Sam Raimi made his best Marvel movie long before he ever took on Spider-Man. With 1990’s Darkman, Raimi capitalized on both the cult success of his Evil Dead films and the post-Batman acceptance of superheroes, creating an inspired hybrid of The Hulk, Daredevil, Moon Knight, and Universal monster movies (distributed by Universal, no less). Getting ahead of the “let’s cast Liam Neeson as a vengeful action hero” trend by about two decades, Darkman has Neeson as Peyton Westlake, a scientist in the process of developing an artificial skin when his lab gets blown up—with him still inside—by hired goons working for unscrupulous real-estate developer Louis Strack (Colin Friels). The charred, nerve-damaged Dr. Westlake uses his unstable-when-exposed-to-daylight fake flesh to fashion a series of disguises to get even with Strack and his main lackey, the mob boss Robert Durant (Larry Drake). Westlake’s cloaked “Darkman” becomes a more crazed variation on the typical vigilante hero, driven mad by his injuries, and out for blood.
In its unapologetic R-rated-ness, Darkman was more in step with the world of comics circa 1990 than actual comic-book movies like Batman and Dick Tracy. It isn’t that Darkman is “mature,” exactly; Raimi’s love of slapstick violence and Looney Tunes sets a tone for Darkman’s action sequences that’s half Three Stooges, half Wile E. Coyote. But untethered from the demands of any major corporate franchise, Raimi was free to bend superhero archetypes to his own will, getting underneath the classic model of the driven avenger, revealing—and reveling in—how crackpot it all is. As Westlake turns his enemies against themselves and tries to reconnect with his grieving girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand), he never comes across as wholly sympathetic. He’s manic, uncontrolled—as sick in his way as Durant, who keeps a collection of his victims’ severed fingers.
Darkman was a slow starter at the box office. It received good reviews from critics who got what Raimi was going for, and did reasonably well for a movie that didn’t cost much. But it was no blockbuster, and didn’t really start to pick up a following until it hit the video stores, where it did enough business to spawn two shitty sequels. Darkman is an important piece of the Raimi filmography, though, and not just because he later repeated some of its gags and shots in his bigger-bankrolled Spider-Man movies. Darkman showed Raimi could straddle the line between the DIY effects and overt silliness of Evil Dead 2, and something more ambitious and sincere. Raimi originally wanted his longtime collaborator Bruce Campbell to play Westlake, which might’ve tipped the tone too far into comedy. Darkman works because Neeson sells the pathos.
It also works because Raimi embraces the unreality. Like one of the more operatic Brian De Palma films, Darkman is a movie-movie—the kind where the hero carries his lover off in front of a projected slide of a sunset, and says lines like, “What is it about the dark? What secret does it hold?” with a straight face. Raimi is more invested in his plotting than a lot of B-moviemakers would be, tying all the action to a piece of paper with the marvelously grandiose name “The Bellasarious Memorandum.” And Raimi adds his own touches—a villain wielding a bolt-gun, a one-legged thug, skin-masks that look pale and sound rubbery—that mark this as his kind of superhero movie. Darkman is funny, but it’s no joke; it’s the work of a man who underlines the conventions of adventure stories and horror because he enjoys them, and knows that even when rendered tongue-in-cheek, they’re timeless.
It says something about the affection people have for Darkman that the Scream! Factory special-edition Blu-ray got plenty of input from most of its major players. Neeson sits for a lengthy interview, as does McDormand (who talks about her longtime friendship with Raimi, via her association with Joel and Ethan Coen), and Drake (who mentions that he probably got the job because Raimi had never seen his Emmy-award-winning performance as a developmentally disabled adult on L.A. Law), and a lot of the people involved with constructing the look of the film. Raimi is noticeably absent; he only appears in a vintage electronic press kit. Still, as McDormand notes in her conversation, Raimi’s sensibility is so present in Darkman’s heightened performances, gory makeup effects, and kinetic camerawork that talking with the people who worked with him is almost like talking to the man.