Superhero films have become such an omnipresent part of our culture that it feels like there is a new one hitting theatres every month. That feeling may be warranted by the fact that in this year alone there is a total of NINE superhero movies set to hit the big screen. Most recently among 2022’s batch of superhero features was Marvel Studios’ newest entry in their shared cinematic universe: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The film serves as a sequel to 2016’s Doctor Strange, but much more noteworthy for many film buffs, it marks the return of cult-film icon Sam Raimi.
Raimi, who had not directed a feature film since 2013’s Oz: The Great and Powerful, is no stranger to superheroes. In fact, the current status of superhero films can be traced directly back to Raimi’s first bonafide mega hit: 2002’s Spider-Man and its two subsequent sequels. Though Sam Raimi has always had a die-hard, cult following thanks to his beloved Evil Dead trilogy, his films before Spider-Man were all moderate financial successes at best. Even the Evil Dead films, arguably Raimi’s most popular movies before Spider-Man, remained as more of a niche item, never quite reaching mainstream success outside of its devoted community of fans. Spider-Man, on the other hand, was the film that finally broke him into the mainstream. It was so successful that it proved to major studios that there was a rabid fanbase for this genre, causing the wave of superhero, comic book adaptations that still grows to this day.
This cultural impact made the idea of Raimi returning to this genre to an exciting proposition, but what many fans don’t realize is that this will not be the first time Raimi had returned to the superhero genre, but rather, the second. Before he dropped audiences into “the Multiverse of Madness”, before dazzling the world with the high flying action of the Spider-Man films, Sam Raimi made another another superhero movie; one you may never have seen or even heard of, but one that is well worth discussing. In 1990, Sam Raimi followed up Evil Dead II with what would be his fourth major motion picture, a scrappy little superhero movie called Darkman. You may be asking yourself, “Who is Darkman?” If you were, then the marketing for this movie was way ahead of you, asking audiences that very question, offering only one cryptive response: “Find out this August”.
This marketing approach, effective as it was, was also one born out of necessity. Nobody had ever heard of him. Nobody read any of the Darkman comic books or listened to the old Darkman radio drama. This was because none of those things ever existed. In fact, before the 1990 film, Darkman didn’t exist anywhere but in the mind of director Sam Raimi. To understand how the film Darkman came to be, it is critical to understand the context of the time in which the movie was produced.
One year prior to this film, the blockbuster phenomenon of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman hit theatres and sent out a pop culture shockwave that left people in a true state of “Batmania”. This is not hyperbole. The impact of Tim Burton’s original Batman film is practically unparalleled to this day, outside of other blockbuster successes like that of Titanic or Jaws. Not only was it “the biggest movie of 1989 — it remains one of the top 60 films ever in domestic gross, when adjusting for inflation — as well as the only major superhero release that year” (Canva, 2019, para. 28).
Before its release, most studios had balked at the idea of making a superhero film, viewing the success of the Richard Donner Superman films as something of its own separate anomaly. As someone who grew up as a child and teenager in this era, I remember the feeling that the general public considered the notion of a superhero movie as silly, cheesy, and embarrassing; all buzz words that seemed to scare off most major studios from even considering the cost of adapting one. However, once Batman hit theatres and shattered Hollywood’s preconceived notions about what the genre could be or, more importantly, how much money they could make, a flood of films about costumed crimefighters went into production. One of the oddest things about this wave of trend chasers was how deeply they seemed to misunderstand what made the 1989 Batman a huge success. Instead of making the arguably more logical conclusion, seeking out other popular characters from DC or Marvel Comics to acquire the rights from, studios seemed to interpret that audiences wanted more period-piece adaptations of pulp, noir heroes from the 30s. So instead of more movies based on DC comic book heroes like The Flash or Wonder Woman, what audiences got were film adaptations of The Phantom, Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer, and most notable for this retrospective, The Shadow.
If Hollywood did not see the difference between these pulp crime fighters and the popular superheroes most audiences were familiar with, ticket sales would certainly point it out for them. With the one possible exception of 1990’s Dick Tracy, no movie among these pulp crime fighter films was successful at the box office. Even in the case of Dick Tracy, which made a strong showing at the box office, primarily due to its star-studded cast featuring the likes of Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, and Madonna, it was still regarded as a failure in the eyes of Walt Disney Studios who were hoping for Batman-level hit.
The reason that The Shadow, which hit theatres in the summer of 1994, is paramount to this discussion is that it was the film which Sam Raimi had originally wanted to make. Raimi, already a self-professed comic book fan, was well-aware that Batman‘s success would draw interest to similar comic heroes and took great pains to make a live-action adaptation of The Shadow. Unfortunately for Raimi, at this point in his career, he was still seen by Hollywood producers as a relative nobody and didn’t get the job. Nevertheless, Raimi redirected all of his excitement toward making a Shadow adaptation into creating his own superhero. As chronicled by film journalist, Sergio Pereira, the influences of The Shadow are well on display, noting that “his 1990 hit film Darkman, starring Liam Neeson, was born as a homage when Raimi was unable to secure the film rights for The Shadow or Batman” (Pereira, 2020, para. 3). Pereira goes as far to state that “Anyone who has ever watched the film can attest to the obvious influence of the character in both Darkman’s look and traits” (Pereira, 2020, para. 3) On looks alone, the similarities are clear, as you can attest in the comparison below.
However, while the appearance of Darkman is heavily inspired by The Shadow, the traits of the character are cobbled together from a multitude of Sam Raimi’s other personal influences. In particular, Raimi’s Darkman is a character who shares much more DNA with the tragic characters from the Universal Monster movies than he does with any superhero. In fact, Liam Neeson cites his childhood love for the Universal Monster films of the 40’s and 50’s as not only inspiration for his portrayal of Darkman, but as a large incentive for wanting to do the film.
For those who have never seen the film, Darkman tells the story of scientist Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), who is on the verge of a scientific breakthrough as he develops a new type of synthetic skin to help burn victims retain their original faces. Unfortunately Westlake’s experimental synthetic skin cannot get past one glitch that causes the skin to disintegrate after 100 minutes of exposure to light. Before he can perfect this experimental technology, Westlake is attacked by mobsters who are after an incriminating document which his criminal attorney girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand) is in possession of. The gangsters beat up Peyton, burn his entire body to a crisp, and blow up his lab, destroying all of his research. Though assumed dead to the world, an unconscious Peyton is taken into a hospital as a “John Doe”, having no visible identification. The medical doctors have saved Peyton’s life through an experimental new procedure that renders him unable to feel pain, leaving him able to push himself further than before but also making him prone to violent outbursts. Now horribly disfigured, Peyton takes up residence in an abandoned laboratory where he uses his synthetic skin technology to make masks of the the same men who attacked him to infiltrate their mob and pull it apart from the inside. Meanwhile, Peyton uses a mask of his original face to show his grieving girlfriend Julie that he is still alive, but must keep their meetings short as the disguise still dissolves in sunlight after 100 minutes.
This plotline may make it sound like the film is at both times overly convenient in its structure and unnecessarily convoluted. However, the film wears the specificity of these details with pride, which truly feels like an homage to silver age origin stories that crammed as much exposition as they could into the limited page count that was afforded to them from their publishers. Truly, many of the first appearances of such beloved, classic characters as The Incredible Hulk, or The Amazing Spider-Man, were short, rapidly-paced stories that made huge leaps in time to fit the number of pages they could afford. Many of these origin stories were not even afforded a full issue to explore a new character and would often be told as a short story included in the back end of another comic.
In 3 short pages, The Fantastic Four discover their powers, name themselves, and decide to become superheroes. How’s that for economic storytelling?
This was a necessity for the comics industry as it was how they tested out the popularity of a new character with their readers before committing to publishing their own comic book. Like many forms of art, much of the trademark style was often born from the restrictions that were placed upon the medium. It is especially interesting to note the similarities between this style of the Marvel method of story telling and Raimi’s own style of film-making, which was greatly informed by the lack of resources at his disposal. In its structure, Darkman very closely adheres to the spirit of these pulp origin stories, embracing the heightened melodrama at every moment possible, cramming a love story, a mob story, a monster story, and a superhero story all into one package. It is this aspect that makes the film feel most closely aligned with comic publishers of the silver age who, desperate for a new break out character, would throw in everything and the kitchen sink to grab young reader’s attentions.
In reappraising this movie after over two whole decades of superhero films to compare to, there is a lot to love about Darkman. In particular, if you are a fan of Sam Raimi’s other films, then Darkman is a must-watch movie. From the first frame of film, Darkman is packed to the brim with Raimi’s trademark style and flourishes. Raimi has made a career out of squeezing a dollar out of a dime, often using creative solutions to solve issues that come with low budgets. Fans of Raimi’s filmography know that this approach has defined much of the filmmaker’s trademark camera techniques. Darkman is a wonderful showcase of Raimi’s first foray into getting a bigger budget to flex with. The result is a movie that truly takes Raimi’s kinetic camera movements and gives them a new playground to explore, truly feeling like comic book compositions come to life. In its best moments the film feels like it is torn from the pages of the earliest days of Marvel Comics; the days of “Tales to Astonish” and “Amazing Fantasy” that featured such tragic heroes born of the atomic age as The Thing, The Hulk, the X-Men, and Man-Thing. Just look at the clip below to see how Raimi shatters the background into flames and zooms into Peyton Westlake’s eye to symbolize his descent into madness! (All using practical, in-camera effects mind you)
It is choices like this that bring classic comic book panels to mind, where artists were not hindered by anything but their imagination to convey the emotional state of their characters. In comics, artists must deal with a static medium to portray a fluid series of events. Being a huge fan of comics as a child (Spider-Man being his favorite), Sam Raimi admits to having been influenced by the art compositions in many of the silver age Marvel comics in how he frames his shots. This is evident from his earliest of films, but is truly on full-display for the first time in Darkman.
In addition to this, Darkman is a film that offers Sam Raimi’s trademark brand of humor that you will not find anywhere else. If you consider yourself a fan of the Evil Dead films, it is highly likely that you enjoy a healthy heaping dose of “camp”. Never one to shy from a sight gag or slapstick beat, Sam Raimi finds moments in even the darkest corners of Darkman to wring laughs out of. In fact, I would argue that it is this special ingredient that makes the film more than another entry in a forgotten era of genre films. While many of its contemporaries have not held up with time, Darkman has survived largely due to the fact that so much of the film was injected with Raimi’s quirks and style. In contrast, movies like The Shadow or The Phantom come across as authorless works, feeling devoid of personality or signature. While that signature is undeniably Raimi’s, Darkman is a film that would not work as well as it does without the incredible performance of Liam Neeson at the center.
At that point in his career, actor Liam Neeson was not yet the household name that he is today. Before Darkman, Neeson had been working steadily in film and television for 12 years. Just three short years later, he would star in Steven Speilberg’s Schindler’s List which would forever change his career and set him off toward stardom. Watching Darkman, is a true testament to the level of craft and commitment which Neeson approaches the material. He truly seems to understand the exact tone, the exact flavor of pulp that Raimi is pulling from. His performance as Dr. Peyton Westlake/Darkman is genuinely operatic, expressing melodramatic levels of emotion that may make other actors feel silly or uncomfortable. You feel his love for Julie, you feel his torture and pain when he is transformed into Darkman, and you feel the boundless rage that incites him to exact his revenge. All of these extremes are portrayed by Neeson in a way that is both highly entertaining and totally authentic and, to top it all off, he manages to do so behind layers of prosthetics and bandages, often restricting him to expressing through only his eyes and his voice. It is a performance that is a worthy successor to the likes of such legendary monster men as Claude Raines, Lon Cheney, and Boris Karloff.
In addition to the cinematography and the performances, the film’s score is crafted by the greatest composer in all of superhero films: Danny Elfman. Elfman, who created the now iconic Batman theme used in the Tim Burton Batman films and even echoed in Batman the Animated series would later go on to write the score for many superhero films including Ang Lee’s Hulk and most famously Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. Elfman’s score for Darkman is appropriately tragic, moody and bombastic, elevating the story to a grandiose scale.
All in all, Darkman is a charming Frankenstein of a film; part monster movie, part tragic love story, part gangster film, part superhero comic, all lovingly stitched together by a director who truly felt like this would be his only shot to make a superhero film. With time and distance, Darkman has far more grit and personality than most superhero films of the modern era, save for Raimi’s own Spider-Man films which continue to stand above the rest as truly exceptional and timeless. As Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness hits theatres this month, Raimi once again returns to a genre that feels like a true match made in heaven for his filmmaking sensibilities. But before going to theatres to see the new Doctor Strange, go back to see where it all began with Sam Raimi’s Darkman, now officially available at the Chester County Library!
Cavna, M. (2019, May 31). How Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ radically changed the superhero-movie landscape 30 years ago. The Washington Post. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/how-tim-burtons-batman-radically-changed-the-superhero-movie-landscape-30-years-ago/2019/05/30/9473bede-8233-11e9-95a9-e2c830afe24f_story.html
Pereira, S. (2020, April 15). Sam Raimi’s the shadow would’ve been a pulp fan’s wildest dream. CBR. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.cbr.com/sam-raimi-shadow-pulp-fan-wildest-dream/