Can a ’90s Cult Classic Save the Comic-Book Movie? (2024)


The engrossing darkness of The Crow

By Shirley Li
Can a ’90s Cult Classic Save the Comic-Book Movie? (1)

Can a ’90s Cult Classic Save the Comic-Book Movie? (2)

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The superhuman protagonist of The Crow, the comic-book movie that went on to become a cult hit after its release 30 years ago, doesn’t relish being undead and invincible. When he first shows his face on-screen, Eric Draven, played by Brandon Lee, is crawling out of his own grave in near-feral agony. His fingers claw at the mud around his tomb. His clothes, drenched by rain, cling to his skin. He never gets to his feet; instead, he writhes on his back, screaming in pain.

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To say this isn’t a standard superhero’s welcome is an understatement—but then, The Crow didn’t care to obey the genre’s conventions. Grim, stylish, and brazenly violent, the film is a gothic fable about a young rock musician and his girlfriend who, on the eve of their wedding, are murdered. When Draven, the former heavy-metal guitarist, is resurrected from the dead a year later by a mystical crow—just go with it—he’s not a noble crime fighter, but a wounded predator hunting the killers. “They’re all dead,” he snarls. “They just don’t know it yet.”

The Crow premiered in 1994, at a moment when superhero films themselves appeared to be in dire shape. Gone were the shiny Superman movies of the 1970s and ’80s. In Batman Returns, released in 1992, Tim Burton refined his approach to the genre’s aesthetic—less spandex, more noir—and delivered a much grittier story, but his Batman sequel fell far short of the box-office bar set by its predecessor in 1989. Films based on Marvel comics were forgettable, and although the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie was successful, it was intended for children. Producing mainstream comic-book-based entertainment posed a challenge for the studios. Could a hero be fresh but familiar enough to spawn the next great franchise?

Before it began production, The Crow may have looked like an ideal solution. Based on an acclaimed if niche series of comics by James O’Barr, the adaptation had secured a handsome rising star in the 28-year-old Lee. The story seemed straightforward enough; it had a sentimental core, and incorporated a handful of lighter, more accessible supporting characters to balance the darker themes. But the finished film, steeped in the director Alex Proyas’s grungy vision and clouded by Lee’s tragic death after an accident on set, turned out to be a singular, and strange, phenomenon. Its melancholic mood and theme are worth remembering as a remake arrives in theaters this August, at a time of dwindling box-office returns for Marvel and DC Comics. For fans who have tired of tidy morals, formulaic action, and flashy effects, The Crow of three decades ago offers an antidote, proof that the comic-book genre can be a vehicle for a wrenching evocation of human suffering.

In retrospect, Lee’s fate—a prop gun loaded with blanks malfunctioned, causing a projectile to hit him in the abdomen—has largely eclipsed his remarkable performance in The Crow, which is crucial to the film’s jarring power. He delivers hokey one-liners with hard-edged gusto. He moves balletically across the screen, imbuing Draven with an unexpected softness. He shed 20 pounds before filming began, and his gauntness signaled his character’s difference, not just in appearance but in ethos, from hunkier comic-book heroes. Caught in an abyss of grief, Draven is menacing but vulnerable, delirious enough to paint himself in black-and-white harlequin makeup for his murderous missions, but too stricken to reconnect fully with who he had been before his death. Even in lighter scenes, Lee quietly conveys that Draven is so consumed by sadness, he can’t see beyond revenge.

The film’s prevailing visual and sonic grammar foregrounds bleakness, motion, noise. Drawing from the story’s ink-and-paper origins, The Crow presents a Detroit that seems permanently covered in grime and shrouded in mist, with kinetic camerawork exaggerating the city’s angular alleyways. Burton’s Batman had already begun challenging the superhero genre’s gaudier impulses, but The Crow takes the shadowy tableaus to another level. Proyas spent his early career directing moody music videos for artists such as Sting and Crowded House; here, he assembles a film that looks like a mid-’90s rock video. It sounds like one, too: The soundtrack includes Nine Inch Nails, the Cure, and Violent Femmes. Every “serious” comic-book movie since has likely borrowed something from The Crow, whether it’s the smoky aesthetics or the abrupt needle drops.

O’Barr wrote the original comics after a drunk driver killed his fiancée; he tried to purge his anger on the page, only to discover that his suffering grew as he worked. That pain carries over into the film: The Crow contains enough moments to suggest the shape of a traditional comic-book tale, including energetically staged fight scenes, antagonists with absurd code names, and even a catchphrase for Draven: “It can’t rain all the time.” But the overarching, and arresting, effect is to leave the audience shaken, rather than to offer resolution.

Unlike other superhero projects, the movie’s narrative is not about good prevailing over evil—or about the indestructible Draven using his great power responsibly. By the end of the film, he has left a bloody trail in his ultimately triumphant pursuit of the criminals who attacked him and his fiancée, Shelly (Sofia Shinas), and he has nowhere to go but back to his grave. There he’s embraced by Shelly in a vision, which may seem like a happy conclusion—the couple reunited, justice served. But Draven’s crusade never restores them to life together. If anything, his recurrent hazy, half-formed flashbacks suggest that Shelly has become nothing more than a memory that hounds him, fueling his fury and angst.

Perhaps it’s wrong even to call The Crow a superhero film. It’s a reconfiguration of the form, an assertion that such movies don’t have to be mere vessels for quippy dialogue and eye-popping effects. They can invite viewers to examine human nature as its own wildly unpredictable force. Our feelings underscore our humanity, but they can be overpowering too, imprisoning rather than liberating us.

Made for roughly $23 million, The Crow went on to net more than $50 million in the United States. It yielded several unremarkable sequels, each a reminder of just what a rare asset the original had in Lee’s fierce yet nuanced performance. None achieved the first film’s unsettling blend of corrosive emotion and concussive action.

But Hollywood hasn’t been able to resist the allure of remaking the original. Efforts to introduce a new Eric Draven to audiences have been under way since the late 2000s, and the parade of actors rumored to have almost played him over the years is impressive: It includes Oscar nominees (Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling), men cast as other superheroes (Jason Momoa, Nicholas Hoult), and Alexander Skarsgård, whose younger brother Bill—best known for his work as the murderous clown Pennywise in the latest It films—will soon actually make it to the screen in the role.

The comic-book film genre’s garish-to-grim cycles have become familiar, but The Crow endures because it upended expectations and ignored conventional boundaries. A legacy like that is inviting—and daunting. In an interview conducted during the film’s production, Lee explained why he wanted to play Draven, and bequeathed some useful wisdom, or perhaps a warning, to successors. “There are no rules,” he said, “about how a person who has come back from the dead is going to behave.”

This article appears in the June 2024 print edition with the headline “The Engrossing Darkness of The Crow.”

Shirley Li is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Can a ’90s Cult Classic Save the Comic-Book Movie? (2024)
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