Sam Raimi is going to play in the Marvel sandbox again with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. This will be a good arena for him, since he did so well with Spider-Man (yes, all three). However, his very first superhero movie came out Aug. 24, 1990 and it’s still be his best. Darkman proved Raimi was perfect for the Spider-Man job, and should still be celebrated on its 30th anniversary.
Will Sam Raimi’s bring the raw emotion of ‘Darkman’ to ‘Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness?’
Every superhero has a tragedy. Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, they all lost someone. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) was a scientist developing synthetic skin for burn victims. Gangsters led by Robert Durant (Larry Drake) blew up his lab to recover an incriminating file for their boss. Westlake survived though, and used his synthetic skin to impersonate the mobsters and infiltrate them.
‘Darkman’ is pure raw emotion. Westlake has nowhere to go, so sets up his new lab in an condemned factory. He calls it “home,” sullenly. Surely he could re-enter society as a burn victim and find a home. They probably rented out his apartment when he was presumed dead, but this is melodrama. He takes the burnt out hovel and makes do. Westlake cries more for his hands than his face.
The dissolve from his girlfriend, Julie (Frances McDormand) witnessing the explosion to her as the lone grieving widow cuts right to the chase. Neither of them had any friends? Friends and the rational cycle of grief would be irrelevant to the heightened emotion. Spider-Man dealt a little more realistically with Peter Parker’s grief over Uncle Ben, but perhaps there’s a middle ground for raw emotion in Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness.
With great superpowers comes great responsibility
When police fished Westlake’s body from the river, doctors considered him a John Doe so performed experimental surgery on him. They didn’t bother to give him skin grafts, so when he’s not wearing other people’s faces, Darkman just has exposed tissue. Neeson actually did Freddy Krueger makeup, essentially. Beneath the nose it’s basically a skeleton jaw with teeth but he still talks articulatetly.
Doctors also severed his nerves so he wouldn’t feel pain, so Darkman can just go rushing into action. There are side effects though. With no more pain sensors, all his other emotions are extra sensitive. He’s especially sensitive to being called a freak, but it doesn’t take a human to be mean to him. Westlake freaks out to the cats in his de facto lab too.
Now, none of us are going to have it that hard, at least because the nerve surgery doesn’t exist. But we relate to our demons and insecurities. Marvel and DC superheroes are all characters who cope with their hardship in extreme ways. Some have superhuman gifts like Spider-Man, Superman, Captain America or Doctor Strange. Some make their own like Batman. Darkman turns his disadvantages into advantages, and uses his very particular set of skills.
Before ‘Taken,’ Liam Neeson he had a different set of skills
So, here’s the kryptonite to Darkman’s impersonation power. Westlake could never get the skin to last longer than 99 minutes in the light. And even though it lasts longer in the dark, it seems most of his missions have to take place during the day. So 99 minutes gives him a brilliant ticking clock, which usually runs out so we get to see the faces bubbling and melting.
Until it does though, Darkman has fun with his powers. Of course, Darkman has to run into the person he’s impersonating, so they do split screen effects. Then they mix up like a game of human Three Card Monte. Then he messes with thugs in their own face, and creates nesting dolls of faces.
Its so clever, you don’t stop to question the logic. Westlake’s technology makes skin, not hair, but we don’t even think about that because it’s so fun. Neeson is 6’4” but we never worry about the height differential either. He does go to the trouble of learning to impersonate their voices.
It’s even more poignant when he visits Julie in his Peyton Westlake mask. 99 minutes isn’t enough time to have a relationship with her, and of course his extreme emotions ultimately get the better of him. It’s a remarkable concept that Julie immediately accepts his real face. She could make it work. Yeah, she ran when he approached her at night covered in bandages but once she knew it was him she rolled with it.
There’s always room for Sam Raimi in ‘Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness’
Raimi always does the extreme zoom into the face, the fast tracking camera, extreme closeup of eyes and extreme angles. He fit them into his Spider-Man trilogy and will likely have them in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Doctor Strange will likely be largely CGI, which wasn’t available for Darkman. The action he achieved in 1990 was Evil Dead goes Hollywood.
Some stuntman did the helicopter stunts wearing bandages and at least light makeup for wide shots. In closeup, it looks like Neeson is in front of a projection screen, not blue screen. McDormand argued against making Julie the damsel in distress for finale. The Spider-Man movies had the same problem with Mary Jane so perhaps that is one area Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness can rectify.
‘Darkman’ could have continued
Darkman wasn’t a big enough hit for a big Hollywood sequel, and it’s hard to imagine Neeson returning for that makeup, although the final shot teases Bruce Campbell could have taken over as the new face of Darkman.
They did make two sequels for the straight to video market. Arnold Vosloo played Westlake and they totally missed the opportunity to explain it. All he had to say was, “After that, I vowed never to wear my original face again.” But no, they just played it as if Vosloo was still playing Westlake. They could have recast Darkman with every sequel and said that was the new face he’s using.
It’s too bad they couldn’t find a way to continue Darkman. He’s a wonderful, original character with a fun power, and lends himself to extreme gothic melodrama. The science of his fake skin is almost more interesting than the horror or action of being an outcast vigilante. You want Peyton to make that skin work longer than 99 minutes, just like the telepod science in The Fly. You wanted Brundle to make the telepods work even though he was turning into an insect.
X2 asked Mystique why she doesn’t just look human all the time. She says because she shouldn’t have to. Darkman never quite got there but it would be a valid question for him too. Darkman can only do it for 99 minutes but he still shouldn’t have to. His face bears the scars of his attack. Julie would have accepted him but he wasn’t ready to deal with himself.
Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness will be Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)’s second devoted movie but his fifth appearance. He may be used to his powers at this point but there’s plenty of room for Raimi to have some fun with him. Also, watch Darkman!