We dive into Sam Raimi’s first entry into the superhero film genre with the anti-hero Darkman!
Movie: Darkman (1990)
Plot: A scientist working on prosthetic skin for burn victims is taken out by criminals when his girlfriend unearths some shady real estate dealing. He survives, but is horribly disfigured. With the help of an experimental medical procedure that gives him enhanced strength and the inability to feel no pain due to his nerves being severed, the good doctor goes on a quest for vengeance to take out those that destroyed his life and threatens the life of the woman he loves by playing with their identities using his prosthetic skin development technique if he’s not putting them in the ground himself.
Hero: Dr. Peyton Westlake, only going by the name Darkman in a monologue at the end.
Critique: The lead-up to Sam Raimi bringing us the odd superhero Darkman to the screen after the success of the Evil Dead films is a comic book story of destiny in itself. Raimi tried to secure the rights to two well-known superheroes: Batman and The Shadow. Batman, obviously, went on to become a legendary film franchise without Raimi. The Shadow bombed without him. Later on, Raimi got his shot at a blockbuster superhero with Spider-Man, but Darkman was a character developed out of thin air, and it worked fantastically.
Darkman uses a plot that mirrors the comic book storyline of superheroes so methodically that you’d think Raimi had been writing comic books all his life. This may seem like a slight to Sam Raimi, but it is how he twists this theme of a superhero story to create a film where the hero relies more on deception than flat-out action and fists that makes Darkman so interesting and entertaining. Not only that, but Darkman uses a lot of imagery and cinematography that was seen in The Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 to create an insane, horror-themed superhero movie that was way ahead of its time. The special effects to turn Liam Neeson into the scarred Darkman is only part of that.
Criticism of Darkman is minimal, but has to be noted. Many of the shots are obviously using a backdrop, sometimes making you wonder why (such as Julie’s front shot in the cemetery.) Action sequences also seem a bit forced in comparison to Darkman’s more deceptive activity like taking on the personas of his enemies to get them to kill each other. The helicopter scene is a good idea, but seems drawn out. The climactic fight on the skeletal frame of a building seems forced. Scenes like these don’t make the movie bad, but they have the feeling that Raimi was leaving his comfort zone, or just didn’t have the budget to make it work. Of course, Raimi already answered this critique of mine with Spider-Man, which only makes me wonder what Darkman could have been.
Scenes of Awesomeness: I don’t know why, but the death of Durant’s henchman Rick strikes me as hilariously amazing. Darkman pops Rick’s head out a manhole in the middle of a busy street, bouncing him up and down like a crazed Jack-In-the-Box until a truck splatters his head on the pavement (we assume, since the camera cuts away in the end.) It’s a scene that incorporates the vigilante vibe of Batman with the trademark crazy cringe humor that Sam Raimi was known for.
Another scene that is nothing short of amazing is when Dr. Westlake attempts to win an elephant for Julie in a carnival game. When the game worker refuses to give Westlake the pink elephant for winning, Westlake goes into a rage, breaking the worker’s fingers with him, the worker, and Julie all screaming. With the vibrant, cartoonish backgrounds and over-the-top expressions, the scene feels lifted straight out of Evil Dead 2.
Actors/Actresses of Note: The cast of Darkman is very top-heavy with some surprising up-and-coming talent, which is where most of the budget for the film probably went. Liam Neeson, who needs no other introduction, portrays the titular Darkman. Frances McDormand, coming off an Academy Award nomination for Mississippi Burning, plays Darkman’s love interest, Julie Hastings, before finally winning an Academy Award later in her career from her starring role in Fargo. The infamous Larry Drake portrays the villain Robert G. Durant before he went on to star in Dr. Giggles. Jenny Agutter is uncredited as the burn victim unit nurse, known for her other nurse role in An American Werewolf in London and Andy’s foster mom in Child’s Play 2. Even Bruce Campbell makes a cameo to make up for Universal Pictures blocking him from being cast in the feature role of Peyton Westlake/Darkman.
Quote: “Take the fucking elephant!” – Peyton Westlake
Watchability: 3 out of 5. Darkman is not your average superhero film. It’s a horror super-hero film with Sam Raimi bleeding through it in every scene, which is what makes it so interesting and entertaining to watch. Is it great? No, but it is definitely worth a re-watch once in a while to take a break from the big-budget super-hero films that Hollywood has been constantly cranking out.