I’ve never been much of a Sam Raimi fan. His Spider-Man films felt like the height of superhero cinema mediocrity to me in their heyday. The Evil Dead series was never really my thing, mostly because of the rapist tree & my contention that Bruce Campbell is a second-rate version of Jim Carrey’s worst tendencies. As far as I knew until recently, Raimi’s greatest contribution to the cultural zeitgeist was as a producer on the television show Xena: Warrior Princess, with his directorial work not mattering much to me in any significant way. I appreciated the over-the-top cartoonishness of his aesthetic, but it never connected with me in the same way that the work of, say, Peter Jackson did. Darkman changed all that.
A comic book-inspired noir riding on the coattails of Tim Burton’s Batman, Darkman is a masterfully goofy work of genre cinema. Its comic book framing, over-the-top performances, and stray Ken Russell-esque freakouts were all perfection in terms of trashy entertainment value, pushing the lowest-common-denominator of trash media into the realm of high art. Darkman is not only the finest Sam Raimi film I’ve ever encountered, it’s also one of the most striking comic book movies ever made . . . which is saying a lot considering that it wasn’t even based off of a comic book. Given our current climate of endless adaptations, remakes, and reboots, it’s bizarre to think that Darkman was made from an original idea of Raimi’s & not from bringing a pre-existing character to the screen. The film’s two superfluous, direct-to-video sequels would fit in just fine with our current trend of endlessly returning to the well, but the original Darkman really went out on a limb with its central idea & it’s a risk that paid off nicely.
Tim Burton’s Batman (a film Raimi had actually once been considered for as a potential director) seems like the most obvious point of reference for Darkman‘s cultural context. Released just one year after Batman‘s release, Darkman was a similarly dark, gritty, noir-inspired comic book landscape that even brought longtime Burton-collaborator Danny Elfman in tow for its score. The original idea for Darkman had nothing to do with the Caped Crusader at all, however. It wasn’t even conceived as an homage to comic books. Raimi had first conceived Darkman in a short story meant to show reverence for Universal Studio’s horror classics of the 1930s. It’s very easy to see the mad scientist ravings of characters that would’ve been played by folks like Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff in an earlier era (or both in the case of The Invisible Ray) in Darkman‘s DNA. The outfit the anti-hero uses to hide his face even more than closely resembles that of The Invisible Man. The combination of this monster movie pedigree & the newfound comic book seriousness of Burton’s Batman were a great start for Darkman as a launching pad. Add Sam Raimi’s particular brand of cartoonish camp to the mix & you have a perfect cocktail of violently goofy cinema.
Liam Neeson stars as Darkman‘s titular anti-hero, a brilliant scientist & kindhearted boyfriend working on the secret of creating new body parts for scratch with the world’s first 3-D printer (of organic material, no less). The doctor’s girlfriend, played by Frances McDormand, inadvertently gets him mixed up with some rough mobster types who burn down his lab with the poor man inside it & through some shaky-at-best comic book/monster movie shenanigans, he emerges alive, but forever altered. Horrifically scarred, unable to feel pain, and freakishly strong due to an increase in adrenaline, the doctor emerges as the masked vigilante Darkman & sets out to exact his revenge on the Dick Tracy-esque mobster villains who destroyed his life. His masks alternate from the Invisible Man get-up mentioned above to temporary organic faces contrived from his pre-mutation scientific research & his revenge tactics go beyond basic vigilantism into full-blown, cold-blooded murder. Instead of struggling with the inner conflict a lot of violent superheroes deal with regarding which side of the law & morality they stand on, Darkman truly enjoys exacting revenge on the goons who wronged him in the cruelest ways he can possibly devise.
It’s not just remarkable to me that Sam Raimi happened to direct a movie I enjoyed. What’s most surprising is the ways that Darkman couldn’t have been made by any other auteur. Raimi’s personal aesthetic is what makes the film work and although he could’ve easily allowed the formula to go off the rails (he really wanted Bruce Campbell in Neeson’s role, which would’ve been a disaster), it’s his own cinematic eye & sadistic sense of humor that makes it such an iconic accomplishment. With Batman, Burton had brought comic book movies out of the dark ages, proving that superhero media wasn’t just the goofy kids’ media of Adam West yesteryear. Raimi combined both those extremes, the gritty & the goofy, in Darkman in an entirely idiosyncratic way (as Burton also would in the similarly masterful Batman Returns). The film indulged in some Batman-esque brooding, especially in its noir lighting & in introspective lines like “The dark, what secrets does it hold?”, but those elements are all so over-the-top in their inherent ridiculousness that there’s never any sense that Raimi is doing anything but having fun.
Although Darkman isn’t technically a comic book adaptation it exudes comic book media in every frame. Darkman‘s onslaught of drastic Dutch angles, 1st person shooter POV, Oingo Boingo circus aesthetic, Alterted States-esque hallucinations, and wild tangents of practical effects gore all feel both like classic comic book imagery & classic Sam Raimi. I can’t speak too decisively on the entirety of Raimi’s catalog since there are more than a few titles I’ve intentionally skipped over, but I can say for sure that the director has at least one certified masterpiece of goofball cinema under his belt: Darkman. It’s a work that not only surprised me by becoming an instant personal favorite, but also by inspiring me to consider giving Raimi’s catalog a closer second look to see if he ever repeated the trick.