Comic book superheroes have become a central part of our multimedia diet. Half-a-dozen big budget movies a year are directly taken from graphic novels about strong men and women in tights, there’s a TV network that pretty much has built a brand on having a superhero show every night of the week, and it’s a superhero cinematic universe that has been the driving force of creative inspiration for Hollywood for years. Thirty years ago though, there were few comic book movies, and fewer still that were any good. Enter Darkman.
Of course Darkman is not a comic book movie in a literal sense, it just plays like one. Following up on Evil Dead 2, which showed off his talent with a budget that better matched his flair and ingenuity, writer/director Sam Raimi was invited to play in the Hollywood sandbox. Raimi, like any good nerd, had some very specific ideas about what kind of movie he wanted to make, and he wanted to make a comic book movie, but we wanted a hero that liked the dark. His preferred choices were Batman and The Shadow, but securing those rights was not easy for the guy that made that funny little zombie movie about a guy with a chainsaw for a hand.
With a $16 million budget ($31.7 million in 2020 dollars), Raimi and his collaborators – producer Robert Tapert and co-writer/brother Ivan Raimi – designed their own superhero that would bear a vague resemblance to The Shadow, but combined late 80s revenge-fueled action with a horror appeal that would draw a long line from Darkman to classic characters from the silent era past of Universal Studios like the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Darkman would be a disfigured scientist who becomes a masker of disguise to fight crime!
“[Sam Raimi] wanted to make a comic book movie, but we wanted a hero that liked the dark.”
The plot of Darkman is simple: Humanitarian scientist Peyton Westlake (played by a then-recent Hollywood arrival named Liam Neeson) is working on a formula for synthetic skin, but the skin never lasts longer than 99 minutes. Westlake has a dedicated girlfriend named Julie (pre-fame Frances McDormand) who’s an attorney that stumbles upon evidence that connects her employer, a rich developer, to the ruthless gangster Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake). Durant and his goons go to Westlake’s lab to retrieve the evidence, kill his lab assistant, and leave Westlake for dead when they blow up the lab. Revenge plots ensue as the burned and disfigured Westlake uses his invention to infiltrate Durant’s gang, and get payback.
The great gift of Darkman is its pulpy quality. There’s a grittiness that’s not so different from other genre classics of the time, like RoboCop or The Running Man, and also not so different from the alternative comics coming out of DC Comics’ Vertigo line, or the works of writers and artists featured in the U.K.’s 2000 AD where Judge Dredd was born. Darkman is surprisingly straightforward, and wastes little time with elaborate set-ups, complex motivations, or extraneous side stories, and just gets down to classic cat and mouse game between our hero and his gangland foes.
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That approach leaves more room for Raimi to exercise an exuberance of style with elaborate montages, smash cuts, and close-ups that are designed to portray the inner-turmoil of Westlake, whose considerable wounds are only cured by a procedure that severs his nerves, and exacerbates feelings of anger and isolation. Unless you’re The Hulk, lack of impulse control is not a typical superhero trait, and it’s one of the reasons why Darkman fits as comfortably with the staple of Universal Monsters, as he does with other comic book vigilantes.
Another reason is that Darkman’s “Batcave” is an abandoned industrial building where he sets up a makeshift lab to manufacture the disguises that allows him to double as the men that ruined his life using his liquid skin technology. It’s hard not see the comparison between Darkman’s lair and the castle home of Dr. Frankenstein, and that’s not where the comparisons end. You can see The Invisible Man in Darkman’s heavily bandaged visage, you see the Phantom in his big black cloak and hat, and you see Quasimodo in the way Darkman stoops on the edge of his building lamenting his lost humanity the way the hunchback does off the side of the great Parisian cathedral.
“The great gift of Darkman is its pulpy quality.”
We don’t often give credit to horror stories for the way they shaped comic books and comic book history. Between the golden age that introduced Superman, Batman, and Captain America and the silver age, which ushered in the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the X-Men, horror was the bread and butter of comic books. It was an era of Tales from the Crypt, Weird, and Chamber of Chills, and authors and artists had relatively free rein to be as gross and outlandish as they wanted to be. In 1953, a quarter of all comic books published were horror comics, and it helped lead to the introduction of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, which put extreme limits on the amount of violence, gore, sex, and swearing a comic could contain.
Long before those first superheroes though, the pages of comic books would be filled up with noir-style characters that were mainly disguised detective stories with the flair of costumed character. The Shadow started as a series of pulp novels by author Walter B. Gibson before becoming one of the first multimedia stars in comics and on radio. Like The Shadow, his contemporaries including The Phantom and The Spider also fought everyday crimes in costume, and if they did have super-powers they would be basic and easy to understand; a simplicity of form and function that Darkman also benefits from.
It’s hard to say how much of this influence and history weighed on Raimi has he made Darkman, but a lot of it is there in the subtext. Also in the subtext is the idea that this could be a franchise, and indeed there was two direct-to-video sequels for Darkman, but Raimi keeps things very self contained. In a 90-minute span we see Darkman’s origins, his creation, his first main adventure, and we wrap it up while leaving things open for a sequel. It’s a master class for anyone that wants to know how to keep a superhero story tight, and how a filmmaker needs to keep his or her mind on one story at a time before proceeding to that expanded universe.
It also shows that there’s Venn diagram where superheroes and horror movies can live together harmoniously. True, the Blade films and two Ghost Rider entries have flirted with the idea, and inside Batman Returns there’s a horror movie scratching at the sides, but since the explosion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe the trend has been to focus on heroes of action and humour, and not characters that are angsty and enveloped in their own psychological torment.
“[Darkman is] a master class for anyone that wants to know how to keep a superhero story tight […]”
Might that change? Conversations have been had about horror influences on the upcoming Doctor Strange sequel The Multiverse of Madness, which will notably be directed by Raimi, and there will also be a Blade remake led by Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali under the MCU banner. There’s also New Mutants, the long-delayed X-Men spin-off from Josh Boone, which is still being marketed as a horror film, and, if successful, could put in the minds of filmmakers that there’s more than one way to tell a superhero story.
If not, we will always have Darkman. Like much of Raimi’s work before the turn of millennium, it punches above its weight in terms of style and ambition, and it looks like nothing else that anyone was making at the time. It’s worth noting that Darkman came out the same summer as Dick Tracy, a film based on an actual comic strip and featuring a market campaign that slapped a silhouetted Tracy on everything from Happy Meal cups to suspenders. The producers of Dick Tracy were trying to replicate the fervor over Batman, but it was Darkman that replicated the spirit and intention of Tim Burton’s Dark Knight: the tale of a damaged man that makes himself a monster to fight crime.
Does Darkman still hold up for you 30 years later? Which movie do you think best combines horror and superheroes? Let us know on our Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook!