Pink Elephants And Machine Gun Legs: Looking Back At The Early Superhero Film Through Sam Raimi’s Darkman

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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