Illustration: Adeline Pericart
Bam! Pow! Thwack! From masked avengers to caped crusaders, what would we do without spandex-wearing superheroes fighting crime and righting wrongs? While we mere mortals go about our daily business and sleep soundly in our beds at night, an army of superheroes are working tirelessly around the globe – but mostly in America – fighting to bring peace, justice and outside-underpants to the world.
And so, in honour of their efforts, our own band of Film Ireland superheroes assemble to dish out their own critical form of justice and wreak havok on those villians who long for a world without heroes.
Eat dust evil! Superheroes are here to stay.
‘… No contemporary superhero effort comes close to maintaining its momentum …’
Darragh John McCabe
Every generation gets the superhero franchise it deserves. Christian Bale is either a giant pair of flaring nostrils or somebody’s nightmare of a merchant banker, so he fits our troubled epoch like a slim fit Brooks Brothers. And Michael Keaton’s Batman was a real Generation X-er; a dropout and a recluse, a mumbler, an awkward sort of hedonist, balding. When Sam Raimi’s Darkman came out in 1990, a year after the first of the Tim Burton Batmans, reviewers were quick to spot the debt: “Darkman wants to be Batman” is how Richard Corliss opened his review, and Roger Ebert remarked with uncharacteristic gravitas that “this Darkman character is just not as interesting as Batman.”
What did Tim Burton’s iteration of the Dark Knight offer viewers that Darkman didn’t? The latter certainly had the superhero setup to beat them all; Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a scientist on the cusp of inventing an artificial form of skin for burn victims. Then, after his attorney girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand) finds a memo that might incriminate slimy property developer Louis Strack (Colin Friels), Westlake is brutally maimed by X’s mob cronies. Demented and horribly disfigured, Westlake throws himself into his experiments, literally trying to save his own skin while being hounded by villians and trying to prevent Strack from committing vague and capitalistic crimes. Thanks to his fake skin know-how he can make perishable but verisimilitudinous masks and disguise himself as his enemies in order to get revenge / save the day. So the good doctor’s particular genius causes his collapse, comprises his superpower and could lead to his redemption; this may be the golden ratio for superhero plots in the way it puts origin story and revenge impulse in such ringing harmony. And all without a comic books pedigree – Raimi based the whole thing off a short story he wrote and just went for it, folks.
The film was a hit, but there are reasons why it didn’t do a Batman and one-inch punch the culture – and why its two sequels went off to oblivion via VHS. Darkman is an old-fashioned film about old-style American Savings and Loan community justice, less in debt to Batman, in fact, than Will Eisner’s The Spirit. The Spirit, a comic book phenomenon during the 1940s, was about a hero who returned from the dead to become anonymous and fight the sort of crime that metastasizes in the free market. Perhaps Raimi saw, in the massive discrepancy between have and have-not in the recession-free 1980s, that the country needed a saviour with the community-minded vim of the post-Depression, pre-New Deal Spirit. If things hadn’t gotten any better, Darkman might’ve stuck. I can imagine an alternative history where the decline of the American city didn’t start to stall in the late ’80s, where Hustler lost against Falwell, Pat Robertson beat Bush for the Republican nomination in 1988 and then won the presidency, Bin Laden forgot to form Al-Qaeda, and the world (the North American world) reverted to an earlier and less sophisticated form of existence, devolving into a space of simple federacy and frontier. But lucky for society, bad for art, things got better. Giuliani cleaned up Gotham, and the big city, a source of such horrified fascination for the cinema of the late ’80s and early ’90s, has forfeited its poetry to other needs – social cohesion, globalisation, the spread of capital. These days, we need to keep the international footfall high – vigilantism is difficult to imagine, because the population tends to find itself conscripted into the PR campaign. Bruce Wayne, the vigilante’s vigilante, is a billionaire, so he can do what he likes, plus he’s a playboy in the off-hours. If there’s no crime of a classically black-and-white sort to fight, all Darkman can do is pace around his grotty lair. He couldn’t deal with extraordinary rendition or the NSA, whereas the Dark Knight would have a complex and not necessarily adversive relationship with both.
But even the most cursory google will show how Darkman has earned its own eager and sweaty cult. It’s a thrilling, well-made film, after all; sort of like a comic book that reads itself to you, 24 little cells every second. No contemporary superhero effort comes close to maintaining its momentum – I rewatched The Avengers to compare, and that first hour is like Béla Tarr compared to the twenty minute decline and fall of Peyton Westlake. The action scenes are all classic comics left-to-right jobs, every punch thrown to emphasise the grotesquerie of a 2D life lived in non-stop motion. And there’s a little Tod Browning in the way faces are shot from way below, or high above, during slower-paced scenes. Raimi’s abiding fascination, after all, is with that other great genre launched out of 1930s America, the pulp horror. Most Lon Chaney pictures had Darkman’s Beauty and the Beast / Phantom of the Opera narrative. The visuals are great, too, very Evil Dead, and sort of grisly, psychedelic Harryhausen – another throwback to an earlier cinema. But every single player is miscast and not one of the characters has the gothic complexity of Keaton’s Batman, Nicholson’s Joker – perhaps because a real comic book provides a different kind of depth. By means of repetition, a myth is created, and there’s no need for individual events to make a dent in a character’s past or future. The Spirit and Little Orphan Annie both were mythic cycles with an option for eternal recurrence. By the end of Darkman, our hero has totally disconnected himself from society. If he’s to mean anything, he needs to come back, again and again, and it needs to be mobsters he’s after. It’s eternity or nothing – as our hero himself puts it, “I am everywhere and nowhere, everyone and no one. Call me Darkman.”
Stay tuned. Next time on ‘We Love… Superheroes’ – Richard Drumm on Catwoman