Superhero films are unquestionably bigger than ever. People have been predicting they’ve peaked for years now, yet each round of the calendar finds new records broken and fresh franchises being born. The memories remain short though. Frequently, someone will inquire about when the first R-rated superhero film will crossover. This might be because recent attempts have done mixed business, with only Kick-Ass gaining any real traction, which in itself was a rather juvenile affair.
Two decades ago though, there was a superhero flick that managed to have adult bloodshed, mood and plotting that made a significant impact on popular culture; The Crow. With a striking visual style and massive soundtrack, The Crow spawned sequels, a television series and an innumerable amount of teens plastering their walls with memorabilia from the movie, not to mention a go-to costume for Halloween. Perhaps it was the diminishing returns of the sequels or the very 90s melancholy of the picture, but something made The Crow trapped in the time-capsule of its era. I’m cracking that baby back open though for a revisit to see if The Crow is as vibrant as the mind recalls and see if its stands tall as the sole great superhero film to be above PG-13.
Released on May 11, 1994, The Crow is based on the cult comic book by James O’Barr. It follows the story of Eric Draven (Brandon Lee), a musician living in the dregs of Detroit who, along with his fiancé, is murdered by four local mob thugs. One year later, Eric revives as a spirit of vengeance, tied to a legend regarding crows guiding souls into the next life. Due to the horrific nature of Eric’s death, he has been brought back to, “put the wrong things right.” Out for blood, Eric spends the nights surrounding his death’s anniversary hunting those that caused so much hurt, aided by the fact that he can longer be physically harmed.
Directed by Alex Proyas (Dark City, I Robot), The Crow was quite the hit. Though it didn’t reach true blockbuster levels, it doubled its budget, making a sliver over $50 million and ending the year as the 24th highest grossing release. What really took it to the next level was the cult appeal, stemming from the movie’s blend of superhero vigilantism, film noir sensibilities and its striking gothic flare. The image of Brandon Lee’s Crow was instantly iconic, with leather-clad body and smeared white face-paint accented by black lips and eye-shadow. Lee’s death, which tragically occurred during the last days of the movie’s shooting, only lent the already melancholic imagery extra resonance.
I have no recollection of watching this film the first time, other than it being at home. Seeing t-shirts, toys and dozens of posters available at every single Suncoast and Sam Goody’s though, that floods back to me like it was yesterday. While I never dressed up like Eric Draven or wore black nail-polish, the somberness of The Crow stuck to me in my early teens like the crappy Discman I took everywhere, often with the movie’s soundtrack blaring on it. It arrived when superhero films existed, if rather rare. I dug the Tim Burton Batman movies well enough. The Crow was a different creature, far more visceral and, while inhuman in abilities, relatable.
The character of Batman is rooted in pain and it’s assuredly a driving force. However, The Crow wears that agony on his torn sleeves, a perfect fit for my psyche at the time. There is little in the way of romance for Bats, while Mr. Draven yearns for his lost lover, plays guitar on rooftops and states, as if in a song for The Cure, “It can’t rain all the time.”
Most potently, it’s the visuals that linger. The shot where Eric stands aside a giant crow symbol that burns brightly made from gasoline, brought to life near the charred corpse of one who wronged him. Eric standing and laughing at the hole that was just blown through his hand. That makeup, terrifying and heartbroken in equal measures. As far as what cool looked like, The Crow was the defining standard for years to come.
The last time I watched this movie, I’m not sure I had a handle on what qualified as good acting. This isn’t to imply that Brandon Lee is bad in The Crow, by most accounts he’s excellent. I just don’t really remember if the performance is worthwhile or if it was mostly the image of his eerie, haunting physical frame stalking his enemies that did all the work. Perhaps the earnestness of the movie will read too strongly and tip into full-on-cheese. Perhaps that’s the reason The Crow came, made a big mark and left a few years later.
I’m optimistic nevertheless. Proyas made Dark City right after this and I feel confident that wasn’t a total fluke. Please.
Yes. Yes. Yes. This is more like it. The Crow is a dynamic, all-encompassing story of a supernatural superhero.
Credit must go to a variety of places, though anyone having anything to do with the production design or general look of The Crow deserves all of the high-fives. The city is sickeningly dilapidated. The sole point of light or comfort in the place appears to be a hot-dog stand. So yeah, it isn’t shiny times and smiles. Into these dregs steps our hero, clad in black and a face that terrifies and moves in equal measure.
The film as a whole is far tenderer than I had recalled. Visions of men getting viciously stabbed or arms being twisted to exhume the heroin within were expected; still haunting too. How, to use the parlance of our times, emo Eric Draven is I didn’t remember. Memory served that the opening showed him as sweet-natured and loving, with the resurrected husk back as purely a walking wreck of death. Watching Eric talk with Ernie Hudson’s policeman about the horrors that happened and joking about the dangers of cigarettes was news to me, fleshing out the character.
It also makes the mood of the movie from being a one-note stroll through misery. The gothic presence remains. Having those other traces enriches the experience, allowing for fewer flashbacks to deepen our sympathies for Eric and providing the supporting cast’s lives something to root for.
At the center of it is Lee. He is a magnetic presence, believably scary as a monster out for blood, haunting as a man trying to rectify a tragedy. When he walks into the den of Top Dollar (Michael Wincott), the mob head behind the city’s most horrifying acts, Lee’s charisma oozes out, as he blends those two presentations. It’s a big bit of acting, befitting the tale Proyas produces. Lee’s a little crazy, soulful and entirely worthy of its iconic status.
Then there’s that music, which Proyas uses to execute much of the movie’s tenor. Used in a near-operatic fashion, Proyas wields songs by The Cure and Nine Inch Nails to amplify the cryptic and eerily beautiful scenes of Eric remembering the night he died, his transformation into The Crow and the various executions he brings upon those that caused him such pain. At a glance they could read as goofy. Instead, they play as confidently earnest. This is a film that wears its beating heart on its sleeve and the soundtrack furthers that cause.
Why yearn for an rated-R superhero picture that comments on the genre or bares some faux darkness or is basically an excuse to say fuck a lot? We have The Crow, a brutal, sublime thing.