Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Darkman

(or "The Kitchen-Sink Superhero")

Sam Raimi's been pretty open about two things when it comes to the creation of Darkman; one, that he wanted to create a superhero who could sustain an open-ended series of films, and two, that he drew on a lot of other superheroes for influence. The character winds up being an interesting mix of Wolverine, Swamp Thing, Batman, the Unknown Soldier and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (although it's worth mentioning that Raimi was thinking more "Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Phantom of the Opera" than Swamp Thing and the TMNT. But the conversation on the line of descent of those characters can wait until another day.)

So what you wind up with is a scientist who gets disfigured by crime bosses and left for dead. (Like Alec Holland.) He survives, though, and sets up a laboratory in a disused warehouse (an abandoned train station in the sequels), scavenging and stealing old technology and kitbashing it into new equipment. (Like the Turtles...although admittedly more the cartoon versions than the comics.) This technology allows him to recreate his brilliant discovery, a synthetic skin that allows him to assume the identity of anyone for 99 minutes at a time, covering his burns with a seemingly normal face for a while. (A la the Unknown Soldier--he even wears bandages when not using a mask.) But the formula isn't stable, so a normal life is forever denied him. (And we're right back to Swamp Thing again, along with the Thing, the Hulk, Robotman, and literally hundreds of other heroes and villains.)

Except that there's another angle to the character. This one is a scientist who gets disfigured by crime bosses and left for dead. (Like Alec Holland.) Surgeons save his life with an operation that nullfifies the pain of his horrific burning, but at a price--he no longer has any feeling in his body at all. He's impervious to pain, but the feelings of disconnection and alienation leave him with wild surges of uncontrolled anger and berserker rage, complete with spikes of adrenalin that give him superhuman strength. He fights crime as a shadowy creature of the night, barely able to keep his fury in check. (See, that's where the Wolverine comes in.)

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Darkman series (as opposed to the Darkman movie, which makes this dichotomy its central conflict.) On the one hand, you have a superhero whose powers lend themselves to plots involving intrigue and subterfuge, as his ability to impersonate anyone leads him to set criminals against each other while he steals their assets to further his research while posing as them. It requires a hero who's patient and clever, calm under pressure and able to outfox anyone at their own game. (And who just happens to be a gifted mimic, because the masks don't change your voice, but Peyton Westlake seems to be in luck there. Amazing how that happens soemtimes.)

On the other hand, you have a superhero who's filled with barely constrained fury, who could snap at any second and frequently does. He defeats enemies by overwhelming them with sheer brutal power, savaging them with his relentless, single-minded anger and devotion to punishing them for their crimes. (One of the best moments in the movies is when Darkman is dangling from a helicopter piloted by the villains, furiously waving away a police chopper and shouting, "He's mine!")

These two aspects of the character don't always mesh well, forcing writers to make the character behave inconsistently as the plot demands. He winds up having a sort of convenient "pocket berserker fury", only to be brought out when it's time for a big action sequence and the writer has run out of other ideas. The Darkman sequels demonstrate this problem--both of them turn from complex caper films into action mayhem, sacrificing the payoffs of a well-timed twist for a big set piece where Darkman beats a bunch of guys up with his super-strength.

Which isn't the only problem with them--it's a struggle, having gone to all the work the original did to try to set him up as a plausible superhero in a realistic world, to find antagonists outlandish enough to fight a man with super-strength and plastic faces that last 99 minutes (more in the dark, but that's an angle that always seems to get forgotten--mainly because a 99 minute timer makes for more drama.) The sequels introduce super-strength drugs and laser cannons, elements that jar with the atmosphere established in the first film. This might eventually be overcome simply through acclimatization; as you become more accustomed to a weird world, it becomes easier to accept that drug kingpins routinely employ insane scientists that design exotic particle beam weapons with nuclear batteries. But unfortunately, Darkman never got the time to make that kind of transition in the movies or on TV. Hopefully, returning to his spiritual home in the comics will give the character a bit more space to resolve these contradictions and come out of them as a more unified hero.

And with that, I close what will be my last Storytelling Engines column for a while--I'm putting the series on hiatus for a bit, hopefully not indefinitely. It's not a lack of time or energy, it's a lack of material--having covered just about every significant Marvel and DC character, and big swathes of movies and TV, I have gone through just about every open-ended series that I have books/DVDs of. Naturally, if anyone wants to buy me some DVDs or trade paperbacks so that I can watch/read them and do a column on them, they can feel free to leave a comment to that effect and we can talk, but for now, I think the series will go on hiatus while I "reload". There will still be a Monday(-ish) column on my blog every week, rest assured, and the entire series of Storytelling Engines columns is re-running from the beginning on Xenagia.com for those of you who missed the early installments (shameless plug alert!), but for right now, I'm putting it to bed after 114 columsn for a nice, long, well-deserved nap. Thanks to everyone who read it, and thanks even more to the people who told me so!


David Wynne said...

Sad to hear the coloumn's going on a break, but fair enough. Thank you for 114 rather excellent pieces!

magidin said...

Thanks for the story engine columns. Hope you find yourself wanting to write them again soon; I'll certainly want to read them.

Anonymous said...

i'm gonna miss these installments. Can't wait til we see them again.

Kyle White said...

Could we get one on Pushing Daisies (presumably after the second season is on DVD in June)? Or Chuck?

Michael Penkas said...

I've been following these columns for about a year now and they're always good. Sorry I don't post responses more often; but there's just usually not much for me to add. Thanks.

Pitrone said...


Have you seen that? Vern goes through all 3 Darkman movies with reviews and interest. If you've never read Vern before, you are VERY MUCH missing out.

Austin Gorton said...

Looking forward to the triumphant return of Storytelling Engines!

Hopefully Marvel and DC will release some new Essentials/Showcases in the interim.