It’s safe to say that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy lives on as a memorable and vital contribution to Spider-Man’s on-screen presence. It may not be perfect, but it did help pave the way for future superhero movies. Since Raimi is returning to the Marvel universe in 2022 with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, it’s worth re-examining his very first foray into the wonderful world of superheroes (and studio involvement). Before Spider-Man, Raimi created his own superhero after he couldn’t get the rights to The Shadow (a DC property at the time) or Batman. The result is the utterly fascinating, but messy Darkman. This year marks Darkman’s 30th anniversary and despite the many issues it faced during all forms of production, it served as a pivotal stepping-stone in Sam Raimi’s career.
Based on one of Raimi’s own short stories, Darkman follows Peyton Westlake, played by Liam Neeson, a scientist developing synthetic skin technology, who is left for dead after being burned alive by members of a criminal organization. He somehow survives with barely any skin left on him and escapes from the hospital. After discovering an abandoned warehouse that becomes his new home and lab, Peyton decides to seek revenge on the men who attempted to kill him. With his skin technology he’s able to recreate any face he wants, including his own. After a certain amount of time and too much exposure to the sun, however, the face mask melts. His motivation for creating a mask of his own face is so that he can see his girlfriend again without frightening her; he isn’t exactly easy on the eyes. Peyton is ultimately successful in his fight for vengeance, but since he cannot find a permanent solution to his lack of skin, he decides to remain in the shadows and officially takes on the persona of Darkman.
It’s kind of amazing that despite the unconventional premise and behind-the-scenes turmoil, Darkman still managed to be a moderate box office success in 1990 and a critical favorite. Somewhat surprisingly, Darkman has a critics score of 84% on Rotten Tomatoes (and a slightly lower 59% audience score). Knowing the context of everything that happened during the stages of production, it’s possible that the theatrical version isn’t Raimi’s whole vision, therefore its flaws are more understandable. Without that knowledge, however, it’s hard to believe that the average viewer (and film critic) would be so accepting of it.
To mention just a few of the behind the scene snafus – there are many – the script went through 12 drafts before it was approved by Universal Pictures. If you look at the credits, there are five names listed for the screenwriting credit. These don’t include Joel and Ethan Coen who made some final touches to the finished script, but this was only the beginning of Raimi’s troubles with the studio. The editing process was contentious as well as Universal was quite taken aback by a lot of the footage and insisted certain scenes to be taken out. The editor also allegedly had a nervous breakdown and left the project. With these and other issues, it’s incredible that Raimi and his team were able to put together something that works, at least for the most part.
Tonally, Darkman is all over the place, and now it’s clear why. It’s likely that most of the cut footage would have cleared up a lot of these issues and would have helped establish a definitive tone for the film. One of the burning questions is why is Peyton so active during the day if the face mask is going to melt faster than it would at night? In terms of tracking down the men who tried to kill him, it makes sense since that’s when they’re on the move the most, but why would he take his girlfriend to a fair during the day if he knew how risky it was?
The scene in itself is worth talking about at length since it’s a perfect example of how hilariously off the movie is tonally. Peyton takes his girlfriend Julie, played by Frances McDormand, to an amusement park and plays a throwing game so he can win a prize for her. After technically winning, he asks the tender for the large stuffed pink elephant as his prize. The man refuses, saying that Peyton was over the line when he threw the ball, so it doesn’t count. This throws Peyton into an incredible rage, and he ends up breaking a few of the man’s fingers. He grabs the elephant and demands that Julie takes it. His face mask starts to bubble and he runs away. This is a very laughable sequence and while it does highlight the general rage that occasionally builds up in Peyton because of what was done to him, it doesn’t totally fall in with how other scenes in the film are handled.
The scene is a good example of why it’s hard to nail down what exactly Sam Raimi was going for in terms of tone. One minute, Darkman is a gritty look at a man desperate need for revenge and his old life, and the next minute it’s a schlocky superhero story where a grown man says the line “take the f**king elephant.” This can be attributed to Universal’s insistence that the movie be cut down, but it’s a shame that they didn’t realize the immense impact that would have on its consistency.
Raimi originally wanted to cast Bruce Campbell as Peyton, but Universal wouldn’t allow it since he wasn’t a big enough name. While Neeson does a fine job in the lead role, Campbell would have had a better grasp of Raimi’s style thanks to the work they did together on the Evil Dead movies and Campbell does have a brief cameo at the end of Darkman, which apparently was a “screw you” from Raimi to the studio. Neeson is good at adding humanity to Peyton in his darker moments, but ultimately the character isn’t fleshed out enough, making it hard to form any substantial connection with him. McDormand does what she can as Julie, but she also suffers from lack of character development. This is a common pattern with all the key players in this film, especially the villains. If the studio had more faith in Raimi and his vision, Darkman would feel more like a complete story with strong character arcs. Peyton is essentially a combination of Harvey Dent from the Batman comics and the Phantom of the Opera in a modern urban day setting. There’s so much potential there for a compelling look into what happens to a man when he loses everything, with the added layer of being physically scarred. That’s what Raimi wanted to explore, and you can see glimpses of that throughout the film.
Darkman wasn’t considered a total failure upon its release, but it did have a lasting impact on Raimi and his willingness to work with big movie studios. It took him 12 years to make another superhero movie, and in that time, he made some compelling films. He worked his way up, directing movies with bigger budgets until the opportunity came along to direct Spider-Man. Surely, time away from his experience on Darkman allowed him to feel confident about taking on such a giant task and working with another big movie studio (Sony). Darkman did prepare him in certain ways, especially when it comes to constructing captivating action sequences. The chase scene when Peyton is hanging from a chain attached to a helicopter is impressive and reminiscent of what Raimi would later enact in his Spider-Man movies. One thing that can be firmly said about Darkman is that it’s never boring. It does a wonderful job entertaining you. It may not be in the way that Sam Raimi initially intended, but that’s what makes it memorable and an undeniable classic.