In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we’ll talk about the second of three of the best “superhero” film franchises that only appeared in comics after the films were released.
If Sam Raimi was able to get his hands on The Shadow, we’d probably be talking about something else today. And if he was able to secure the rights to Batman, we’d be talking about his early forays into superhero filmmaking a whole lot sooner.
See, rumor has it Raimi tried to get those two properties in the 1990s but wasn’t able to. That’s why he came up with Darkman, a character based on a short story of his that pulled its influences from those two properties mentioned above and other diverse inspirations that ran the gamut from The Phantom of the Opera to Universal’s monster films. And while seeing Raimi’s unique style on The Shadow and Batman would rock, it hard to imagine that it would be much better than what we got—one of the best superhero films not to be based on a comic book.
Sam Raimi had only three major films to his credit when he gave us Darkman, his first studio feature, but what films they were—The Evil Dead, The Evil Dead II, and Crimewave. Crimewave, which Raimi co-wrote with the Coen Brothers, could be considered either an underrated gem or a film flawed by studio influence, depending on who you ask. But the Evil Dead series was where Raimi made his name. The plot is fairly simple—a bunch of young people head out to the woods only to run into a bunch of demons—but the execution is superb. The film wasn’t afraid to mix gore with loads of humor, and Raimi’s trademark directing style broke all sorts of boundaries on how a movie could be shot. The films acted as both a sterling example of the horror film and a satiric comment on them at the same time. It’s no wonder the films became cult favorites.
It’s with this behind him that Raimi got the chance to do Darkman at Universal. If he thought he had a problem with studio interference during Crimewave, he was mistaken. His relationship with the studio while making Darkman made his experience with Crimewave seem like a walk in the park.
The studio required twelve drafts from five different screenwriters, including Raimi and his brother, Ivan. The editor the studio provided refused to follow Raimi’s storyboards and eventually left after the production started. A round of negative test screenings compelled the studio to force Raimi into recutting the film to one that would fare better.
All and all, it would be safe to say that the film that arrived in theaters was not exactly the one that Raimi set out to make. Regardless of that fact, it was a great film, and a good example on how to bring a superhero character to the screen.
Darkman is Dr. Peyton Westlake, a scientist working on a synthetic skin to help burn victims. He’s made some results, but the skin he’s developed is photosensitive and breaks down after an hour and a half in sunlight. While he is working on his fake skin, gangsters break in to the laboratory looking for a document Westlake’s girlfriend hid there. After finding the document, the gangsters rig the lab to explode and leave Westlake to die. However, Westlake survives and is left hideously scarred. Doctors cut access to his nerve receptors to save him from a life of pain, but that process causes his adrenaline production to go unchecked, giving him superhuman strength and stamina. He decides to use his false skin technology and his heightened abilities to go after the gangsters that tried to kill him.
Raimi is helped quite a bit by having Liam Neeson, future Oscar nominee, to play Westlake and prior Oscar nominee/future Oscar winner Frances McDormand playing his girlfriend, Julie. And the film lives up to the responsibility of having two Oscar-caliber actors in the leads. It is deeper than you’d expect from the subject matter. The film examines how even righteous vengeance can be corrupting to the soul, and how once you cross certain lines, it is impossible to go back to the way things were. All of this wrapped up in a package that includes Raimi’s unique visual style and in-your-face humor and shocks.
When I saw Darkman in the theaters, I thought that it was as close as you could get to the perfect Batman film. If you swapped out the characters, changed the plot a bit, the psychological examination the film puts its lead character through would fit for Bruce Wayne just as well as it would for Peyton Westlake. But Raimi would go onto another superhero first, a certain web-headed hero we’ll be talking about a little later.
Darkman has two, direct-to-video sequels. The first was Darkman II: The Return of Durant:
Arnold Vosloo stepped in for Neeson in the title role and Raimi took on a producer’s role in the series. This sequel apparently did well enough that it garnered a second sequel, Darkman III: Die, Darkman, Die, also starring Vosloo in the title role:
Plans were made to bring Darkman to the small screen (a pilot was filmed but never aired) and to the Broadway stage (although there have been off-Broadway plays based on the film), but to date, none have panned out. The character did make his way into comic books, two miniseries from Marvel that were published around the time the film came out and one from Dynamite Entertainment in 2006 that paired up Darkman with another Sam Raimi creation, Ash from the Evil Dead films, in a book called Darkman versus the Army of Darkness.
Next time, we’ll cover a franchise that had the makings to be one of the best comic book-esque film series to hit the cineplex before it flew off the rails with its second installment.