In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1990 and seven from 2000 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column). The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films that were among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.

Rooftop explosions. Helicopter chases. Hair-raising falls from harrowing heights. Director and co-writer Sam Raimi’s Darkman certainly bears what would become all the hallmarks of high-energy superhero cinema. But none of that would matter if Liam Neeson didn’t snap a carny’s fingers, provoked into a fit of pique when denied a pink-elephant prize for his girlfriend.

By 1990, there had been few superhero films at all, let alone ones hatched from original ideas for the screen. Unable to secure a deal for either a Shadow or Batman film and inspired by the Universal Monsters of the 1930s and 1940s, Raimi created Darkman — a scientist who survives a catastrophic attack that leaves him with a full-body third-degree burn, the inability to feel pain, a formula for synthetic skin that lets him appear to be anyone (albeit only for a brief duration) … and a shattered psyche for which rage and retaliation are the only credibly calming stimuli. 

There are plenty of malevolent miscreants for Darkman (played by Neeson) to duplicate and dispatch as a balm for his battered mind, from finger-severing crime lord Robert Durant (Larry Drake) to crooked billionaire Louis Strack, Jr. (Colin Friels). But savagery is the only salve that will ever soothe him. Before he became Darkman, he was Peyton Westlake. But that can never be a quietly complacent cover for him as Bruce Wayne or Lamont Cranston were for the heroes whose stories Raimi had previously pursued. That’s because the gawkish good-hearted Westlake who springs a proposal on his girlfriend, Julie (Frances McDormand), just as she’s running off to work has been eradicated, no matter how deep his self-delusion. Darkman may have a slight shred of id and super-ego to sort out friend from foe, but his id billows well above them both.

That’s never clearer than in his and Julie’s visit to the “Carnival from Hell,” as it’s appropriately dubbed in Danny Elfman’s score. It’s a feverishly filmed interlude of fulsome fury that leaps off the screen with a kaleidoscopic, kinetic and also comically nervous energy — an evocation of Raimi’s calling card as a relentless ride operator who sees your discomfort and only makes the engine go faster. (Westlake’s seeming inability to color-match clothing like a sane person is also a subtly unsettling suggestion that his efforts to reinhabit his old self are fated to fail.)

Not before or since has there been a moment such as this in any superhero film, even now that such R-rated fare as Darkman is no longer the box-office poison exception. That’s because at no point does Raimi’s film even feint toward the idea of truly redeeming Westlake through reintroduction into a recognizable world. Indeed, every decision Westlake makes finds him retreating deeper into the psychologically scorched earth of Darkman — essentially sacrificing all semblance of the identity he once had in exchange for the ability to inhabit anyone else’s, however briefly. It’s a devil’s bargain that we see play out in the consuming flames of hell. And in the wake of producer Robert Tapert’s revelation (reported in the Hollywood Reporter’s fascinating oral history) that he, Raimi and then-apprentice editor Bob Murawski recut the film and locked the print in 48 hours unbeknownst to a tinkering Universal Pictures, it’s easy to wonder whether that carnival scene — or anything that makes Darkman meaningful or memorable — would have made it at all.

As the oral history relates, Darkman existed in numerous iterations — most of them disastrous by the fickle responses of test-screening audiences. Too sad, unintentionally funny, worst film they’d ever seen. Just as Universal chose to roll the dice with one of those versions and see what happened, Raimi, Tapert and Murawski retooled what became, quite frankly, one of the greatest superhero movies ever made. Only because their version reaped decent box office returns do you recognize Raimi’s name as the man who went on to make three Spider-Man movies in the 2000s … all edited, mind you, by Murawski. (In addition to comic books, video games and novelizations, there were two straight-to-video sequels swapping Arnold Vosloo of 1999’s The Mummy for Neeson. Darkman II: The Return of Durant is a snoozer in which Darkman foils Durant’s evil plan to, uh, buy a building. But Darkman III: Die, Darkman, Die! is as good as DTV films get — narratively the bones of Face/Off, with which it shares screenwriters, but capitalizing on genuine pathos and a terrific villainous turn from Jeff Fahey.)

Indeed, if Darkman endears us to anything regarding its titular hero, it’s the idea that senseless chaos could just as easily invade and irreversibly change our lives (albeit in a far less conspiratorial way than a plot to cover up a dirty development deal). A split-second car accident. A violent attack that lasts minutes but also a lifetime. A ticking clock inside our body that we’ll never hear until a too-late moment of alarm. Something that, if we survive it, will fundamentally change us from the person we believed ourselves to be into a shell in hellish existence. At one point, a bad guy on whom Darkman has gotten the drop pleads with him that he couldn’t live with himself if he were to become a murderer. Darkman’s response: “I’m learning to live with a lot of things.” Even the rhetorical stingers are undercut by the psychological process of pain.

Darkman also boasts Neeson’s most powerful action-film performance. (Yes, Taken is a blast, but Bryan Mills is just a non-superhero version of Peyton Westlake who’s able to function acceptably, if barely, in society.) Raimi originally wanted his go-to guy Bruce Campbell, who starred in Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy and later TV series, to play Darkman, but Universal balked at a lesser-known name. (You can still catch Campbell in the very last scene.) Gary Oldman and Bill Paxton were considered, but Raimi chose Neeson for what he called the actor’s “old Gary Cooper charisma.” Like yesteryear’s heroes, Neeson conveys a lingering emotional detachment underneath his swooning tenderness. We mourn for what Westlake loses with Julie after his accident even as we see that it might have merely accelerated the relationship’s end. So deep inside his own research is Westlake that his analytical tendencies have crept into his intimacy with Julie. Her response to his marriage proposal? She’ll have to think about it.

Once Westlake becomes Darkman, Neeson spends most of the rest of the film beneath 10 layers of prosthetic makeup created by designer Tony Gardner. Through the patchwork of protective gauze, we see an alabaster shell of hardened skin punctuated by exposed muscle and sinew and pierced by Neeson’s inimitably woeful gaze. In a touch that owes as much to Flynn and Fairbanks as comic book artists, Darkman comes complete with a hat, coat and cape; there’s even a scene where he must swoop in to save someone. Neeson met with burn survivors in preparation and said he came to treat the makeup less as a production affectation and more like his own skin. It’s a dedication that bursts through in his crisp evocation of a man in severe mental decline, struggling as much with abject anguish as further attacks from the men who maimed him. In one moment, Neeson dances a tin-hatted tarantella with resignation to his wretched appearance (from which even the stray cat he cares for recoils) and in another repeats “I’m a scientist” over and over like a mnemonic losing meaning with each utterance.

Gardner’s work in transforming Neeson is the showcase, but shoutouts are due for his work when Darkman is doubling someone. Again, he’s got a time limit (of 99 minutes), and because most of his equipment has also been blown to hell, the renderings are not entirely perfect. So when Darkman disguises himself as Durant or his pudgy henchman Pauly (Nicholas Worth), those versions take on a slightly more waxen, lumpy and pale look. To bystanders, Pauly might look like he inhaled a bad chili dog. For Durant, maybe he didn’t wash his hands after handling his collection of severed fingers; best known at the time as the mentally impaired office manager on TV’s L.A. Law, Drake sheds that skin entirely as Darkman’s most fastidiously sadistic foe. The way that Drake and Worth move in these moments also amplifies Darkman’s attunement to the alienation of all human feeling, like symbiotes at the wheel yet not entirely confident on how to steer.

Darkman also offers one of composer Danny Elfman’s more active and enlivened scores — shifting from tachycardia-tempo circus screamers to elegiac expressions of gloom much like the film itself. It reflects the cartoonish elements, too, as there were in nearly any film from Raimi’s first 20 years. But rather than establish insincere distance, they offer an invitation into the challenging themes Darkman explores. All the carnage spilling across the hoods of sedans that burst out of cargo crates in the opening sequence feels like RoboCop for a reason, as does the Looney Tunes-ish lunacy of Durant’s crew clattering their copious weapons to the floor during a frisking search. Different as their buttons might have been, Chuck Jones and Paul Verhoeven delighted in pushing them, and Raimi combines their verve with as much homage to them as to the Universal Monsters that precipitated Darkman in the first place.

Raimi’s showman sensibilities are heightened by his collaboration with cinematographer Bill Pope, making his feature-length debut here. Pope went on to make Army of Darkness, Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3 with Raimi, as well as the Matrix trilogy and three films for equally hellzapoppin filmmaker Edgar Wright. Pope treats Darkman as a boundless sandbox for symbolic schlock, with colored filters that seem to bear supernatural minds of their own, shafts of light on a pre-Darkman Westlake like he’s already gazing through a self-imposed prison peephole, and manhandling motion during scenes of brutality that give them a disquieting close-contact edge. Randy Ser adds exquisite analog production design in what Westlake is able to rebuild of his destroyed laboratory — a heap of tubes, trays and blown-out computer monitors about to blinker out forever. Every shot is a stunner, even the everyday ones but also in the hard-hitting final act, which shows its age with some photographic effects but hey: Did Tim Burton use his Batman budget to dangle a guy from a helicopter in broad daylight with a low-altitude chase that ends with a pair of explosions? No, sir.

In Darkman, the shadows grow longer, the edges wear sharper and the wounds run deeper than any superhero film at the time — and you can see its legacy in works such as Logan, The Dark Knight and even in Burton’s own Batman Returns from a couple years later. With its beauty, terror, heartbreak and excitement, perhaps it was only right that Raimi and company, like Victor Frankenstein, realized their masterpiece by resorting to renegade means.