1990’s “Darkman,” Liam Neeson and the Batman connection

Spencer Doar

After my desired fix of Liam Neeson badassery wasn’t fully sated by his recent airplane hijacking thriller “Non-Stop” — an average, no-nonsense Neeson installment filled with plot holes — I took to IMDB to find another Neeson flick to quell my jonesing.  (Something other than “Taken,” the common standby.) 

I ended up with 1990’s “Darkman,” a weird, part-superhero, part-horror movie revolving around Neeson as a scientist researching artificial skin.  Neeson stumbles onto some shady dealings, leading to his laboratory being blown up by gangsters.  He’s left for dead, but recovers, discovering along the way that’s he left with abnormal strength and the inability to feel pain, a helpful trait given his extreme facial disfigurement from the blast.  Newly powerful, but mentally unstable from his biological changes, Neeson, face wrapped in bandages and under the moniker Darkman, seeks revenge on his assailants.  Aided by the synthetic skin he developed — which only stays in place for 100 minutes in the light, hence the film’s title — Darkman, through a variety of masquerades, is able to attack, infiltrate and, surprise, surprise, get the vengeance he seeks on the criminal organization.  It’s a nice little cult flick with some memorable Neeson moments.  

My big takeaway was how much “Darkman” echoed a specific element from the Batman canon.  The concept of fake skin and disfigurement as a plot device for conflict is common in Batman, specifically with well-known villains the Joker and Two-Face. 

But “Darkman” eerily echoes one Batman villain in particular, Clayface, specifically the version depicted in “Batman: The Animated Series,” which started airing two years after the release of “Darkman.” Clayface had long been a mainstay of the comics, but the version in “Batman: TAS,” voiced by Ron Perlman, depicts one very similar to Darkman.  A down-on-his-luck actor, Matt Hagen, is disfigured in a car accident and takes to an experimental compound, RenuYou, which allows Hagen to impersonate other people and turn his limbs into all sorts of lethal implements.  He gets addicted to the compound, which also degrades over time, leading to the types of melting face that “Darkman” experiences after 100 minutes of wearing his fake skin.  Clayface is the sort of lamentable anti-villain who audiences feel for, much like Darkman is a lamentable anti-hero who audiences feel for.

Plus, while Darkman has some superhuman abilities, the movie relies on the same sort of pseudo-science and grittiness that “TAS” does, rather than supernatural mysticism or radioactive spiders. On top of that, Neeson depicted supervillian Ra’s al Ghul in 2005’s “Batman Begins.” Ghul is another Batman character whose existence is derived from constant renewal, in this case from his Lazarus Pits. 

I guess if there are, tops, six degrees of Kevin Bacon, this shouldn’t be that strange.