Marvel keeps the winning streak alive with Mark Steven Johnson’s affectionate new film.
February 19, 2003
Reading Daredevil as a kid was like being into the Shoes or Husker Du — most people wouldn’t have a clue what you were talking about, but those who did would nod approvingly, as though you had fulfilled some half-formed expectation they’d had of you. Daredevil had that rare mix of relative obscurity and undeniable quality that made it feel like it belonged to you, like it was produced solely for you to enjoy — and I do mean you, not those unlettered children buying Spider-Man or Batman to look at the pictures. Given this, I never imagined in my wildest dreams I would ever see Daredevil in a movie, to say nothing of a movie starring one of the most famous actors in the world. Part of the joy, then, of seeing Mark Steven Johnson’s new film for an old fan like me is the simple pleasure of seeing Daredevil up there, walking around, throwing his billy club, being knocked senseless by the sound of a passing subway train. As a film, Daredevil has its share of small flaws, but none are deal-breakers, and Johnson’s affection for the character and the comic shine through strongly enough to make for a solid, enjoyable show.
For those who never followed the comic, Daredevil is Matt Murdock, a blind attorney who helps the downtrodden in the courts by day while dealing out a more direct brand of justice at night. His father, played here by David Keith, was a boxer and part-time muscle for a local gangster, and it’s the shock of seeing how his dad really earns his living that sends young Matt (Scott Terra) running smack into the accident that will take his sight. The radioactive material that blinded him also enhanced his other senses, and his first clue is a terrific crash that wakes him out of sleep; it turns out to be the fluid dripping into his IV. The visual effects allow us to “see” as Matt does, and they’re very effective throughout the film, never more so than in this first scene, when the cars driving by outside appear to be racing through Matt’s room. Matt keeps his new abilities secret, studying hard at his father’s urging until the elder Murdock is killed for refusing to throw a fight. Then Matt decides he’s going to fight for the down-and-out like him and his dad — any way he can. (Cue music.)
The origin out of the way, the film proceeds briskly through what is not so much a story as a small slice of Matt’s life that happens to be uncommonly shitty. He chases an acquitted rapist into a subway and allows him to die, taking a pounding and losing a tooth in the process. His girlfriend dumps him. His working-class clients pay him in fish. He meets a girl who also happens to be an impossibly good-looking martial arts expert. And so on. What we’re really seeing here is something not often attempted in super-hero movies, a hero in the process of growth. Batman and Spider-Man don’t tend to change once they get their costumes finalized and get down to work saving the city. By contrast, Daredevil hasn’t yet figured out what his self-appointed quest entitles him to do; in addition to killing a rapist (or allowing him to die), he beats a thug so severely that a watching child is reduced to terrified sobbing. Has he gone too far? I don’t recall Batman ever asking himself that question. Daredevil has to go through a lot before he can answer it, including more tragedy and a near-fatal encounter with Irish assassin/stone-cold-crazy-motherfucker Bullseye, who dispatches people with airline peanuts and paper clips and touches the bullseye-shaped scar on his head everytime he kills someone, as if bestowing some weird anti-papal blessing.
The cast is uniformly good. I realize some people cannot kneel down to say their prayers at night without wishing some horrible malady would befall Ben Affleck, but he’s never bothered me, and he does a great job as Matt Murdock, capturing the humor that bubbles up from the character’s impassive exterior. As Daredevil he’s fine; I mean, his jaw looks good under the mask and his Daredevil-voice is acceptable, and there’s not much you can say about a costume performance other than that. You’ve probably already heard that Colin Farrell steals the show as Bullseye, and he does, although Johnson mercifully refrains from pulling a Batman and letting Farrell dominate the movie. He’s in a relatively few scenes, and the film is better for it. Jennifer Garner’s Elektra was fine on its own terms, but Garner is too all-American to really pull off the refined, mysterious (and Greek) character from the comic. Jon Favreau puts up some welcome comic relief as Matt’s partner Foggy Nelson, while the massive and feral Michael Clark Duncan makes all reservations about the Kingpin’s original race academic.
I don’t want to suggest Daredevil is any kind of triumph: the fight choreography is serviceable and no more, much of the dialogue is cheesy even for a men-in-tights flick, the story moves too quickly and juggles too many threads (they should’ve saved Ben Urich for the sequel), and the film’s fetish-like fascination with Catholic imagery veers on self-parody. But it’s certainly well-made enough to be enjoyable to look at, and it while it obviously reveres its title character it also takes some chances in presenting that character in a state of change. If this film does well enough to merit a sequel, Daredevil might just become in the movies what he always was to us in the comics: a hero who becomes more interesting the longer you know him.