Darkman (1990) or Superheroes and The Mother of Invention

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In the next four years, theaters will see no fewer than thirty, 3-0, superhero movies come and go. Included among those are the second cinematic incarnation of the Fantastic Four in a decade, a new Batman just four years after the last and the third Spider-Man since the 2002 original.

That was exhausting and disheartening just to type.

Tobey Maguire must be in his sixties by now. At least.
Tobey Maguire must be in his sixties by now. At least.

The genre, as you can see, has become something of a meat grinder. Crank out the movies as fast as possible and if the fans don’t like this particular flavor of adaptation, just throw it back into the grinder and hope they like the next one.

It’s not hard to find any number of critics and bloggers deriding The Amazing Spider-Man for rebooting just five years after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3.  The memory of the original series was still fresh and now Sony wanted audiences to welcome a different take with open arms. Considering the first two Raimi entries were very well-received and, along with Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000, started the modern superhero craze, it wasn’t exactly like the filmmakers were following a bad act.  And now some of those same critics are putting in their two cents (or four cents, collectively) in on a new Spider-Man appearing just TWO YEARS after The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Now we’re entering an era where if a popcorn comic book movie doesn’t set the box office on fire, they can reboot it two years later and see if that one does any better. Indie directors are being wooed from their low-budget roots to work on disgustingly expensive superhero epics. But even though they’re recruited for their unique voices, they’re being given stories that have already been told. Ad nauseum. Even in the same medium.  What’s the point if it’s a beautiful, unheard voice singing a song that’s been covered quite ably a dozen times before?

Raimi, pictured at left.
Raimi, pictured at left.

It’s Hollywood. It’s money. This is the unfortunate reality. Superhero movies are the safest money in the world right now. But the key part of that phrase is the last two words. Right now.

The “superhero bubble” will eventually burst. Thirty superhero movies in four years. That wouldn’t be so discouraging if most of the genre didn’t follow the same templates. Origin story. Overstuffed sequel with more villains and, a newer notion, more heroes. Team-up movie with a bunch of other heroes. Solo character movies that branch off of team-up movies.

Rinse, wash, get bit by a radioactive spider, repeat.

As comic books creep ever further into the mainstream, the general public is getting more knowledgeable about why Batman is Batman or where Superman came from. Because we’ve all seen it before. They’re old stories to us. We know, for the most part, how they go and if filmmakers veer too far away from established mythos, they’d get nitpicked to death by hordes of overly precious fans.

But what if there was a superhero movie about a hero we’ve never met before, with a story we’ve never heard before?

That’s been a rare occurrence since the very beginning of superhero cinema. But one particular instance stands out. One shines in the darkness (pun intended; I need help).

The movie is also pretty boss, just saying.
The movie is also pretty boss, just saying.

1989. Batman is the movie of the summer.  It was an event. It was a true, blue blockbuster. And it was the first superhero movie since arguably Superman 3 to make a case for why the genre could work on the silver screen.

But Hollywood missed the point.

Quick. Name a non-Batman superhero movie from the early 1990s. One based on a long-running comic book character. I’ll wait.

See, Hollywood paid attention to Batman‘s box office receipts and decided that what the public was really clamoring for wasn’t comic book movies, but comic strip movies.

Batman begat Dick TracyThe Rocketeer, The Shadow and The Phantom. Sure, The Shadow originated in novels and radio dramas and The Rocketeer is actually a 1980s throwback to those old-fashioned heroes, but they’re all cut from the same cloth.

Back when Hollywood thought Alec Baldwin was the next Harrison Ford.  Hollywood's always been a bit dumb, is what you should be taking from this.
Back when Hollywood thought Alec Baldwin was the next Harrison Ford. Hollywood’s always been a bit dumb, is what you should be taking from this.

In hindsight, each of those movies did less business than the last.  Most have earned cult followings, but they certainly aren’t getting reboots any time soon.

But among those high profile releases, there was another superhero movie. And it’s one the industry could stand to learn from today.

That story starts with a filmmaker well-known to superhero cinema, one that practically invented the modern flavor of the genre. That story starts with Sam Raimi. And a lot of blood.

Horror fans practically worship Raimi, and not without good reason.  In the late 1970s, he hauled some of his Michigan friends down to an abandoned cabin in the Tennessee woods and filmed what would become 1981’s The Evil Dead. It almost immediately earned a reputation for its expertly crafted scares and more-than-a-little-excessive gore. Raimi’s childhood friends and Evil producers, Rob Tapert and Bruce Campbell (who also became a horror legend for playing the lead in the series), were quickly courted by Hollywood. They were disappointed by Hollywood soon thereafter.

Campbell, seen here producing.
Campbell, seen here producing.

Raimi’s Crimewave hit theaters in 1985 and that’s probably the last time any of the players involved have thought about it. The crime-comedy was butchered by studio intervention. Critics hated it. Raimi, Campbell and Tapert still remember it as one of their worst experiences in the business. Most condemningly, it only made $5,000.

No. I didn’t forget a few zeroes.

Just as fast as their careers began, Raimi and company were already facing the bitter end. Begrudgingly, they all admitted there was only one movie they could make to resuscitate goodwill with the powers that be.

Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn blew away any expectations. The raw horror of the original was taken to the next level with the addition of a mix of Looney Tunes-quality slapstick and grim, unrelenting humor. Surprisingly it was almost universally praised by critics. Even though it was released without an MPAA rating (multiple attempts to score an R failed), the sequel was a respectable financial success.

It showed Raimi as a capable filmmaker, who, even with shoestring budgets, could tell a story with a style all his own.  This granted him respectable sway in choosing his next project.

Evil Dead 2 is the best cartoon you should never let your children see.
Evil Dead 2 is the best cartoon you should never let your children see.

And he wanted Batman.

No dice. The job went to Tim Burton.

But his idea for a dark comic book movie stuck with him.  There was another character he had his eye on.

The Shadow first thrilled readers in 1930 as a vigilante crusader. He was part villain, part anti-hero. Depending on the medium, he even had super powers, like the classic “ability to cloud men’s minds.”  He also played no small part in inspiring the creators of Batman.

So Raimi sought the rights to the film adaptation.

Still no dice. That movie would eventually come out in 1994, directed by Russell Mulcahy of Highlander fame. It wasn’t very well-received by audiences or critics and quickly scuttled plans for a franchise.

Raimi was again without a superhero. So he did what seems so alien to modern Hollywood: he created his own.

Darkman was born out of pieces of The Shadow, Batman and even Universal monsters like The Invisible Man. It wasn’t an easy writing process by any stretch; Raimi was left exasperated by endless studio-mandated rewrites.  But in the end, Raimi made his first true Hollywood picture.

And what a picture it is.

He hadn't even acquired his very particular set of skills yet.
He hadn’t even acquired his very particular set of skills yet.

Dr. Peyton Westlake, played by a startlingly young Liam Neeson, is on the brink of inventing the perfect artificial skin.  It can be molded into the shape of any body part just from reference photos. It replicates the appearance of natural skin almost identically. The only problem is that it only lasts 99 minutes in direct sunlight before it melts.

But his attorney girlfriend, Julie Hastings, played by an also startlingly young Frances McDormand, supports his pursuit despite his failures. Unfortunately for Westlake, however, she does not support his marriage proposal.

His bad day gets worse when mafia types storm his lab in search of some incriminating documents Julie left there.  They kill Westlake’s devoted lab assistant, fry his hands on electrical conduits, try to drown him in acid, smash his head through several panes of glass and finally blow him up.

Pictured: Ouch.
Pictured: Ouch.

Julie arrives just in time to see the lab explode and assumes her beloved is dead.

But if he was, we wouldn’t have much of a movie, would we?

Westlake is, against all odds, alive.  The only trouble is that his entire body is covered in disfiguring burns to the point where doctors can’t identify him, he can’t feel any physical sensation and now has uncontrollable rage.  We’ve all had those days.

So what does he do? He salvages what he can of his laboratory and uses his experimental skin to assume various identities to get his brutal revenge on the men that ruined his life.

Pictured: OUCH.
Pictured: OUCH.

This movie is a trip. That’s the best way to describe it.   It has the operatic sweep of the 1989 Batman, due in no small part to Danny Elfman’s brilliant score. It has genuinely hysterical moments, none of which are unintended. It’s a unique thrill to watch Liam Neeson angrily growl “Take the fucking elephant.”  And it’s even cripplingly sad at times. But above all, this is a thrill ride of a movie, superhero or otherwise. Raimi’s iconic visual style, from the fast zooms and askew angles to fish-eye lenses and whip-fast editing, is in full-force.  Watching Darkman helplessly hang from a helicopter as it thunders between skyscrapers is a potent reminder of how effective an action movie can be when it’s all stuntmen and practical effects.

You'll swear a stuntman must've gotten seriously injured during this sequence.
You’ll swear a stuntman must’ve gotten seriously injured during this sequence.

It’s a demented take on pulp superheroes, the kind that wouldn’t shy away from taking a mafia hitman and holding him down as a truck ran over his head, and it’s absolutely engaging to watch.  Rare is the superhero flick that truly makes you feel for its characters.

That truck part's true. Darkman does that.
That truck part’s true. Darkman does that.

So why am I talking about it other than to recommend you see it? (But seriously see it; I guarantee you can find it on DVD for under $5 at your local video store)

Because it provides a lesson that modern superhero movies and pretty much any reboot, remake and redux needs to learn.  And it’s not to use Liam Neeson more; he was in Batman Begins so Hollywood actually learned that lesson.

They did not take the lesson to get uncomfortable close-ups of him, though.
They did not take the lesson to get uncomfortable close-ups of him, though.

Raimi couldn’t adapt the heroes he wanted, so he created his own. Necessity, as goes the old saying, is the mother of invention.

Instead of adapting every possible superhero (but almost no superheroines; an embarrassing Hollywood mistake to discuss another day), create some new ones.   Tell some stories we haven’t seen before.  Filmmakers can pick and choose what sorts of powers and quirks they like from other heroes and spin them into something new, something exciting.

We need new ideas, like Dr. Mummy, P.I.
We need new ideas, like Dr. Mummy, P.I.

Instead of rebooting every movie property that might make a few bucks, take the essence of those movies, what makes them special, and create something fresh.  Obviously that’s easier said than done, but it’s this concept of recycling that’s produced some of the greatest movies of all time.

In the mid-70s, a mostly untested filmmaker wanted to adapt Buck Rogers for the big screen. He was denied the rights.

In 1977, George Lucas’s Star Wars was released and changed filmmaking forever.

In the early 80s, Steven Spielberg, even riding at his highest off the success of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was turned down to direct a James Bond movie.

Though some Bond influences are a bit more blatant than others.
Though some Bond influences are a bit more blatant than others.

In 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark hit theaters and established one of the greatest screen heroes of all time.

Today, that’s too much of a risk. A remake guarantees at least some measure of box office success. There’s built-in value, cynical as it sounds and cynical as it is.  It’s simply a smarter option for studios.

Now, more than ever, we need that spirit of invention. Now, more than ever, we need filmmakers who tell their own stories, influenced by those that came before, but not direct re-tellings of them. Now, more than ever, we need some fresh takes on quickly tiring genres, like superheroes. Now, more than ever, we need Liam Neeson dancing like a moron with a funnel on his head while asking a cat if he looks like a freak.

Now, more than ever, we need Darkman.

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