video for "(Can't You) Trip Like I Do" performed by electronica duo The Crystal Method and featuring alternative rock group Filter, a soundtrack promo and a "Making of Spawn" featurette. The Director's Cut version was released on DVD on January 9, 1998 and on Blu-ray on July 10, 2012.
A sequel, tentatively titled Spawn 2, has been in development hell since 1998. Michael Jai White maintained that he was part of the project in 2001, as did producer Don Murphy, though their involvement was not confirmed. McFarlane has stated that the film will center primarily on the detective characters Sam and Twitch, leaving Spawn without a speaking part. During a FanboyRadio.com interview, McFarlane confirmed that the sequel would be a franchise reboot, similar to Batman Begins and both the 2004 version of The Punisher and 2008's Punisher: War Zone.
In 2007, McFarlane Funding made plans to make a new Spawn film, scheduled for release in 2008, called Spawn. During an interview on the Scott Ferrall show on Sirius radio, McFarlane said: "It's coming out no matter what. Even if I have to produce, direct and finance it myself, it's going to come out."
McFarlane announced on August 23, 2009 that he had begun writing the screenplay for a new movie based on the character, saying that "The story has been in my head for 7 or 8 years", that "The movie idea is neither a recap or continuation. It is a standalone story that will be R-rated. Creepy and scary", and that "the tone of this ‘Spawn’ movie will be for a more older audience. Like the film The Departed."
On March 31, 2011, McFarlane said that he was three quarters through the script with a planned budget of around $10 million, and that it would feature no supervillains. Michael Jai White said in July 2011 that he was interested in returning to the role for the next film:
I hope [McFarlane] does [make the film]. In the next couple years I might have to produce it myself. It's a no-brainer. Look at how these movies have done, superhero movies that have gone dark, and there hasn't been one darker than Spawn. If we do it like we want to, it could be a game changer. I think Todd feels the same way as me — that we go R. Not a kinder, gentler Spawn, we go straight R — like pushing it, pushing NC-17. Give the fans what they expect. That edge brought [the comic book] to where it is. I would really like to show what that character can be.
In February 2013, McFarlane revealed that he was still working on the script and a new animated series, and also mentioned that an Academy Award winning actor had shown interest for the part of Spawn, but did not reveal his name at the time. In July, Jamie Foxx said he was "aggressively pursuing" the Spawn reboot. In August, McFarlane mentioned that "It's not going to be a giant budget with a lot of special effects; it's going to be more of a horror movie and a thriller movie, not a superhero one." In September, McFarlane mentioned that he hoped to start shooting in 2014, with the studio wanting a draft of his script by December. On October 10, McFarlane revealed that he wanted the film to be an R-rated supernatural thriller without the superhero elements associated with Spawn.
On February 14, 2016, McFarlane announced he had completed the film's script and hoped to start production sometime in 2016.
At San Diego Comic-Con in July 2017, it was announced that the film was in production under Blumhouse Productions, and that McFarlane is signed on to direct.
Spawn: The Album was released in July 1997 and featured popular rock bands at the time including: Metallica, Korn, Slayer, Marilyn Manson, Stabbing Westward, Filter, Soul Coughing and Silverchair with well-known electronic rock, hip hop, alternative rock, DJs, rock, jazz and electronic producers such as The Crystal Method, Roni Size, The Prodigy, DJ Greyboy, Incubus, Orbital and 808 State. A similar concept was previously implemented on the rock/hip hop-infused Judgment Night soundtrack. The album debuted at #7 on the U.S. Billboard 200 and stayed on the chart for 25 weeks. The album is certified Gold for selling over 500,000 copies in America.
The US version of the album features variant cover art and the bonus track "This Is Not A Dream" performed by, Morphine and Apollo 440. The Australian and Japanese versions, besides the bonus track, feature cover art based on images seen in Spawn #39 and a marquee of Spawn: In the Demon's Hand. The Japanese version contains a third disk with three remixes. The McFarlane Collector's Club made an LP release available to its members, featuring the standard album art and a translucent red disc.