Essentially a dry-run for a lot of ideas Raimi would retool for his Spider-Mantrilogy, but considered on its own terms – as a 1990 made-for-screen comic book movie – Darkman is a fun little curio.
Green-lit and released hot on the heels of Burton’s Batman, it’s allowed to share that film’s ghoulish, semi-adult tone (and score by Danny Elfman) making it a bizarre amalgamation of horror effects and cartoony heroism. There’s as much pillaging from Universal monster movies as there is comic-book mythologies too, ensuring that Darkman’s origin and appearance is as icky as you’d wish from the mastermind behind The Evil Dead.
Raimi’s direction is as madcap as ever and all of the set-pieces crack and fizzle with his trademark sense of mania. The transitions and opticals are seriously on point, despite 90s green-screen leaving a lot to be desired in 2016. Never one to miss the opportunity for a visual gag either, Raimi peppers the film with a bunch of silly punctuations throughout that always earn a giggle; a henchman with a fake leg doubling as a machine gun, Darkman’s hand casually catching fire from a nearby bunsen burner and his endless dumb quips and asides during action scenes. Moments like these would surely derail any other film lacking Raimi’s knack for rubbery tone (or Spider-Man 3…) but here they just make the whole thing more unusual and memorable. Dopey, sure, but memorable.
It’s super weird to see an actor like Liam Neeson on the receiving end of Raimi’s abuse too. His “murder” sequence is pretty full-on and the moment when he gets his head repeatedly smashed through glass cabinets harkens back to any classic Raimi/Bruce Campbell smash-up. A young Frances McDormand does a lot with her thankless role but it’s fun to see her continue the endless bridges between Raimi’s work and that of the Coens. This film marks the first collaboration between Raimi and a few of his key collaborators too, notably composer Elfman and DP Bill Pope. There’s no doubt in hell this flick helped land Sam the Spider-Man gig but it’s pretty nutty to see how candidly he lifts moments from Darkman verbatim in his Spidey films. Darkman, the character, his origin and emotional arc, feel extremely at one with Molina’s Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2 and the building site-bound finale is jazzed up to ridiculous heights in Spider-Man 3.
Maybe Darkman hasn’t aged that well but, as a die-hard Raimi fan, it’s a film I return to every few years and it always puts a smile on my face. There’s one shot of Darkman’s undamaged hand typing alongside his burnt, skeletal one, animated in stop-motion in the same frame, that just makes me so damn happy. Like most Raimi movies, it combines old-school goofiness with a contemporary (for the time) sense of madcap style and energy. The collage of comic-book ideas in service of creating an original cinematic hero also feels fresh in today’s cinematic climate and Elfman’s score is 1000x more memorable than any spandex sound-bed released under the MCU banner. Darkman zips, pings, crashes and cackles. It’s a Sam Raimi movie, so definitely worth a once over. Plus, there’s a stonking Bruce Campbell cameo in the final frame which almost earns the film an extra star. Groovy.