Futures & Pasts: Darkman and The Shadow
The Fantastic Four
Last week, the Internet was rocked by shockwaves on a magnitude not seen since Thanos rocked the earth in The Infinity Gauntlet #2. The cast for the forthcoming Fantastic Four movie was revealed! Based on Marvel Comics’s cornerstone franchise, the movie is being billed as a “reboot” of 20th Century Fox’s last Fantastic Four movie, which will be all of 10 years old in 2015, when the new, improved model hits theaters. This is par for the course with the established timeline for introducing a franchise, riding it for as many sequels as continue to return dividends, and then rebooting after a suitable period has passed for cultural amnesia to set in. For example: 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man came along almost exactly a decade after the Sam Raimi–directed Spider-Man, which, if it wasn’t the first hit based on a Marvel property—1998’s Blade and 2000’s X-Men both got there first—did establish the Marvel brand as a box-office powerhouse. (Oh, and did you see the captures of the new Green Goblin from The Amazing Spider-Man 2, coming to theaters on May 2, 2014?)
This is, perhaps, the world our children and grandchildren will know: the same franchises, being revived and refitted for each coming generation with the latest F/X technology, fresh actor meat, and currently fashionable attitudes. But it wasn’t always like this. From that last Fantastic Four, jump back another decade to arrive at 1994’s The Fantastic Four, co-produced by Roger Corman with a budget equal to the catering bill on The Avengers. Unreleased and buried by a shamefaced Marvel, the 1994 TFF typifies a period when comic book adaptations and superhero fare were considered dubious box-office prospects at best, the notable exceptions being the Salkind-produced Supermans and the Batman cycle begun by Tim Burton, phenomena that were separated by over a decade which had failed to produce any dependable, repeatable formula.
In the course of a single week, Los Angeles-based Shout Factory has released two prime specimens of the Nineties superhero movie to Blu-ray: Sam Raimi’s Darkman (90) and Russell Mulcahy’s The Shadow (94). Darkman is unquestionably the better movie of the two, and of additional interest given the central role that its director would later have in putting over the superhero genre with the American public. This was still some time in the future, however. While Darkman performed respectably at the box office, dominating on its opening weekend against such summer season heavy hitters as Estevez-Sheen (Men at Work), Jim Henson (The Witches), Chuck Norris (Delta Force II), and Christian Slater (Pump Up the Volume), its modest success wasn’t taken to signify a trend, and its sequels were direct to video. (The final of these was called Darkman III: Die, Darkman, Die, which deserves a place in the pantheon of funny sequel subtitles next to The Quickening and The Secret of the Ooze.)
Darkman was prescient in more ways than one, for it gave star Liam Neeson, then 37 years old, his first really meaty action role of the sort that now constitute his entire career. It was also one of the first films to fully exploit Neeson’s particular ability to convey bewildered hurt—an ability put to good use this week in Jaume Collet-Serra’s thriller Non-Stop. In Darkman, the actor, peering out from behind a mask of soiled bandages, is frequently forced to emote with only his ragged voice and eyes. This handicap proves a boon.
“Who is Darkman?” to quote the memorable ad campaign? Well, Darkman—who doesn’t identify himself as such until the ending of the movie—is the alter ego of one Peyton Westlake. When we first encounter Westlake, he’s a scientist who’s tirelessly working at his home laboratory to perfect a new technology that will generate synthetic skin for the benefit of burn victims, technology that involves a scanner and one of those pinpoint needle impression desk toys that you buy at Sharper Image. Westlake’s work is interrupted when his girlfriend, Julie (Frances McDormand), accidentally comes into possession of a document that shows collusion between a local developer and mob figures, very bad men who soon come a-calling, horribly disfiguring the doctor and detonating his lab in the course of retrieving evidence. You know that belongs to a less self-serious era of “comic book” movies the moment that the explosion sends Westlake a hundred feet in the air, a tail of fire behind him, screaming an “AAAAAAHHHHH” that’s practically written in orange block letters, and altogether recalling nothing so much as Wile E. Coyote after a run-in with some ACME dynamite.
Westlake survives to wake up in a hospital, swathed with gauze and clamped down by restraints. The least sympathetic M.D. in film history is explaining to an audience of med students that the subject, fished out of the river as an unidentified “John Doe,” has been subjected to something called the “Rangeveritz Procedure,” which renders him unable to feel physical pain, while leaving him “prone to extreme feelings of alienation, loneliness, and uncontrolled rage” that are accompanied by lowland gorilla-level bursts of strength. (And Ken Russell–esque bursts of tawdry psychedelia.) One of these attacks allows Westlake to break his fetters and return to the world, which is less than ecstatic to receive him. Once a rather good-looking guy despite the requisite weedwhacker Liam Neeson haircut, Westlake now sports a mixed complexion that’s a combination of charcoal briquette and stringy mozzarella. Picking up the charred ruins of his lab, he sets up shop in an abandoned factory and gets to work churning out synthetic meat masks of the thugs who put him in this bind, using these perfect likenesses to go among them and sow dissent and distrust.
Like Neeson, Raimi was also at something of a career crossroads here: at this point he was primarily known for his two Evil Dead films, his lone departure from horror having been 1986’s widely loathed Crimewave. He still has one foot in creature features. Neeson’s psychopathic trickster-hero has more in common with Claude Rains’s Invisible Man or the Universal Studios Mummy than he does with Peter Parker, and the film’s opening credits emerge from a Bava-like swirl of colorful mist. Touches of the macabre are in evidence right from the opening scene, a shootout between two crime syndicate bosses that ends with the victor and Westlake’s eventual nemesis, Robert Durant (Larry Drake), clipping his helpless rival’s fingers off with a cigar cutter. This is not the film’s last instance of violence being visited on vulnerable digits. Peyton creates a mask of his unburned face so that he can visit Julie while keeping her oblivious to his condition, and during an outing at a beachfront amusement park, he gets into an altercation with a carny and bends the man’s fingers back until they break.
It’s a funny scene, and the carnival setting suits Raimi, who is possessed of one of the most leering and unsubtle camera styles in cinema. Darkman is full of breakneck POVs, canted angles, and a camera anticipatorily placed in, say, a medicine cabinet or a vat of acid moments before a characters face is smashed or splashed into it. The film’s predominant visual pattern is a spiral, curling around a staring eyeball in close-up à la Psycho, or offering the view from the upright wheel that Westlake is mounted upon in hospital. It’s a vertiginous motif, anticipating the dizzy climax on the perilous gridwork of an under-construction skyscraper that’s rising over the city.
The Shadow shares more with Darkman than a distributor (Universal) and a predilection for showing people falling from buildings at a very great height. In fact, the creation of Darkman was a direct result of Raimi losing out in the bidding wars for two dream projects, Batman and The Shadow, with Darkman’s broad-brimmed hat and mask of gauze an obvious cop of The Shadow’s cowl and fedora. First appearing in 1931, The Shadow was adventuring before Superman, Captain Marvel, Captain America, or the Bat-Man—whose backstory owes everything to The Shadow, alter ego of playboy Lamont Cranston—ever came on the scene. He was a radio hero first, then a pulp-fiction staple, and for a time was voiced by 22-year-old Orson Welles. He inspired a number of serial and B-pictures, as well as a knock-off radio series, The Whistler, which got its own series of films. (The first was the feature debut of one William Castle.) And in 1994, The Shadow was the subject of $40 million would-be summer blockbuster.
I’m not sure how to explain why a movie of The Shadow might’ve seemed like a good idea at the time, other than to say that this was the period of Dick Tracy (90), The Rocketeer (91), and The Phantom (96). There was some kind of neo-serial chic thing in the air, as well as a particularly Nineties fetishization of Thirties Art Deco that can be viewed in its purest form in the sets for Frasier. I saw The Shadow as an adolescent, when it was in theaters, and I remember precisely two things about it: a nifty bit involving a pneumatic tube communications network, and a Mexican standoff-type scene in which two people discharge guns at one another at the same time and their bullets collide in midair. It struck me as a bad movie when I was 13, and it has not grown on me in the intervening 20 years. Australian-born director Russell Mulcahy’s career hasn’t gone on to much greater distinction in the same period; his big break was the video for “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and despite having early career high points Highlander and, yes, Highlander II: The Quickening on his résumé, he was mostly resigned to TV and direct-to-video movies after The Shadow. (He was not entrusted with any of the Darkman sequels.)
The Shadow opens in Tibet, where Cranston has set himself up as a merciless warlord. A local mystic sees something better in Cranston, however, and teaches the corrupt man to harness his own inner darkness, tutoring him in the mysterious Oriental Arts—this after siccing a truly horrible piece of computer graphics on him, in the form of a sentient flying dagger. Now equipped with “the power to cloud men’s minds” that allows him to turn invisible save for his shadow, Cranston returns to New York City to dispense vigilante justice, just in time to clash with a distant descendant of Genghis Khan (John Lone) who is preparing to hold the city hostage with a prototype atomic bomb.
Baldwin lends his signature baritone to the disembodied Shadow, but otherwise seems bemusedly miscast. “Year after year, American movies act as if Alec Baldwin were a proper lead player,” begins David Thomson’s entry on Baldwin in his A Biographical Dictionary of Film, written around the same time that American movies were still making precisely that mistake, over and over again. “I wonder if he isn’t better suited to comedy?” Thomson continues a couple of paragraphs later, a question that anyone who’d seen Baldwin’s Saturday Night Live appearances or his turn as the grinning sociopath in George Armitage’s 1990 Miami Blues already knew the answer to.
There are some indications that Mulcahy was aware of Baldwin’s comic abilities and trying to tap into them. When Cranston’s ladyfriend Margo Lane awakens to recount a sexy dream, he brusquely responds with his own dream, not missing a beat: “I tore all the skin off my face and was somebody else underneath.” The part of Margo is played by Penelope Ann Miller, fresh off being the worst thing in Carlito’s Way, also written by The Shadow screenwriter David Koepp. She’s also the worst thing in The Shadow, which is a significantly greater achievement.
Most of the film’s attempts at levity are totally wrongheaded; after The Shadow uses a henchman that he’s grappling with to cushion a fall, at fatal cost to the henchman, he quips: “Next time, you get to be on top,” which is presumably meant to be a sex joke and which, given the context, is just weird. Mulcahy has no grip whatsoever on his movie’s vacillating tone, and squanders an interesting supporting cast whose number includes Peter Boyle, Jonathan Winters, and the future Magneto himself, Sir Ian McKellen.
Though set in New York, The Shadow was shot in Los Angeles—Mulcahy doesn’t even bother to grab an exterior of the real and very recognizable New York Museum of Natural History. There is some nifty model work used to create the cityscape, however, particularly in the aforementioned pneumatic tube scene, which is far and away the best minute of footage in the film. The particular developmental stage of the CGI on display throughout as good as carbon dates The Shadow, and put me in mind of other contemporary attempts to capture period that will probably be unfamiliar to anyone who wasn’t in thrall to the pop culture of the period: The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and the computer game The Dagger of Amon Ra.
The Shadow wasn’t a box-office success, but another superhero movie released some six weeks before was, and pointed the way to the future of the genre. Alex Proyas’s 1994 The Crow set down the grim, po-faced tone that in years to come would give ballast and intellectual respectability to Brooding, Dark™ reboots of intellectual properties involving spandex-clad crime fighters, a trend that continues to this day. Meanwhile, rumors of a Raimi Shadow movie continue to surface with some regularity, and if the regular pendulum-swing of cultural trends is any indication, we should be due for a new round of bright, unabashedly cartoonish comic-book films sometime around 2020.