Sam Raimi Was Ahead Of The Superhero Curve With Darkman

Sam Raimi's filmography is fascinating and diverse, which is worth celebrating; the director has effortlessly jumped genres while infusing them with his own unique worldview. First and foremost, Raimi is a master of horror, which was reflected even in his 1978 horror short, "Within the Woods," which ultimately paved way for "The Evil Dead" — a genre staple for most horror fans. Since then, Raimi has dipped into many genres, from westerns and romantic dramas to fantasy adventures, but his penchant for horror and superhero films shines in the best of ways — especially with these two elements merging in his upcoming, "Doctor Strange: In the Multiverse of Madness."

Although Raimi is known best for his "Spider-Man" films, these superhero offerings were not the director's first foray into the genre, as he had already crafted a unique superhero film that defied genre molds and dipped deep into his psychological thriller and horror leanings.

"Now crime has a new enemy and justice has a brand new face." These words adorn the trailer for Raimi's "Darkman," a 1990 superhero film that melded action with grisly psychological horror, meant as an homage to Universal's horror films in the 1930s. In order to do justice to an analysis of the kind of film "Darkman" is, it is critical to appreciate how unhinged and twisted the core narrative is, and how well it works within the confines of the superhero genre.

Here's a look into how Raimi's "Darkman" illustrates the director's innate understanding of superhero narratives, which, when infused with horror, births a tense, gripping, unforgettable genre hybrid.

How Raimi broke the mold with Darkman

As Raimi wished to gain rights to classic superhero films such as "Batman" at the time (which eventually ended up being Tim Burton's rendition of the caped crusader), his impetus behind making "Darkman" was to "write [his] own superhero" (via Den of Geek):

"I really wanted to make The Shadow. But Universal Studios wouldn't give me the rights to that. I met with them, but they didn't like my views at all, so I went, 'I'm just gonna write my own superhero.'"

And he did. "Darkman" unravels in pure comic book style, where a mild-mannered scientist Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), whose research involves attempting to create skin tissue based on the subject's photographs (similar to the masks in "Mission Impossible") and is left burnt and disfigured after powerful goons blow up his lab, and kill his assistant, Yakitito. His girlfriend, Julie (Frances McDormand) is an attorney who had discovered incriminating proof of foul play by Louis Strack (Colin Friels) prior to this, witnesses the fire and considers Peyton dead. However, Peyton is in a hospital, his nerve endings neutered by doctors to limit his pain impulse, which grants him augmented strength and uncontrolled emotions.

While this sort of superhero origin story had been done before in comics, "Darkman" surely paved the way for later superhero movies and the MCU in particular. The tongue-in-cheek humor that characterizes the MCU can be traced back to "Darkman," whose humor is as dark as it gets, which was reflected in his "Spider-Man" films in full glory. One particular scene, in the beginning, includes thug Robert Durant and his men gunning folks at a factory, wherein a thug's amputated leg turns out to be a full-fledged gun. Needless to say, the sequence is pure Raimi brilliance, replete with cheesy humor and some really cool, gangster-level action. Even the manner in which Peyton is left for dead is both heartbreaking and darkly humorous (an oscillating chicken figurine meant to click on a lighter with its beak), and this strain of violent comedy, mixed with heightened melodrama, constitutes "Darkman" from start to finish.

A figure in the shadows, wracked with pain

Peyton does not embrace the "Darkman" moniker until the end, as he is simply too broken to perceive himself as a superhero figure, but views himself as a monster shunned by society instead. The shots of a bandaged Peyton hiding in the alleyways while rain pours down on him do evoke an extremely Nolan-esque feel of The Narrows in "Batman Returns," and I would not be surprised if Nolan subconsciously drew visual inspiration from Raimi's "Darkman" for those scenes in particular. As per Raimi's inspirations for "Darkman," Universal classics played a seminal role, along with Frank Miller's 1986 "The Dark Knight Returns" series, with sprinklings of "The Phantom of the Opera," when it comes to the heightened dynamic of the central romance.

Peyton Westlake does not have access to high-tech gadgets or anything superhero-y for that matter — being a man who has lost everything, including his life, his lover, his research, Peyton only has his augmented determination to get his life (and face) back as his core motivator. Starting from scratch, Peyton hones in on Durant's men one by one, creating temperature-sensitive masks of the henchmen, taking them down in dramatic fashion. There's a scene in which Peyton interrogates one of Durant's men inside a sewer, and pops their head through a manhole opening, waiting till the passing cars inevitably crush him. This scene is tensely edited and absolutely diabolical, but the thug did have it coming (he had "ventilated" Yakitito's face by shooting him point-blank, so I do not necessarily disagree with his fate).

It is interesting and refreshing how Peyton is not a vigilante figure, but simply a man who wants to regain what he has lost, and the only way to do is via ruthless revenge. The character's inner conflict stems from society labeling him a "freak," and these notions of self-effacement, coupled with uncontrollable emotions due to his condition, hinder him from telling Julie the truth. Then there's Durant and Strack, of course, powerful men who trample on the likes of Peyton for their own twisted ends, emerging as symbols of capitalist evil who need to be granted a taste of their own medicine. Moreover, we see a superhero actually doing all the sleuthing himself — from investigating and taking discrete photos to sabotaging their lives to have them arrested or, well, killed — "Darkman" takes matters into his own hands, as he is pretty much a one-man vengeance machine fueled by angsty revenge. I love to see it. 

"Darkman" is not only dark, but it's also trippy

Raimi is known for his oddball humor amidst the most intense of scenes, which he pulled off extremely well in his "Spider-Man" movies. The editing in those later superhero films feels similar to "Darkman" in many ways. Julie dangling from the unfinished building and almost falling to her death mirrors the many times MJ finds herself falling off of tall buildings only for Peter to save her, and the humor displayed by the thugs would transition into the macabre villainy of the antagonists of the "Spider-Man" films, albeit in a more polished way. Despite the budgetary restraints of "Darkman," the superhero film is enjoyable through and through, as the audience is subjected to a whirlwind of oscillating emotion, just like Peyton.

However, that is not all: "Darkman" is also unbelievably trippy, especially in the scenes in which Peyton's inner mindscape is portrayed dramatically, with visions of him as a jester, rewired internal nervous systems, and heightened flashes of emotions gripping his torn mind. These sequences heavily mirror the visions in Ken Russell's "Altered States," (although, in an extremely tame way, as Russell's storyline directly dealt with drug-induced, well, altered states). Nonetheless, these sequences, although campy in a certain sense, work well with the tone of "Darkman," and superhero camp has never been more pronounced, paving the way for the many iterations to follow after Raimi's film.

Raimi does not end "Darkman" on a stereotypically happy note, as the hero, or anti-hero, does not embrace love but chooses to embark on his calling while musing: "I am everyone and no one. Everywhere. Nowhere. Call me... Darkman." This is a man finally embracing who he is, lurking in the shadows, yet also roaming around in broad daylight, and as he wears many faces ... he could really be anyone. 

As Neeson himself recently expressed interest in a "Darkman" sequel, there could possibly be another Neeson-Raimi reunion that further explores the psyche of the unconventional superhero. At least, one can hope.