blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Blankman (1994, Mike Binder)

Blankman is surprisingly good. Even after showcasing its initial strengths, then taking a second act tumble, the movie picks itself up for a strong finish. Given the subject—a neurodivergent-coded man becomes a superhero—there are plenty of poorly-aged, ableist jokes. But the jokes made at hero Damon Wayans’s expense always say more about the teller, with Wayans usually having a good rejoinder. It’s often David Alan Grier, as Wayans’s older brother, who’s making the jokes, and Grier being a boob is one of Blankman’s standards.

But Grier’s a likable boob; he’s just rarely the most likable character in a scene. Definitely not with Wayans or Robin Givens. Givens is the love interest in a riff on the old-fashioned superhero movie love triangle: Grier’s the third wheel since Givens doesn’t know Wayans exists when not running around in his tights. The third act rushes through all the reveals (or skips them entirely) because it’s campy enough by that time it doesn’t need much reality.

The movie opens with Grier and Wayans as kids watching the Adam West “Batman” show, with already different Wayans (Wayans’s sons play the kid versions) stringing together all the metal in the house to improve the TV reception. Blankman’s got a lot going on with its superhero concepts. The movie’s an homage to “Batman,” complete with the spinning transitions and fight scene onomatopoeia, but it can’t do anything with the actual property. They even downplay Wayans’s gadgets, made with recycled junk, being “Blank” this or “Blank” that. They say it, but never with a wink to the “Bat” naming scheme.

Then there’s Wayans’s motivation. He’s inspired by personal loss, but he’s not a dark and brooding hero. There’s literally a place in the Blankman for that lousy Dark Knight monologue, but the movie heads happily—and successfully—into camp instead. He inspires the citizenry with his heroics and catches the eye of news anchor Givens. Grier works at the same station but in the basement on the tabloid TV show for Jason Alexander. Besides the unfortunate bald cap, Alexander’s quite funny as a loathsome producer. Unfortunately, some of it doesn’t age well, as Alexander’s in a wheelchair, primarily for sight gags.

Grier’s much more likable than Alexander.

Until Wayans decides to become a caped crusader, most of Grier’s time is spent flirting with Givens. Again, part of the joke is he’s laying it on so heavy he’s icky, but it’s still a lot sometimes. Once Givens gets to laugh at him, however, it all evens out.

The secret to Blankman’s success is Givens.

So the movie’s got the “Batman” camp thing going on, the recycled junk wonderful toys, a neurodivergent hero, but then there’s Givens. Blankman—both in the script, from Wayans and J.F. Lawton, and in Binder’s direction—plays Givens as Lois Lane… from Superman: The Movie. Only giving her more to do (there are also some Superman nods in dialogue from other characters). It’s an excellent showcase for Givens, who’s fantastic.

The other essential performance is Jon Polito, as the cartoonishly evil (and capable) mobster. He’s funny, absurd, and dangerous. And the film seems to know how well he does with the material, giving him campier and campier bits as things progress, with Polito knocking all of them out of the park.

Wayans and Grier are both good, to be sure. Wayans is something of a slow burn, not really getting to do much until his superhero arc has started. And Grier’s got to flex like he’s the protagonist in the first before sharing the back seat with Polito. The late second-act stumbles are mostly about how the film tries to get itself rearranged in time for the finale.

There are some missed opportunities—they had a perfect post-credits tag and didn’t do it—and some of the jokes, problematic and not, land soft, but Blankman’s an excellent superhero comedy. With a little more money (the special effects range in quality) and an impossible “Batman: The TV Show” license, it could’ve been a singular homage.

Instead, it’s still one heck of a success. Stellar performances from Givens and Polito, strong turns from Wayans and Grier, an empathetic, nimble script, and more than adequate direction from Binder. He’s not an action director, but Blankman doesn’t have the budget for it, and he gets the timing, both the performances and the comedy.

Really nice photography from Newton Thomas Sigel too.

Blankman. He’s not the hero we deserve, but he’s the one we need right now.

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