Before There Was SPIDER-MAN, There was DARKMAN

I’ve spoken before about my extreme fondness for Tim Burton’s 1989 feature film debute of the “contemporary” take on Batman; and having grown up in an era where the popularity and depiction of what defined the superhero/comic book film subgenre has drastically changed in nearly thirty (!!!) years, looking at the influences that 89′ Batman left in its wake are quite fascinating to me. For the superhero genre of the 1990s is rather unrecognizable compared to what we would see in the 20th century. It goes without saying that the style of Burton’s Batman was heavily used with the early seasons of Batman: The Animated Series and it’s something that I feel isn’t touched upon with many films of the subgenre: the comic book aesthetic. This can be characterized in terms of dynamic cinematography; artistic choices in clothing, props, and settings; and visual cues that invoke the sense of reading a comic book.

For example, the above scene from Batman exemplifies the sense that Gotham is a city that would only exist in a comic book universe. There’s a tad bit of German expressionism in the way the city was created added to the fact that characters in the film itself do not dress exactly modern for 1989, but rather a heightened version of 1950s inspired fashion that would lend itself to the aesthetic of the original Batman comics. The design of the movie, I feel invokes the feeling that this is a fantasy concept set in a fantasy world. The modern age of comic book movies, starting from what I describe as the “Silver Age” (starting with 1998’s Blade and ending in 2007), ascribed to a more realistic depiction that felt more standard for film as a medium instead of applying the medium of the comic book to film. The only exception you’ll find here, would be the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films.

The following scene in which Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker designs his costume is told in a montage without any dialogue and only uses visual cues and reactions to (literally) illustrate his psychology. He wants to impress Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson by buying a car and he feels the only way he can achieve that is by using his newfound powers to make money. However the way the montage is shown is not just a series of scenes and actions but visually uses the framing of the news paper and overlapping of images to convey what Peter is thinking about; you know, like how it would work in a comic book?

Now let’s combine Raimi’s sense of visual storytelling with the heightened fantasy aesthetic of the 1990s era of superhero films and you’ll get the 1990 film Darkman. It should go without saying that obviously, the properties of Darkman that are likened to Spider-Man are what the latter movie would refine and polish on a much larger budget but I am of course coming into this as someone who grew up with the newer films who is now looking backwards at the older picture.

The original character, created after Raimi was denied a chance to take on IPs such as The Shadow and funnily enough, Batman, is an amalgamation of characters such as The Phantom of the Opera and The Elephant Man. The movie is unique in that there is a sense of tragedy not unlike that of the characters of the Universal Monster pictures (which Raimi was inspired by) that combines with the 90s action aesthetic. The movie centers on a scientist Peyton Westlake, played by Liam Neeson doing a flat American accent, who is caught up in the evil schemes of crimelords that set out to kill him and leave him for dead. The resulting accident horribly (re: awesomely?) deforms him and also deadens his ability to physically feel pain which as a result has also affected his emotional state as well, leading to a tale of vigilantinism that ends in lots of violence and death (another very 90s trait).

This movie is very invokative of 89′ Batman and what we would see over a decade later in 2002’s Spider-Man; the direction and cinematic style fits the 90s template, not to mention a musical score by Danny Elfman that would be replicated in Spider-Man as well. The character of Peyton Westlake also grapples with his newfound sense of duality, and just as Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne fought with himself regarding whether or not to reveal his identity to Vicki Vale, Westlake has to come to terms with the fact that this accident has changed every aspect of his being and that makes him suddenly incompatible with his lover Julie (Frances McDormand). [Also, can we note: Considering McDormand and Neeson’s respective filmographies, what an odd period in time for them to star in this superhero film. They’re two unlikely choices, which again, makes the film pretty unique.]

The cinematic infusion of comic book imagery and film visuals is very realized here, even more so than Spider-Man you could say. (Or rather Spider-Man is more nuanced than it’s given credit for when compared to Darkman). As a director, Raimi is great at expressing emotion and psychology without using dialogue and is able to convey the needed emotion with his camera and lighting. Let’s not forget, that for a majority of the movie, Peyton’s face is obscured by bandaging which forces Liam Neeson to act through his eyes and expressions. Even when we see his real face, not the prosthetic masks his character is able to create (which makes him this morally ambiguious pseudo-Invisible Man character that I really dig), the actor is under a heavy amount of gruesome looking makeup. It really is all about the eyes here.

Without going into the ending too specifically (aside from a great Bruce Campbell* cameo), the conclusion is very akin to Spider-Man as well with Peyton’s final decisions regarding what the events of the movie have done that have changed him as a character. There is a sense of obligation to his new role that makes him a lonely character, one that has to remove himself from the pleasantries of normal life in order to keep himself safe but more importantly provide a greater sense of responsibility. It is very much in the spirit of Batman as well, and the ground work for Spider-Man is so evident not just in the direction and style but in Raimi’s writing as well.

He understands more than most the tragedy of the superhero identity, putting everyone else’s sense of well being before one’s self and the constant exhaustion and difficulty to maintain that. It’s what makes Spider-Man 2, still to this day, one of the best superhero films of all time. It is a film that shows this character who is constantly suffering by his own hand despite the fact that he has these amazing powers. It’s the tragedy of the character, not unlike those in the Universal Monster films as previously mentioned, that Raimi understands better than others. Darkman himself, even with the abilities and tools gained throughout the movie, still is limited by the things he creates and the emotions he can’t control. As a result, he becomes a ruthless killer, and that in a way robs him of his humanity, one that he can never get back even if he did have more control of himself.

It’s an interesting dichotomy that isn’t seen in the modern superhero film, which don’t get me wrong the output recently (this year especially) has been great, but this approach is left unseen and I’m not sure we’re going to see it again. Additionally, the sense that Darkman in all aspects is the creation of Sam Raimi is also something that I don’t think we’ll find in the modern era of superheroes. The physical details, the writing, the design of the costume and makeup, the look of the city, the use of close-ups with lighting cues, musical cues, visual cues, and the cinematography, are all components that are defined by Raimi’s decisions. This is his movie. It borrows from other elements of the era, and would undoubtedly be fused into his work on Spider-Man, but Darkman is all his. The modern equivalent would probably James Gunn’s work with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and that is certainly helped by the fact that those characters had never been on film before and even then were rather obscure to begin with. But the identity of the director will from now on always take a backseat to the property and the studio as well, which makes Darkman a cult-favorite rarity in this subgenre.

*Raimi had wanted Bruce Campbell for the role of Peyton but the studio felt he wasn’t a bankable movie star. They were kinda proven right when Army of Darkness was released two years later and was the last time Campbell would be first-billed in any big studio movie ever again. Would he have made a great Darkman? Hard to say, it would have been a fascinating comparison with his Ash Williams character.