The Superhero Movie Legacy of The Crow

The tragic history of The Crow helped usher in a quarter century of comic book movies.

Brandon Lee as The Crow

On May 13, 1994 The Crow, based on the comic book by James O’Barr, was released. At the time, comics-based movies — the superhero variety or otherwise — were in a slump. After the initial excitement following the massive success of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, that series had taken a darker turn with 1992’s Batman Returns, and the corresponding dip in box office had Warner Bros. Pictures preparing a far more kid-friendly and garish Batman Forever for 1995.

The Superman franchise had died a more gruesome death than even Doomsday itself could bestow with 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and as a result Krypton’s last son lay dormant in re-development hell. As for iconic publishers like Marvel…let’s just say that the bargain-basement Captain America (1990) and the TV quickie The Death of the Incredible Hulk (1990) were a long way off from the future glories of Avengers: Endgame.

Original entries like Darkman (1990) were an occasional bright spot, but they didn’t electrify audiences in the same way Burton’s Caped Crusader had just a short time earlier. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) was a massive surprise hit (the highest grossing independent movie of its time), but also catered to a niche audience, mainly children. Studios seemed caught in a creative conflict: how do we make the darker, harder-edged comic book movies that will appeal to longtime readers while also releasing something that one can take the kids to see?

The Crow answered that question by ignoring it. The source material and its inspiration was grim enough to start, and the horrific circumstances surrounding the completion of the movie only added to the dark penumbra that seemed to encircle it. But ironically, by walking hand in hand with death and grief from the very beginning — seemingly a surefire path to box office and cultural obscurity — The Crow became a kind of legend in its own right and arguably helped pave the way for the superhero influx to come.

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THE ORIGIN STORY

The Crow wasn’t the product of one of the bigger comic book houses. It was launched in 1989 by Caliber Comics, which published some 1,300 titles until ceasing operations in 2000 (it resumed publishing again in 2015). James O’Barr, an artist, writer, and former Marine who at the age of 18 had lost his fiancée to a drunk driver, began working on the original comic book in 1981 as a way to deal with his grief. He was also influenced by the death of a young couple who had been murdered over a $20 engagement ring.

The parallels are too easy to miss in The Crow, in which a murdered musician returns from the dead (with the help of a mystical crow) to avenge the deaths of his girlfriend and himself. The first appearance of the character, whose real name was Eric Draven, was in Caliber Presents #1 (January 1989), in which he starred in a prequel story called “Inertia.” The original limited series, which ran for four issues, launched the following month, becoming a cult success.

THE MOVIE

There was interest in turning The Crow into a movie not too long after the comic book was first published. By the time issue #3 was coming out, O’Barr had already turned down one rather sketchy offer but got another one, from writer John Shirley and producer Jeff Most. O’Barr accepted their deal, and Shirley toiled on the script (making some key changes), while Most shopped the project around.

The script was rewritten by horror writer David J. Schow after O’Barr objected to some of the changes Shirley had made (some stuck around, however, including making the crow — the bird — an actual physical creature and not part of Eric’s mind, and also de-emphasizing Eric’s drug addiction). By this time, producer Edward Pressman (Phantom of the Paradise) was also on board, with Schow pitching the Crow character as a “rock ‘n’ roll Terminator.” Pressman also had a director in mind: Alex Proyas, who had worked in videos and commercials, yet had never directed a feature.

As for the lead role, the producers considered using a real musician (Texan rocker Charlie Sexton was looked at), while O’Barr thought that Johnny Depp, River Phoenix, or Christian Slater could all fit the role. It was ultimately given to 28-year-old Brandon Lee, son of late martial arts master and actor Bruce Lee, who was following in his father’s footsteps both as a martial artist and as an actor.

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Almost from the start, the $15 million production was plagued by mishaps. A construction worker stabbed himself through the hand with a screwdriver; another was injured when the crane he was standing on hit some live power lines. A disgruntled ex-worker on the set drove his truck through the plaster shop after he was fired; a second truck used on the shoot caught on fire. A storm also destroyed a good portion of the Wilmington, North Carolina sets in March of 1993.

But later that month, the worst was yet to come.

DEATH COMES TO THE CROW

On March 31, 1993, filming commenced on the pivotal flashback scene in which Eric Draven comes home to find his fiancée Shelley (Sofia Shinas) being raped and beaten by a gang of thugs led by T-Bird (David Patrick Kelly). A member of the gang named Funboy (Michael Massee) pulls out his gun and fires at Eric. The gun used in the scene had been loaded with dummy cartridges for close-ups, since the dummies were made from real bullets (minus powder or primer) and looked more realistic.

But one of the dummy cartridges — which were not commercially bought but cobbled together on the fly by a time-and-budget-crunched crew — accidentally went off at one point, causing a bullet to get lodged in the barrel of the gun. The weapon was reloaded with blanks for the scene in which Eric is shot, but when Massee pointed the gun at Lee and fired, the blank went off and sent the bullet stuck in the barrel out with as much force as if someone had fired a genuine, fully primed projectile.

The bullet hit Lee in the abdomen and punctured the stem of his aorta, causing massive internal bleeding. He was rushed to New Hanover Regional Medical Center but died on the operating table after six hours of surgery. His death was eventually ruled an accident.

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THE AFTERMATH

There were eight days of filming left to go on The Crow when Lee died, including three days involving the star himself. After a six-week mourning period, and with the blessing of Lee’s fiancée and mother, production resumed with the goal of completing the film. By that time, the original distributor, Paramount, had backed out, but Miramax agreed to pick up the film and foot an additional $8 million to complete it.

Further rewrites altered certain scenes so that they could be filmed around or without Lee. One character, a “spirit guide” named Skull Cowboy, was eliminated completely as his brief scenes all involved dialogue with Eric. As for the scenes that needed to be filmed involving Eric, stuntman Chad Stahelski (who later went on to direct the John Wick movies) acted as a body double for Lee, with the late actor’s face digitally inserted into the scene. Unused footage of Lee from other sequences was also deployed to complete other scenes, and the overall tone of the movie was “softened” somewhat, cutting back on hardcore violence and making it more a meditation on grief.

The Crow was finally released on May 13, 1994, and became a sleeper hit: it debuted at Number One with first-weekend grosses of nearly $12 million and ultimately grossed around $51 million at the North American box office, Critics were kind to the film, with good reviews emanating from Roger Ebert, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone among others. James O’Barr, who had become close friends with Brandon Lee, donated most of his profits from the film to charity.

The soundtrack to the movie was arguably a standard-bearer — along with Singles, released two years earlier — for all rock-based soundtracks to come. Featuring material from acts who had inspired O’Barr directly, such as the Cure and Joy Division, and including a roster of both veteran and cutting edge alternative acts such as the aforementioned Cure, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against The Machine, Stone Temple Pilots, Helmet, Pantera, Violent Femmes, Medicine and more, the LP peaked at Number One on the Billboard 200 album chart and sold nearly four million copies.

THE LEGACY

There is no avoiding the specter that hangs over The Crow; already a dark and melancholy project, Lee’s death brings an undertone of deep sorrow to the movie that ironically makes it a stronger film. Although there were three unfortunate sequels — The Crow: City of Angels (1995), The Crow: Salvation (2000) and The Crow: Wicked Prayer (2005) — a short-lived 1999 TV series, and additional comics and novels (along with the constant threat of a remake/reboot), nothing has ever replicated the power of the original film and, sadly, Lee’s performance, which would have undoubtedly made him a star had he lived.

Meanwhile, the comics-based movies of the 1990s got even more depressing for a while — not in terms of their tone, but in terms of their quality. Batman and Robin, The Phantom, The Shadow, Judge Dredd, Tank Girl, Spawn, Steel…it was amazing that the list of disastrous outings didn’t kill the idea of films adapted from comic books altogether. But then Blade came along in 1997, the first movie to do real justice to a Marvel Comics character and the first since The Crow to embrace not just the darkness of the source material, but to derive it from the characters as well and look competent while doing so.

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Would we have had Blade without The Crow? Most likely yes, but the idea that a comics-based film could blend the supernatural with the street level, and could mix hard-edged violence with genuine character development, was one that didn’t really gain traction until May 13, 1994, when The Crow — in all its somber glory — blazed like a dark star across movie screens and shared its grief with the world.

Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye