Sam Raimi is an instrumental part of one of the most popular superhero franchises. The third movie was nowhere near as good as the first installment initially promised, but that does not impact the original. The back to comic book basics storytelling along with an impressive score cover over most of the deficiencies. And the cast and crew is an amazing collection of talent. Along with Raimi, there is Liam Nesson and Frances McDormand, plus an appropriately heroic soundtrack from Danny Elfman.
Over a decade before he would break records with his first Spider-Man movie, Raimi was unable to find a studio brave enough to let him helm a superhero movie. The director’s solution was to create a whole new hero out of whole cloth. The result was Darkman, an homage to comic book stories of years past. Neeson plays the titular hero who can create life like masks and has also gained superhuman abilities. The price he had to pay is revisited throughout this dark, yet still fun, story.
Audiences will begin to appreciate Darkman’s tone immediately. This is a comic book movie. Not as silly as Dick Tracy or as over the top as Joel Schumacher’s Batman films, Raimi brings a more grounded (in comic book terms) atmosphere to his movie. There are gangsters, and crooked real estate developers and a deal gone wrong on the docks. This could have been any action movie of the period.
Raimi takes his movie into different territory using tropes that are bombastic. The main villain likes to collect fingers he has cut off with his cigar cutter. There are off kilter camera angles giving characters exaggerated emotion. The malicious glee and utter surprise is heightened by these well chosen shots. Darkman is not afraid to play up its comic book aesthetic.
This ethos is most obvious in Darkman’s origin. Peyton Westlake is a brilliant scientist who becomes horribly disfigured after a lab fire. He gains great abilities, but he has also become consumed by vengeance. In a story that does a lot of things right, its main character may be the highlight. The idea of a superhero trying to locate their moral compass is not a new story. This story still manages to stick out in Darkman.
Neeson does a great job with the dialogue he is given. Speaking with a slightly sinister hushed tone, he sounds like a man who is ashamed of the things he is doing as he slowly loses his sanity. The story around Darkman is great. He does not become a hero overnight nor is he suddenly a psychotic vigilante. The entire movie is a slow building origin story. As the scarred hero tries to reclaim his past life, he also seems more willing to start a new one. The ending is as perfect as any movie can give its audience. There is satisfying closure with enough wiggle room to warrant a sequel.
Adding to the movie’s excellence is Elfman’s tremendous score. Having done the iconic Batman two years prior, Elfman knew how to help set the proper tone for Darkman. Few movies pair the action with the music as well. This is another ingredient in the fun comic book feel of the film. Elfman’s signature sounds can be too reminiscent of the 1988 movie he directed, but it never negatively impacts the movie.
Darkman is an underrated comic book movie. The story will make audiences think of black and white serials or Golden Age comics. It is fun (there is a great wooden leg joke in the beginning) while never getting too hokey (‘Kiss your ass goodbye.”) It has crossed over into different mediums and remains something of a cult favorite. I think I need to dig deeper into the movie franchise.