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