Movies and comic books have borrowed from each other so incestuously for so long now that when you see Spawn (New Line), what you're really watching is a movie based on a comic book based on movies derived from other comic books. The hero, a black CIA assassin, is killed by an explosion inside a biological weapons plant and returns from the dead as Spawn (Michael Jai White), a scarred avenger who has made a pact with the devil to lead the armies of hell (or something like that). His body melted into a mass of charred sinew, Spawn, the freak underdog with spiky weap-ons bursting out of his skin, is Spider-Man, Batman, Darkman, RoboCop, the Crow, the Phantom of the Opera, and the English Patient rolled into one. Todd McFarlane, who created the Spawn comic books five years ago, has already spawned a pop empire. Spawn doesn't make a lot of sense, but the imagery whooshes by in glitzy psychedelic torrents. As with some of the loonier Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, the film gives you the pleasurably junky sensation of living inside an apocalyptic videogame.
Encased in organic body armor, which makes him look like a heavy metal bug, Spawn gets hurled down cosmic light tunnels and sits brooding atop Gothic spires, surrounded by a swirling cape of flame. Comic-book myths like Spawn are really projections of adolescent self-pity (which is why it's a little scary that so many 30-year-olds are into them). Fortunately, whenever things threaten to get too ''dark,'' John Leguizamo shows up as Clown, a stinky-puff demon who's like Humpty Dumpty played by Divine. Leguizamo devours a slice of pizza covered in maggots, but mostly he chews on his awful puns with the spit-spewing glee of a 6-year-old impersonating a mad scientist. It takes a special shamelessness to have this much fun acting this disgusting. B-