Here’s the thing about adaptations of indie comic books: you can always tell when you’re watching one. A film like Sparks isn’t burdened with setting up a sequel or resetting everything back to the status quo, so it’s free to take tonal inspriation from darker films like Watchmen and explore themes like rape, incest, prostitution, and all that sunny stuff. The film isn’t perfect, and it meanders at times, but it’s got a set of balls on it, and that’s enough to earn my admiration.
Sparks is the story of Ian Sparks (John Dies at the End‘s Chase Williamson), a vigilante in late ’30s-early ’40s New York. Vigilantes are called “Supers” here, because in movies like this they’re usually called “Supers” or “Masks.” Anyway, Sparks meets and falls in love with Lady Heavenly (The Last Exorcism‘s Ashley Bell), only for some unseen horror to befall them the night he proposes to her. Well, unseen though it may be, it looks for all intents and purposes like Lady is raped by Matanza (a suitably menacing William Katt), a deranged serial killer outfitted in a gas mask-cum-gimp hood that is nonetheless pretty damn creepy.
Sparks isn’t afraid to stack tragedy on top of tragedy. And even more to the film’s credit, it’s not overly concerned with making its main character overly heroic or even likable. Williamson rises to the occasion, and relishes in scenes where he gets to indulge in Sparks’ more coldhearted tendencies, like when he has sex with a shape-shifting super, Dawn, but only while she’s in the guise of Lady Heavenly, or when he essentially pimps out Dawn in order to get ahead at work.
What directors Chris Folino (Gamers) and Todd Burrows are attempting here – making an independent superhero film that’s also a period piece – is admirable, even if it’s not always successful (Folino also wrote the screenplay, and the graphic novel source material). Unfortunately, Sparks is sometimes compromised by its shoestring budget, and nowhere is that more obvious than the CGI, which sometimes comes close to derailing scenes all by itself.
The film’s saving grace is undoubtedly its cast. Besides Williamson, Bell, and Katt, Folino and Burrows get good performances out of Jake Busey, Clint Howard, and the always welcome Clancy Brown. Moreover, the cinematography by Josh Fritts and Jackson Myers is enticing, and costume designer Manuel Silva does an especially good job with the period clothing.
Narratively, Sparks is a bit of a mixed bag, as it tends to roam in its second half and makes the arguably unwise decision to introduce a character who’s just, like, a monster. The ending drags a bit, but it’s a hoot to see Williamson dressed in an all-white suit like he’s in a Puff Daddy video, really tapping into Ian Sparks’ dark side. Williamson alone makes the film worth checking out (and Clancy Brown, whose coolness cannot be understated).
The features on the DVD are pretty bare-bones; there’s a commentary and a too-brief making of segment. I wish the filmmakers had included more of the behind-the-scenes action, as Katt is the only cast member interviewed, but it’s still fun to see how clearly enthusiastic he is about the project.
I don’t know if anyone is going to be clamoring for Sparks 2: The Re-Sparksening, but for the most part I like what Folino and Burrows have accomplished here. It’s nice to see a superhero movie that aims to do more than sell action figures, and even if Sparks is kind of hit-and-miss, I like where its head is at.