This column has heretofore examined how comic books have served as inspiration for films, and indeed, there are countless films that have taken cues from the much maligned printed media – be it the goofy comic book aesthetics of Condorman or Richard Gere’s love of the Silver Surfer in Jim McBride’s remake of Breathless.
In his book Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, Glen Weldon writes about the reciprocal nature of the Man of Steel in various media – how the comics influenced the films and vice versa. Similarly, Sam Raimi’s 1990 film Darkman was informed by the pages of comic books, though it’s not an adaptation. It's also had a profound effect on the shaping of the superhero film genre. (Darkman was also subsequently adapted into two comic book mini-series published by Marvel in the early 1990s.)
Following the cult success of 1987’s Evil Dead 2, Raimi received backing from Universal with the intention to bring either Batman or The Shadow to the big screen. When the rights to both properties could not be secured, Raimi moved toward creating his own comic book-inspired hero. While equally influenced by the iconography of both pulp heroes, Darkman is also indebted to aesthetics and themes (notably pathos and tragedy) of Universal horror films of the 1930s and 40s.
Darkman concerns itself with Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), a scientist trying to create synthetic skin. When his fiancée – lawyer Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand) – stumbles across incriminating documents which tie her boss to the mob, hired thugs destroy Peyton’s laboratory with the intention of killing Hastings. Peyton is horrifically burned in the process and presumed dead. He continues his research in anonymity to try to reclaim his life and relationship with Julie, as well as exact revenge on the mobster who wronged him.
Despite Raimi wanting Bruce Campbell to star, Neeson is great as Westlake, taking the material as serious as it needs to be but never venturing into silliness. (Campbell does have a well-timed cameo, though). The rest of the cast is great – Larry Drake relishes his role as villain Richard G. Durant and McDormand is always a joy to watch.
Stylistically, Raimi is a perfect fit for this kind of material. His energetic camera work and quirky cinematography resemble the panels of a comic book. While Darkman is pulpy and darkly fun, it’s often most remembered as his tepidly-received first offering for a major studio and the movie he made before Army of Darkness. Yet, Raimi’s film is crucial in the development of the narrative and formal conventions of the superhero film genre.
The film follows the basic origin story structure as outlined by Richard Donner’s Superman, taking time to establish the characters before rushing into the superhero action. Raimi streamlines this structure (and perfects it with his own Spider-Man) and adds two beats that become hallmarks of the genre. Where Donner’s film conveniently uses an ellipsis to bypass Superman honing his powers, Raimi provides a montage of Peyton’s trial and error developing his synthetic skin. This scene – echoed in Spider-Man – essentially shows Peyton creating his Darkman identity.
Perhaps the film’s most important contribution to the genre comes in the final scene: Darkman ends in with a voiceover and Peyton assuming his new identity. “Peyton is gone” he says; “I'm everyone – and no one. Everywhere – nowhere. Call me... Darkman.” This scene, where the hero comes to terms with his or her new identity, appears in countless superhero films that follow, including Spider-Man, The Punisher, Daredevil, and Iron Man. It’s even used in 2006’s Casino Royale and is cleverly inverted in 2013’s Man of Steel.
It may be a little rough around the edges and derivative of its influences – Darkman himself looks like a combination of The Shadow and The Phantom of the Opera – but Raimi’s film remains an exciting comic book movie that stands on its own. In hindsight, Darkman is ahead of its time and a landmark for the genre.
Darkman (1990, USA, 96 mins). Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Chuck Pfarrer, Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, Daniel Goldin, Joshua Goldin. Starring Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand, Larry Drake.