Before he made Spider-Man, Sam Raimi came up with his own original superhero for his first Hollywood studio film. Watching Darkman now, it’s amazing how different it looks from the contemporary Marvel and DC cinematic universes (or how different those universes now look from Spider-Man), partly because this was intended to be a tribute to the Universal horror cycle as much as early superhero comics. At the heart of it is Dr. Peyton Westlake, a scientist played by Liam Neeson, who has spent several years working on a method for mapping and “printing” prosthetic skin. As the film opens, Westlake has managed to craft skin that can survive and thrive indefinitely in the dark, but can only bear one hundred minutes of exposure to daylight before it starts to corrode and melt.
Just as this opening tableau juxtaposes futuristic CGI technology with a slimy visceral strip of skin dissolving in a petri dish, so the film as a whole anticipates Spider-Man in the dexterity with which it fuses digital and prosthetic effects, although in this case there’s more of a campy incongruity between the two. There’s also a stronger sense of a direct comic book adaptation – perhaps to compensate for the fact that there was no original comic book to begin with – as Raimi proves himself wonderfully dexterous at capturing complex movements and trajectories in a single shot, to the point where you can almost see expressive lines and visual echoes emanating out from around the characters. At the same time, however, Darkman strikes a brilliant balance between building a seamless, textural sense of atmosphere and incorporating the prosthetic anarchy of Universal horror films and the scribbly improvisation style of early comics, as if to converge the genesis of superheroes with the emergence of a universally accepted standard of realism in early sound cinema.
Style aside, Darkman also feature a wonderfully ingenious narrative which, as Westlake’s name would suggest, is in large part an allegory about Los Angeles. Key to that ingenuity is the main villain, Louis Strack Jr., played by Colin Friels, who resides in an exclusive suite at the top of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, and who we first meet expounding upon his vision for an even sleeker and more futuristic version of LA, as the LED sign attached to the wall of his bedroom flashes stock prices and market trends. At the heart of his plan is the redevelopment of the land along the Los Angeles River – “eight acres of riverfront reclaimed from decay” – which Strack envisages razing and then turning into a postmodern luxury district along the lines of Bunker Hill, which had itself been utterly transformed in the preceding decade. In fact, the scale model for this new development – nicknamed “City of the Future” – looks uncannily like this new Bunker Hill, or a whole city of Bonaventures, as if the iconic hotel had spawned its own strange sci-fi progeny, and these structures were the real nemesis of the film. To that end, Raimi pointedly locates most of the rest of Darkman in more traditional neighborhoods, or amidst decaying industrial infrastructure, as if the very space and possibility of the film – its demotic and democratic address – were under threat of being decimated by this imminent wave of gentrification.
The connection between these two worlds – Westlake and Bunker Hill – is Peyton’s partner, Julie Hastings, played by Frances McDormand, a district attorney who uncovers some incriminating documents relating to the development of this new urban precinct. After Strack’s men destroy Peyton’s laboratory in an effort to recover these documents, Peyton suffers third degree burns over most of his face, and is assumed to be dead by Julie, Strack and all his previous friends and colleagues. Taking advantage of that assumption, Peyton goes underground and uses his research into synthetic skin to craft a series of facial masks that he then uses to infiltrate his way into this criminal network in order to effect some kind of revenge. The catch, however, is that these skin masks can only survive for one hundred minutes before they start to dissolve under the effects of sunlight. Given that many of the criminal encounters happen during daylight hours – and given the extent to which Los Angeles is flooded with sunlight – that results in a number of quite suspenseful scenes in which Peyton has to race against the clock before getting back to his laboratory and putting on a fresh face.
It’s only a matter of time, then, before Peyton meets up with Julie to reveal to her that he is still alive, while wearing a prosthetic replica of his own original face. Since most of their meetings also occur during daylight hours, that suffuses Darkman with a quite plangent and melancholy romantic register – perfectly suited to a superhero film – in which Peyton can never spend more than one hundred minutes with Julie, and Julie can never quite understand why their time together has become so compressed and contracted. At the same time, this prosthetic version of Peyton’s face, and Neeson’s face, is the eeriest spectacle in the film – a gentrified structure that is always decaying inside (or a gentrified structure that merely conceals, rather than prevents, decay), it’s just different enough from Peyton’s usual appearance to be genuinely uncanny, even or especially because it’s difficult to quite pinpoint how it is different. For all the visceral images of corroding and decaying skin, the real prosthetic achievement of the film are all the small changes that are made to Peyton’s face here in order to make it look even more like – but also even less like – his original appearance. It doesn’t hurt, too, that Neeson delivers his lines with a marginally different modulation during these scenes, as if speaking with someone else’s vocal chords and facial muscles, nor that every stretch of skin in the film has started to take on a slightly queasy, prosthetic quality by the time that these romantic interludes hit their heights.
As with any powerful superhero, too, Peyton’s personality is also somewhat transformed by his role as Darkman, with his actions becoming increasingly amoral and brutal as the film proceeds. At moments, it almost feels as if Darkman is an alternative bidder on the riverfront property, resulting in a recurring analogy between Peyton’s production of short-term skin cells and the short-term, superficial refurbishments of this city-wide drive towards urban “renewal.” At other moments, however, Darkman appears more like a deranged, disturbed homeless man – sheltering in a cardboard box on a torrential night, gathering equipment for a makeshift home in an abandoned factory, wheeling his few remaining possessions around in a shopping trolly – and exactly the kind of citizen who is destined to be displaced and erased by this transformation of Los Angeles into the “City of the Future.” Embodying both the gentrifiers of the city at their most monstrous and the victims of gentrification at their most abject, Darkman taps into the unconscious of Los Angeles in ways that few superheroes have managed to do, synthetically disembodied and viscerally immediate at the same time.
In other words, part of the originality of Darkman lies in the way in which Raimi crafts a superhero commensurate with the lateral urban sprawl of this most horizontal of American cities. Watching the film, I was reminded of how instinctively I associate superheroes with skyscrapers and vast vertical trajectories – in a word, with New York – since Raimi’s long, textural, anarrative sequences finally feel like a way of distending and expanding the action out into a flatter and more lateral sense of space and place. If I have any real criticism of the film, then, it’s that Darkman simply needs more time – or a whole franchise – to really sink us into this atmosphere, since one hundred minutes seems too short for a film about a superhero who can himself only appear for one hundred minutes at a time. As it stands, there’s only really one moment at which Raimi is able to crystallise all the ingenuity of the film into a sustained set piece – a terrific sequence set in and around Los Angeles’ Chinatown in which Darkman’s skin mask of a critical criminal contact starts to show signs of eroding in the midst of a deal, and as the actual contact is approaching by car, leading to a picaresque chase across the pedestrian precinct that couldn’t be more different from the vertiginous swoops and plummets of more conventional superhero iconography.
Set pieces aren’t everything though, especially here, since expanding the action laterally also leaves much more room than there would regularly be in a superhero film for a romantic apprehension of the superhero – all the breathless wonder that lies in subliminally recognising the superhero in the guise of a regular person. At the same time, however, the crossover with the Universal horror cycle complicates that tendency, since these films often asked audience to do just the opposite – to try and discern some kind of subjectivity beneath an apparently inhuman or non-human façade. Yet both those tendencies – seeing a human beneath a superhuman façade, and discerning something superhuman in a regular human – converge beautifully in the odd romantic interludes between Darkman and Julie, as Julie inchoately grasps the fact that the face she is looking at and communing with (and, in some instances, actually kissing) is somehow both more and less human than the face she originally knew.
It’s that sideways expansion, the sense that it’s as important to look at the superhero as it is to look up at him, that makes Darkman feel like such a crucial formative moment for Spider-Man, along with the superhero revival that it spawned in turn. In fact, for all that Spider-Man may be set in New York, I don’t think that Raimi could have managed to build such a breathless rapport between Peter Parker and MJ without testing his superhero powers on Los Angeles first, and coming up with the original creation of Darkman. After all, when I think back to Spider-Man, all of the most powerful and expansive moments brim with this sense of lateral, sprawling, horizontal space, with even Spider-Man’s movements from building to building seeming to eclipse his movements between buildings and street level, or from one rooftop to the next. In that sense, the extraordinary climactic sequence of Darkman plays as something of a dress rehearsal for Spider-Man’s movements, as we see our superhero hanging for dear life off a helicopter as it careens around Bunker Hill, weaving through the Wells Fargo precinct and then smashing him in and out of the side of the Bonaventure Hotel before heading out over the highway and the wider LA sprawl.
Obviously, this is quite a vertiginous sequence, but the effect isn’t exactly of vertical movement – Darkman doesn’t travel up or down very far, and the helicopter maintains a steady height – so much as a replication of the LA sprawl in the air above the city. Although Bunker Hill and the highway might seem very different at ground level, from the air they turn out to have much the same density, while even the Bonaventure, infamous for its oblique entrances and exits, proves to be just as porous as the rest of the city from the air, with Darkman crashing in for a glimpse at an upmarket suite before finding himself dangling above the traffic once again. By the time the helicopter crashes onto the plaza at South Flower Street, Darkman has tapped into the horizontal momentum of the city much as a regular superhero taps into the vertical momentum of the city, which is perhaps why his nemesis isn’t a single arch-enemy – someone at the top of the pyramid – but merely one node in a globalised network of property developers who extend the sprawling ramifications of LA far beyond the official city limits. It’s a brilliant piece of casting, then, that sees Friels in the role of this nemesis, with his Australian accent marking him as a purveyor of the Pacific capital that had been so critical in fortifying and gentrifying the Los Angeles core by the end of the 1980s.
Of course, that also means that destroying this particular nemesis isn’t enough – the network remains – which is perhaps why Darkman seems to demand a sequel as urgently as Spider-Man demanded Spider-Man 2 (even if Spider-Man is, in some sense, the true sequel to Darkman as well). On the romantic front, it also seems a shame that Julie has discovered Darkman’s identity so soon, even if that central spectacle of Peyton playing Peyton – and Neeson playing Neeson – means that her differentiation of her lover from his superhero self is never quite as clear cut as MJ’s differentiation of Peter Parker from Spider-Man. Yet all that Darkman might seem to demand a sequel, then, Raimi also hedges his bets to come up with an ending that is even more evocative than that of Spider-Man, as Peyton commits to his dual vocations as superhero and scientist – to continue fighting crime and to continue developing and wearing prosthetic skin that can withstand sunlight for longer periods of time. Totally subsuming himself back into the city fabric, anyone could finally be Darkman, creating a flash of uncanny recognition for Julie whenever someone catches her eye for too long on the street, as Darkman becomes little more than the mobile, fluid, provisional gaze required to know Los Angeles from the inside – an apt for such a resonant and unusual superhero.