There Is No Precedent for Sam Raimi’s Insane Darkman
By Robert Silva
The director’s demented genius is on full display in this homebrewed superhero movie starring Liam Neeson.
Darkman premiered in the summer of 1990. Its marketing campaign ("Who is Darkman?") seemed to suggest a Caped Crusader rip-off — indeed, it was scored by Danny Elfman, who the year before had composed the music for Tim Burton's Batman, the sui generis blockbuster that foreshadowed our current era of superheroic abundance — but Darkman was something different. The movie owed nothing to an existing fanbase and mythology. Darkman is heroic, demented, funny, and a little scary. By today's standards, it's shocking in its audacity, dark comedy and R-rated violence, as it tells the idiosyncratic story of an identity-swapping superhero who could be mistaken for a cadaver.
Fresh off the low-budget success of horror-comedy Evil Dead II, Sam Raimi (who would later is the filmmaker responsible. He helped usher in the modern superhero age with 2002's Spider-Man, but at the time was fresh off the low-budget success of horror-comedy Evil Dead II. Raimi wanted to make a superhero movie, but couldn’t. Rebuffed in his attempts to adapt pulp magazine series, The Shadow, he decided to create his own vigilante hero, mixing together a strange brew of Frankenstein’s Monster, the Phantom of the Opera, Batman, and the Invisible Man, but with Darkman emerging as a mutant breed all his own.
He begins life as Peyton Westlake (a boyish Liam Neeson), a brainiac on the cusp of creating artificial skin, until a cadre of gangsters — led by the quietly sadistic Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake, Dr. Giggles) — torture him in exquisite detail and blow him up like a cartoon character. Grotesquely scarred and with his pain receptors deadened by doctors, Westlake survives as a living corpse who uses his imperfect skin technology (it expires into bubbly sludge after 100 minutes) to impersonate his enemies and make their lives as horrific as his own.
Restoring his own face temporarily allows Peyton to reconnect with his girlfriend Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand), a high-powered lawyer who thought he was worm food. McDormand, according to Raimi, fought to expand her role beyond the dimensions of the clingy comic book heroine. "She wasn't your classic ingénue in a comic-strip film," the actor recalled years later. Julie is ambitious on her own terms and allergic to commitment. Slowly, Julie learns the true dimensions of her boyfriend’s damage — both inside and out. Vengeance isn’t a selfless calling. It’s the only thing he’s got.
Neeson's Darkman swings from bleak depression to incandescent rage as he battles against foes who are the adult embodiments of cruel children. Masked by bandages and prosthetics, Neeson does most of his acting as two wounded eyes, whose rage tears through the screen in overheated montages reminiscent of comic book panels.
Darkman feels dangerous and alive, pumping its premise for thrills and dark humor. It's a little science fiction, a little Gothic horror, and a bit of a Fangoria gorefest. Which means it’s a lot like comic books. From the beginning, comic books were a place where high and low culture mixed, tones and genres blended. Reading for misfits. An antidote for adolescent fears. And now the focus of billions of dollars in box-office revenues, they've lost some of their original character, like a gentrified neighborhood.
The summer of 1990, Darkman became a surprise hit. It connected with audiences by hitting odd emotional registers — pathos, poetry, perversion and just plain weirdness. (It climaxes with a nail gun confrontation.) Darkman’s brand of vengeance is dangerous because viewers aren’t sure what to expect. It's dizzying, bonkers territory; watching it isn’t so different from opening a comic book for the first time.