Where the modern slate of superhero films is very liberal, there’s a slightly right-wing bent to the 1989–1992 quintet. Keaton evokes Clint Eastwood’s authoritarian ‘Dirty’ Harry Calahan with his cool menacing whisper, Darkman pursues rough vengeance against those who wronged him in a Charles Bronson/Death Wish vein, and Tracy is authorised by the law to shoot holes into gangsters. It is novel seeing Beatty in action hero mode for the only real time in his career—though his most iconic role, Clyde Barrow (in Arthur Penn’s 1967 Oscar winning Bonnie and Clyde), saw him brandishing a gun on the opposite side of the law. There’s something inherently goofy about Beatty, with his swollen dome and vacant stare and just-shy-of-garbled delivery. He was, and remains, a sex symbol – but at times feels like a slightly exaggerated and ever-so-slightly misshapen Mad Magazine version of a sex symbol. It’s served him well in his career, enabling him to sneak up on and confound the expectations of critics and detractors, and made him an amiable avatar to help the hefty exposition and political jargon of Reds and the tough truth-bombs of Bulworth go down with audiences. But it also makes him as unlikely a decisive, veiny action hero as Keaton, and it is fun watching him in this anomalous role.
The fact this comic book film was Beatty’s directorial follow-up to the sprawling, Oscar-winning, three hour plus Reds—and that his only other starring role in the decade between was in Elaine May’s Ishtar; a Hope & Crosby-esque team-up with Dustin Hoffman that was a notorious flop—says a lot about Beatty’s idiosyncratic instincts. Lest Dick Tracy be dismissed as a grab for commerce or a mere trifle, it’s worth noting Beatty brought with him a bevy of creative heavy hitters, including Vittorio Storaro, the director of photography for Reds, Apocalypse Now,and The Last Emperor; Richard Sylbert, the production designer of Reds, Shampoo, and Chinatown; and Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, to name a few. Like Richard Hammond, another mad entrepreneur of the 1990s with deep pockets, Beatty spared no expense on his theme park ride of a film.
Where Beatty and company really go for broke is the film’s use of colour. The Joker is Batman’s main source of onscreen colour; in contrast, nearly every frame of Dick Tracy is conspicuously colourful. Sets and costumes are painted in bright primary shades, and costumes are similarly loud. This aesthetic choice pays homage to Chester Gould’s source material, but also gifts the film’s more emotional moments a melodramatic, Lichtenstein-esque pop art vibe. This gives Dick Tracy a layer of artifice as thick as the make-up on characters such as Pacino’s Big Boy, William Forsythe’s Flattop, and R.G. Armstrong’s Pruneface. Where Batman attempted to simulate the real-world despite being very stage-bound, Dick Tracy wholeheartedly embraced its stage-bound status with actors-playing-dress-up quality, and in doing so extends the tradition of Depression-era Warner Bros gangster films shot on the studio’s stagey backlots into the comic book movie realm.
Before there were remakes, before there were reboots, before there were prequels, there were rip-offs. And Darkman is a glorious rip-off, with director Sam Raimi and his collaborators pillaging not only Batman and The Shadow (which the filmmaker attempted but failed to get his hands on) but also The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Universal Monster movies. In a nice bit of synergy, Universal produced the film.
Like the very best rip-offs, Darkman creates something new and delightful from its pop culture bricolage. When mobsters blow up the laboratory of brilliant scientist Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), leaving him hideously disfigured, he adopts the bandage-clad mantle of Darkman to take revenge. Physically heavy-duty and immune to pain, Westlake uses synthetic skin to adopt various disguises and work his way through the villain food chain up to chief bad Robert Durant (Larry Drake) and CEO bad Louis Strack (Colin Friels), whilst attempting to win back his love interest Julie (Frances McDormand).
Raimi links three eras of superhero cinema: in the 1990s he directed Darkman, in the 2000s he helmed three Spider-Man movies, and he’s recently hitched his wagon to the MCU with a sequel to Doctor Strange. But Darkman is Raimi’s own character, which makes the film unique in this 1989–1992 batch—and to some degree the genre overall—as a wholly original (if derivative) screen creation. Like Burton, Raimi was regarded as an oddball cult director—best known for the schlocky Evil Dead films—but was lauded for his slapstick sensibility and D.I.Y. inventiveness: his early films showcase a show-offy, flamboyant visual style that calls attention to certain special effects and camera moves (whip pans, Dutch tilts, long tracking shots with the camera mounted to a motorcycle, etc.).
Darkman not only gave Raimi his first big budget (albeit modest compared to Batman and Dick Tracy), but also his strongest cast to date. Though Bruce Campbell’s no chopped liver, Neeson and McDormand occupy another tier. Neeson had spent a decade playing rugged period decor in films like Excalibur, The Bounty and The Mission, and a few years later would be the star of prestige films like Schindler’s List, Rob Roy and Michael Collins. Darkman was his first contemporary action lead, a decade and a half before he made ‘dad action’ movies his bread and butter, but where he’s stoic and level-headed in Taken and its ilk, he plays the deranged Westlake with a nice line of tortured, melodramatic camp. McDormand was respected if not widely-known for her work in Blood Simple and Mississippi Burning, with Oscar-winning turns in Fargo and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri in her future. There’s little in Darkman that taxes the overqualified actress, and she sadly becomes a ‘bound & gagged’ damsel for much of the final act. That said, McDormand has wonderful chemistry with Neeson and provides a good sparring partner for Friels’ scheming executive. Friels plays Strack as a seductive, charismatic American Machiavelli, which almost works if you squint and forget everything you know about Colin Friels and his 40 years onscreen as a naturalistic Australian everyman.
Where Raimi spent much of the late 1990s and subsequent decades burying his abovementioned visual style in service of mainstream material, the appeal of Raimi’s early work was his self-aware, braggadocious approach. That approach is on display in Darkman, elevating what could be standard dialogue scenes and papering over financial constraints in the film’s action sequences. Darkman’s big set pieces are somewhat more sparsely distributed than other action movies of the era, but the film goes for broke in its third act, with successive climactic scenes in Darkman’s warehouse lair, in a helicopter chase above the city, and atop a skyscraper under construction. This segment from the helicopter pursuit exemplifies the playfulness and almost handmade quality of Darkman’s action:
I share the above with some reticence. On a tiny screen, viewed out of context, it looks cheap and ropey. But on a bigger screen, watched in context, it’s a fun and energetic romp bolstered by Elfman’s madcap scoring and Raimi and company’s wildly mixed bag of tricks: including POV shots, hand-held camerawork, tracking shots mounted to vehicles, rear projection, and so on. It’s filmmaking as patchwork quilt, with shots varying in quality, but it clicks at multiple levels: it works (or 95% works) to deliver the screen story, it works for giggles by not hiding the seams but embracing them as knowing artifice, and it works for connoisseurs of low-budget craftsmanship. To that end, while Darkman is ostensibly more real-world in its setting and surrounds than Batman or Dick Tracy, it’s also more self-consciously artificial in its construction.
Darkman remains the least known of these five films, to the extent that this scene would be blatantly copied by Mission: Impossible 2 in this scene a decade later. But the film deserves a place at the table. Its theatricality differentiates it from the rest of the class of 1989–1992, but also exemplifies the stylishness of this quintet that is largely missing from the genre today. Recall that Edgar Wright parted ways with Ant-Man because there was limited scope for him to impose his authorial signature within the constraints of the MCU’s in-house style. In contrast, Batman is visually expressive and showcases its director’s animation instincts; Dick Tracy makes bold design choices and owns them; and Darkman offers up look-at-me, virtuoso-on-a-skint-budget filmmaking. All three films are artistically rich and aesthetically playful—at the nuts and bolts level of angles, shots, framing, movement, lighting, cutting—and each does its own thing in a way that contemporary popular Marvel films simply do not.
Like Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer is polished Disney retro pulp product (albeit adapted from more recent source material by Dave Stevens). Unlike Dick Tracy, it wasn’t a hit: it made Darkman money when it should have made Dick Tracy money, given it cost Dick Tracy money. Its underperformance saw the studio shy away from the genre that today, between the MCU and The Incredibles films, is one of its most lucrative earners.
Set in the late 1930s, The Rocketeer centres on hotshot young pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell), who happens upon a mysterious rocket pack. He becomes The Rocketeer, a life choice that sees him fall afoul of mobsters (led by Paul Sorvino), Nazis (led by Timothy Dalton as Neville Sinclair, an swashbuckling Hollywood star cum Nazi spy) and G-Men pursuing the rocket and endangers the lives of Cliff’s loved ones, including mentor Peevy (Alan Arkin) and girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) – all of the action occurring over around 72 hours.
Cliff is the only hero in the 1989–1992 quintet who undergoes an archetypal hero’s journey in the tradition outlined by Joseph (no relation to Billy) Campbell; including a call to adventure, supernatural (here technological) aid, transformation, and so on. In contrast, Batman and Dick Tracy are already established, fully-formed adult heroes operating on their beat, much like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Darkman, meanwhile, offers a somewhat parodic, anti-heroic reversal of the hero’s journey. To the extent these characters have arcs, those arcs are intertwined with accepting or rejecting domesticity—Bruce Wayne gets a girlfriend (who he loses by the time Batman Returns rolls around), Tracy finally proposes to Tess and adopts a kid, and Darkman opts to be a loner—or getting revenge—Bruce Wayne kills the man who murdered his parents, while Darkman annihilates those who disfigured him and destroyed his work.
This is not to suggest that The Rocketeer offers richer or more varied characterisation than its 1989–1992 brethren—indeed, Secord’s arc also partially involves becoming a better boyfriend—but it does show that where those other films were more indebted to the police and vigilante action movies of the 1980s, The Rocketeer aspires towards more old school fantasy adventure, and thus has more in common with the superhero movie as we know it today. It also has stakes befitting a superhero movie: thwarting Nazis bent on world domination, a significant threat upgrade from gangsters bent on crime dominion.