Though Darkman is often referred to as a superhero movie, it’s really more of a pulp film. It’s not exactly surprising that the film isn’t often referred to as such. Unlike the superhero, the pulp hero outside of his native habitat is not very well defined. The most notable entries into the film world are the Doc Savage adaptation, which is so bad that it makes the very angels weep, and Russell Mulcahy version of The Shadow, which my critical integrity forces me to admit, I have something of a soft spot for. Shut up. I saw it young. Shut up.
But while those two icons, so ill fated in the cinema, are the most famous remainders of the pulp era, there were others. Operator #5, Nick Carter and The Spider, the ultimate killer vigilante who used to brand his target’s foreheads before killing them. Peyton Westlake with his dark origins, super scientist background and baroque methods fits right in among this motley crew. Not a clean cut avenger, but a maimed and damaged hero whose revenge stems from satisfaction as much as it does justice.
Though it’s often lumped in with the action spectacles of the late eighties and early nineties Darkman only really becomes an action film in it’s final third (with a helicopter chase in particular acting as a showcase for what Raimi would do with the opportunity for mayhem provided to him by the Spiderman films). Most of the film is taken up by Westlake’s increasingly ornate plans for revenge. Which range in tone from horror film to three stooges short, Raimi takes full advantage of the characters adaptability, at times a monster hulking in the sewers, at others playing his own deadly version of “Rabbit Season/Duck Season.”
Like Evil Dead, Darkman suffers/benefits from a real schizophrenia of tone. Mixing some truly brutal scenes, with goofy comic relief, and anachronistic techniques (Particularly the overlays during the fantastic “I’M DOING SCIENCE!” montages). Its important to note that this clashing of tone doesn’t come from Raimi’s nervousness as a filmmaker, the way it might with someone uncomfortable with the tropes of pulp. On the contrary it stems from Raimi’s confidence with the material. Not that he’s not playing it straight, but that he’s playing it so straight he has the courage to follow the story to all the crazy places it takes him.
He’s matched in conviction by Liam Neeson. Like Crimewave before it Raimi found himself forced to cast the role he’d written for Campbell with another actor. Unlike in Crimewave, the choice works kind of brilliantly. As sorry as I am that Campbell ended up continuously passed over for the lead roles he so richly deserved, Neeson is perfect here. Giving the material here the complete dedication it needs. Whether swearing revenge or demanding his Pink Elephant Neeson plays the movie completely straight, and with his hulking presence and charisma he’s equally good at playing the man and the monster. Frances Mc Dormand also helps in giving the film a human center. One of Raimi’s greatest strengths has always been his need to couch spectacle in character, for a genre filmmaker he’s very much a humanist, and I think it’s in Darkman that you really see that start to cohere.
In many ways Darkman is the most important film in Raimi’s career. Countering Crimewave with proof that his voice could survive contact with a major studio and a budget larger then the change he found under the floormats in the classic.