By Stephanie Zacharek
By Amy Nicholson
By Calum Marsh
By Cory Garcia
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Alan Scherstuhl
No matter what else he does, director Sam Raimi has two unassailable fan favorites under his belt: 1987's Evil Dead 2, and the 1992 trilogy-capper Army of Darkness. (His first film, 1981's The Evil Dead, is more "respected" than "loved" by the fans.) Released between those two films, Raimi's 1990 superhero movie, Darkman, was largely overlooked by his base because it wasn't another Dead movie -- it didn't even star Bruce Campbell! -- while Universal tried to market it as the Batman clone the studio desperately wanted it to be.
Raimi, of course, went on to revitalize the superhero genre in the 2000s with the considerably blander Spider-Man films, setting the template until Christopher Nolan came along and gritted up the joint with his own take on Batman. Now being released on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, Darkman stands as a Raimi project that deserves reconsideration from both those stubborn Dead fans and general audiences, as well an appreciation for being not the Batman rip-off it looked like at the time, but rather a descent into utter madness.
Raimi was already shooting Darkman when Tim Burton's Batman became a cultural phenomenon in 1989. When Raimi's picture was released the following summer, Universal attempted to posit this new character as a Batman-style superhero, down to the poster's tagline: "They destroyed everything he had, everything he was." So far, so good. "Now, crime has a new enemy, and justice has a new face." Sure, except for the part where that's not really true at all.
Darkman is not a hero or crime-stopper in the classic sense. He doesn't patrol the streets, nor does he show the slightest interest in foiling muggers, and he is utterly unconcerned with any criminals who didn't already fuck with his shit. (In fairness, after Superman gets his suit and learns to fly in Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, the first thing he does is go to his mom's house to drink beer and watch football.)
The emotional center of Darkman is not a quest for justice, but rather the antihero wrestling with his intolerable anger and psychic pain. Batman may be brooding, but Darkman is certifiably bugfuck. He straight-up kills people, starting with a henchman played by Raimi's brother Ted, and he does so in a particularly vicious way: sticking the younger Raimi's head out of a manhole into oncoming traffic until it gets squished by a truck. Said squishing occurs off-camera, but it also reveals the film for what it is: a revenge flick, pure but not so simple. The rest of the picture is (to coin a phrase) a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, Darkman picking off those who had tried to pick him off. Darkman's origin story is that of a supervillain, not a superhero, and he acts accordingly. It makes Danny Elfman's Batman-rewrite score feel practically sarcastic.
Based on an original story by Raimi and his other brother, Ivan, Darkman has the same structure as that year's Steven Seagal vehicle Hard to Kill, Clint Eastwood's 1968 Hang 'Em High, and many other revenge films besides, yet the premise manages to be ludicrous even by superhero standards: Optimistic scientist Peyton (Liam Neeson in his first leading role) is on the verge of perfecting a synthetic skin when bad guys led by Durant (Larry Drake) break into his lab in search of a McGuffin. The baddies torture Peyton and blow up both him and his lab ... or so they think.
Now missing most of his skin -- but unable to feel pain, courtesy of a doctor who conveniently used an experimental technique to cut off his pain receptors -- the bandaged-swaddled Peyton sets out to exact revenge on those who wronged him. This he mostly does by impersonating the bad guys using that synthetic skin, the catch being that the skin evaporates in 99 minutes when exposed to light. (As the pre-Darkman Peyton ponders: "What is it about the dark? What secrets does it hold?" It's a testament to Neeson's commitment as a hungry young actor that he absolutely sells that line, one of the silliest he would encounter until The Phantom Menace a decade later.)
Also, one of the side effects of a lack of pain receptors is a heightening of his emotions and physical strength are heightened, so he's now very angry and very strong. Oh, and the McGuffin he was ostensibly killed for were documents about a city-of-the-future construction project headed by evil yuppie Strack (Colin Friels), who is also making moves on Peyton's girlfriend, businesswoman Julie (Frances McDormand, who insists to this day that she was miscast).
There's a lot going on in Darkman, and truthfully, it doesn't come close to adding up on a story level. Nor does it have to, because it's so much fun, and very much a product of its time. The left-for-dead and city-of-the-future elements recall 1987's RoboCop, though Darkman's architecture-porn subplot doesn't serve any narrative purpose other than providing an unfinished high-rise as a setting for the finale. There are also parallels with The Crow, and while the film version wouldn't come out until 1994, the first issue of the comic book hit in February 1989, two months before Darkman started shooting. Clearly, themes of resurrection and revenge were in the air at the end of the Reagan administration.
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