Miller revitalized the book, turning the focus away from costumed super-villains and in the direction of urban street crime. A minor, little-used Spider-Man villain, the Kingpin of Crime, was brought over and reinterpreted as more of a real-world mob boss than the über-criminal he'd been in Spidey's book.
In the twenty years since then, DD has thrived mainly by focusing on its grittier atmosphere, a more ground-level approach than the standard superhero comic book.
Still, the character remains in Spider-Man's shadow in the eyes of many, and that sadly has translated to the big-screen. For where Spider-Man's live-action film debut was the best adventure movie of 2002, and one of the best screen interpretations of a comic book ever done, the new Daredevil release is a shallow also-ran, a misbegotten interpretation of the comic book that fails in every way that Spider-Man succeeded. Indeed, the February release of the movie is telling, as movie studios rarely release movies they're confident in at this time of year. Spider-Man and X-Men went up against the summer's heavy hitters and hit grand slams of their own. X2 and The Hulk will be doing the same this year. Daredevil's competition comes from the likes of Final Destination 2, Kangaroo Jack, and Darkness Falls, and is at about that level.
The trappings are all there for a good Daredevil film. They incorporated the character's two most popular villains in the Kingpin and super-assassin Bullseye, as well as DD's Frank Miller-created love interest Elektra, a character so popular that she was brought back from the dead in an improbable pseudomystical display (the first true creative misstep of Miller's first run on the comic in this reviewer's opinion). Most of the casting was spot-on, from the inspired choices of Michael Clarke Duncan and Colin Farrell as the two villains, to the surprisingly ept Jennifer Garner as Elektra, to David Keith as Matt Murdock's middle-aged, washed-up boxer father, to Jon Favreau as Matt's nebbishy law partner Franklin "Foggy" Nelson, to the always-excellent Joe Pantoliano as reporter Ben Urich (moved from the comic's Daily Bugle to the real-world New York Post, probably due to rights issues connected with Spider-Man), to Robert Iler (Anthony Soprano Jr. on The Sopranos) as a young bully, to Paul Ben-Victor as a rapist named Quesada. (The latter is named after Joe Quesada, a former penciller of the Daredevil comic, and Marvel's current editor-in-chief. It's one of many comic book in-jokes, as dozens of characters are named after past creators of the comic book: Miller, Bendis, Mack, Romita, Colan, etc. Three Daredevil comic book writers--the character's first writer and co-creator, and the film's co-executive producer, Stan Lee; Miller; and filmmaker/actor Kevin Smith, who had an eight-issue run on the comic--make cameo appearances, as well.)
Trappings aren't anywhere near enough, though. For one thing, there's a name conspicuously absent from that "well-cast" list above, and that's Ben Affleck in the dual role of Daredevil and his civilian identity of lawyer Matt Murdock. It is my firm belief that Affleck can only act when he's standing next to Matt Damon, and while that's not 100% true, the rule certainly applies here. Affleck sleepwalks through his performance, counting on his jaw to do his acting for him. Every once in a while, when he's allowed to be a smartass (Affleck's best mode), he's entertaining. His finest moment is when Elektra tries and fails to sneak up on him. She asks how he knew she wasn't a mugger. "Muggers don't usually wear rose oil and high heels--at least, not this far from Chelsea." It stands out because it's one of the few natural moments Affleck has. Mostly he's a brooding, semi-tortured soul, except that requires a gravitas Affleck has never had (even when he is standing next to Damon), and he comes across as phony as a three-dollar bill.
The biggest problem is that Affleck is trying to be a square-jawed hero. That only works if you are a hero.
All too often, filmmakers will, when reinterpreting something for another medium, go too far in the reinterpretation. Mark Steven Johnson, the screenwriter and director, does so here.
If anyone tells you this is a superhero movie, they are lying through their teeth. "Superhero" has the word "hero" in it, and Johnson's version of Daredevil is no hero.
It begins with how he gets his super-powers. In the comic book, young Matt Murdock saw an old man crossing the street about to get hit by a truck. Matt pushes the old man out of the way in a brave display; unfortunately, the truck was carrying radioactive materials, and some of it spills and blinds the young hero. In the movie, however, he instead sees that his father is working as a mob enforcer (previous protestations to the contrary), and the boy runs away, devastated. A truck has to swerve to avoid hitting him, and it hits a barrel of radioactive material, which spills out and blinds Matt. No heroism, no sacrifice to save someone else, just a stupid, pointless accident. Strike one.
The first time we see Daredevil in action, he is chasing down Quesada, Ben-Victor's rapist character. Matt Murdock defended his victim in court, but Quesada got off. (It should be pointed out that the courtroom scene shows both Quesada and his victim being defended by private lawyers, which means it's a civil case, not criminal. This raises the question as to whether Quesada "got off" because justice failed or because Matt Murdock is simply a bad lawyer, since in a civil case, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff.) So DD traces the rapist to a bar, and throws his stylized billy club at him. This prompts everyone in this west side bar to pull out their big guns and start shooting. Right. A massive, brutal, ineptly filmed, difficult-to-follow bar fight ensues, resulting in a trashed bar (with all three pool tables on fire, yet the fire somehow doesn't spread to the rest of the place), and Quesada running for the (surprisingly deserted) 50th Street subway station. A brawl ensues, Quesada falls onto the tracks as a train is coming. Daredevil sits and watches the train run over Quesada and kill him, even taking the time to joke about it: "That light at the end of the tunnel? It's not heaven. It's the C train." Strike two, and at this point, I am utterly disgusted to learn that the hero of forty years' worth of comic books has been turned into a murdering thug.
Later, Matt and Elektra are standing on the roof of his building, and he hears someone getting beaten up. He says he has to go, but Elektra wants him to stay. Rather than help someone in distress, which is supposed to be what he's all about, he has sex with Jennifer Garner. Strike three.
That rooftop scene is one of many that remind you of scenes of other, better superhero movies. Matt and Elektra share their first kiss during a rainstorm (one of far too many rainstorms in this movie, as the rain hitting objects gives DD something for his hypersenses to focus on), just like Spider-Man and Mary Jane's kiss in Spider-Man. The pair of them also dance at a high-ceilinged gala dance, which is even lit the same way as the like scene in Batman Returns with Bruce and Selina, and then their costumed selves fight on a rooftop in another Batman Returns riff.
Johnson's ability to ape the comics without coming close to understanding them is never better exemplified than in the rooftop fight between Elektra and Bullseye, which is done almost beat for beat in the same manner as the two characters' clash in the now-classic Daredevil #181 from twenty years ago. Johnson even keeps the dialogue and action from the comic (Bullseye cuts Elektra's throat with an Ace of Spades playing card), and visual of Bullseye stabbing Elektra with her own sai is an exact re-creation of that panel.
Unfortunately, Johnson has done such a piss-poor job of building up the relationship between Matt and Elektra that the moment has nowhere near the power of the scene it's copying. Peter and Mary Jane's relationship in Spider-Man worked because we saw that Peter's crush on MJ had been going on for some time prior to the movie's beginning, and it developed over the course of the movie. For that matter, Miller's original relationship between Matt and Elektra had them as college sweethearts reunited after many years. In the movie, though the two go from just meeting in an embarrassingly inept coffee shop exchange to an improbable sparring match (in public! in a playground! nice way to hide your superhero secret identity, there, Murdock!) to being each other's true love in about six and a half seconds. This isn't aided by the fact that Garner's doing all the work. She tries really hard to ignite some sparks, but every time she strikes a match on Affleck, nothing lights up. This is the most chemistry-free relationship since Padmé Amidala and Anakin Skywalker, though with slightly better dialogue.
But none of Affleck's performance is at all convincing. He chases down a thug and starts beating on him, belatedly realizing that the thug's kid is watching. The kid is crying, begging the big man in the devil costume not to hurt her. "I'm not the bad guy," he tries to assure the kid, then goes to the roof and repeats the phrase, in an attempt to convince himself, and the audience, that he's the good guy. They even add a not-from-the-comics priest character--Father Everett, another in-joke, as Bill Everett is the co-creator of the character with Lee--in a half-assed attempt at a moral compass. (Note that in the confession scene, Matt can't even be bothered to actually confess a sin.) It doesn't work.
Neither does most of the dialogue, a great deal of which doesn't even make sense. Bullseye claims he wants a costume, but never gets one, and it's never mentioned again. He also claims he'll put the fear into the Man Without Fear, but doesn't follow up on it. Urich, the reporter, puts together that Matt Murdock is Daredevil, but doesn't reveal the secret--and even gives Murdock a tip that Elektra's in danger--despite the fact that everything Urich has seen points to DD being a murderer (of Quesada, which he is in fact guilty of, and of Elektra's father, because Bullseye used his billy club to commit the murder). In fact, Urich's reasons for thinking well of DD are never explained, as the character is only onscreen long enough to establish the character's existence, and not much else.
Pantoliano's not the only member of the supporting cast who is utterly wasted. He, Duncan, and Favreau are all fine actors, but their screen time is minimal and could easily have been played by any Central Casting loser they cared to prop up for all the importance they had to the overall film. Garner, at least, is convincing in the role--her demeanor noticeably changes after her father is killed; she hardens up. And, unlike Affleck--who has the bulk, but not the physical presence to be convincing as an acrobatic superhero--Garner looks more or less convincing doing the moves (probably from doing Alias all this time). But the standout here is Farrell, who attacks the role of Bullseye--an insane assassin who can use anything as a weapon--with a fierce gusto that leaves no piece of scenery unchewed. The entire atmosphere lightens up when Farrell's onscreen, as his gleeful psychosis is such a welcome change from Affleck's leaden brooding that you start rooting for him to win the fight.
What should be the climactic fight scene in a church (yet another ripoff/homage of a past comic book movie, this time Batman) is a CGI nightmare in which Bullseye and Daredevil fight in and around a church organ that changes height with each shot. At one point it's only about twenty feet from the floor to the top of the organ, but later DD falls down from the middle of the organ in what looks to be a fifteen-story distance to the ground. It then ends with Daredevil getting Bullseye shot in the hands, leading a ludicrous moment of Christ-and-the-devil imagery (in a church, no less) that would be profound if it were in any way meaningful, sensible, or relevant.
Instead of ending the movie after that fight, there's an awkward final showdown between Daredevil and the Kingpin, which is straight out of the cheesy Spider-Man version of the Kingpin, rather than the master manipulator Kingpin that Miller gave us in Daredevil that made the character a force to be reckoned with. Besides the fact that the fight is as badly choreographed as every other fight in this movie, it manages to contrive yet another damn rainstorm to help DD out, and then gives us what's supposed to be the Great Character Development Bit which, like all the others, falls flat. DD breaks the Kingpin's legs, but doesn't kill him. "I'm not the bad guy," he says, laboring under the delusion that breaking someone's legs is an act of kindness that mitigates a premeditated murder.
What should be a movie about a boy who reconciles his father's admonition not to be a fighter with his desire for justice by putting on a costume and working around the law when the law doesn't do what it's supposed to, instead is a movie about a thug who kills and assaults willy-nilly and justifies it by taking on mostly pro bono clients and only defending the innocent. The character has been oversimplified, and thereby assassinated, for no good reason.
The nicest thing I can say about this train wreck of a movie is that Farrell is fun to watch and it's over quickly at a running time of only about an hour and a half. But I don't see this movie appealing to non-comics fans or comics fans, both of whom will come out with the same reaction:
It's a weak version of Spider-Man.
[First published in the February 2003 issue of SFRevu.]
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