Superhero films aren’t really my thing. Ever since the giant Marvel superhero craze of the late 2000’s, it’s just been non-stop blockbuster after blockbuster—commercials, sponsorships, specific actors everywhere. I got sick of it all very quickly. Even before then, superhero films were kind of an “empty calories” sort of enjoyment, where I could just enjoy some dumb good vs. evil plot and some rad special effects. Unfortunately, my brain will not let me enjoy them further than that caliber anymore.
Even so, Darkman always called to me.
There are a few reasons for this. First, it stars Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand, two actors I have a tremendous amount of respect for. Second, this is directed by Sam Raimi, who also directed the Evil Dead franchise and 2000’s Spider-Man trilogy. Third, that poster art is just super cool, I mean, c’mon! A lot of really intriguing details about this made it a hit on the “Interest-o-meter” in my head. Given the month, why not?
Upon completion, Darkman actually surprised me in a few ways, most notably in that it’s almost not a superhero film at all. One Letterboxd reviewer stated that it’s “eerily like Taken,” and, well, that’s pretty accurate. Darkman as a superhero, who one could argue is more of an antihero, is closer to Batman than Superman. His powers are… superhuman strength and the inability to feel much due to the nerve endings being extracted from his burned skin. Though in my eyes, his real superpower is his resourcefulness as a scientist and collection of gadgetry.
Now, I haven’t explained much about the film’s qualities or its synopsis, but if this all sounds really bizarre, that’s because it is. Most importantly, it doesn’t care. I can really appreciate that in a superhero film—kind of in the same vein as Godzilla films. They’re best when they’re stupid, campy, have great effects / entertaining action, and emotionally poignant. Anything more like “narrative cohesion” or “realism” is just extra icing. Darkman takes this in stride, kind of like most of Raimi’s more well-known works.
So despite how much I enjoy Liam Neeson as an actor, I’ve always had an underlying suspicion that he wasn’t an amazing actor. Answering that hunch was not in this film’s script. Neeson’s performance, particularly near the beginning and sprinkled throughout, is pretty goofy. It’s part of the campy charm, sure, but it’s kind of weird seeing Neeson being, uh, cartoon-ish? It’s also weird seeing him young and without stubble, though that’s a personal matter. Could be the script mostly, given the nature of the film. In the end, it was hard to take him too seriously.
The aesthetic, though? Wonderful. Delightfully moody when it needed to be, gruesome whenever it wanted to, and stupid all the way through. Even if I don’t believe this to be a cinematic masterpiece, Raimi knows how to vibe to absurdity and spontaneity. Practical props felt goofy yet natural. Darkman’s face under the gauze? Beautiful. I would totally still be his girlfriend. While the action / special effects aren’t on-par with Spider-Man, they’re still enough to keep things immersive, if not fractionally believable.
Since this is technically a superhero film, a “good vs. evil” plot is inevitable—or, at the very least, a “character vs. character” plot. One that is deemed the “good” one and the other “bad.” Morality and such is not particularly important, though; as aforementioned, this is more Taken than anything, where it’s simply “You did something to me, now I’m gonna do something to you.” This lessens the scope of the story, but also makes it more personal, which works in some ways. It would work better if the “villain” was developed in any way… or crucial to anything… that anyone cares about… at all…
As for emotional resonance… uh… it tries! Darkman is a tragic figure, losing everything to these brutal gangsters. He can no longer face his girlfriend, due to his physical disfigurement. His research is in shambles, with his assistant killed in the initial attack. Lurking in the remains of his burned-up laboratory, he can only work to keep his unrestrained emotions afloat. To see him try and come back from the ashes isn’t really the point, I think. It’s more the revenge outlet, which fuels his ambitions outside of his love for his girlfriend. So if you like Taken, have I got a gritty, ’90s superhero film for you!
With all of that said… allow me to make a controversial statement. I think Darkman is on par with, if not better than, all of Raimi’s other films (that I’ve seen)—Evil Dead and Spider-Man included. Raimi has a distinct style, one brimming with silliness and whimsically decrepit, depending on genre. Because of this, to me, a lot of his films kind of blend together into this insane smorgasbord of visual fidelity. And that’s pretty much it. Neat visuals, solid story, hit-or-miss characters, charmingly endearing. Not totally “devoid of substance,” but a little “devoid of substance.”
If Raimi’s work has been a favorite of yours over the years, this will be much of the same. Something of a blueprint for Spider-Man, only with some of the practical effects reminiscent of Evil Dead. Kind of a “Best of both worlds” situation, including Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand in the leading roles. It’s about as enjoyable as a superhero film can be for me, but maybe it’ll be top-tier for others. I don’t know. I’ve seen, like, two Marvel films.
Final Score: 6.5/10
The rating for all other films can be found at Letterboxd.
For more, check out the March of the Movies Archive!