Many people know Sam Raimi as the man who directed the original Spider-Man movies.
Few people know he’d made a superhero film years before that.
“Darkman,” released in 1990 and made after Raimi directed “Evil Dead” and “Evil Dead 2,” stars Liam Neeson as Peyton Westlake, a scientist trying to create a synthetic skin for burn victims.
Gangsters break into Westlake's lab to find some documents belonging to his girlfriend, an attorney trying to expose their operations.
They burn Westlake with acid, set his lab on fire and leave him to die as the building explodes.
Somehow, Westlake survives with massive burns and decides to get justice against his would-be killers.
As superhero plots go, this is fairly conventional. What’s fascinating is how Raimi approaches this story.
No one had really developed the standard way to make superhero films in the 1980’s and ‘90’s.
Richard Donner’s “Superman” had proved you could make a theatrical superhero film, but no one wanted to copy that film’s style.
Instead, everyone experimented, trying to create their own take on the genre. Tim Burton went for bizarre detective mystery in “Batman,” Alex Proyas went for horror meets martial arts in “The Crow.”
Raimi used his love of Universal Monsters and B-movies to make “Darkman” into a superhero origin meets cheesy horror film.
There are dozens of odd or melodramatic camera angles, especially in a scene where Westlake gets angry at a carnival worker. Most of this cinematography feels corny until you realize it’s deliberate.
By making “Darkman” a mashup of superhero and horror tropes, Raimi gives superheroes a new meaning.
You see “Darkman” do dozens of things a typical superhero does (build a secret base, spy on people, fight villains), but the tone makes them seem like a monster’s actions.
Westlake has unusual abilities and a costume, but it's a sinister costume and he’s always covered in bandages.
As Washington Post critic Joe Brown and others have noted, he looks like a mishmash of the Phantom of the Opera, the Mummy, the Invisible Man and several other Universal villains.
Westlake's secret hideout could just as easily be a mad scientist’s lair as a superhero’s base.
Certain scenes start like an action film and then become more like a slasher film, with a masked killer jumping from the shadows.
“Darkman” is definitely weird, but it works where many superhero movies have failed precisely because it embraces that weirdness.
Superhero stories are always a little absurd.
Some movies try to make superheroes seem really rational and fail because they’re trying to pin down that absurdity.
Other movies assume superhero stories are just absurd stories with no depth and come across as shallow.
“Darkman” doesn’t do either.
Instead, “Darkman” pairs superheroes with another absurd genre and tells a good story in which those two genres feed off each other.
This mix of horror and superhero tropes lets “Darkman” go places no other superhero movie can.
There are plenty of superheroes with dark sides (the Punisher, Batman, Wolverine).
However, we know those characters will never fully go to one side or the other. They're always dancing back and forth across the line that separates good and evil.
In this movie, the hero who blurs the line so much he really could go either way.
After all, Darkman could just as easily be a villain’s name as a hero’s name.
"Who is Darkman?" the movie's poster asked.