Darkman was the blockbuster stepping stone between Army of Darkness and Spider-Man for Sam Raimi, and that’s exactly what it feels like. When the director couldn’t get the rights to various other existing superhero properties such as Batman and The Shadow (their loss), he decided to create his own inspired by the movies he grew up with. It pays homage to Universal’s horror films of the 1930s, noir cinema, and The Phantom of the Opera.
The film stars Liam Neeson as Peyton Westlake, a scientist who is attacked and left for dead by ruthless mobster Robert Durant (Larry Drake), after his girlfriend (Frances McDormand) stumbles across the dealings of a corrupt developer (Colin Friels). Westlake had been developing a synthetic skin, his breakthrough comes when he realises that the skin becomes stable after 100 minutes but only in darkness. After he is disfigured by the attack on his lab, he is treated at a nearby hospital where he is given a radical treatment which effectively stops him from feeling pain. This removal gives him an adrenal overload – something that gives him enhanced strength, as well as mental instability. Setting up his lab again, he plots revenge against Durant and his associates, using the synthetic skin he made as a way to disguise himself in public. There’s your superhero origin.
It’s clear to see why Raimi was hired for Spider-Man after making this movie. While it’s predated by four Superman movies and Tim Burton’s Batman, it adopts the comic book aesthetic and plotting in a way that would define the genre for years. It’s easy to think of early Marvel movies such as Blade, X-Men or Spider-Man as the beginning of this trend – but it’s better to think of them as what proved that these properties could top the box office and start franchises. While it follows a specific formula, Raimi can’t help but push the limits of what he’s allowed to do. Just like the surgery scene in Spider-Man 2, Raimi loves to inject moments of visceral horror amidst an otherwise bloodless movie. The madness of Westlake leads to scenes that tread the line between horror and comedy, a range of melancholy, genuine drama, and humour that makes it not at all surprising that The Evil Dead’s Bruce Campbell was originally up for the role.
Neeson really throws himself into the part of Westlake, engaging with the humanity of the character whilst also being gloriously over-the-top for his mental breaks. There’s a lack of self-awareness and embracing of the silly that makes Darkman interesting, the already grim narrative would have collapsed under its own misery if they hadn’t had some fun with it. Frances McDormand is good in her role too, and despite becoming a damsel in distress in the final act, her character has her own agency for most of the film and has a lasting impact on the plot. Westlake works as a character because Raimi follows Peyton’s arc to its natural end. He ‘decided to explore a man’s soul’, showing a good-natured man driven to do awful things, and eventually coming to terms with the hateful thing he has become. Early preview screenings were poorly received – people laughed in the wrong places and complained about a lack of a happy ending. Funnily enough, the two following screenings were well-received, with the key difference being the vibrant score by Danny Elfman.
Darkman has a lot working against it. It’s the product of Raimi not being able to utilise the properties he wanted to, and the script went through dozens of drafts after the studio wasn’t satisfied (even friends of the director Joel and Ethan Coen helped polish it up). The budget restrictions are clear for most of the movie, but by time the action starts in the second half the viewer is reminded of how skillful Raimi is as a director. The ingenuity shown in the helicopter chase makes for one of the most convincing and exciting action set-pieces seen in any superhero movie. While it didn’t popularise the sub-genre, or set it into motion necessarily, it feels like the prototype to a movement within cinema that’s been dominating the box office ever since, and the fact that Raimi adds touches of camp, horror, and absurdity to the mix makes it worth revisiting.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures