Every director has their signature film. Spielberg has Jaws, Scorsese has Goodfellas, and Sam Raimi has Evil Dead II. The latter director, Sam Raimi, is best known for his stylistic flair, humor, and sheer sense of wonder. With his most recent film, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, bringing him back to the main stage, there’s another character that Raimi helped develop that still resonates to this day. No, it’s not Spider-Man. It’s Darkman. A comic-book-inspired character based on an original screenplay from Sam Raimi himself.
Released in 1990 and featuring the action movie debut of Liam Neeson, Darkman tells the story of a scientist who becomes scarred after a savage attack from mobsters. Barely surviving his ordeal, the scientist creates the persona known as Darkman. This character doesn’t have the typical superpowers, although he does display the rage-fueled vengeance that consumes most heroes who suffer a tremendous loss.
Why does this tragic figure impact us with such emotion? And how does he compare to the other popular superhero we see today?
The Good Scientist
Before he became the scarred, beaten man, Darkman was better known as Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson). He’s a scientist who has dedicated his life to developing synthetic skin for burn victims. He can replicate skin from photographs; while the synthetic skin looks real, it quickly disintegrates after ninety-nine minutes. It’s a struggle, but Dr. Westlake is never deterred from his objective. If his research allows synthetic skin to remain intact, the health benefits would be life-changing.
While conducting his research, his girlfriend, Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand), discovers a memo that details the bribery of city officials within the zoning commission to transform the city into a sprawling future. That specific document becomes the main focus of Louis Strack Jr. (Colin Friels) and his mobster friend Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake). Julie leaves the incriminating document at her apartment, where Dr. Westlake’s lab is located! After the mobsters break in and brutally assault the doctor and his colleague Yakitito (Nelson Mashita), the criminals locate the document and flee into the night. The lab is blown to bits, Yakitito is killed, and Dr. Westlake is severely burned and nearly killed.
Upon recovery, we learn that Dr. Westlake has lost all nerve responses in his body, meaning that he cannot feel any pain and even his skin and hair. With his senses gone, Dr. Westlake also finds it difficult to control his emotions when things get tense. When he escapes from the hospital, Dr. Westlake attempts to locate Julie and return to his life. Unaware of his injuries, Dr. Westlake discovers his horrifying injuries when he returns to his destroyed lab. Picking up the pieces, he relocates his lab to another location and resumes his work. He now has only one objective: to seek revenge on the ones who destroyed him. Thus, he becomes Darkman.
Unrecognizable as a human with his face covered in facial bandages and displaying gruesome burns on his hands and face, Darkman shields himself from public view. Staying only in his lab, Darkman wants to unlock the potential for making the synthetic skin not deteriorate after ninety-nine minutes, but his struggles continue. Darkman is almost like Dr. Westlake, but since he has lost all nerve feelings, he has also lost any emotional or physical feelings. Sure, he still wants Julie in his life, but he doesn’t want to frighten her with his ghastly appearance. He wishes for revenge and finds a way to recreate his face from an old photo so that he can reenter the world without anyone realizing that he is wearing a mask.
He makes contact with Julie but cannot tell her the full story of what has happened to him. He locates the criminals who nearly killed them and begins to target them. In two clever sequences in the film, Darkman successfully recreates the faces of two key figures, and when the henchmen realize what’s happening, no one can figure out who is who. Think of an early Face/Off type scenario.
Darkman also displays psychopathic tendencies when dealing with his targets. He wants revenge and will make the henchmen suffer for what they did to him. For example, he extracts information from one low-level criminal and afterward decides to kill him in a funny and cruel way.
Seeing the character develop, we see the tragedy that has befallen this man. He has lost everything. He’s lost his livelihood, his love, and his physical appearance. He can never be his true self like he once was, and now he has to adapt like everyone else. He has suffered insurmountable anguish and pain that cannot be measured on any scale. Much like other popular superheroes such as Batman, Spider-Man, and even Spawn, these characters have all suffered extreme loss and pain, and we want them to succeed in their mission to right their wrongs.
Darkman doesn’t have the supreme fighting skills, clever gadgets, or operates one heck of a vehicle. He has his wits, brains, and the endless supply of face masks to fool his enemies or blend into the crowd.
A Possible Future?
Following the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Raimi did confirm that talks surrounding another Darkman movie were in the works. This does not include the two Direct-to-DVD sequels that starred Arnold Vosloo as the titular character. According to Raimi, a direct sequel to the 1990 film is a real possibility, and Liam Nesson is in talks to make a return to the infamous character. As of this date, there’s nothing official on the table, but to see Darkman after all these years would pique the interest of moviegoers. Sure, we remember The Evil Dead and Spider-Man that Raimi helmed, but Darkman is a tragic story of a man who lost his chance at a normal life only to succeed in his main objective when targeting the people who destroyed his life.
While it was an original screenplay, the style, editing, costume design, and production quality made the movie feel like a superhero story when flipping the pages. It’s a dark movie with some grisly images but serves as a perfect origin story for a character that everyone can root for. Darkman may be forgotten in some aspects, but the originality that Raimi brought to the table has been copied ever since, and Darkman is a prime example of a ‘90s superhero film that deserves admiration even if we can all agree that it is a fun, goofy time.