Control Nathan and Clint: Blankman (1994)
For the latest entry in Control Nathan and Clint—the column where we give the thirty-six everyday heroes who pledge to the Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast Patreon a choice between two films that we must watch, then talk about, and in my case write about—we gave patrons a choice between a pair of throwback black superhero movies from the 1990s: 1997’s Spawn, who is literally the superhero from hell, and the 1994 Damon Wayans’ vehicle Blankman.
I assumed that Spawn would emerge the winner due its cult status but instead Blankman prevailed. Incidentally, this might be the first time the phrase Blankman and “winner” appeared in the same sentence.
Then again, Damon Wayans has a nostalgic appeal to members of my generation due to his breakout role in In Living Color and then in a series of kiddie favorites he made in the twelve years between when 1991’s The Last Boy Scout launched his career as a cinematic leading man in a big way and 2003’s Marci X confirmed, yet again, that Wayans was a cable and Blockbuster rental favorite but not a bankable movie star.
Wayans' track record, film-wise, was actually a whole lot more impressive before In Living Color catapulted him to stardom. In the eighties, he appeared in small roles in a string of hits and cult classics, including Beverly Hills Cop, Hollywood Shuffle, Roxanne, Colors, Earth Girls Are Easy, Punchline and I’m Gonna Get You Sucka.
One of the major reasons those movies were successful is because they were not Damon Wayans vehicles. It also helps that Wayans did not write or co-write those films either. As a film actor, Wayans frequently went broad and one note in a way better suited to sketch comedy than film.
That’s certainly true of Blankman, where he plays Darryl Walker, a good-hearted nerd and superhero buff with an Urkelesque nasal whine, lopsided glasses that are mostly tape and a tight relationship with his spirited grandmother (Lynne Thigpen) and more grounded brother Kevin (Wayans’ In Living Color co-star David Alan Grier, in a rare and welcome co-lead role), a cameraman for Larry Stone, a sleazy, wheelchair-bound schlock TV merchant played a bald, scene-stealing Jason Alexander.
Stone gets his ideas for future episodes by throwing a dart at a board filled with lurid tabloid topics and salacious combinations, like "Vice President", "alien", and "S&M." He’s a flamboyant bastard prone to wonderfully guttural utterances and assurances like, “If you interview Minelli, I’ll promote you so high you’ll be shitting on the moon.”
There’s a great sequence early in the film where Kevin, following the murder of his and Darryl’s grandma at the hands of mobbed-up thugs working for the aforementioned Mr. Minelli (Jon Polito, enjoyably devouring scenery), confides to his boss about how broken up he is about the death of his beloved caretaker and his worries that he won’t even be able to afford a proper funeral for her. A clearly annoyed Stone glares at him and, not acknowledging a thing he's said, testily responds, “How’s that lesbian necrophiliac story going?”
Grier is a talented and capable dramatic thespian (as well as a Tony nominee and graduate of Yale Drama School) as well as a likable and funny comic actor. The scene is funny primarily because Grier plays it completely straight. He’s deeply affected by the violent murder of a beloved relation, but Stone can’t even pretend to be interested in other human beings as anything other than fodder for unabashed garbage television.
Darryl is even more deeply affected by his grandmother’s murder. It becomes the catalyst for his hero’s journey from virginal Poindexter so unaccustomed to a woman's touch that he seems to have a seizure-like spasm every time he gets an erection, to Blankman, a red long johns-clad self-styled superhero with an endless array of nifty gadgets that suggest what James Bond’s accessories might look like if instead of seemingly limitless resources, Q had about forty dollars, some duct tape and unlimited access to the town dump.
Darryl has a real weakness for creating clamorous contraptions that are as pointless as they are unnecessarily complicated and counter-productive. He’s a low-budget Blaxploitation version of Rube Goldberg: call him Blube Blackberg. He’s a homemade superhero in a ramshackle but surprisingly likable superhero goof that at its best feels similarly homemade and thrown together.
I’m not sure a movie this purposefully silly and slight needs to kill off a grandmother to raise the stakes. I’m also guessing that the filmmakers did not intend a scene of Darryl weeping uncontrollably at his grandmother’s funeral to be one of the funniest moments in the film but there is a long tradition of killing off fathers and uncles and grandmas in superhero movies that Blankman follows faithfully.
There’s an entire subgenre of the superhero movie devoted to ordinary, or even sub-ordinary people who decide to become caped crusaders for various reasons, most of them revenge-oriented. These movies tend to be violent and misanthropic, and, in the case of Super, unrelentingly grim in a surprisingly poignant, even transcendent way. Then there’s the Kick Ass movies, which opt for an equally violent and grim tone, but without the emotional undertones.
Blankman is the antithesis of Super. Darryl is an uncomplicated good guy who just wants to help people and fight the scourge of violence in his hometown. One of his first acts of heroism involves helping deliver a baby, something that somehow becomes front-page news on what must be the single slowest news day in recorded history.
Where most metropolises in comic book movies view superheroes with suspicion, if not outright disdain (that J. Jonah Jameson fellow, for example, sure gives Spider-Man a hard time), in Blankman, the entire city of Chicago seems ready to outsource seemingly the sum of law enforcement duties to Darryl/Blankman despite him obviously being nothing more than a nerd running around in bulletproof PJs, assisted by the kinds of contraptions that seem just as likely, if not more likely, to injure or kill the person using them as the foe they’re being used against.
This includes a surprisingly nifty vehicle that Daryl uses that runs on the same tracks as the El and the Chicago subway. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Daryl woos love interest and beautiful reporter lady Kimberly Jonz (Robin Givens, who is given the thankless task of having to appear turned on by a character who is essentially Super-Urkel) by taking her on a ride on his subway glider complicated ever so slightly by the fact that the vehicle is so loud he can’t hear anything she’s saying while it’s moving forward, but if they stop they’ll be killed by the El trains right behind them.
Even when Blankman follows the usual super-hero beats, it finds a way to twist and contort them to its own ends. Like a lot of superhero movies, Blankman’s third act finds its hero retreating back into the straight world after a huge set-back, in this case the Mayor dying in an explosion Blankman is powerless to prevent. Only instead of getting a straight job that would make use of his peculiar scientific prowess, Daryl mans the counter at McDonald’s, a gig that seems to satisfy him nearly as much as fighting crime does.
Eventually, of course, Blankman roars back into action at the behest of his brother, who understandably initially viewed Daryl’s interest in crime-fighting as a low-level form of insanity but eventually agrees to be his sidekick.
Darryl and Kevin aren’t great superheroes, or even particularly competent ones. They’re even worse at branding themselves. And costuming themselves so, at a loss for a clever name for Kevin, the brothers decide on the hilariously vague moniker “Other Guy.” If nothing else, Blankman and Other Guy are the two most fuzzily named superheroes in cinematic history.
I don’t want to oversell Blankman. It’s no lost masterpiece or hidden gem but I did find it a lot funnier and more engaging than I had anticipated. Much of that is attributable to nostalgia. Part of the movie was filmed in neighborhoods I used to live in as a teenager. Watching Blankman, I repeatedly got that cheap jolt of recognition that comes with seeing onscreen a McDonald’s you used to frequent.
The world of superheroes has grown so grim and self-serious that it’s refreshing to see a superhero movie that takes nothing seriously, particularly itself. There’s a child-like innocence and exuberance to the film that’s endearing. We’ve gone full circle at this point, to the point where a genre whose original audience, in comic book, television (Blankman not surprisingly borrows an awful lot from the 1960s Batman show, particularly in its cartoonish transitions and even more cartoonish fight scenes) and film was largely comprised of children has become an almost dispiritingly adult cinematic form.
In that sense, Blankman is a blast from the past in multiple ways. It took me back to my own adolescence, when I got most of my identity and wavering self-esteem from my job as a video store clerk in Chicago who rented customers movies like Blankman, but it also hearkens back to a sunnier and more innocent era for superheroes in general.
That’s why the market angrily demands a Blankman reboot. Heck, it could even star Damon Wayans Jr., the star and co-writer’s son, who plays the young Darryl early in the film. Actually, that’d probably be a bad idea. Blankman looks so unpromising from the outside that the mere fact that it’s consistently chuckle-inducing and appealing represents something of a minor miracle: it’d be pushing fate to try to try to make this slight but oddly refreshing premise fly a second time.
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