Scientist Peyton Westlake (played by Liam Neeson) is developing a new type of synthetic skin to aid burn victims. He is continually frustrated with the results because the skin rapidly disintegrates after being exposed to light for 99 minutes, yet remains intact in darkness. Despite his devotion to the project, he cannot get past this limitation. His girlfriend, attorney Julie Hastings (played by Frances McDormand), comes upon an incriminating document showing that corrupt developer Louis Strack Jr. (played by Colin Friels) and mobster Robert G. Durant (played by Larry Drake) have given bribes to members of the zoning commission in order to go on with their planned project. In retaliation, Durant and his minions attack and injure Westlake, retrieve the document that was left there, then blow up his lab. The blast throws Westlake clear of the lab; he survives but is hideously burned. He is brought to a hospital and subjected to a radical treatment in which the nerves to the pain centers of his brain are destroyed. Removing this sensory input gives him increased strength due to adrenal overload and keeps his injuries from incapacitating him, but it also destabilizes his moods and mental state. He escapes the hospital and sets out to get revenge on Strack and Durant, and to try to re-establish his relationship with Hastings. To hide his scarring and blend into crowds, Westlake rebuilds enough of his equipment to make his synthetic skin, but is still unable to overcome the 99-minute window of integrity. Thus, he can only appear as himself (or later as others, whose features he is able to duplicate) in daylight in public briefly, and otherwise wears bandages and a trenchcoat in his identity as "Darkman." He is able to make masks in advance and store them for long periods by keeping them from light sources. He takes the opportunity to observe important people, such as the henchmen of his enemies, so he can masquerade as them.
For a long time, Raimi had been interested in adapting a comic book into a movie. He had pursued and failed to secure the rights to both The Shadow and Batman and decided to create his own. According to Bill Warren's book, The Evil Dead Companion, the initial idea Raimi had for Darkman was of a man who could change his face. He has said that he drew inspiration from such films as The Phantom of the Opera, The Elephant Man, Batman and The Shadow. He pitched this idea to Universal Studios and entered into a production deal with them.
Raimi originally wrote a short story, entitled "The Darkman," and from this developed it into a 40-page treatment. It was at this point that, according to Raimi in Warren's book, "it became the story of a man who had lost his face and had to take on other faces, a man who battled criminals using this power." It also became more of a tragic love story in the tradition of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The more the director worked on it, the more Darkman became a crimefighting figure, "a non-superpowered man who, here, is a hideous thing who fights crime. As he became that hideous thing, it became more like The Phantom of the Opera, the creature who wants the girl but who was too much of a beast to have her," Raimi said in Warren's book. The process of developing his treatment into a screenplay was difficult with Raimi bringing his brother, Ivan (a doctor), in to make sure that the medical aspects were authentic. After him, ex-Navy SEAL Chuck Pfarrer wrote a draft.
As Raimi and his producing partner Robert Tapert progressed through various drafts, they realized that there was a potential franchise on their hands. Universal brought in screenwriting brothers Daniel and Joshua Goldin to work on the script. According to Daniel, as quoted in Warren's book, they were presented with various drafts and "lots of little story documents. There was just material everywhere; drafts seemed to go in many directions." Goldin said in John Kenneth Muir's book, The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi, that they "spent a lot of time talking and pulling together a way of making the story work. I think that mostly we talked in terms of the nuts and bolts of the story."
Early on, Gary Oldman was considered to play Darkman before Liam Neeson was cast. The filmmaker had wanted to work with Frances McDormand but the studio resisted this notion and almost cast Julia Roberts before Pretty Woman made her a star. At one point, they wanted Demi Moore for the role. Raimi even tested Bridget Fonda but felt that she was too young for Neeson.
Working with Universal meant a significant increase in budget for Raimi. He was given $16 million to work with, including a longer schedule and much more effects work. Look-wise, the filmmaker was interested in paying homage to Universal horror films of the 1930s. Production designer Randy Ser remarked in Muir's book, "if you look at Darkman's lab that he moves into, which is an old warehouse, what was on my mind was Dr. Frankenstein. There were a number of references visually to what we were thinking about in regards to those films."
Raimi and Tapert ran into conflicts with the studio during post-production. Tapert remembers, "the experience on Darkman was very difficult for Sam and me; it isn't the picture we thought it should be, based on the footage we shot and all that. The studio got nervous about some kind of wild things in it, and made us take them out, which was unfortunate."
Los Angeles Times film critic Michael Wilmington felt that Darkman was the only comic book movie at the time "that successfully captures the graphic look, rhythm and style of the superhero books." Terrence Rafferty of The New Yorker said, "Raimi works from inside the cheerfully violent adolescent-male sensibility of superhero comics, as if there were no higher style for a filmmaker to aspire to, and the absence of condescension is refreshing." However, Richard Corliss in Time said that Raimi wasn't "effective with actors" and People's Ralph Novak called Darkman, a "loud, sadistic, stupidly written, wretchedly acted film." Darkman was singled out for notice by comic-book writer Peter David in the Comics Buyers Guide as the film most conformant with superhero origin story formula elements at the time (narrowly beating out Robocop).
Received "Two Thumbs Up" on Siskel & Ebert
MSN Movies ranks Darkman as the sixth best superhero movie to date, behind X-Men, Batman Returns, Spider-Man, The Incredibles, and Superman II.
Darkman holds a 77 percent "fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes and a 6.1 rating at the Internet Movie Database with 8,401 votes.
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