Tom Jolliffe looks back at Darkman, released on this day back in 1990…
Hot on the heels of Batman, Sam Raimi delivered Darkman unto the world. Raimi wouldn’t become synonymous with iconic comic book hero films until doing the game changing Spider-Man trilogy (well, minus the slightly shambolic third). Darkman though, whilst an original creation from Raimi’s mind, is a twisted spin on classic comic book hero formula. Like a mashed melding of Marvel and DC, Raimi brought to life a classic tale of scientific tinkering, resurrection, a hero cast asunder from society. Raimi in fact, was more intent on making a version of The Shadow but was unable to obtain the rights. The logical answer thus, was to invent his own hero. His inability to nab The Shadow was undoubtedly affected by the huge success of Batman. Suddenly, where comic book films had seemed doomed to failure, there had been a big success, and studios were beginning to eye these properties (and The Shadow would come four years later). Ironically, Darkman was released through Universal and The Shadow would likewise find its home there.
For Raimi, Darkman was also a first major step into a studio film, having worked predominantly in low budget films (with Evil Dead 1 and 2, and the oddity that is Crimewave). Though relatively slight on budget compared to Batman (Darkman cost $16 million, less than half the cost of Batman the previous year), this was big money put behind a young director known more for his distinctly styled cult horror work. That horror background, and a love of all things B movie, certainly helped Darkman. It’s…well, dark…which drew comparisons of course to Tim Burton’s film. The story sees Scientist Peyton Manning (Liam Neeson) developing a synthetic skin. As the film begins he’s some way into his research but yet to perfect a skin that can sustain itself permanently (melting within minutes). As fate would have it, as a gangster sets about to intimidate his wife, they find Peyton instead and savagely beat him, then blow him (and his building) up, leaving him for dead…only he’s not. He is however, left horrifically disfigured with most of his equipment beyond repair. Peyton cannot bring himself to approach Julie (Frances McDormand), until he has perfected his skin and he can show his old face to her again.
Darkman’s stylish visuals and action made it a popular film that year. It did good numbers at the box office and launched Raimi into the big time. At this point too, Liam Neeson was more a well travelled character actor than leading man, and the role was something of a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, he had lead a studio hit. A film with franchise potential. On the other hand, still relatively unknown in the US, he spends much of the picture with his face wrapped in bandages or under heavy prosthetic makeup. It didn’t do as much for his visibility as he may have expected it too, and nor was it high brow enough to make that big leap into being a respected dramatic actor. Of course, Schindler’s List came a few years later, and that really saw Neeson pole vault into the A-list. It wouldn’t win her any Oscars, but McDormand, who has rarely found herself in B movie fare, has a good presence here, going against the usual casting for the action film book damsel in distress role. It’s kind of great seeing her in Darkman (and owed to Raimi’s long associations with Joel Coen I should imagine).
Another element that saw Darkman drawing a lot of comparison to Batman was in the music. Danny Elfman’s collaborations with Tim Burton had broken him out in a big way. Bringing him into Darkman was a stroke of genius and his music, for a time (certainly between Batman, up to Spider-Man 2) just seemed to scream comic book. If you didn’t have Elfman, you wanted someone to do something similar (Jerry Goldsmiths score in The Shadow is very Elfman-esque). His work in Darkman is great, atypically bombastic and combined with Raimi’s distinct visuals and kinetic camera work, the music and picture blends well together.
There are some great and gruesome makeup effects in this too. The film really looks great and it’s absolutely stuffed with the kind of elements (perfectly delivered) that cult film fans love. Darkman still holds up very well. Cineasts will love Raimi’s little homages here and there too, including Vertigo-esque, kaleidoscopic moments where Darkman’s anger explodes (he’s been left unable to feel, and prone to losing control of his anger). The film never takes itself too seriously either, with Raimi setting out to make a film that’s fun, even when it’s dark. Mixing these macabre and gruesome elements with comical moments is something he’s always done very well, harking back to that exceptional mix in Evil Dead 2 particularly (think the non-stop Buster Keaton-esque physical dynamism of Bruce Campbell).
Darkman would spawn a couple of sequels, replacing Neeson with Arnold Vosloo and feeling much more in line with the general standard of 90’s comic book films, which is to say films that kind of flitted between financial wreckage on big-screen or just direct to video. Despite the big success of the first, it still might have surprised some that Darkman 2 went straight to video, but coming five years after the original, the moment had passed, and financial failures like The Shadow and Captain America had studios wondering if audiences were only happy with Batman on the big screen. Darkman would also then spawn off into comic books (the reverse of Batman et al), initially with Marvel. Regardless though, the first film still holds up as one of the finest of the 20th century era in comic book films. There’s a lot of fun to be had, and Manning/Darkman makes an engaging hero, particularly as played by Neeson.
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Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), War of The Worlds: The Attack and the star studded action films, Renegades (Lee Majors, Billy Murray) and Crackdown. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/