Director : Mark Steven Johnson
Screenplay : Mark Steven Johnson
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Ben Affleck (Matt Murdock / Daredevil), Jennifer Garner (Elektra Natchios), Michael Clarke Duncan (The Kingpin), Colin Farrell (Bullseye), Jon Favreau (Franklin “Foggy” Nelson), Joe Pantoliano (Ben Urich), David Keith (Jack Murdock), Scott Terra (Young Matt Murdock), Erick Avari (Ambassador Nikolaos Natchios)
Movies about superheroes don’t often have moody voice-over narration, but then again, most movie superheroes aren’t nearly as angst-ridden as the vigilante Daredevil. In keeping with the film’s souped-up postmodern rendition of film noir-gone-Marvel, Ben Affleck, who plays the hero, contributes a few sporadic, tortured voice-overs in which he describes himself as a “guardian devil,” an apt description for a man who dresses up in a molded, skin-tight red bodysuit and seeks vengeance on evil-doers in the mean streets of New York. It’s like we’re back in the Death Wish era but with leather and digital effects.
Written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, Daredevil, which clearly aspires to join Spider-Man and the X-Men as the latest of Marvel’s big-screen franchises, is a dark, moody fantasy, which may limit some of its appeal. Despite clearly being marketed to them, this is hardly kid-friendly entertainment, as the violence is not only surprisingly bloody for a PG-13 film, but merges into hazy moral territory when it comes to justification. When Daredevil’s by-day alter ego, a lawyer named Matt Murdock, fails to get a conviction for a man who obviously beat and raped a woman, how are we supposed to feel when he dons his Daredevil garb, tracks the man down, and cold-bloodedly kills him (by allowing him to be run over by a train, no less)?
That, more than anything, is what makes Daredevil worth seeing. While most superhero yarns lean heavily on the clarity of the good/evil divide, this is a story in which the willingness to kill by heroes and villains is disturbingly conflated, so much so that Daredevil has to repeat a mantra—“I’m not the bad guy”—to convince himself of his own rightness. He may also be the only Marvel superhero to regularly find himself confessing his tortured life in good Roman Catholic fashion.
The other major twist to Daredevil is that he is blind. The film dutifully recounts (with some modifications from the original comic) his origin story. Raised in Hell’s Kitchen by an aging boxer (Keith David) who, out of desperation, is mixed up with organized crime, 12-year-old Matt Murdock (Scott Terra) loses his sight when a canister of toxic material sprays in his face (the film version ups the angst ante by having this event immediately follow his discovery that his father lied to him and is engaged in criminal activity—thus his loss of sight is tied up with his loss of innocence and idealism). However, in losing his sight, his other senses are extraordinarily enhanced, giving him a form of radar that compensates for his lack of vision. He is also physically enhanced, so that he can leap and tumble and spin and kick and punch and run faster and better than any mere mortal (in the film version, this development is left rather irritatingly unexplained).
As an adult, Murdock commits his life to putting bad guys behind bars as a Hell’s Kitchen lawyer. However, at night, he stalks those same streets, dishing out a different form of justice that doesn’t always sit well with him, even though he views it as a necessity. He works with another lawyer, a doughy comic-relief sidekick named Franklin “Foggy” Nelson (Jon Favreau), who’s completely clueless that he works with the masked vigilante he reads about in The New York Post every morning.
The thrust of the story involves the all-powerful Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan), a hulking, cigar-chomping crime boss who controls virtually every aspect of crime in New York. His hired henchman is the supremely bizarre Bullseye (Colin Farrell), an Irish hitman who gets his name from the fact that he can take any object, from throwing stars, to paper clips, to peanuts, and hurl them with deadly accuracy. Caught in the middle is Elektra Natchios (Alias’ Jennifer Garner), your everyday martial-arts expert billionaire heiress who becomes involved romantically with Matt Murdock, but later wants to kill Daredevil because she mistakenly believes him to be responsible for killing her father (Erick Avari), a Greek diplomat who had been in league with the Kingpin.
If all of that sounds complicated, it’s not. In fact, the plot of Daredevil is surprisingly thin and by far its weakest element. It is also hampered by its inconsistent tone. For the most part, it is deeply, almost brutally somber in its depiction of Daredevil’s inner conflict. But, at other times, it verges on sheer camp, particularly in Colin Farrell’s over-the-top hamminess as Bullseye. And at other times, it achieves surprisingly beautiful moments of human interaction, such as the inventive scene in which Matt “sees” Elektra’s face for the first time by listening to the raindrops that splash on her skin. Like Spider-Man, Daredevil is replete with digital effects that convey the hero’s ability to leap from building to building and soar through the air, but its best effects are the ones that convey Daredevil’s sensory perception, clearly showing us how his brain turns sounds into images.
Ben Affleck, whose casting some snickered at, proves to be quite reliable as both Matt Murdock and Daredevil. Considering the intensity of this superhero’s emotions and his soul-tearing inability to fully justify what he does, the role needed someone who could act (it doesn’t hurt that Affleck also has a perfectly suited superhero chin). He and Jennifer Garner also develop palpable chemistry, even if their relationship feels, at the narrative level, somewhat truncated. The sparring-match-as-mating-dance that kicks off their relationship is humorous, but the resultant heat they generate together feels genuine. When so many movies of this sort are rushing to blow up as much as possible as quickly as possible, it’s good to see one that takes time for the smaller, character-driven moments.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick