The Phantom Menace
There’s been a lot of excited debate in the last few weeks about whether X-Men is the best comic-book movie ever made. I haven’t decided yet — the first Batman and Superman movies are awfully good, too. But I have no doubt that the best comic-book movie ever made that is not actually based on a comic book is Sam Raimi’s Darkman.
Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson: The Phantom Menace, Schindler’s List) — a superhero secret-identity name if ever there was one — is a scientist developing an artificial skin. He has a terrific girlfriend, Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand: Blood Simple), an attorney who’s smart, beautiful, witty, the whole package. But Julie’s job for real-estate developer Louis Strack (Colin Friels: Dark City) has led her to uncover a memorandum detailing bribes to city zoning board officials regarding a huge new development (think Robocop‘s New Detroit) Strack is building. When one of Strack’s competitors, sadistic criminal mastermind Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake: Bean), comes to Peyton’s laboratory looking for the incriminating memo, he doesn’t leave before he inflicts some serious damage on Peyton and the laboratory.
Julie thinks Peyton is dead — he’s actually a John Doe in a city hospital, his face and body horribly burned, the unwitting subject of some rather unethical experimentation by doctors who think he’s a homeless bum — and presumably therefore without anyone to object on his behalf. In a “radical procedure” to lessen the tremendous pain of his burns, doctors have severed the pain receptors in Peyton’s brain — side effects include “uncontrolled rage” and “augmented strength.” Sounds like the recipe for creating the perfect superhero… and a tormented one at that, which is the best kind.
Raimi (A Simple Plan), who wrote the film’s story and also directs, treads on comic-book clichés with the ease and care of someone who understands and respects the kinds of tales comics have always told — of reviled outsiders and outcasts, mutants and freaks and principled psychopaths — and the audience that they appeal to — misunderstood and miserable adolescents who find empowerment fantasies in those outcasts and the authority and honor they earn for themselves. And like Tim Burton’s Batman (and unlike Richard Donner’s Superman and Bryan Singer’s X-Men), Darkman is a comic book come to life — it borrows the visual style of its graphical cousin: the angles, the lighting, even the attempt to depict inner turmoil, as in the funhouse journey through Peyton’s brain that shows us his rage and emotional upheaval.
Darkman is only a step away from parodying comic books — the near perfection of Peyton’s life before Durant blows up him and his lab; the almost-too-convoluted plot involving Strack and his real-estate deal — but it never crosses that line, because Raimi knows the rules of this game. The protagonist must lose much in his transformation from ordinary man to superhero, and the superhero is the defender of the good people of his city — the corruption of public officials must not go unpunished — as much as he is the avenger of his own violent creation.
Neeson gets as much credit as Raimi for keeping Darkman genuine. In hiding, watching the world and his Julie with sad eyes peering out from mummylike bandages, Peyton surveys his ruined lab, his ruined body, his ruined life. Torn between his hunger for revenge against Durant and his desire to reclaim a life with Julie, Peyton — who calms those uncontrollable rages by reminding himself, “I am a scientist” — is, like Bruce Wayne, a tragic figure, and Neeson finds this particular kind of comic-book pathos in him by not ever dismissing him as “merely” a comic-book character. The pain and panic in Peyton’s voice as he begins to realize the full extent of his loss is enough to send chills through you.
Darkman spawned two sequels — neither of which was directed by Raimi or starred Neeson, and neither of which is worth seeing — but what it really wanted was a television series, one in which, week after week, Peyton, aka Darkman, ostensibly fights crime but actually fights with himself. This is the kind of dark, psychotic hero who could have kept us blackly entertained for years.