Logan’s Moving Picture returns to discuss grief and its lasting legacy on the last starring effort of Brandon Lee – The Crow.
After years of having the option to work remotely, in June of 2023 I was informed that I would need to transition to working back in an office environment. It lasted far longer than I thought it would, and during the COVID lockdown and dealing with the death of my brother, it was at times a lifesaver. Unfortunately, the change meant moving, again, because shortly after Ryan passed away, back in 2021, I decided to let my apartment in north Georgia go and stay further south with my family. And even that was only really manageable because of the generosity of my sister-in-law, Ryan’s widow, Jamie. I like to think I helped her and my niece, Kaysi, as much as they helped me, but I can never be truly sure of that. Truthfully, I don’t think I would have gotten through that first year without being able to stay there with them.
With most of my stuff having been in storage for years by that point, and being the idiot I am and not labeling the boxes when I moved them into hibernation, some of Ryan’s things got moved with me. We’d been sharing a storage space for years before he passed, and after he died I moved in even more of his things, if for no other reason than we just didn’t know what to do with them. It wasn’t much that wound up at my new place, just a few collectibles really. But, one of them was the McFarlane Toys Eric Draven/The Crow figure, the one that came packaged in an acrylic display case. It’s of the scene where he first returns and paints his face, walking in the apartment with the broken window behind him, the crow flying over his shoulder. It hadn’t been stored properly, so the case was a mess and the figure is now a little warped, but it still gave me pause when I saw it. That movie had been an indelible part of my teenage years, making several treks to the theatre to watch it, listening to the soundtrack on a loop, and owning multiple copies on home video through the years. Unfortunately I couldn’t get the figure to stay upright, so back into storage it went, a project for another day.
Then, as I went through various posters and art prints to decorate my new place with, I came across a poster I’d received back when the movie was fresh and one of my favorite pieces of cinema. It’s of the bird in flame that Eric creates on the asphalt shortly after sending Funboy to meet his maker, given to me as a Christmas present that same year the film premiered. It came from my best friend at the time, and she was every bit the fan that I was. In fact I’d given her a similar poster that I think said “Do Believe in Angels,” with Brandon Lee highlighted in a giant ray of light, it was glow-in-the-dark too..I wish I had that one as well! All of that solidified that The Crow needed to be my next rewatch.
I was 15 when The Crow premiered in theatres, and like a lot of people in my peer group I was intrigued by both its premise and the fact that it was the last on screen performance of Brandon Lee, who had been fatally shot while filming. Unlike most of my peer group, I was also interested because it was based on a comic book by the same name, written and illustrated by James O’Barr. I was high school at the time, but even at 15 I didn’t have my learner’s permit yet; fortunately my aforementioned best friend was a year older and already had her license and free use of a vehicle, so a bunch of us piled in and went to one of the old twin cinemas around my hometown of Columbus, on what I’m almost certain was opening weekend. And like so many teens and young adults at the time, I was completely enamored with the film.
I’m not even sure enamored is the right word, at least not for its impact on pop culture. Much like Heath Ledger’s Joker, Brandon Lee’s Eric Draven was absolutely pervasive. For years you couldn’t go to a Halloween party without someone dressed like him, with the white face paint and heavy leather coat. Pro-Wrestler Sting would adopt the look sometime later, taking to hanging in arena rafters and dropping down to ambush anyone he deemed worthy of his wrath. There were terrible sequels, tons of comic book spin-offs and copycats, and even a TV show starring the guy that presents the ingredients in the old Iron Chef episodes.
Okay, so that’s maybe a little dismissive. Mark Decascos is a really talented man, it just so happens that show is the first thing I remember him from. He’s currently starring in Warrior, and has been part of the John Wick franchise as well as the MCU in Agents of SHIELD, among tons of other things. He’s great. Look him up.
By the time I was exiting my twenties and entering my thirties, The Crow as an intellectual property had become kind of a joke. The failed attempts to reboot the franchise have made it a bit toxic in Hollywood, though James O’Barr himself was attached to a script at one point, hoping to make something new that honored the original and his own work. He’s also worked sporadically on various spin-off comic projects, keeping his hands in where he could.
While I’m sure the success, even as it became a bit of a memetic, was a boon for its creator, I imagine it’s a bit of a double edged sword for him as well. For folks that only know it as a pop culture phenomenon, or think the only tragedy associated with it is that of its star, the grief that is very much at the center of The Crow, as a film, as a comic and as a concept, began over fifteen years before the death of Brandon Lee.
In 1978 James O’Barr enlisted in the Marines, shortly after his fiancee Beverly was killed by a drunk driver. He illustrated combat manuals for the military, and by 1981 he was working on The Crow as a means of dealing with his grief. He merged his feelings with a story he’d read about a young couple murdered in Detroit of a $20 engagement ring. What he produced was a story that combined the tragedy of that young couple, his own grief and this weirdly hopeful mysticism. One where love is so strong a force that it resurrects the afflicted to exact vengeance on the perpetrators.
It’s been over a decade since I last read the graphic novel, so maybe there are some vast changes that the film made that I just may not remember, but rewatching the movie I found myself more interested in the two people left behind to pick up the pieces of their grief rather than the Eric and Shelly. There’s Sarah, the couple’s surrogate daughter, who is forced back into a life with her absentee mother. She roams the streets on her skateboard, bumming meals from the bar owner her mom works for (when she’s not running off to get high with its patrons) or from Officer Albrecht, the lead detective who got himself busted down to working a beat after pushing too hard to solve the murders of Eric and Shelly.
What I know now is that the relationship they have is called grief bonding, something that doesn’t always last, but can be extremely powerful. What was even more interesting to me was their opposite responses to discovering Eric has returned from the dead. Shelly is at first curious, and then furious, angry that she was left alone, that she didn’t get to say goodbye, even angry that Eric really wasn’t back for her. Whereas Ernie Hudson’s Officer Albrecht seems almost relieved when he learns the truth, even more so when Eric is able to take on all of the pain and suffering he witnessed at the hospital as they, to no avail, worked to save Shelly’s life.
They both embody so many of the things you’ll experience when you’re traveling through a journey of grief.
Even more moving for me was watching Eric take all of the emotions he absorbed from Albrecht and ultimately use it as a weapon against the man responsible for their deaths. The idea that you could take all of the pain and suffering and anguish, all of that anger, and use it for justice, for vengeance, it’s a powerful concept. One that, while it may bring peace to Eric and Shelly’s souls, still leaves Sarah and Albrecht wrestling with the pieces left behind. I can only imagine one of those pieces is the absolute rage that it happened at all.
It would take eight years for O’Barr to both finish the book and to find a publisher. In 1989 The Crow entered the comic book world, and by 1994 (when the movie premiered) it was something of a pop culture phenomenon. At some point O’Barr opened up about never getting the catharsis he thought the book would bring him, instead saying every page he illustrated and wrote just made him self-destructive, that the pages were full of his anger.
I read a quote awhile back that said “Grief is just love with nowhere to go,” and I really do think that’s true. There was a similar quote in WandaVision, oddly enough, another comic-based property, where Vision tells Wanda “What is grief but love persevering?” That’s maybe a more profound way of saying the same thing, but when you read either one of those things, anger probably isn’t the first emotion that comes to mind. Some people might even say anger has no place in the realm of love, so maybe it might not have a place in grieving either. In fact, I’ve had someone tell me that exact thing. And to be fair, anger often isn’t the first emotion I feel when the grief for my own tragedies starts to wash over me, but occasionally it is. It’s one of the “stages,” after all. And it’s those times I really struggle the most. I don’t know if that anger will ever go away, and to be honest, I’m not sure I really want it to, and re-watching The Crow was a nice reminder that it’s a very human reaction.