Incredibly, Peyton survives the blast and a team of doctors, working in secret, tries to revive him. (Even they’re cynical about his chances, though: “Personally, I give him a nine on the buzzard scale.”) The big revelation is that this gauzed-up shell of a man can’t feel physical pain anymore—one doctor delights in poking him with a pin—but the downside to his diminished senses is that his psychic stress increases exponentially. Now surging with adrenaline, his emotions are amplified, which increases his feelings of loneliness and alienation, and opens him up to bouts of uncontrollable rage. Once Peyton breaks free from the hospital, he’s still too unsightly to engage in any human interaction, which deepens his misery and turns him into a reclusive, half-mad Phantom Of The Opera figure. But there’s still some humanity left in him and some scientific know-how, too, so he works to rebuild his laboratory in an abandoned warehouse, perfect his synthetic skin formula, take revenge on the goons that maimed him, and maybe try to get back together with his girlfriend in the bargain.

Raimi has a lot of fun with Neeson as emo vigilante—in one scene, Peyton’s frustration grows so extreme that he puts a metal funnel on his head and starts running around like the Tin Man—but he takes his hero’s miseries seriously, too. It’s only natural that caped crusaders of any stripe are doomed to loneliness—Superman doesn’t retreat to the Fortress Of Chums, after all—and Darkman pushes that idea to new extremes. After the accident, Peyton operates entirely in the shadows, muttering bitter little soliloquies to himself and nurturing his anger with the tenderness he extends to a stray kitten (which hisses at him, of course). The tension, humor, and surprising poignancy of Darkman come from Peyton’s agonizing attempts to rejoin the human race. When he throws on a synthetic mask for 99 minutes, he can look the part (and snag a few baffled thugs while he’s at it), but beneath the skin, he’s still a cauldron of barely contained rage. In the funniest scene in the movie, he takes out his aggression on a carny who refuses to give up the pink elephant he rightfully earned:

The “pink elephant” scene is just a taste of the dazzlingly baroque style that Raimi brings to the table. Employing the brilliant Pablo Ferro for the title design and montage effects—Ferro, an innovator nearly on par with Saul Bass, was responsible for the hand-drawn credits for Dr. Strangelove and the multi-box effects on the original Thomas Crown Affair—Raimi projects the inside of Peyton’s troubled mind as a maelstrom of misfiring synapses and mad science. The scene of Peyton working in his improvised lab are a callback to Dr. Frankenstein in James Whale’s Universal classic from 1931, only the thunder and lightning are internalized, and Ferro’s delirious montage sequences express that with comic-book flair. (Bonus points for the hilariously analog technology of Peyton’s lab, too: The equipment includes an outboard motor, water coolers suspended from the ceiling, a fire pit, and a repurposed copy machine.)

Peyton’s existential struggle is so compelling that it’s almost a shame that Darkman has to hit the obligatory action beats; smaller sequences of Peyton disguising himself to fuck with his enemies are more satisfying than the big rooftop-and-helicopter chase in the finale. Yet Darkman is uncompromising in revealing the futility of Peyton’s rehabilitation; with his fluid identity and simmering emotions, he’ll always have to struggle to hold onto himself and keep from slipping into madness. The one semi-optimistic note is that he’s learning to adapt to a life that’s eternally cursed and that he has the strength to keep his sanity while emerging from the shadows to do some good once in a while. The closing bit of narration makes for a great super-antihero’s credo: “I’m everyone. I’m no one. Everywhere. Nowhere. Call me ‘Darkman.’”


Coming Up:

Next week: Lost Highway

July 16: [Vacation.]

July 23: Pootie Tang

July 30: Beetlejuice