Sam Raimi really wanted to make a movie about The Shadow or Batman, but when the powers-that-be told him “absolutely not,” he invented his own superhero and made a movie about that guy instead. Darkman, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, draws elements from both of those characters and from early gothic horror movies like The Phantom of the Opera to create one of the most unique comic book movies ever made. Its bizarre marriage of operatic drama, slapstick comedy, and genuine pathos set the framework for Raimi’s later Spider-Man trilogy, which in turn provided Marvel a perfect blueprint for the tone and spirit of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, I’m making the argument that the MCU wouldn’t have existed without that lipless skeletal hero, the Darkman. And yes, it will sort of make sense by the end of this piece.
The first instinct of modern comic book movies was to try and repeat the success of 1989’s Batman, which is why we saw a weirdly dark Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie and the grotesque Oscar-nominated fever dream that is Dick Tracy the very next year. Darkman was also released in 1990, and while it definitely borrows things from Batman in terms of the character’s look and a score by Danny Elfman, everything else is infused with Raimi’s trademark chaotic energy. Raimi cannot resist injecting Stoogian slapstick even in what might be his darkest film, and we can see in the frenetic, silly qualities of Darkman the nascent pieces of what would ultimately make up Raimi’s ludicrously successful Spider-Man trilogy. It’s a grim movie, but Darkman himself is prone to moments of zany morbidity and downright wackiness that remind us not to take the whole thing too seriously. (See: the scene in which he gallops like a Looney Tunes character over oncoming traffic while dangling from a helicopter.) Comic books mean a specific thing to Raimi, and in the stylized frames of Darkman you can see him experimenting with pulp, over-the-top storytelling. 12 years later, Raimi made Spider-Man like the 60s comic he remembered, with operatic melodrama, intrinsic goofiness, and an appealing main character we actually care about. (Batman is many things, but he has yet to be an interesting protagonist in anything except maybe Batman Begins.) Those are the same core elements he started playing around with in Darkman, and in Spider-Man he steers into them like he’s spinning out on a patch of black ice.
There are identical sequences in Darkman and Spider-Man. The montages in which Peyton succumbs to his anger mimic the panel of a comic book in which several dialogue balloons and visual manifestations representing the hero’s internal struggle are present on the page, swirling around him in the ether. Raimi applies this same technique to represent the radioactive spider venom transforming Peter Parker’s DNA in Spider-Man. (Raimi is a fan of this surreal style of montage in general, as it appears in several of his films including The Evil Dead series and The Quick and the Dead.) Spider-Man is certainly a more cheerful person than Darkman, but they’re both likeable characters with relatable pathologies that derive an ironic enjoyment out of their circumstances. That quality is present in just about every single hero in the MCU, because it’s something that successfully connects audiences to a character more than any flashy costume or set of super powers ever could. We like our superheroes to have human vulnerabilities and a sense of humor. That’s why when fans talk about their favorite MCU heroes on social media, they refer to “Tony” and “Steve” and “Natasha” rather than Iron Man, Captain America, or Black Widow.
There were plenty of other comic book movies in between Darkman and Spider-Man, but the heavy gloom style of Tim Burton’s Batman didn’t last much longer. After the somewhat disastrous reception of Batman Returns, which received several complaints from parents about being too frightening and grotesque and subsequently lost Warner Bros. a lucrative tie-in deal with McDonald’s, the Batman franchise took a hard right turn into neon camp with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Joel Schumacher’s films deserve some credit in their own right for being fun parodies more in-line with the 1960s Batman TV series, but the disappointing reception of Batman and Robin put the future of comic book movies in jeopardy. Blade demonstrated that comic book movies could be successful again after the initial Batman series had run its course. X-Men showed that there was a big-enough audience for a major studio to put serious money into comic book adaptations. But Blade himself isn’t much of a character beyond being a super cool dude who kills vampires in a trenchcoat and sunglasses, and outside of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and the relationship between Professor X and Magneto, there are no actual characters in the X-Men movies. Seriously, tell me anything about James Marsden’s Cyclops beyond “he shoots lasers out of his eyes.” Spider-Man was the film that proved superhero movies could be record-breaking tentpole blockbusters. That movie made over $800 million in a period when a haul like that happened a few times a decade at best. Now it happens several times a year, and almost always involves a superhero. And when you watch Darkman, you can see Raimi creating the building blocks that would make Spider-Man such a refreshingly new kind of blockbuster.
After Spider-Man was released, some comic book films tried to do a weird marriage of Raimi’s comedic style with the old Batman formula, which resulted in supreme whiffs like Daredevil and Ghost Rider. These attempts at “serious” superhero movies applied a typical action movie trope in which all the fun is had by the supporting cast while the main character is forced to be stoic and grim all the time. The important thing that Raimi realized with his comic book films is that the hero needs to be the one who is having fun and genuinely excited to be there. Ben Affleck’s Daredevil is a mopey buzzkill, and I could not tell you a single character trait of Johnny Blaze’s beyond “Nicolas Cage wears a delightful hairpiece.”
Darkman’s Peyton Westlake isn’t having fun, per se, but he isn’t saddled with a comic sidekick or a snarky love interest. He delivers all of the film’s comedy, via a few one-liners and slapstick moments, and by being a joyously hammy Liam Neeson. He’s the most interesting character to watch, which is something every Batman film loses sight of. Batman takes a backseat to his supporting cast (particularly the villains), because he’s a humorless gargoyle who sucks all the fun out of the room. That’s not to say that Batman can’t be interesting (the trailer for the upcoming The Batman looks like it’s leaning into Batman being an unhinged street vigilante closer to Michael Douglas in Falling Down than the growling bore that was Christian Bale, and I cannot wait to see that interpretation), but it’s much easier to get your audience invested when the hero is actually the fun one to watch. Darkman is the equivalent of Heath Ledger’s Joker in that I literally do not care about anything happening in the film when he isn’t on screen, which thankfully doesn’t happen often because Raimi recognizes this fact. He later applies this thinking to the Spider-Man trilogy. The first two films make an engaging, compelling character out of Peter Parker. We actually care about his story and we care about what happens to him, and he’s also entertaining to watch (if for no other reason than the extremely goofy faces Tobey Maguire makes in any given scene while the universe continues to ruthlessly crap on him). The villains in those first two films are also charismatic, especially Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, but it’s an even balance. It’s not all tipped in one direction, like it is in The Dark Knight or Iron Man 2. (To be clear, I’m talking about the snoozefest that was Mickey Rourke in Iron Man 2. I would never say anything negative about Sam Rockwell.)
The Marvel movies applied Raimi’s thinking. Jon Favreau (who ironically played the comic relief character in Ben Affleck’s Daredevil) made Tony Stark both the hero and the comic relief in 2008’s Iron Man. He’s the character we can’t get enough of, thanks to both Favreau’s decisions as a filmmaker and a career-revitalizing performance by Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man set the tone for the entire MCU, and when it’s at its best, the MCU films feature fun, engaging heroes battling compelling villains. (There are exceptions to this, such as Thor: The Dark World, in which an extremely sourpussed Thor fights Goth Rumpelstiltskin.)
The humanity and goofy energy of Raimi’s comic book heroes is one of the most important stepping stones on the way to the modern superhero blockbuster. It’s ok for the heroes to not be serious all the time, because what they’re doing is kind of ridiculous and both the characters and the filmmakers have to be a little self-aware about it. Raimi crafted the bones of that idea with Darkman and then perfected it with Spider-Man, and Favreau wisely decided to follow his example with Iron Man rather than dip back into the Batman formula that so many other superhero movies had tried to emulate. (It took three dismal movies and a frantic course-correct for the DCEU to realize that maybe only Batman needs to be as dark and gloomy as Batman.) Ironically, Darkman deserves some of the credit for steering superhero movies away from dour overseriousness, which is no small praise for a movie in which Liam Neeson’s scorched revenant shoves Ted Raimi’s head into traffic.
Tom Reimann is an Associate Editor at Collider and you cannot prove he isn’t merely just another face of the Darkman. Follow him on Twitter @startthemachine.