RETRO REVIEW: “Darkman” (1990)

DarkmanPOSTER

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.

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Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures

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?

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Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures

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

4-5-stars

24 thoughts on “RETRO REVIEW: “Darkman” (1990)

  1. The movie from 1990 that I have seen the most. Dark Darkman was vengeance driven which is very primal. His resistance to pain and spurts of strength seemed possible, without being from another planet, and his masks were a great variant on the superhero trope. He was not remorseful for what he did to his tormentors, and the glee he took in seeing Durant in that helicopter, along with his curse was wholly satisfying to revenge film fans like me. That his story arc doesn’t end happy is also in stark contrast to the films of the 80s for the most part. The humor was dark as well as his visage. That’s the real reason for his hero name.

    • I’m with you. I remember loving this when it came out and watching it countless times through the 90’s. But I don’t think I had seen it sense. This was such a fun revisit and worth every second.

  2. I haven’t seen it and now I want to. Sounds right up my alley and I love Liam Neeson in anything, he’s such a good actor. Frances Mc D is a bit annoying, well her voice is annoying when ever I’ve seen her in anything, but I’ll cope.

    • It’s an absolute blast. If it came out today it would be a kick in the bottom of the superhero genre. Not sure if it’s on Netflix but worth checking.

      • Google says it is, but I’ll check on the proper one when I retire to the West Wing this evening, need a movie for Saturday. (Venom keeps getting overtaken, I am thinking I must not have liked it as much as I think I should!).

      • I rewatched Venom last weekend (first time seeing it for the wife and kids). Still feel the same about it. I like it but I’m not crazy about their origin of the symbiotes. But Hardy is great and I love the mid-credits scene.

  3. It is an underrated action film and certainly proves that it had a lot more to offer than just being an action film. I think this is why Raimi ended up with the job to do the Spider-Man movies. Now that he might do Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, I hope he brings in some weird shit although the idea of multiverses and the idea of Tobey Maguire returning as Spider-Man to meet Tom Holland’s Spider-Man might be too much for audiences to handle.

  4. Pingback: RETRO REVIEW: “Darkman” (1990) — Keith & the Movies | Los Angeles feedback film festival

  5. Excellent review as ever, Keith! I appreciated your breakdown of Darkman’s persona and costume. I adore this film and think it’s Sam Raimi trying to make a superhero through the lens of the Universal Monster Movies. There’s this earnest commitment to retro movies that Raimi has had running through his work. He makes films that could have easily have existed in the times he evokes. Keep up the great work on the retro reviews and blog!

    • You are so right. You can see the movie’s influences clearly. I has a very classic monster movie feel to it. It was so much fun catching up with it again.

      • Your review made me want to revisit Darkman! I highly recommend watching/rewatching Drag Me to Hell. I think that’s the one film to look to for how Raimi is going to make Doctor Strange 2 (providing Marvel Studios allows him to have complete creative control with an emphasis on the horror etc).

      • I remember liking Drag Me to Hell but it has been too long since I watched it. I may try and give it look over the coming weekend.

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