One tagline for 1994’s The Crow read, “Darker than the bat.” While I’m not a fan of taglines or film advertisements, this one rings true and is especially important in a time when over-the-top DC and Marvel films are filling cinemas like a blanket wave. Just take a look at the following box-office destroyers: 2012’s The Avengers, 2011’s Captain America and Thor, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series (2002-2007), Jon Favreau’s two Iron Man films (2008, 2010), the swarm of X-Men pictures (2000-2011), and (most directly indebted to Alex Proyas’ The Crow) Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (2005-2012).
While Tim Burton’s Batman films (1989-1992) were entertaining in a campy way, Nolan’s Batman more closely reflects the Frank Miller, Jeph Loeb, and Alan Moore more realistic graphic novels and therefore lends the films cinematic weight. But Proyas was the first to see that a comic-book film did not need to look like a live action comic strip and that it could breathe new and fresh air. The Crow set the bar for comic-book adaptations to film, and watching it again almost twenty years later, it seems as if it hasn’t aged a bit. It makes me wonder: While Batman, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, and the X-Men battle it out at the box-office, is Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) laughing like a child, with the wisdom that no hero takes on the entire evil of the world, only the bit he can chew off?
Where The Crow connects and modern adaptations do not is on the personal level: Draven fights junkies, rapists, and criminals—the very real kind, who roam our streets daily and whom we pass by on a regular occasion. He is not trying to save the world (The Avengers) or a city (the Spider-Man and Batman fields). He doesn’t fight communism or terrorism but small evil for salvation, to set things right in a small place. Because Draven’s battle is micro, he ultimately represents everyman. In avenging depraved (yet common) criminals like Tin Tin (Laurence Mason) and Funboy (Michael Massee), the viewer can place the self in Draven’s body (and many of us do one day a year—Halloween—on which Draven did the same).
Music plays a key component of creating the microcosmic and self-contained neo-gothic world of The Crow. The pop songs, mixed with the anxiety inducing score, work together to create a place of dread and beauty simultaneously. The soundtrack contains two distinct sonic textures to create boundaries between the worlds and mindsets within the film. It employs sleepy shoegaze in the club scenes, with songs like Medicine’s “Time Baby III” to create an aura of woozy drug culture and warehouse metal (Helmet’s “Milktoast”) to hint at the violence just behind the drug-gaze.
These sonic elements play a key role in showing the strain of the relationship between Sarah (Rochelle Davis), a youth whom Draven and Shelley (Sofia Shinas) looks after, and her junkie mother (Anna Levine), who runs with the same junkies that killed Draven and Shelley. Draven’s sensitivity with Sarah when they reconcile for a moment works so well because of the conscious connection they share (Ernie Hudson as Sergeant Albrecht picks up Draven’s fatherly strand with Sarah after his passing) in a mostly disconnected dark city, which the shoegaze and metal songs represent.
Songs like the Cure’s “Burn” and Nine Inch Nails’ cover of Joy Division’s “Dead Souls” say everything that Draven can’t in his pursuit of salvation. Both songs thematically represent a desire to connect both physically and spiritually to something unattainable. In the scene where Draven goes back to the apartment that he and Shelley shared, he conjures images of his former lover, which cause sharp pangs of pain. In the backdrop of “Burn,” Robert Smith’s voice shakes, “There’s nothing you can ever say, nothing you can ever do / So every night I burn, every night I scream your name / . . . / Every night I fall, waiting for my own refrain.” Smith’s aching vocal delivery is the perfect marriage to Draven’s writhing rebirth, as he masks his face in preparation to meet the faces of his tormentors.
As Draven leaps from roof to roof, following his guide the crow, “Dead Souls” pulsates as if Draven’s own heart is beating with anxiety, knowing the dreadful deeds that he must commit so that his soul can finally be put to rest. Trent Reznor makes “Dead Souls” angry—there’s hurt and confusion in his delivery of, “They keep calling me, they keep calling me!”—which differs from Ian Curtis’ equally matter-of-fact and frenzied delivery. It’s the anger in Reznor’s voice that’s necessary for Draven to complete his dreadful fate. (In fact, at one point there were rumors that Reznor might play the lead in a sequel to The Crow to be directed by Rob Zombie.)
While Nolan’s Batman series most closely aligns with the somewhat realistic atmosphere of The Crow, his hero, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), somehow lacks faith in the smaller joys of life (as Draven does), which suggests that Wayne is more than a mere mortal—in Draven’s case, it’s the love between a man and a woman that roots him as fallible. So, while Nolan’s films are some of the best of the new era of comic-book adaptations, their proportions are just as disparate as the epic battles between good and evil as seen in films like The Avengers, X-Men, and Spider-Man. Therefore, their heroes can never be of this earth and never be extensions of the viewer.
Alex Proyas, however, sees everyman in Eric Draven and knows that all one person can do in this world is fight for self, friends, and family. Because Eric Draven does not save the earth or aspire to, he will forever be the true avenger and the one we will look back to for inspiration in the future. In his wisdom, Draven tells Tin Tin just before he puts a blade into his chest, “Victims. Aren’t we all?” Somehow I just can’t imagine Captain America being so intuitive.