Director: Mark Steven Johnson
From the time of their founding in the 1930s until the early 1960s, Marvel Comics was never a very noteworthy publisher. Outside of characters like the Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, and Captain America, nothing about Marvel really stood out. Bankruptcy even threatened to close their doors in 1957. Luckily for Marvel, everything began to turn around when editor/writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four in 1961. The success of the Fantastic Four led to an outburst of creativity that boosted them from a small-time publisher to the biggest comic book company in the industry. Characters like the X-Men, Spider-Man, and the Incredible Hulk all made their first appearances before the first half of the '60s were out, along with a successful revival of Captain America. But among the gods and goddesses of Marvel superheroes, one is merely a demigod, a B-level hero by the name of Daredevil. There could be many reasons for Daredevil's second-rate status at the time of his debut. Perhaps because the name "Daredevil" was not only very generic, but also a retread (since there was a boomerang-wielding superhero with the same name in the '40s).
Perhaps because Marvel's character creation department was simply running on fumes, since the character's first-issue cover date of April 1964 put him near the end of Marvel's most creative period. Perhaps because many viewed his acrobatic feats over New York City as a knockoff of Spider-Man. Perhaps because Stan Lee's artistic collaborator in creating Daredevil was not Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko, but Sub-Mariner creator Bill Everett. Artists and writers came and went, but Daredevil was never a very hot seller until one man changed everything in 1979.
Artist/writer Frank Miller was hired to work on the series, and the changes he made in the character's tone, style, and direction made Daredevil a big fat hit. His noir-style stories grew popular with readers, pulling Daredevil out of the cellar and saving the character from cancellation. Miller went on to bigger things (such as The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City), but the dark style he pioneered with the Daredevil comics paved the way for the grim and gritty style of the '80s and '90s. With the 21st-century renaissance of superhero movies, it only made sense for Miller's version of Daredevil to get his own movie. But does it live up to the hardboiled stories given to us by Miller and the writers and artists that followed him?
Our story takes us to the New York City neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen, where we are introduced to Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck). Left blind as a child following an accident involving a barrel of toxic chemicals, Murdock is an attorney that specializes in pro bono work, much to the chagrin of his materialistic partner Foggy Nelson (Jon Favreau). Though an attorney by day, Murdock spends his nights as the Daredevil, a masked harbinger of justice. Though robbed of his sight by that barrel of chemicals, these chemicals caused his other four senses to compensate drastically, functioning with superhuman sharpness. And perhaps more importantly, he has also developed a form of sonar that allows him to "see" sound waves, quite similar to echolocation. Armed with these gifts and a billy club that doubles as a grappling hook, he seeks to avenge the downtrodden by any means necessary.
And there's no shortage of criminal activity, much of it controlled by a mysterious crime lord known only as "the Kingpin" (Michael Clarke Duncan). Daredevil has become a thorn in the Kingpin's side, and thus must be eliminated. To accompliosh this, he procures the services of a deadly Irish assassin dubbed Bullseye (Colin Farrell). With a crime lord and a hitman breathing down his neck, Matt must also deal with newspaper reporter Ben Urich (Joe Pantoliano), who is on the verge of discovering Daredevil's secret identity. And to top it all off, he's found himself in a whirlwind romance with gorgeous martial artist Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner), who is similarly a target of the Kingpin and Bullseye.
While I found Daredevil to be a well-made movie, I do question its methods. The movie can be viewed as a good adaptation of the Punisher comics, but the problem is that it's a Daredevil movie. Not being a devotee of the comics, I don't really have any anger towards that controversial moment where Daredevil kills a rapist that was erroneously found innocent. That doesn't outrage me or make me hate the movie, or anything like that. I thought it worked for the story the filmmakers wanted to tell, but it just seems out of place. Murdering a criminal doesn't make him any better than his foes. But where I feel the movie succeeds is presenting a superhero who is still just a man. Despite his sonar and other enhanced senses, Daredevil's heroism takes a toll on him. He gets teeth knocked out and receives nasty lumps and bruises, the road map of scars that cover his body revealing him as a man whose chosen life is harder than it seems. It also pushes him to the edge of sanity, continually questioning if what he's doing is right and fearful that he won't be able to make a difference.
On the negative side, Daredevil seems very derivative. The relationship betweeen Ben Urich and the New York cops seems an awfully lot like the relationship between the Gotham City Police Department and Robert Wuhl's character in Batman '89. The reporter tracks a superhero and asks the cops about their file on him, the cops deny the superhero exists, the reporter ends up knowing better. There's also a strong visual resemblance to The Crow, from the fiery "DD" logo in the subway to Daredevil's jumps from rooftop to rooftop in one particular scene. But I guess if you're gonna steal a movie's visual style, you couldn't do much better than The Crow. I also bring into question the decision to tinker with Daredevil's backstory. Normally, I wouldn't mind if a character's origin is altered a little for dramatic purposes. Take, for example, the Punisher movie in 2004. There, Frank Castle's family is massacred at a family reunion in Puerto Rico after he accidentally caused the death of a mobster's son, as opposed to the comics origin, where his wife and kids are killed by a car bomb in Central Park after witnessing some Mafia business take place. Though Punisher's cinematic origin strays somewhat from the comics, the difference does not alter the character in any significant way, and the character remains fundamentally unchanged. But in Daredevil, one little alteration is enough to change the entire tone of the movie. For those not into comics, the original Daredevil origin saw a young Matt Murdock getting doused with chemicals after pushing an old man out of the way of an oncoming truck. But in the movie, he acquires his powers not by being heroic, but by being a victim of circumstance. The only allusion the movie gives to the old man is young Matt (played by Scott Terra) stopping Stan Lee from stepping into the road after he'd already been blinded.
The movie also suffers from a real overuse of the sonar effect. It's sort of like the "bullet time" shots from The Matrix, where it starts out being very cool, but ends up becoming rather ho-hum by the end of the movie. While the effect is very neat and quite intriguing, we're almost beaten over the head with it after a while. And where did that love scene come from? Matt and Elektra get into a fistfight right out of the Matrix movies, then he takes her up to the roof of his apartment building before they get rained on and head to bed. Not only does it make Elektra look trampy (what self-respecting woman puts out on her second date with a man she barely knows?), but their whirlwind romance makes no sense. It's not for a lack of chemistry, it's just that the spark between them has only started developing. It's like the Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes relationship, only not as fake. The love scene has been excised from the R-rated director's cut of the movie, which I feel is a wise move because it just stinks of unwanted studio involvement.
I don't know whether to blame Mark Steven Johnson's script or the choppy editing, but the movie seemingly has little character development at all. Any depth the characters have is brought to the table not by the script, but by the actors portraying them. Though I enjoyed Ben Affleck in the Matt Murdock half of the role, his performance in the Daredevil half left me feeling hollow. I thought Affleck did a respectable job conveying the conflict in Matt's psyche, but when he's in the Daredevil attire, he's perhaps mediocre at best. I'm not saying that Affleck is bad in the role, it's just that he isn't exactly great either. Michael Clarke Duncan obviously had fun as Kingpin, but I simply didn't find him to be all that intimidating until the movie's finale. However, that's probably more due to the writing and editing than Duncan's actual performance. I did like Joe Pantoliano as Ben Urich, though I must point out that he's playing a flat, uninspiring character. The character of Ben Urich is written as generically as possible, with nothing that really makes him stand out from any other character like this. Like I said earlier, the character isn't that much different from Robert Wuhl's character in Batman. I think if they could have gotten Wuhl to play the part, they would have. But perhaps the brightest stars in the cast are Jennifer Garner, Jon Favreau, and Colin Farrell. While I felt Elektra was lacking depth, Garner's performance made the character feel a little less one-dimensional. She adds a lot to the character, and her mannerisms and facial expressions from the funeral scene on show a character who has died inside, and has nothing left but thoughts of vengeance. Favreau, meanwhile, does a great job as the movie's token comic relief. He and Affleck are quite funny together, and their scenes together are some of the most entertaining parts of the movie. And Farrell's portrayal of Bullseye is just so over the top, you can't help but like him a little. Even as a villain, he's just so much fun to watch that he made the whole movie for me. Plus how can you hate a charismatic Irish hitman with a target carved into his forehead?
If Johnson's script fails, his direction soars. As I said before, the movie is quite well made, and features some really great camera work that harmonizes with the eponymous character of Daredevil. When Matt Murdock is in his lawyer persona, the camera rarely moves, as a way to show the character's vulnerabilities and emphasize his handicap. But when he's Daredevil, we get flashy camera angles and movements to show Daredevil's strength. While the characters seemingly pay no attention to Newton's law of gravity and the CGI is too glaring at times, the movie looks like a million bucks. The movie also has a very engaging score by Graeme Revell that is befitting of the superhero film noir that the filmmakers are aiming for. While other superhero movies have better scores (Danny Elfman's Batman and Spider-Man music, John Williams's Superman music), I do like Revell's work here. However, the score is eclipsed by the musical soundtrack, with great songs by House of Pain, N.E.R.D., Fuel, and The Calling being among the standout songs in the movie. And if the movie can be given one compliment, and only one, it's that the soundtrack brought Evanescence into the mainstream spotlight. Both "Bring Me To Life" and "My Immortal" are featured in the movie to wonderful effect, and both ended up becoming big hits following the release of both the Daredevil soundtrack and their debut album Fallen.
Fans of the comic will probably nit-pick until the cows come home, but Daredevil serves its purpose as being a 103-minute superhero action movie that serves as fine disposable entertainment. The movie is also a case of history repeating itself. Daredevil was the "little brother" that was second rate compared to his big brothers Spider-Man and the X-Men, and the movie he inspired is second rate compared to the cinematic offerings of the aforementioned big brothers. After the huge Daredevil/Bullseye fight near the end, the movie just runs out of gas and ends with a whimper. While it's still better than other superhero movies like Superman IV or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, it's merely adequate when compared to others. Three stars for Daredevil.
Final Rating: ***