Audiences know that Sam Raimi changed superhero movies with Spider-Man, but he cut his teeth on the genre with Darkman. This early ‘90s Liam Neeson vehicle is part Gothic horror film, part comic book hero origin story. Raimi’s Darkman feels like the director is learning how to work with a big studio and its massive budget while on the job. Fans of the Evil Dead series will recognize many of Raimi’s classic visual flourishes, but he’s working with an all new bag of tricks in this film.
Even though Darkman is relatively hidden in Raimi’s oeuvre, it was a box office hit at the time of its release, and it went on to become huge on VHS. The real success of this film was the way that Raimi transitioned from B-horror movies (which he clearly loves) to the big-budget films that he’d become known for.
Anyone who’s seen Raimi’s Spider-Man will recognize many of the same tropes and pastiches in this film, but it’s intriguing to see what the director can do with a superhero when he doesn’t have to adapt a property.
Every hero has a secret identity and Darkman's is Peyton Westlake, a nerdy scientist who just wants to marry his girlfriend and work on his projects. While working one night, the vicious syndicate Durant shows up and wipes out Westlake and his assistant while searching for a memo.
The scene is really rough. Westlake is beaten, and half of his body is severely burned. If that weren't bad enough, he's left to wait for the explosion that's going to end his life. When the explosion finally happens, his burning body is thrown from the building on screen.
Westlake's origin wouldn't be nearly as upsetting to watch if it weren't for the realistic visual effects work. His face looks horrific after the assault, and his burning body looks as real as it gets in a Sam Raimi movie.
After Westlake's assault, his skin is mostly burned off. Luckily, the synthetic skin that he was working on allows him to create lifelike masks of Durant and his men so he can get revenge. The synthetic skin is essentially a "superpower" in the same way that Batman has gadgets and money as his power.
Like every hero, Darkman has a vulnerability - his synthetic skin can only last for about 100 minutes. The time limit on his synthetic skin adds a ticking clock to each caper and ratchets up the tension, making for some freaky skin-dissolving effects every time Westlake leaves his lair.
Darkman isn't just some super nerd who can make masks. Thanks to Durant's men boiling Westlake's hands in a mysterious pink substance and then blowing him up, he no longer has any nerve endings on his body. This affliction causes Westlake's body to overproduce adrenaline.
When Westlake gets angry, scared, embarrassed, or pretty much any feeling, he gets a rush of adrenaline - complete with an over-the-top visual of a giant skull and fire - and flips out. This "power" allows Westlake to destroy a carnival booth, hang from a helicopter for about 15 minutes, and feel absolutely nothing when he gets a spike shot through his hand.
Durant is one of the most original villains of the '90s. He's articulate and intelligent, and he has a really weird interest in keeping the index fingers of his targets. Whenever he gets the best of someone - whether a scientist or a real-estate developer - he uses his stogie cutter to remove their fingers.
It's revealed later in the film that Durant doesn't just toss the fingers, but he keeps them in a box altogether so he can look at them over and over again. It's not the kind of trait that we're used to in comic book movies - at least in the '90s. Durant's finger thing feels more like something that we'd see in a horror movie, which makes sense when we're talking about Raimi.