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'Darkman' was Sam Raimi's first shot at the 'superhero' genre

With the release of the new Dr. Strange movie, a lot of people are correctly revisiting earlier work from the movie’s director, Sam Raimi. Like a lot of people who were once teenage boys, I’ve adored Raimi for decades, and while that teenage version of me was obsessed with his Evil Dead movies, my very first encounter with the director was when I was about 13 and Darkman came out on home video.

Raimi basically kicked off our superhero-crazy world with his 2002 rendition of Spider-Man, but his first shot at the genre was with this character, Darkman, who he made up himself because he couldn’t get the rights to other mysterious heroes like Batman and The Shadow. And you can see elements of both of those characters here, along with Raimi’s loving homages to 1930s Universal horror movies and the hallmarks of his own style, like the utterly berserk camerawork and startling bursts of dark slapstick humor.

Now, Darkman isn’t exactly an obscure movie, but I do think a lot of people have either forgotten or never realized how truly delightful it is. It stars Liam Neeson as a scientist who’s working on creating synthetic human skin when he’s attacked and massively disfigured by criminals. Foreshadowing Neeson’s later career work, this character then becomes hellbent on revenge and infiltrates the crime ring by pretending to be the criminals themselves, using fake skin masks that make him look exactly like each of the bad guys. The only thing is, the synthetic skin is unstable and the light causes it to melt after 99 minutes. Hence our hero’s name, Darkman.

Though I loved the movie when I was 13, one thing I couldn’t have understood at the time is that it’s actually made for 13-year-olds. And that’s absolutely a compliment, because it succeeds wildly. You can almost hear Raimi cackling as he zooms his camera around and superimposes floating faces on the screen. He’s like a kid showing his friends all the cool stuff he can do. You can tell he’s having a blast, and you can’t help but to have fun with him.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.