Darkman: Sam Raimi’s R-rated, wholly original and forgotten superhero

Before Sam Raimi wowed audiences worldwide with 2002’s Spiderman, he made another superhero movie 12 years prior to it — a creation of his own that was diametrically opposite to his take on the famed web-slinger — which paid homage to Universal’s classic monster movies, especially H.G Wells’ The Invisible Man — which is what Darkman resembles on first look — and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Darkman contains that same old-fashioned aura of mystery and intrigue as well as the horror elements that these stories contained. It can be described as a part-superhero, part-horror movie.

While it does not attain the same level of superior quality achieved by some of the superhero movies made today — especially Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy — it looked quite fantastic and supremely entertaining for something that was made in the ‘90s. It unabashedly embraced all the quirks and cheesiness that was typical of movies from that time; not only that, there’s a lot to be admired in terms of the craftsmanship that went into it. This is a low budget ($16 million) movie that has the look of a $50 million movie.

Making extensive use of practical make-up and special effects, Raimi was able to create images that looked organic but at the same time resembled those that leaped out of a comic book. The eponymous superhero is played by Liam Neeson, an eccentric scientist named Peyton Westlake who becomes horribly disfigured in a fire after, to put it simply, being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Although officially declared dead, he is rescued by an underground hospital where a doctor subjects him to a radical operation after which he is unable to feel pain.

As a result of this, he develops enhanced strength which enables to do things that he was never able to do before. But at the same time, there are some unpleasant psychological after-effects that show up occasionally and nearly push him to the “dark side”. Here, Peyton is both Victor Frankenstein and his monster. The first thing he does after getting back is reassembling his burned down lab and restart work on his path-breaking experiment which has the potential to change the area of plastic surgery forever. And he starts plotting revenge against the mobsters who left him for dead.

There are scenes in this movie that bear direct resemblance to scenes in some of the major blockbusters today, like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Mission Impossible, etc. For e.g. there is a scene in Batman Begins where Bruce Wayne becomes Batman for the first time and terrifies Falcone’s thugs; there is a similar scene in Darkman as well. Also, Frances McDormand plays Peyton’s attorney girlfriend. In Nolan’s Batman movies, Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend is an attorney as well. Speaking of Batman, Raimi made Darkman because he was unable to bring Batman to the big screen.

For a movie made with such a low budget, the special effects, action sequences, and editing are very impressive. The acting, while not being exceptional, is quite effective for this sort of story. When Peyton takes off his bandage, he looks scarily grotesque. Kudos to the makeup man who did a remarkable job. Darkman is worth watching not just for its entertainment factor, but also for the peek it gives us into Raimi’s mad genius which gave birth to some wonderfully brilliant ideas which may or may not always make sense. It’s an underappreciated work that deserves more respect (and maybe a sequel), in my opinion.

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