Swamp Thing 3.14: Mister A

So I believe that this is the moment in Swamp Thing — when the villain tears off his lookalike skinsuit made out of another person’s face, and it turns out to just be a different guy, who sits down quietly and introduces himself — that the real disappointment sets in, and you realize that this movie might not be the rocket sled to adventure that you were hoping for.

“You have heard of, but never seen me,” says the tired old man, settling himself in a chair with a sigh, “so I will introduce myself. My name is Arcane.” And that is literally the only thing that we ever know about him.

Is he a doctor, a dictator or a drug lord? Is he a cult leader? Is he a criminal? Why did they say he was dead? Why are there people who risk their lives for him? Does he have employees, or worshippers? I have dozens of questions about who this character is supposed to be, and none of them are answered in the film in any way. His name is Arcane. The end.

And knowing the comics isn’t much help, because the real Arcane isn’t anything like this at all. The comic-book Arcane is a twisted wizard who creates Frankenstein monsters and keeps getting killed over and over, and each time that he comes back, he looks worse. After several returns, he gets into kind of an insect theme, so he looks like a spider and then like a cloud of flies. Eventually he ends up as a severed head in Hell, where the demons use him as a soccer ball. He comes back after that, too. The guy’s a survivor.

The thing that he doesn’t do is hire a bunch of ugly mercenaries to splash around in the swamp looking for a notebook. I don’t think that even occurred to him. Why would it?

In fact, the character that they call “Arcane” in the film is a composite of two different characters from the comic. One of them is the wizard bug demon guy, and the other is a shadowy business guy whose name — and I apologize in advance — is Mister E.

Mister E is the head of some organization called the Conclave that we never learn very much about. He skulks in a big armchair in a huge dark mansion with his weird pet monkey, and he wants that magical bio-restorative formula that Dr. Alec Holland is working on. Mister E’s the one who sends Ferrett and Bruno out to the swamp lab to get the formula, and when they don’t, he’s very cross.

He says, “The Conclave has many enterprises that would be jeopardized by outside use of that compound” — like what? — “thus, if we can’t have it, nobody will! The Hollands and their formula must be destroyed!

Mister E comes to that conclusion pretty precipitately, because we need Alec to blow up or there isn’t going to be a Swamp Thing, so he tells Ferrett and Bruno to go and get that done.

At that point, the formula is destroyed, and you’d think that Mister E would be satisfied, but he hangs around for another seven issues anyway.

From then on, Mister E’s grudge with Swamp Thing is apparently around personnel retention. “Two of our best men were lost to that Swamp Thing,” he rants, “and the Conclave does not take such losses lightly!”

As a plot point, this is thin to the point of nonexistent. Who ever heard of a faceless villain lurking in the shadows who gives a shit what happens to his henchmen? But they wanted to have a faceless villain lurking in the shadows, and this was the only motivation they could think of, so that’s what he does.

In issue #6, he finally takes an active role in the book, sending a robot to grab Matt and Abby and transport them to Gotham City.

In issue #7, Mister E brings his prisoners to a Gotham City warehouse, where he ties them to mad science chairs and demands that they tell him everything about…

… well, actually, we don’t really know what he wants them to talk about. They just say that they won’t talk, and Mister E says “You know we will eventually learn everything — one way or another!” So I guess he wants to know everything, which is tricky, because as far as I can tell, Matt Cable hardly knows anything.

Since they’re in Gotham City, obviously Swamp Thing runs into Batman, and they fight each other and then decide to help each other, as per every other comic book team-up in history.

It turns out Mister E is some rando rich dude named Nathan Ellery, and the heroes track him down and then he falls off a balcony with his weird little monkey friend, and he dies, and we never really find out what the Conclave was or what they wanted. So I suppose the movie is actually pretty comics-accurate, in that sense.

Anyway, Arcane is a totally different dude. He’s a wizened old black magic sorceror man who lives in a big dark Transylvania-type castle in the Balkans somewhere, and he learns about Swamp Thing through his mystic scrying pool of convenient narrative contrivances. He sends his band of freaky little mutant helpers to capture Swamp Thing in Louisiana, and they somehow manage to either fly or hire an airplane to carry him all the way home.

The airplane thing doesn’t make a lot of sense, but besides that, it’s pretty clear. This is a Universal Monsters situation, where “universal” means that you can plug it into any story and it works just fine.

The deal with Arcane is that he knows the secret of immortality, but he doesn’t want to use it, because he’s old and gross, and who wants to be like that forever? So he’s captured Swamp Thing to convince him to do a black magic science spell that will swap their bodies. Alec will get his human body again, and Arcane will become the powerful swamp creature, and then get his revenge on all the knuckleheads in town who shunned him and called him names.

This crackadoodle plan actually works, but Alec discovers what Arcane plans to do with his swamp body, and he decides that he has to smash the sigil and undo the spell, becoming Swamp Thing again, this time by choice. It’s all very tragic and metaphorical, and then Arcane topples out of a high window, as all villains eventually do.

And then he comes back, which is the other thing that villains do. He survived the fall but got all twisted up, and like I said, at some point he goes through a bug phase, and I don’t even know how many times he dies.

Once Alan Moore takes over the book, Arcane turns into a fly and inhabits Matt’s body, and they do terrible, terrible things together. It’s really quite wonderful.

But the thing that he doesn’t do is dress up like a project field supervisor, and then hold people at gunpoint. So I don’t know who the hell the guy in the lab with the gun could possibly be, but I’m pretty sure he’s not Arcane. We may never know.

3.15: Feel the Burn


— Danny Horn

21 thoughts on “Swamp Thing 3.14: Mister A

  1. Comic book Arcane lives in a world with Superman and Batman and he decides he wants to live forever in the body of Swamp Thing?!
    As to why his underlings follow movie Arcane, the International version makes it clear the man knows how to party.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Arcane shows up in only the second issue of the comic book, before Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson had probably decided whether or not the series even took place in the “DC universe.” And even after they did commit to it and had Batman appear, this was back in the early 1970s, just a few years removed from the editorial fiefdoms of the 1950s and 60s where, other than Justice League of America and World’s Finest Comics, the various DC characters hardly ever interacted with each other. It was very different from Marvel in the Silver Age where Stan Lee was scripting & editing pretty much every single title so he could decide to have Sgt. Fury or Spider-Man pop up in Fantastic Four whenever he wanted it to happen.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. So many questions about the movie Arcane. But Arcane is clearly a cooler name than Mister E, which would have been too hokey even for this movie. And him turning himself into a pigweasel is clearly a nod to his comic transformations, but, you known, on a limited budget. Can you just picture it if they had tried to make him look like the Racnoss Queen from Doctor Who, except with 1980s SFX, this budget, and costume-decaying swamp water? Better they stuck to the pigweasel because that was laughable enough.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. The real problem, as I see it, is that they tried to drop Swamp Thing into a standard-issue superhero Box o’ Tropes. But ST isn’t a standard-issue protagonist. Arcane is the Nemesis, only he keeps gets sillier because he serves no function. Swamp-Man isn’t going to uncover a clue, bark “To the Swamp-Cave!” and roar off in his Swamp Buggy. Moore saw that and retooled the title.

    Good news, Swamp Thing is available on the free streaming service Tubi. You have to create an account to save your progress, and you get a low frame rate, but it’s better than nothing.

    Did anyone else notice, at about nine minutes in, the equipment tags? Cable walks into the lab for the first time, and behind her we see random gizmos on shelves, many with tags. It’s like they’ve set up a repair shop for home science enthusiasts.

    And I believe I can identify Alessandro’s species: it’s an opossum. The eyes are distinctive, as is the shape of the snout. Possums aren’t amphibious, of course, unless the script says they’re diggers.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “Possums aren’t amphibious, of course, unless the script says they’re diggers.”
      As poor Cooper had to learn the hard way, which is why those single-cell-host sporting diggers were named after him.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I do hope that Movie Arcane’s going to call one of his minions an “unmitigated idiot”. Any villain worthy of the name should berate his underlings whenever things start screwing up.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Right? What the hell else are you supposed to do with your minions when they’re not out waving pocket snakes and destroying equipment?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing co-conspirators, artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben, did outstanding work with Arcane’s various insectoid transformations. The 1985 Swamp Thing annual (“Down Amongst The Dead Men”) is a masterpiece of comic book ickiness.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Wow, that comic book was one REALLY WEIRD TRIP even by comic book standards.

    “He skulks in a big armchair in a huge dark mansion with his weird pet monkey.”
    I can relate to that. That’s exactly how I read this blog, when I want a break from the two-room apartment and the corner McDonald’s.

    I’d love to stay longer, but it’s a busy weekend. Just like Batman, I’ve got to UUNNFF!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I’m having both the mansion and the monkey deep cleaned this weekend, so I’m stuck in the apartment.


  7. Okay, this is one of those times when it’s clear that all of this is very subjective, and we’re just going to have to agree to disagree. I think that making the movie version of Arcane a composite of the comic book Arcane and that “Mister E” guy was a brilliant decision. Even back in 1981, several years before Alan Moore got his hands on this series and remade him into a insectoid body-hopping demonic rapist, it was clear that Arcane was Swamp Thing’s arch enemy. In contrast, “E” is just a forgettable generic evil businessman with a ridiculous name, who I didn’t even remember until I started reading your posts about Swamp Thing. So it makes perfect sense for the movie to make Arcane the master criminal / mad scientist who is responsible for Alec Holland becoming Swamp Thing and who himself later transforms into an inhuman monster.

    Look, I said this is all subjective. I’m sure a lot of my thinking the movie version of Arcane is incredible is because I saw Swamp Thing endlessly on HBO when I was six years old and suavely sinister Louis Jourdan scared the hell out of me. Honestly, though, rewatching the movie recently I think movie Arcane still works really well. And I now realize that the movie Arcane is a perfect villain for the uber-capitalist 1980s a wealthy, charismatic captain of industry who is secretly a criminal mastermind. He actually presages the post-Crisis sociopathic corporate raider version of Lex Luthor by half a decade.

    But, again, it’a all a matter of individual taste.

    Liked by 6 people

  8. Combining 2 characters into one is only one thing the movie changes and hardly the most drastic. Alec has a sister rather than a wife and Cable is a different sex. I guess no one cares that Alec in these pages is blonde. It reminds me of my favorite exchange in tv’s “Lucifer” when someone tells him they thought he was blonde. His reply: “I get that a lot.”
    I noted Arcane-Spider’s riff on Arthur C. Clarke’s quote “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” At least he’s not quoting Nietzsche.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Things I like from the panels:

    Swamp Thing specifically says one of the reasons he’s tuning up Mister E is “he killed a dog.” Damn straight! Vengeance for all pups!

    Two: Arcane has discovered a method for achieving immortality, but rather than rushing in where angels fear to tread, he puts some thought into it and says; yeah, but not in THIS worn out ol’ chassis with the prostate issues and the eczema and the hair loss. No sir, these tires are on mile fifty thousand and I’m gonna upgrade before committing for all eternity, thank you.

    I mean, his goal is to be Swamp Thing? Who frankly already appears to be pretty immortal, rendering the immortality formula Arcane discovered moot? And also he is Swamp Thing and has to hang out with the boas and chiggers in the tannic acid water, which doesn’t sound like the best of times, but each to his own taste, I guess? So the “thinking out your evil plan” didn’t get past the second page of Google search, but he’s an insane wizard, so what do you want from him?

    Liked by 4 people

  10. If this really were a big-budget superhero special effects extravaganza where Swamp Thing did all of the awe-inspiring feats of power he does in the comics, Mr A would be a preposterous anticlimax of a villain. But since the main character is Alice Cable, and the main villain is The Bad Guy from The Last House on the Left, it’s perfectly OK that the villain’s boss is a calm, suave guy whose motivations we don’t know much about.

    Liked by 1 person

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