There aren’t many original film superheroes. The few that were made between those DC epochs, 1978’s Superman and 1989’s Batman straddled every genre that didn’t require a cape – science fiction, pulp noir, horror – resulting in films whose protagonists tended to violently undergo disgusting transformations unchained to the demands of preselling McDonalds collector glasses to children already familiar with the characters. Between Superman and Batman, original superhero-ish action fantasy films could appeal to older audiences, or at least teenagers with cynical attitudes who read comics by Alan Moore or Frank Miller and were already enjoying a golden era of stylized ultra violence in 1980s cinema.
The apotheosis of these ideals was Robocop and since the Alan Smithee Podcast has already done that special we’re now moving to the next best example of this rare subgenre to ever be produced by a major studio: Darkman, the super-noir-anti-hero created by Sam Raimi years before his famously licensed official superhero movie when he couldn’t secure the gig directing Batman or The Shadow.
As a franchise, the Darkman series is informatively typical of Universal Studios business practices in the 1990s and Sam Raimi’s career in the future. The visually deft direction tells the comic book story as if we’re glancing over wordless panels on a page, seeing what happens through one striking image after another. Some of Raimi’s shots of Darkman can be seen elsewhere in the Spider-Man trilogy and then there’s the business of his swinging on a rope between skyscrapers during the action packed finale. While the cheesiness of parts II and III were predictable, Raimi’s executive producer credit on both also indicated a willingness to take the money for squeezing out numerated excrement below his own standards – as witnessed with Spider-Man 3 and a few lower profile cash-ins along the way in the 1990s under the Renaissance Pictures.
Universal’s production of Darkman II and III was done practically on autopilot in the same manner as their previous back-to-back part 2 and 3 franchise sequels had been handled before (i.e. Back to the Future, Problem Child and Child’s Play) and would continue to be handled with the Tremors sequels and TV franchise to come. Universal Television’s corporate synergy with the film department even generated a Darkman TV series pilot, and at times the two films nearly resemble sewn together plot ideas from some unmade first season.
As the subtitle heralds, Darkman II: The Return of Durant brings back Larry Drake as the first film’s memorable villain Robert G. Durant – the dorkiest frighteningly sadistic crime boss since Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence Boddicker in Robocop, natch. Aside from the painful Toronto production values of the film, the biggest problem is a story which barely acknowledges Darkman at all – it’s almost 30 minutes before he even realizes Durant has returned – and in this regard there’s an unfortunately coincidental resemblance to Robocop 2. Die Darkman Die isn’t nearly as bad, thanks in part to the awesome title. Perennial b-movie staple Jeff Fahey is a better villain than the warmed over Durant and the story is written by a different duo than Part II, who know enough to implicate Darkman as more than a cipher.
Darkman became a trilogy to resounding indifference. Until now! Darkman fans rejoice, for your hour has come. Julieeeeee!! Duraaaaaaaant!!! And tune in next time when Larry Drake returns yet again…
NEXT EPISODE: BLACKMAIL IS MY LIFE (1968, KINJI FUKASAKU) & DR. GIGGLES (1992, MANNY COTO)