Before it became a film-making juggernaut in its own right, Marvel Comics unleashed a number of its properties to external Hollywood studios; X-Men to 20th Century Fox, and Spider-Man to Sony Pictures, being the two signifigant IP’s then outside of Marvel’s direct control. Also following X-Men to Fox was Daredevil, a heroic blind dude with enhanced hearing and a penchant for taking down the scum of New York during the dead of night. In any other universe, he might have been called Batman, but for Marvel, and creator Stan Lee, Daredevil was their answer to combating DC’s ubiquitously popular mortal hero. With the success of X-Men, a film that cut through into the mainstream in a way comic-book films to that point hadn’t really achieved (with the exception of Tim Burton’s Batman back in ’89), Fox ramped up production on their only other Marvel property, Daredevil, casting then still-popular Ben Affleck as the titular hero. It’s fair to say that Daredevil met with mixed feelings on release – many fanboys derided the performance of Affleck (who snagged a Golden Raspberry for his work here) and threw creative stones at director Mark Steven Johnson for somehow “ruining” Daredevil, but a few critics also felt that, when compared to the latter stages of Warner Bros’ Batman franchise, then mired in camp shittiness, Daredevil at least partially succeeded in getting things back on track. Not having seen this film since around 2004, I decided to give it a re-watch, to see for myself whether the taint was warranted, or whether Daredevil was simply a film too ahead of its time.
Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck) is a blind lawyer who lives in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, running a firm with his best friend Franklin “Foggy” Nelson (Jon Favreau), who only defends innocent people and does not require monetary payment. As a child, Matt (Scott Terra) was blinded after toxic waste was spilled over his eyes while he was taking a shortcut home from school after discovering that his father, former boxer Jack “The Devil” Murdock (David Keith), had become an enforcer for a local mobster. The accident, however, also enhanced his other senses and gave him a sonar that allowed him to “see” through sonic vibrations. Matt uses his sharpened senses to train himself in martial arts. His father, blaming himself for his disability, stopped being an enforcer and went back to boxing. However, his new career was short-lived and he was murdered after refusing to turn in a fixed fight by the same mobster that had employed him earlier. To avenge his father’s death, Matt used his abilities to become a crime-fighter known as “Daredevil”, who operates in Hell’s Kitchen, going after the criminals that escape the conventional means of justice. One day, Matt meets Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner). Elektra is the daughter of Nikolas Natchios (Erick Avari), a businessman that has dealings with Wilson Fisk (Michael Clarke Duncan), a rich executive who is also the criminal leader of New York City’s Underworld, known and feared as the Kingpin. When Nikolas tries to bail on his dealings with the Kingpin, the mobster hires the Irish hitman Bullseye (Colin Farrell), who never misses a shot, to kill him. Daredevil tries to stop Bullseye, even causing him to miss a shot, but Bullseye ultimately succeeds in killing Nikolas and framing Daredevil in the process. As a result, Elektra swears to take revenge on him as reporter Ben Urich (Joe Pantoliano), who had been investigating Daredevil’s activities, discovers his secret identity. Hunted by both Elekra and Bullseye, Daredevil must fly into the New York night to right the wrongs he sees, bringing justice to the innocent.
In watching Daredevil some 10 plus years after it originally released, it’s easy enough to spot the film’s many flaws, particularly with the hindsight of what seems like countless Comic Book Movies in the intervening time. Daredevil stands on the brink of being a truly modern, slick, stylish CBM, in much the same light as the Batman franchise would under Chris Nolan’s direction, harder in tone and more gritty and determined to set itself in a reality that felt legitimate; yet, in saying that, it’s a film still stuck somewhat in the pre-milennial era of the genre. The script, written by director Mark Steven Johnson (whose past writing credits included both Grumpy Old Men flicks!) is one of those Important Film types, the kind that tries hard to say something worthwhile but ends up just clunking from the jowls of the actors performing it. Daredevil’s roots of urban warfare and heroism in the face of disability (he was the first – and to my knowledge, only – blind hero in comics!) seemed to crystallize in Johnson’s mind as a dark and manifestly depressing state, leaving the film resolutely – nay, defiantly – dressed in darkness for a lot of its running time.
The film is a story of two parts. The first, the opening twenty minutes or so, is the obligatory “origin” story, outlining how Matt Murdock came to be blinded, gaining his enhanced hearing, and setting on the path to bring justice to those who cannot get it. Young Scott Terra is excellent as the prepubescent Matt Murdock, and his screen presence, particularly as he handles almost every scene of this sequence with substantial panache, is effortless. The second part of Daredevil is the moment Ben Affleck rises out of his soundproof coffin isolation tank, and the “adult” story kicks in. It’s this second part, comprising the bulk of the film, that mismanages its characters badly. The story interweaves Murdock’s arc with that of Elektra’s, with a badly written romance and some horrendously choreographed fight scenes trying their utmost to skewer the chemistry between Affleck and Garner (they would be married in 2005) as the two leads. Couple that with a horrible Bullseye in Colin Farrell (not his fault, entirely, but more a product of the script and the expectation of audiences for manic screen villains!) and a dead-on casting decision in Michael Clarke Duncan as the villainous Kingpin. The Affleck-led part of the story is primarily shrouded in darkness; even sequences shot during the day feel depressing and lacking in pop!
The fact that Johnson’s script so mishandles the darker aspects of Daredevil’s character makes it tough going for audiences. The Batman-esque killing of Murdock’s father, and the boy’s subsequent quest for redemptive vengeance, never quite feels organic like it should, standing too deeply in the shadow of the Dark Knight’s more iconic motivation. Johnson doesn’t even seem to try and make it different or fresh, he merely recycles the concept and hamfistedly shoots it much like Burton did years before in Batman. Murdock’s life seems to be something of a callow fraud, his moping and skulking about his dark apartment, coupled with a fierce determination in court to see wrongs righted, at emotional odds with Daredevil’s swinging and flying from the rooftops of New York. There’s no continuity to Daredevil as far as character beats go, as if the demands of the script are utterly dependent on whosoever showed up to shoot that day. That’s a hard thing to get past, but it’s the way it seemed.