Sam Raimi wanted to make a superhero movie. After gifting the world with his absurdist 1987 horror-comedy masterpiece Evil Dead II, Raimi chased the rights to make movies out of both Batman and The Shadow. Both times, he failed. So he invented his own superhero—one who was really more of a deranged and revenge-crazed mad-scientist type. Raimi’s Darkman isn’t a product of some intellectual-property agreement. It comes straight from his own fevered brain (and from the crew of screenwriters who helped him turn that idea into a script). Years later, of course, Raimi would finally get a crack at making big-budget superhero blockbusters; without his Spider-Man movies, it’s entirely possible that we wouldn’t be living through today’s superhero movie boom. But as great as those Spider-Man movies could be, they never showed the same dank, freaky, euphoric spark that Raimi had when he made Darkman.
Raimi liked the idea of a hero who could change his own appearance, and he was also into the old Universal Studios monsters, the misunderstood freaks who lashed out at the society that rejected them. And so he turned Darkman into a brilliant scientist who’d been horribly scarred, his face more or less removed after gangsters burst into his lab and blew it up. Darkman, then, was a character driven insane, one who couldn’t be out in the light for more than 99 minutes before the skin literally melted off his body. For a director like Raimi, drawn to both dreamlike, hyperreal gore effects and drunkenly ecstatic camera pyrotechnics, Darkman was a near-perfect vehicle for ideas and for aesthetic.
Darkman isn’t a superhero, exactly—at least not in the way that we tend to understand the term. Only the Danny Elfman music suggests that we’re watching a post-Batman superhero movie. The rest of the time, Darkman is a deeply bugged-out early-’90s hard-R action movie. The Darkman character is never really driven by a need to protect the innocent at large or to serve the cause of justice. Instead, he’s crazy for vengeance, and the only person he cares about protecting is his girlfriend. Darkman’s costume is just a black hat and a ratty, billowing trench coat that he dug out of a dumpster. Nobody ever calls him Darkman, and he only uses that name once, in the end-of-movie narration—when Bruce Campbell, Raimi’s Evil Dead star and his original choice to play Darkman, shows up for a quick cameo.
Instead of Campbell, Raimi ended up with a hulking Irishman whose previous role was as Patrick Swayze’s vengeful brother in the 1989 crime movie Next Of Kin. (Liam Neeson has apparently been seeking vengeance in movies for longer than most of us realized.) A year before that, Neeson had played the music-video director who oversaw Jim Carrey’s Axl Rose impression in the Dirty Harry movie The Dead Pool. (This scene remains one of the greatest weird historical footnotes in film history.) Neeson had plenty of experience as a stage actor, but he’d broken into film in B-movies like Excalibur and Krull. He wasn’t a respected screen actor or a movie star yet; both of those would come later. As his co-lead and love interest, Raimi cast Frances McDormand, who’d mostly just done early Coen brothers movies at that point. (When he made Darkman, Raimi was sharing a house with McDormand and with the Coen brothers, which probably put her front and center for the role.) In retrospect, it’s possible that we’ve never had a superhero movie with two more overqualified leads.
Both Neeson and McDormand brought a gravitas that seems almost out of place in Darkman. Early on in the movie, before his transformation, Neeson brings a serious sympathetic soulfulness to a barely written role. But when he turns into Darkman, and when he’s acting under a ton of latex makeup, Neeson only has to give off frantically cartoonish intensity. McDormand, meanwhile, apparently clashed with Raimi over his desire to turn her into a damsel in distress. Her steely, three-dimensional toughness—again, in a role that’s not especially complicated—adds dimensions to a character who didn’t necessarily need them.
But Darkman is not an actors’ showcase. It’s Raimi’s chance to show off, his first time getting any sort of budget for his insanity. The movie opens with a batshit warehouse shoot-out, a riot of car-flips and explosions. That scene looks something like an homage to John Woo’s Hard Boiled, except that Darkman came out two years before Hard Boiled. (It’s entirely possible, now that I think about it, that Darkman influenced the Hard Boiled warehouse shootout.) After the shootout ends, we see Larry Drake’s crime boss Robert Durant, one of the movie’s villains, methodically chopping off the fingers of a guy we’d previously seen filing his nails. It’s nasty.
That nastiness returns in the movie’s best scene. Temporarily reconstructing his old face and hiding his scars from his girlfriend, Darkman tries to pretend that he’s back, that everything’s fine. He takes her to an amusement park, where he tries to win her a giant stuffed elephant at a midway game. But he’s got to get back to his lab before his face melts, and the nearby carnival freak has Darkman thinking about how nobody would ever love him if they saw how he really looks. The carny running the game tries to cheat Darkman out of the prize, so he freaks the fuck out, twisting the guy’s finger back and throwing him through a wall, his eyes bugging out of his head. It’s Raimi returning to the pitched-up, near-slapstick filmmaking that made Evil Dead II such a perfect movie. No other filmmaker could’ve done it. No other filmmaker would’ve even tried.
Those moments of chaos are what Raimi loves. He loves the fake skin bubbling off of Neeson’s face as he runs away. (The melting-skin effects look more like Cronenberg’s The Fly than like any superhero movie.) He even loves the waxy sheen on Darkman’s face whenever he’s disguised as somebody else. He loves when Darkman shoves a goon’s head upward through a manhole, to get crushed by a truck, or when Darkman traps another goon in a lab explosion but not before forcing him to shoot his friend. He loves Durant tenderly arranging his severed-finger collection in a red velvet box. He loves the way the light slants through the dusk in Darkman’s abandoned-industrial-tower hideout. He loves Darkman, trench coat billowing in the wind, posing on a rooftop between two crazy-looking gargoyles. He love Darkman quizzically staring at his own hand as it catches on fire.
The action scenes in Darkman are a lot of fun, but they’re more like a standard circa-1990 B-level action flick than like a singular vision. The climactic set piece, with Darkman hanging from a hook suspended from a helicopter, is a combination of deeply shitty green-screen effects and truly amazing stunt work. And the movie itself is no masterpiece. The science is, of course, laughable. The plot is completely rudimentary, and you can pick out the surprise-reveal big bad the moment he steps on screen. Even Darkman’s special abilities, such as they are, get exposition-dumped into one quick hospital sequence. (Darkman can’t feel pain, his “mind grows hungry,” and he has enhanced strength because of his unstable and unchecked emotions.) But Darkman’s flaws just add to its low-budget charm. And while Raimi would go on to help popularize the superhero movie, Darkman stands as the one moment he brought his sense of crazy vision to the genre. It’s a product of an era when that could happen—when superhero movies were one-off curios, when the entire industry didn’t run on them.
Other notable 1990 superhero movies: Dick Tracy was never exactly a superhero, though the character’s whole exaggerated, pulpy milieu was definitely a precursor to the superhero-comics boom. And Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy movie was an early example of a studio trying to make its own version of Tim Burton’s Batman, right down to the vivid art-deco cityscapes and Danny Elfman score. There’s even a scene where Dick Tracy comes crashing through a skylight. The movie did fine, though it wasn’t the era-defining blockbuster that it was clearly supposed to be. (Dick Tracy merchandise was everywhere in the summer of 1990.) Watching it today, the movie is mostly notable for the way it takes a wild succession of great actors (including James Caan, Paul Sorvino, and a way-overdoing-it Al Pacino) and buries them under pound after pound of grotesque latex makeup, turning them into a surreal rogues’ gallery.
New Line, meanwhile, scored a monster surprise hit with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That movie—based on the cartoon, which in turn was based on the mostly satirical black-and-white underground comic—somehow managed to cast four stuntmen who were capable of staging pretty good kung-fu fights while wearing enormous Jim Henson’s Creature Shop costumes. The movie looked dark, with its rain-slicked streets and underground hangouts full of wayward hooligans, even if its constant one-liners and its broad, slapstick performances marked it as a kids’ movie. And kids like me loved it.
It’s also worth noting that RoboCop 2, which is maybe sort of a superhero movie, was co-written by comics trailblazer Frank Miller. And the post-apocalyptic rampaging-robot horror movie Hardware, while not a superhero movie, was adapted from a story in 2000 AD, the long-running British comic that also gave us Judge Dredd. Two zero-budget superhero movies, the original Captain America adaptation and Troma’s Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D., were also filmed and scheduled to come out in 1990, though neither ultimately saw release until later.
Next time: A mostly unknown ’80s comic, created as an homage to the movie serials of the ’30s, becomes a shockingly great adventure movie in The Rocketeer.