The warning signs were there. There are certain little signs that can be used to tell if a superhero movie, or at least a film on a similar theme, is going to be bad. Mixed reviews from the audience. Status as an underground or cult hit. A director who had previously only directed horror films. A hero name that sounds like the uninspired and grim superhero names of the Dark Age of Comics. Being released in the 1990s. There were indications.
But the director in question was Sam Raimi. Sure, he had only done a few schlocky horror movies by that point, but he would follow it up with the still schlocky but hilarious Army of Darkness, and more importantly he would go on to direct the Spider-Man trilogy, which consists of two very good superhero films. And the film stars Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand, both of whom are talented actors. It seemed like Darkman would be worth the risk.
I probably should have heeded the warning signs, but as a fan of the superhero genre, I had to at least find out for myself. Unfortunately, while there’s a decent premise at the heart of Darkman, that’s about all the quality there is.
As the film starts, Peyton Westlake (Neeson) is a scientist working on a synthetic skin replacement. To his continual dismay, he can’t get the substance to stabilize; it lasts indefinitely in the dark, but when exposed to sunlight it breaks down after 99 minutes. It is theoretically possible for the foreshadowing to be less subtle, but not by much; perhaps if a Spider-Man movie had a chorus line of arachnids come down from the ceiling and sing and dance about giving Peter Parker powers. Sure enough, Westlake soon needs his synthetic masks, as his girlfriend Julie (McDormand) attracts the attention of brutal gangster Robert Durant (Larry Drake), whose men destroy Peyton’s lab searching for an incriminating document. In the aftermath, Peyton has been scarred by fire and acid.
The acting, taken by itself, isn’t bad. Neeson and McDormand aren’t up to their later Oscar nomination-worthy performances yet, but they definitely elevate the quality of the dialogue they’re given. Larry Drake is reasonably threatening as the psychotic Durant, and Colin Friels is suitably slimy as Julie’s boss and alternate love-interest. Jessie Lawrence Ferguson is fun as a one-scene wonder in the beginning; it’s cheesy, but his delivery is worth some laughs. And that’s what you’ll likely be doing while watching this film, as the dialogue is corny at best, and it’s made worse by the need for Darkman to periodically growl in a rage. These rage episodes are accompanied by visual effects that would not have held up in the 1970s, let alone 1990 when this film came out… and certainly don’t hold up today.
Nevertheless, there’s a certain enjoyability to the film. It has an over-the-top sensibility that is very reminiscent of Robocop, though without the level of polish of the latter film. But that lack of polish, the poor special effects and dialogue weigh the film down considerably. This is a film where the enjoyment comes as much from laughing at it as from anything the director actually wanted to engage the audience with.