Sam Raimi is a widely liked director of genre pictures; most audiences will know him for either his Evil Dead or Spider-Man movies. Wedged in-between, however, are a number of less famous films. Darkman, released back in 1990, is a personal favourite. It was the first film that I went to see in a cinema on my own. I loved it back then. I continue to love it now. Nostalgia is, after all, a hell of a thing.
In the 21st century superheroes and costumed vigilantes turn up in American film and television all the time. Back in 1990 they were much less common. Darkman came a year after Tim Burton’s colossal adaptation of Batman, and while it lacks a pre-existing hero it certainly keeps with all of the expected cliches and traditions.
Scientist Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is beaten and left to die when hoodlums – led by the gangster Robert Durant (Larry Drake) – blow up his laboratory in the search for criminal evidence against them. Horrifically scarred and badly injured, Westlake survives to wage a vigilante war against his foes – all the while hiding from his girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand).
Darkman marks a midpoint between Raimi’s early roughshod yet energetic works, and his second career as a director of slickly made high-budget blockbusters. It is a much more commercially-minded work than his Evil Dead films, and yet maintains that early handmade feel. Elements of visual collage, stop-motion animation, and cheap blue-screen are used quite liberally. Some parts of the film seem laughably bad. Others are genuinely impressive. There is a constant pulp spirit uniting it all, polishing over the flaws and accentuating the highlights. One could easily imagine Darkman becoming a popular cult film, although circumstance has seen it fail to fully achieve that reputation.
It is not simply a matter of replacing hand-held camera work with dolly shots and cranes. There is a real sense here than Raimi is experimenting with how best to adapt comic book visuals to moving images. The best ones are visible in his subsequent Spider-Man films, while anything that fails here generally ends with this movie. In many ways Raimi’s work here foreshadows work done by Ang Lee in Hulk (2003). He is not only copying tropes and stylistic archetypes, but structure and visual language.
Darkman is peppered with broad performances that lack in subtlety what they gain in cheerful appeal. It all feels like a 1940s comic book, where emotions are simple and rather charming. It is a surprise to see actors that would develop such acclaim in future – Neeson and particularly McDormand – in these kinds of roles. At the same time it is a delight to see Larry Drake make such a fun character out of Durant. Colin Friels, on the other hand, suffers badly: an iconic Australian actor saddled under the weight of an unnecessary American accent.
Two direct-to-video sequels failed to make the impression that the original did. This first movie, however, is a significant step in Hollywood’s development of superheroes on screen. It deserves more love. It deserves to be remembered.