I kid you not: I read my first comic book in 1970. (It was a Batman story, but I honestly don’t remember any of the specifics.) Bitten by the superhero bug at such a ripe, young age, the interest naturally stuck with me, and I’ve been reading them ever since. To be fair, I don’t read them as ambitiously as I used to – I chalk that up to the nurturing on one’s particular tastes as one gets a bit older or ‘long in the tooth,’ as they say. Still, I’ve been there through perhaps every television and/or cinematic discovery (or rediscovery) of what quality comic book material looks like once it’s committed to celluloid. TV’s Spider-man. TV’s Wonder Woman. The Incredible Hulk. All the way up to NBC’s HEROES, the various Bat-films, and the Marvel flicks. I certainly wouldn’t classify myself as any expert on the subject, but I would consider myself to have a modestly learned opinion.
That said, I was probably as underwhelmed by SPARKS as I was impressed. Like any low budget or independent production, it has its relative strengths and weaknesses, and I’ll be happy to share them with you after this brief qualifier …
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
A radioactive meteor strikes Earth in the past, killing most of its three hundred victims but gifting a small group (named ‘The Rochester 13’) with not only superhuman abilities but also the capability of passing on their skills to their future offspring. Ian Sparks (played with noir-fueled sensibilities by Chase Williamson) wasn’t one of the resulting superheroes, but, after his parents die in a horrific automobile accident, he nevertheless commits himself to the cause of cleaning up the streets. Years later – as he continues his crusade – he relocates to the Big Apple and joins forces with the comely Lady Heavenly (a comely and heavenly Ashley Bell, who graciously bares her midriff for fanboys everywhere). However, their battle against a demented supervillain known only as Matanza (William Katt) leaves them physically and emotionally scarred. Can they overcome their greatest failure and eventually find true love again?
Despite some modest reservations with the story (I’ll get to that in a moment), there’s still plenty to ‘dig’ about SPARKS. Essentially, directors Christopher Folino (who also wrote the source graphic novel as well as the screenplay) and Todd Burrows have dished out a cinematic valentine to comic book stories, quite probably reminiscent of those they read in their youth. Their visual style owes a lot of inspiration to Warren Beatty’s DICK TRACY (1990) and Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s SIN CITY (2005) – two great-looking films worth giving an appreciable nod to – but with much more of this cobbled together on a vastly lower budget. (Not an insult, just an honest critical assessment.) It’s set during what I believe to be either the late 40’s or early 50’s, so there’s definitely a black-and-white feeling to a fairly limited color palate. Some of the period detail is quite good while others (again) clearly looks as though it was accomplished on a budget. However, Folino and Burrows knew how to give their feature the look they wanted, and I’ll let those accomplishments speak for themselves.
But about those story reservations …
At 98 minutes, the bulk of what’s in here is told via Sparks’ various flashbacks. Essentially, what you have here is – like in the comic book – a narrator telling you a story frame-by-frame. Where it gets a bit convoluted is that within Sparks’ own flashbacks he even begins recounting other characters’ flashbacks. (This is entirely necessitated by the fact that several character developments are hidden from the main character deep within the stories others have to tell him.) While I only found it exclusively confusing on a single occasion (watch closely when Sparks is flashing back to Archer’s flashbacks), it’s still not a storytelling frame I strongly encourage anyone else to use. In fact, I harken to think how the entire motion picture may’ve been better served by dropping that narrative trickery altogether and just telling the story in present day (with the obligatory subtitles telling us “three months later” when it is “three months later”). Who knows? It may’ve worked better.
Also about that running time, the last twenty minutes felt like they were vastly longer than twenty minutes; and I’d chalk that up to the narrative device going away (finally!) as everyone’s been brought up-to-speed. Clearly, there’s some fat in here – for example, Sparks figures out what is superpower is probably thirty minutes after the audience is already keen on it – and a leaner cut probably would’ve made this one a true fighting machine.
SPARKS: THE ORIGIN OF IAN SPARKS (2013) is produced by Sideshow Productions. DVD distribution is being handled by Image Entertainment. As for the technical specifications, this low budget superhero film offers up some surprisingly good sights and sounds, and there’s quite a bit of it that’s visual punctuated with some quite good cinematography. If it’s special features you want, then you have of making-of short to look forward to, along with some obligatory outtakes and an audio commentary by actor William Katt and directors Folino and Burrows: a nice assortment for what is clearly a very personal effort from all involved.
RECOMMENDED. SPARKS is the kind of film that likely has to be already in your wheelhouse of interests for you to truly appreciate what it has to offer. Stylistically, it borrows heavily from much in the superhero genre that’s come before, but don’t look for it to be anywhere near as accomplished as any of the Marvel Comics motion pictures, though it might be a tad more chic and sophisticated than any of the PUNISHER flicks. Sure, parts of it feel more than a bit derivative, but where there’s a spark there’s likely to be a fire. (See what I did there?) Passable and mostly kid-friendly, though there are some sexual assault undertones parents may not want to discuss much further than need be.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at RLJ Entertainment and Image Entertainment provided me with an advance DVD copy of SPARKS: THE ORIGIN OF IAN SPARKS by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.