Tragically and fashionably, The Crow turned superhero cinema into a death dance

Screenshot: The Crow
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The Crow is so weighed down with eerie, tragic coincidence that it’s almost hard to look at it as a real movie, rather than some mystic totem. Here we have a movie whose star, Brandon Lee, was killed in a freak on-set accident while filming his own character’s death. Lee’s father was, of course, Bruce Lee, a screen icon who also died young. Bruce was in the middle of filming Game Of Death when he died, and there’s a scene in that movie where his character, a martial-arts movie star, is shot, with a gun that’s supposed to be fake, during the filming of a movie scene.

It goes on. Brandon Lee, like his character in The Crow, was about to get married. (In the movie, Eric Draven, Lee’s character, and his fiancé, are both murdered on the night before their wedding.) It’s based on a 1989 underground comic book that its creator, James O’Barr, wrote, at least in part, to help him get over the death of his own fiancé. And of course Lee spends the entire movie playing a dead man, a masked wraith hunting the men who killed him so that he can return to the afterlife in peace. There’s so much heaviness surrounding the movie that, until you rewatch it, you can forget that it’s essentially a goofy grunge-era exploitation movie that never could’ve been made anytime but 1994. But that’s what it is.

Seen in the context of superhero-movie history, as well as the context of mid-’90s mall culture, it’s pretty easy to see what was going on with The Crow. Tim Burton’s first two Batman movies had proven that there was an audience for movies that took off running with the dark, gritty aesthetic that Frank Miller helped introduce to ’80s comics. Meanwhile, Darkman had proved that an R-rated, grisly superhero movie without a huge budget could make some money.

James O’Barr’s Crow comic was very much in the Frank Miller mode, except even rawer and nastier and more self-consciously transgressive. (A lot of heads get splattered in that initial run.) Moreover, the comic, in its viewpoint and its aesthetic, spoke to a generation in which alienated outsider detachment had gone full mainstream. A movie version of that was fully equipped to sell a specific idea of cool to kids who thought they were too cool to have such things sold to them. And, speaking as someone who was very much one of those kids, it worked.

I am crushed to report that The Crow’s soundtrack album does not hold up that well. This was a tough one for me. The soundtrack, probably even more than the movie itself, was huge for me. It pulled goth and metal and industrial and alt-rock into one digestible package, evoking a mood of prickly darkness and stylized intensity. These days, it sounds thin and slapped-together and possibly focus-grouped. The industrial songs are goofy, the goth songs thin. The Violent Femmes attempt to brood, and Rage Against The Machine does what it always does, except not as well. The cover versions (Nine Inch Nails doing Joy Division, Rollins Band doing Suicide, Pantera doing Poison Idea) are fun, but the whole thing, taken together, feels like mid-’90s corporate product for kids trying to rebel.

The same is true, more or less, of the movie. When Eric Draven returns from the dead, he spends a surprising amount of time shredding emotive guitar solos in the smashed-up apartment that, a year after his death, no landlord has bothered to rent out again. (Even the police caution tape from the murders is still up.) Before his death, Draven plays in a band called Hangman’s Joke. After it, he delivers sub-Schwarzenegger catchphrases while dispatching gibbering street goons. He wears combat boots and vinyl pants and quasi-Cure makeup, and a Cure song helpfully plays on the soundtrack when he’s painting his face for the first time. The bad guys hang out at an ornate, dilapidated nightclub that allows for a couple of cameos from bands on the soundtrack. If grunge-sploitation or goth-sploitation are things, then this movie is both of them.

Rewatching The Crow today, it’s basically a Death Wish movie dressed up in Hot Topic fashion, which makes it both stupid and oddly endearing. It is certainly not a movie afraid to go over the top. Top Dollar, the drug-lord villain, and Myca, his lipstick-smeared “sister,” are introduced waking up next to a dead naked woman. “I think we broke her,” Top Dollar says, not unproud. Myca admires the dead woman’s eyes while playing with a knife, a scene that’s later paid off when the two of them burn her severed eyeball and inhale the fumes. Top Dollar has a velvet-lined closet full of swords. We get one of those scenes where Top Dollar sits at the end of a long table to give orders to his lieutenants, but his orders are pretty much just “do more big fires.”

None of the characters, Draven included, really show any hint of having interior lives. And the street-gang goons seem to realize that they’re the movie characters who get killed off before the big fight with the kingpin. Fifteen years before The Crow, David Patrick Kelly, who plays the wild-eyed T-Bird, played Luther, the villain of The Warriors, and the two are pretty much exactly the same character. It’s all profoundly silly.

Director Alex Proyas, who went onto do the pretty amazing Dark City soon after and who then settled into a career of B-level studio movies, had mostly done music videos and commercials before The Crow, and it shows. The movie has that extremely mid-’90s Natural Born Killers editing style, where cameras are always whirling and cuts keep coming in ways that sometimes make it hard to tell what’s going on. The movie plays out in a dreamlike fashion that gets in the way of its storytelling but does wonders for its atmosphere. It takes place in a Detroit where it’s always night and the streets are always slick with rain. A random passerby will accidentally run a bad guy over and then jump out to scream at him: “Stupid asshead! You hit my car!” On Devil’s Night, the entire city burns, and while that’s accomplished by not-terribly-convincing CGI effects, it does evoke a whole world full of dark stories like Draven’s.

To be clear: I like this movie. I like that it never really bothers to explain its rules or to justify Draven’s resurrection in any quasi-scientific movie-bullshit way, allowing it to play out like a fable instead. I like the little kid who skateboards around and issues hard-boiled quips. I like Ernie Hudson, as Detroit’s one good cop, wearing his police hat even when he’s in his underwear. I like the constant presence of crows, which mostly look like puppets but which were actually mostly real ravens.

The best thing about the movie is Brandon Lee, who would’ve clearly been something if he hadn’t died on that set at the way-too-young age of 28. Lee had only made a few movies before The Crow, but he’d already proven himself to be a strong B-movie presence, especially in the underrated 1992 vehicle Rapid Fire. He wasn’t his father, of course, but nobody was. The younger Lee could still move like a panther in fight scenes, and while he’d never been a great actor before, he was at least comfortable on camera.

With The Crow, he jumped up a few notches. The movie sadly doesn’t have any great action scenes, even though Lee himself choreographed some longer fights that were cut. But it’s Lee’s presence that makes the movie. He seems wounded but also possessed, and his stare is truly unsettling. His crazy-eyes demeanor are the one clue that the movie offers that Draven is not the coolest person in the movie, that he’s just as broken as everyone else.

The movie was mostly finished shooting by the time an improperly loaded prop gun blew a dummy bullet into Lee’s abdomen. And Proyas and his collaborators did some pretty amazing work at covering up for his absence, using then-new digital effects to composite Lee’s visage into a few scenes. Lee’s stunt double Chad Stahelski (who would later go on to co-direct John Wick) filled in wherever possible. In an ambient way, those attempts to make up for the lack of Lee probably enhance the movie’s dream-state effect and make it more of a monument to Lee. The morbid fascination around Lee’s death probably helped the movie earn money, too. It definitely earned money.

Whether by design or happy accident, The Crow landed at the exact right moment. A month earlier, Kurt Cobain had killed himself. Probably more importantly for this movie’s sake, Nine Inch Nails had released The Downward Spiral two months earlier. The movie tapped into the same impulses that that album fed in teenagers—the desire to rebel, to tap into something dark, to come across as both menacing and compelling. The Crow spawned plenty of sequels—one theatrical, two straight-to-video, plus a reboot that’s apparently coming out next year. But it did more than that. In just about every self-consciously dark and gritty superhero movie that came out afterward, I see at least a few echoes of The Crow. (There’s plenty of The Crow, for instance, in Heath Ledger’s Joker.) And two years after the movie came out, Hot Topic became a publicly traded company. The Crow might’ve had something to do with that, too.

Other noteworthy 1994 superhero movies: Decades later, it still bugs me out how many ’90s superhero movies were based on characters from ’30s and ’40s serials. The Hollywood execs of the era really thought that ticket-buying teenagers would get excited about the heroes of pre-war radio-plays. Case in point: The Shadow, Alec Baldwin’s best shot at full-on movie stardom. Directed by music-video pioneer and Highlander auteur Russell Mulcahy, The Shadow had some energetic camera moves and some cool visuals; I still love the shot of messages traveling through ’30s New York City in pneumatic tubes. It also has instantly dated CGI effects, a wildly one-dimensional ethnic-stereotype villain, and a few truly baffling storytelling touches. Like: Baldwin used to be a bloodthirsty Tibetan opium warlord? And he wears a giant fake nose whenever he’s the Shadow? Also of note: Ian McKellen plays a wacky-inventor character six years before becoming Magneto.

In the Damon Wayans comedy Blankman, the wacky-inventor character rises to full-on superhero status. Wayans plays a secretly brilliant tinkerer who wants to clean up his Chicago neighborhood after the murder of his grandmother, while his In Living Color castmate David Alan Grier is the brother who reluctantly goes along with it mostly to try to keep him safe. It is a profoundly dumb movie, and possibly a deeply offensive one, as well. (I didn’t realize until a recent rewatch that Blankman is probably supposed to be autistic? Or on the spectrum, anyway?) But it’s a fun lazy-afternoon watch anyway. Coen brothers favorite and secret ’90s-superhero-movie MVP Jon Polito (who also played a greedy pawn-shop owner in The Crow) shows up as a crime boss, and there’s a running joke where Wayans jizzes in his pants every time Robin Givens tries to kiss him.

It’s weird to think about this, but The Mask, the Jim Carrey megahit in which Carrey transforms into a Tex Avery-inspired human zoot-suit hurricane, probably counts as a superhero movie, as well. He fights gangsters and has an alter-ego. He literally talks about being a superhero. And it’s not really that much more over-the-top than 1995’s Batman Forever, in which Carrey plays a gibbering Riddler.

One of the most interesting 1994 superhero movies was the one that nobody got to see. A low-budget Roger Corman-assisted adaptation of The Fantastic Four was made, but it never came out, and there’s always been widespread speculation that it was never supposed to come out, that the movie’s German producer just made the movie so that he could continue holding the rights to the characters. Based on all available evidence, it’s probably a good thing that audiences never saw it.

Also, the freaky 1991 straight-to-video movie The Guyver somehow got a sequel in Guyver: Dark Hero. And while the Jean-Claude Van Damme hit Timecop wasn’t a superhero movie, it was based on a comic book story that showed up in a Dark Horse anthology.

Next time: The Batman franchise leaps into a shitty new era as Joel Schumacher takes over on Batman Forever.