Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: with Suicide Squad, Warner Bros. has embraced the harder side of comic books, asking us to root for monsters and psychopaths - lovable ones, but still. This is new cinematic territory for the Big 2 comic book universes, but it's not altogether virgin territory.

Spawn is just so fucking '90s. A lot of that has to do with the comic book upon which the 1997 film was based: for indeed Todd MacFarlane's Spawn, which started its run in May 1992, was pretty fucking '90s itself. Those were the glory days of the ultra-dark superhero comic, in which the revolution begun by Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen in 1986 had gone from exciting to overplayed to self-parody, and when the only good superhero was one covered in blood from the serial child rapist he just punched into a thick soup. Spawn was itself one of the titles that helped to solidify that trend: it was a huge seller, the biggest hit by far for the new creator-driven Image Comics imprint, and all because it was so by-our-lady edgy that you could get cut just by looking at it.

The hook is that Spawn, Al Simmons (played Michael Jai White in the movie) was a CIA black ops assassin who went to Hell after he died (this being insufficiently nihilistic for the movie, he was turned into a world-class contract killer), whereupon he made a deal with the demon Malebolgia (a cartoony CGI monstrosity voiced by Frank Welker) to return to life as a semi-demonic warrior at the front of Hell's army. On Earth, Spawn turned to good, or at least good-facing, and brutally pulverised bad people. We don't get too much of that in the movie; it has to spend most of its time handling all of the business of being an origin story, so Spawn's career as a super-anti-hero is left to be picked up by the sequels that never materialised, after the film did middling box-office.

We could blame this on a couple of things. One is that the 1997 market for comic book adaptations was starting to soften. It's tough to remember in the second decade of the 21st Century, but there was a time when superhero movies were generally held to be laughable second-tier garbage, outside of Warner's Batman movies. They were for the most part junky genre fare, based on minor characters that nobody had heard about - Spawn being a singular exception - and they had the whiff of the gutter; nobody looked upon Judge Dredd or Barb Wire with anything remotely like respect. And with 1997 witnessing the release of Batman & Robin, even the solitary standard bearer for expensive, relatively respectable comic book cinema had crapped itself. Nobody cared; honestly, the fact that Spawn was able to scrape out $55 million at the U.S box office in that era speaks enormously highly of it.

The other thing is that Spawn is a piece of crap, though some of that is due more to the passage of time than the film's intrinsic value. In 1997, it was possible to portray a superhero as a warrior from Hell without it seeming so unrelentingly goofy; but the years have not been kind to the Dark Age of comic books, and looking upon Spawn as anything other than a time capsule finds it wanting rather badly; it's a prime example of over-the-top bleakness resulting in something more ridiculous than compelling in any way. Similarly, the special effects have aged badly: contemporary reviews speak highly of the film's CGI, but like so many effects-driven movies in the eight-year gully between Jurassic Park and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings, Spawn has a weightless, plastic feeling now. Sometimes it's not too damaging: the shots of Spawn's giant red cape don't ever look like real cloth, but it's not hard to mentally block it out and return to the mindset of a 1997 viewer. Sometimes, it's utterly hideous: Malebolgia looks irredeemably terrible, and I refuse to imagine that it was any different in '97. To be fair, some of it is actually good - there's a decent amount of morphing that holds up completely.

Anyway, Spawn's unforgivable sin of being a movie that was released in 1997 and not constantly updated every year since then is a problem more because without terribly interesting visuals, it leaves us with no distractions from a heinously bad script by Alan McElroy, from a story he co-wrote with director Mark A.Z. Dippé, or from an awesomely terrible performance by John Leguizamo as the film's villain, the foul, murderous Clown, who turns out to be merely the earthly form of a powerful demon named Violator. There might honestly not be any single facet of Spawn that more perfectly sums up the firm limitations of the "make it vicious!" tendency in self-consciously "edgy" pop culture of the time than Violator; just from the basic level of visual design, he's so calculated in his repulsive elements as to be more tacky than anything else. Outside of Stephen King's It, "murderous demon clown" has only ever been one of two things: a comically awful exercise in trying too hard to prove what a badass nihilist you are, or a dipshit cliché. Spawn's Clown is the former, but I can imagine it being salvaged, somewhat, with a really focused performance that ignores the costume and simply plays the role as pure menace; Leguizamo does exactly the opposite. He's encouraged or even required to do so by the script, which only gives the character the most grating, childish lines and gags, being offensive in the snottiest, least productive way, just to show off how fun it is to be snotty. It's a perfect embodiment of the secret problem of most self-consciously "adult" pop culture, which is that it has the mentality of a sullen teenager rather than an actual adult. Anyway, I hate the character and I hate Leguizamo's performance thereof, and he's too big a part of Spawn for it to ever survive his presence.

Nothing else about Spawn is that bad, but I'd be hard-pressed to name a solitary thing that is good. White's performance is perfectly fine, but he gets lost beneath the make-up; Martin Sheen has a good time hamming it up as the human villain, arms dealer Jason Wynn, but there's no sense that he takes the character seriously, which makes it hard to view him as a threat. The story is needless complex: while the film doesn't overstay its welcome at 96 minutes, or 98 in the slightly more violent director's cut, there's no need for it to be so impressed with its mythology that it dwells so extensively on how Spawn "works", when the whole point of "assassin resurrected as a demon warrior who turns against Hell" is that it's a high concept that shouldn't need more than an act before we can get to the good stuff.

What the good stuff might have been, I couldn't say. It's unlikely that this would have ever been particularly noteworthy: Dippé's direction is utterly uninspired, with a profoundly generic Hell and only a couple of moments where the action is even slightly interesting. Frankly, it never gets more visually impressive than the moments when Spawn's cape furls out and fills the frame, in unexpected moments of balletic grace. Otherwise, the whole film is totally boilerplate action against sets that look rather too much like sets, populated by characters who feel far too much like plot elements and not at all like emotional actors. Other than its overwrought but ultimately trivial bleak tone, Spawn ends up feeling like every other mid-budget comic book movie from the second half of the 1990s, and that was a uniquely dispiriting moment for such things.