Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi are the two directors most responsible for the current age of the superhero film. Singer’s X-Men and Raimi’s Spider-Man presented their fantastic, impossible worlds as living, breathing entities, and made an effort to introduce a sense of scale to the worlds they built.
In a world of mutants and genetically engineered super spiders, life did in fact exist outside of Logan and Peter Parker’s brains. Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters has a variety of students in its background scenes, doing everything from playing basketball at mach speed to comfortably walking through a wall on the way to class. New Yorker’s react to Spider-Man’s actions and J. Jonah Jameson’s coverage of them, with reactions ranging from scorn and disgust to celebrating and trying to help the web-head in whatever way they can.
Beyond the new sense of scale to these amazing worlds, Singer and Raimi worked to examine the psychology and motivations of their characters beyond “Revenge and vague unhappiness!” From there, Jon Favreau, Christopher Nolan and other directors took the newly established rules of the game, played with them, expanded on them and produced some really fantastic work.
X-Men and Spider-Man themselves, while rushed in places and not always as confident in their tone as they might be, remain enjoyable viewing experiences and from a historical standpoint they are absolutely worth seeing as the origin points of the modern superhero film. But the Spider-Man trilogy was not Sam Raimi’s only contribution to the world of caped crusaders.
In 1990, he brought the world Darkman, his homage to pulp vigilantes, silver age superhero comics and Liam Neeson’s then brown hair. As a film, it’s an enjoyable blend of camp, creative violence and broadly drawn but affecting emotion. As a historical piece, it is a fantastic look at the era of superhero films before today’s; a time of visual inventiveness and high emotion; sympathetic but murderous protagonists and villains so evil that they lacked only railroad tracks to tie innocents to.
Darkman follows Liam Neeson’s Dr. Peyton Westlake, a scientist struggling to perfect his invention of a near-identical substitute for skin. The skin’s persistent flaw is that prolonged contact with sunlight causes it to disintegrate. Outside of that hang-up, Peyton’s life is good. He is in love with a sweet lawyer played by Frances McDormand, and on the verge of proposing to her. Then a gang of vicious, campy thugs break into his lab, murder his assistant and leave him so disfigured that a team of doctors have to cut off his nerves. The result leaves him prone to bouts of berserk rage, but completely unable to feel pain and with a degree of super-strength. After salvaging enough of his lab equipment to manufacture the flawed skin, Peyton sets out to exact revenge and try to rebuild his relationship with McDormand.
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The biggest difference between Darkman and a modern superhero film; Iron Man, for instance, is that the hero’s motivation is solely personal. Where Tony Stark sets out to annihilate the assorted groups in possession of his weapons to atone for the damage he has done as their designer and prevent any further destruction, Peyton Westlake’s only goal is to make Larry Drake’s Durant and his men suffer.
In one memorable instance, he forces a goon’s head up a manhole and into traffic, where the unfortunate goon is promptly squished. “I’ve told you everything!” the goon begs, “I know,” Westlake growls “but let’s pretend you didn’t.” It is satisfying to see the goon get squished, but more for the fact that someone who wronged the sympathetic Westlake is getting their just desserts than the fact that a ruthless criminal will never hurt anyone else again.
Furthermore, Westlake and his contemporaries, Tim Burton’s Batman and several others, tend to respond to every combat situation with lethal force. Part of this is due to the focus being more on one or two central characters than on an ensemble and the world around them. The bit players may be disposed of as they cease to be of use to the narrative, and part of this is due to a trend of non-Superman superheroes being portrayed as fundamentally unhinged.
Even before he decides that “Peyton is dead,” anger is so central to Westlake’s character that he actually draws his strength from it. His goal in Darkman’s final battle is not so much to rescue his girlfriend from the villains as it is to kill all of the villains and rescue his girlfriend by doing so. Burton’s Batman fights the Joker because the Joker killed his parents and wants to woo the woman he is attracted to; saving Gotham is part of the plan, but never as much a priority as fighting the Joker.
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On a visual level, Darkman goes for the fantastic. Westlake wears dirtied bandages and a long, flowing trench-coat with an antiquated cut. He makes his home in an abandoned factory filled with pipes of all sizes, a huge fire pit and later a room filled with the assorted masks he has built. The climax takes place in the framework of an under construction skyscraper, complete with other partially finished towers surrounding it, all of them sharp, angular and glassy.
It is a distinctive look that provides further contrast between the patched together Westlake and his perpetually suave, in control enemy. While most modern superhero films work to make the setting as grounded as possible to contrast their fantastic characters, Darkman and its contemporaries used their settings to highlight the fantastic aspects of theirs.
While my own personal taste in superhero films runs more toward the modern, dismissing Darkman, or any superhero film from that generation simply due to its age and vastly different style of filmmaking would be a mistake. They are a vastly different interpretation of the superheroic concept than is currently popular, and for the right audience, perhaps a more appealing one.
Each generation of superhero films, and for that matter, film in general, has something to offer. In this specific case, it is a much darker tone, a more intimate look at the mindscape of a few characters and fabulous, marvelously impossible settings.Previous