Darkman — the tale of a sweet scientist who becomes a vigilante, hiding his scarred face behind bandages and masks — came out in 1990, showcasing the talents of up-and-comers Sam Raimi and Liam Neeson. It was the perfect blend of superhero tale and monster movie. And it’s only gotten better with age.
Raimi, a certified cult hero after the first two Evil Dead films, made his studio debut with Darkman. The script has five co-authors (including Raimi and his brother, Ivan), but Raimi gets sole story credit. Imagine that: a superhero movie based on an original idea! Or at least, an original idea inspired by things Raimi loved, like classic Universal Monster movies and circus freaks and comic books. Plus, it’s got a realistic romance, old-school special effects, some killer villains, and all the weird science. All of it.
We don’t meet Peyton Westlake, the future Darkman, until after the opening credits. But we get to know really quickly that this movie isn’t for the faint-hearted. The first lines, delivered by a snappily dressed gangster who’s speaking on a car phone (with cord attached), are “Because he’s an asshole!” followed by “Tell him no. Tell him no, too. Him? Tell fuck you!” This is Eddie Black, who thinks he’s going to hold onto his waterfront property, despite the fact that rival heavy Robert Durant is intent on owning it. (Durant is played by Larry Drake, then famous for his role as a developmentally disabled man on L.A. Law, later to become legendary among Z-movie fans for the singularly insane Dr. Giggles.)
The ensuing confrontation, which includes a machine gun hidden in a prosthetic leg, lots of low-angle shots of overcoat-wearing wiseguys, some insane stunt driving, and the revelation that Durant uses his cigar cutter to snip fingers for his ever-growing collection, is mind-blowingly great. And the wave of awesome keeps rolling once we get inside of Peyton’s Dr. Frankenstein-meets-Rube-Goldberg laboratory. Cardigan-clad Peyton and his loyal lab assistant are slaving over their “liquid skin” experiments, which can produce an exact copy of a human nose that begins to dissolve after 99 minutes.
This becomes significant very soon ... when he discovers the skin holds together longer in the dark ... but first, we get yet another aspect of Darkman that makes it so kick-ass: Peyton’s girlfriend, Julie, a no-nonsense lawyer played by Frances McDormand. (Their idea of a romantic night in is watching a slide show of their own dorky photos.) These two couldn’t be more opposite, but when Julie tells Peyton she needs more time to consider his marriage proposal (“I like having my own place!”), it feels genuine, and it speaks to their relationship. dynamic. She’s the one wearing the pants, so to speak, and after Peyton becomes the scary-faced D-man thanks to a violent run-in with Durant and his gang, he’s driven by two primal forces: the need for vengeance, but also a deep terror that Julie will reject him once she realizes what he’s become.
It’s worth noting, also, that he never once blames Julie for her accidental role in his disfigurement. Dude wouldn’t have had his hands charred and his face dipped in a vat of acid, nor would his lab have been blown sky-high, if Julie hadn’t left an incriminating document lying around. But the document, deliciously and dramatically dubbed “the Bellisarious memorandum,” implicates big-time real estate developer Strack (Colin Friels), who’s been bribing city officials to get his projects approved. And since we soon learn Strack is pulling Durant’s strings (and that Strack’s taken a prurient interest in Julie), the battle of good versus evil is set.
Sorta. Peyton’s revival from near-death involves some medical techniques not of his own making, and the end result is he’s got a temper that’s so mighty, it gives him super-strength. Most of the time, he’s able to keep his Mr. Hyde side contained, and he uses his knowledge of artificial skin to craft masks that allow him to exact revenge while working undercover ... and sometimes tricking Durant’s posse into doing his dirty work for him. He’s also been rendered unable to feel physical pain, which makes his mental anguish all the more monumental.
But while Peyton was once a good guy, and while Darkman keeps busy stomping out some guys who are absolutely the worst, Darkman is not a good guy. And he knows it. He’s complicated, he’s terrifying to behold, and by the end of the movie, he’s realized his only option in life is to leave Julie behind and roam the earth and do ... what? Work on his inventions? Seek more revenge, wherever revenge is needed? Yeah, there were a couple of direct-to-video sequels, but the original’s existential-yet-oddly-satisfying ending lets the viewer ponder, and wonder, and probably rewind the VHS to watch the whole damn thing again because the movie is that good.
And to bookend those amazing first lines, are the film’s last, accompanied by a one-shot cameo of Raimi’s homeboy Bruce Campbell:
“I am everyone and no one. Everywhere. Nowhere. Call me ... Darkman.”