So I saw Darkman last weekend, finally. I use that word “finally” in multiple senses: I had received the Netflix DVD back in late September of 2009, and might have held onto it even longer than the five months I did if not for my pop resolution to knock at least one movie a month off my queue. I also qualify pretty well as the target audience for this particular flick, as a comic book geek who has enjoyed other works by Sam Raimi, and yet twenty years went by between Darkman’s theatrical release and my consumption of its (dubious) entertainment.
Darkman came out a year after Tim Burton’s Batman, but was pretty much a flop, destined to become nothing more than a cult film (not even a cult classic, just an obscure film with a small and specific number of defenders). Burton’s Batman has both merits and flaws but one can pretty definitively say in hindsight that it did not open up the floodgates for the Golden Age of Superhero Blockbusters. One can also argue that the Spider-Man film of 2002 ended up occupying that role in Hollywood history, and we can chuckle at the irony inherent in the fact that Spider-Man was directed by none other than Sam Raimi. He tried to jump on a non-existent bandwagon at the dawning of the 90’s, then ended up creating his own bandwagon twelve years later. Life’s funny like that.
It’s interesting to connect the dots between Batman’s and Spider-Man’s respective box office triumphs and see where Darkman falls (and how it falls down) between them. All three of them have scores by Danny Elfman, for instance, which is a little bit of trivia that I reacted to, more or less, with “well, of course they do.” All three films are about super-heroes who are all too human, who have tragic origins and ongoing problems in addition to their quests for justice. That’s not a “well of course” thing, although it seems de rigeur today, if you recall the original Superman movie, the whole point of which is the kind of gee-whiz feelgood vibe the marketing tried to convey with “You will believe a man can fly.” Super-heroes weren’t always dark and don’t always have to be.
But Darkman is dark – darker than the Dark Knight and darker than the poster-boy for Marvel’s claims to “real world” roots in Spider-Man. I don’t think it’s Darkman’s bleak outlook that doomed the movie. I don’t think it’s the fact that Darkman was an original character, either (as opposed to the licensed properties embodied in the fictional Mssrs. Wayne and Parker) although it probably didn’t help. Hancock did pretty well at the box office, as I recall, and you can say Will Smith mid-2000’s was a bigger draw than Liam Neeson was in 1990, or that the bandwagon was in full effect by the time Hancock came out and Darkman had no such beneficial zeitgeist, but I would argue that Darkman did just fine shooting itself in the foot. (Also, I still haven’t seen Hancock, so I can’t hold forth at length on that.)
Darkman’s premise and storyline end up being needlessly complicated, almost to the point of comedy. Don’t get me wrong, that is actually a trope of comic book superheroes and something I regard fondly as a fan of the genre. Here is an alien who is strong enough to move planets, who can fly faster than bullets, and who is impervious to physical damage … oh BUT he can be hurt by both radioactive rocks from his exploded home planet AND he is vulnerable to magic AND he lives a double life which constantly threatens to put everyone he cares about in danger. Here is a man whose parents were gunned down in a robbery and who dedicated himself to reaching the pinnacles of human achievement in order to wage a one-man war on crime … oh BUT he refuses to use guns or lethal force of any kind, so he risks his life constantly against stacked odds just to put insane criminals behind bars that they will inevitably escape from. Here is another man, honest and fearless, who was given a ring that can literally accomplish anything he can imagine … oh BUT it has to be ceremonially recharged every 24 hours AND it doesn’t work at all against things that are yellow AND it comes with obligations to work on an alien police force overseen by super-evolved blue midgets. Superheroes are adolescent power fantasies of wish fulfillment … but not unfettered wish fulfillment because that would make for some boring stories in the long run. So rather than backing away from the pure power fantasy, writers just add complications on top of it which open up more narrative possibilities. It’s silly, but there’s a logic to it, and if you take it at face value you can geek out to it.
Right, so here’s Darkman’s deal: he’s a scientist working on inventing a kind of synthetic skin replicator which can scan a photograph and reproduce it in artificial flesh. His girlfriend, an intrepid reporter, ends up snooping to close to some shady criminal dealings and obtaining evidence the criminals want back. They trace her back to her boyfriend’s lab and torture him to find out where the evidence is. (The torture, including dunking him in chemical vats, ends up resembling the Joker’s origin in Burton’s Batman in a weird way.) The criminals also blow up the lab to cover their tracks, but our soon-to-be Darkman survives the explosion (which may have been my favorite part of the entire movie, where Raimi combines a good old fashioned non-CGI explosion of a riverside building with Liam Neeson flailing against a green screen as he is literally thrown up into the air and into the river by the blast, and Neeson plays to the cheap seats with his “AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!” – I laughed out loud with equal amounts of joyous exhilaration and you-gotta-be-kidding-me.)
OK, recap: scientist, criminals, torture, left for dead. Some combination of the chemicals and the explosion must have given Darkman his powers, right? Whoa, not so fast. We’re just getting started. Almost-Darkman gets fished out of the river and sent to the hospital as a homeless John Doe, where his street person status makes him an excellent candidate for an experimental treatment therapy, helpfully explained to the audience by a haughty doctor doing rounds with interns. (Echoes here of the field trip at the beginning of Spider-Man, where the scientist explains all the amazing natural abilities of the genetically modified spiders which justify Spider-Man’s pot pourri of powers.) The therapy basically severs pain-sensing nerves, which makes the patient really tough (in the sense that nothing fazes him, although he’s still perfectly susceptible to damage) and also makes the patient super-strong (because it short-circuits the natural adrenaline-endorphin feedback loop or some pseudo-science babble like that) and also makes the patient borderline insane (because the brain starts to turn on itself, going through wild mood swings in order to feel more emotions to compensate for not being able to feel physical pain any more). Once that exposition is out of the way, Neeson comes out of his coma and uses his new superstrength to escape the hospital.
Of course the torture and explosion and therapy have all left Darkman horribly disfigured, so he hides behind dirty bandages and adds a trenchcoat and fedora, then sets about salvaging parts of his lab and setting up a new HQ in an abandoned warehouse. His skin-reproduction technology will allow him to execute elaborate revenge against the criminals who ruined his life, because if he gets a picture of one of them he can scan it and make a lifelike replica of their face and disguise himself as them and … honestly I have no idea what the ultimate point of this elaborate ruse is supposed to be. The plot gets mushier as it goes along, but one of the first things Darkman does is track down one of the criminals (specifically the one who cold-bloodedly shot Darkman’s lab assistant) and ambush him in an alley and drag him into a sewer and push the criminal’s head up through a manhole in the middle of a busy street until the criminal gives up some info. Then Darkman lets the criminal get decapitated by a truck. Darkman does all this in his creepy bandages and fedora get-up. Presumably he could pick off each member of the gang the same way. But then we wouldn’t get the Master of Disguise element (which, in retrospect, maybe would have opened up more possibilities for Darkman to be a franchise character, or even a Bond-like figure who could be in 20+ movies starring different actors. Maybe Raimi was dreaming big.)
So, recap #2: super-strong, immune to pain, slowly going insane scientist bent on revenge with the ability to create a second skin that makes him look like anyone (never mind the questions of hair, bone structure, body mass, etc.) But wait, there’s more! The nu-skin was a work in progress which is inherently unstable, and in direct light it breaks down after 99 minutes. Here at last we see the reason why this character is going to be dubbed DARKMAN, right? Because he can only do his Master of Disguise bit in the dark!
Ah, but no. Despite the fact that Darkman would be a marginally more effective revenge-seeker in the winter than the summer, he never restricts his activities to the night time. When he reveals to his girlfriend that he survived the explosion, wearing a fake version of his old face over his hideous burns and scars, does he show up after sunset so that their reunion can include all-night sexing, only for her to wake up finding he’s disappeared and left a note, because unbeknownst to her he has to get back to his warehouse before the sun has been up 99 minutes? Um, no. He shows up in the middle of the day and then runs away after one conversation. Later in the movie, they have a date at a carnival, and again despite the inherent time limit, it’s the middle of the day. And maybe his good-hearted girlfriend is not a night person, but Darkman also sets up elaborate impersonation plots to cause trouble for the leader of the criminal gang – and sets these up to happen at high noonish. So, on the one hand, we do get multiple scenes of Darkman’s false face starting to bubble and melt off, which is a fun visual. But we also are left wondering why he can’t just stay out of the sun.
The pragmatic answer, I suspect, is that it’s cheaper to film a movie during the daytime than the night. And make no mistake, the movie looks and feels fairly cheap, even by 1990 standards, so in addition to the story being written in service to the cost prohibitions in ways that tie the narrative in inexplicable knots, the whole sci-fi mad-idea comic book vibe is dragged down. The one exception is Neeson’s disfigurement, which my inner twelve-year-old thought was appropriately gross and off-putting and therefore rad as hell. But they blew the budget on that makeup kit, apparently. At one point, advancing the Darkman-is-slowly-going-insane subplot, he flips out because a carny is trying to cheat him out of the stuffed animal he won knocking down milk cans. Darkman breaks all of the carny’s fingers – or, more accurately, Liam Neeson mangles what looks like a fake hand bought at a novelty shop for $1.99. The biggest action setpiece of the movie (which you might vaguely remember if you have any recollection at all of the movie’s ad campaign, though I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t) is a helicopter chase scene through a city in which Darkman dangles from a rope ladder. In reality (meaning not performed by professional stunt people) this would indeed by dangerous and thrilling but against the different expectations of movies, it feels somehow smaller-than-life.
But would Darkman have been much better if it had been made with Spider-Man’s budget and Spider-Man’s access to cutting edge special effects and whatnot? Maybe a little, but there’s still that core problem of how mind-bendingly complicated the answer is to the question “What’s Darkman’s deal?” An original character must be distinct and interesting, but Raimi blows right past those qualities and into unfiltered-brainstorm-while-on-pixy-stix-binge territory. Focusing on disguises that only work at night OR immunity from pain that leads to insanity OR a super-strong scientist reconciling physical violence with his cerebral research work OR any other facet of Darkman might have been compelling. Raimi, even within his shoestring budget, gives an interesting visual signature to the moments where Darkman dances on the brink of total insanity, a rapidly intercut visual collage of distressed close-ups of Neeson, shots of electrical storms between giant neurons, distorted flashbacks to the character’s torture-origin, etc. It’s a look unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else, in service of a moderately interesting idea, although it’s still hard to say if something like that could have carried a whole movie. Still, I think it would have had a better chance than the path ultimately taken, keeping all the disparate ideas and mashing them together, which made for a wreck of a character and a wreck of a story.
So the possibilities of Darkman 2: The Darkening and Darkman 3: The Final Darkestness went unrealized and unmourned, and rightfully so. But despite trying a little too hard at the wrong historical moment, Sam Raimi came out of it all right, and so did Liam Neeson, and superheroes too, for that matter. If Darkman was a necessary step on the road to get to Raimi’s Spider-Man, I’ll take it in stride. Ah, crappy movies, the ultimate victimless crime.