I don’t remember if I felt it at the time, but “Darkman” is very much a superhero movie.￼ Even more, it’s a superhero movie much in the same vein as those we regularly get today. Yet this was a whole decade before “X-Men” broke through; 18 years before the first MCU film. There had been the Superman movies of the 80’s and Tim Burton had just released “Batman”. But “Darkman” is uniquely its own thing despite fully embracing key elements of the genre.
One of the joys of rewatching “Darkman” was remembering all the things I had forgotten. First on the list – Sam Raimi. I had forgotten that Raimi directed and conceived the story. It was his first film following the success of his “Evil Dead” pictures and it was a completely original project. There was no adaptation to follow, no franchise obligations, no interconnected cinematic universe to fit into. Raimi had creative freedom to tinker with archetypes and create characters befitting of the world he was creating.
The film stars Liam Neeson and who would’ve thought he would make a great avenging angel? He plays Peyton Westlake, an ambitious and seemingly self-employed scientist on the verge of a major breakthrough. His life’s work has been creating a viable cellular-based synthetic skin. But his inability to stabilize the cells results in the skin melting after 99 minutes. Still he presses on knowing that success would reverberate throughout the medical and science communities.
The only thing Peyton loves more than his work is his attorney girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand). While doing some legal work she discovers a memo linking a corrupt real estate developer named Louis Strack (Colin Friels) to payoffs to zoning commission officials. Strack sends his strong-arm, the dastardly Robert Durant (played by seasoned movie bad guy Larry Drake), to retrieve the memo which is in Julie’s possession. Peyton ends up caught in the middle, dumped in a vat burning chemicals and left for dead in his ransacked lab as it is blown up by Durant and his goons. What a way to go!
Believed to be dead but miraculously alive, a severely disfigured Peyton sets up shop in an old condemned factory. ￼He rekindles his experiments, this time with personal motivations – to be with Julie once again. But he’s not the same man.￼ Besides the charred skin, he has elevated strength, heightened emotions, and the inability to feel physical pain. This leads to episodes of uncontrollable sorrow but also burning rage against those who took his life from him. His new thirst for vengeance gives birth to Darkman.
While this plays out much like a superhero origin story, Raimi has other things on his mind. For example, he has fun playing with the idea of secret identities and coexistence. Can Peyton and Darkman co-exist within the same person? Is Peyton still there or did that side of him die in the blast? Is Darkman his new true identity?
And Darkman doesn’t fit you standard superhero mold. He’s a tortured soul driven by fury rather than some upright moral code. The black trench coat, bandaged face and fedora look cool but they tell more about the person underneath than you may think. He’s smart and highly intelligent. But he’s also a pained, violent man as evident from the R-rated revenge he doles out on the thugs who wronged him. Again, it’s Raimi developing a character, not strictly from a comic book blueprint, but with his own identity and demons.
You could consider “Darkman” to be a lot of things: an action flick, a love story, a horror film, even a tragedy but with a sense of humor. It all fits. And to think Sam Raimi concocted this subversive and thrilling superhero movie thirty years ago. After all that time I still find myself loving it for its fresh storytelling, big action, even bigger Danny Elfman score, and characters so in tune with the world they exist in￼. Oh, and that’s not even counting￼ one terrific cameo near the end. But I’ll leave it for you to discover yourself.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS