The Man Without Fear: Revisiting Daredevil

Before Marvel Studios resurrects the Devil, how does the one with Batman… um, Ben Affleck hold up?

Daredevil can be considered a black sheep of the modern Marvel movieverse. Hated by film aficionados and regularly cited as an embarrassment, its reputation hasn’t improved over the years. Yet the character’s film debut isn’t quite an unmitigated disaster. There’s a lot to despise here from both storytelling and aesthetic sensibilities, but there are definitely sequences and moments that really work. It is a highly flawed picture that wasn’t blessed with a sequel, yet it was an undisputed hit at the box office, making over $179 million worldwide on a projected $78 million budget.

To rub salt in the wound, it has a lacklustre script, horrific soundtrack and some suspect CGI, but Daredevil is better, in my opinion, than something as curiously soulless as Spider-Man 3 (2007). Considering its tortured production and a studio-hampered final cut, the film is all the more surprising for what it gets right. Well-read comic book readers would be lying if they said it wasn’t at least faithful to the character’s roots. It was also saved from total banishment thanks to an improved “Director’s Cut” released in 2005. But more on that later.

Lawyer Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck) is left blinded after an accident with toxic waste as a child. The spillage took his sight, but his fried optic nerves heightened his other senses and allowed him to “see” via soundwaves. By day he fights crime in the courtroom, and at night he puts on a silly red leather costume and busts faces in Hell’s Kitchen, New York (the quintessential Marvel city). He is trying to take down crime boss Wilson “The Kingpin” Fisk (the late and sorely-missed Michael Clarke Duncan), who was not only responsible for his father’s death over a decade before, but has nefarious designs on his new girlfriend, fellow avenger Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner). If all that wasn’t enough, Fisk has assigned hyper-skilled assassin Bullseye (Colin Farrell) to take the Daredevil down. Sounds exciting, right?

Out of all the characters in the Marvel stable, Daredevil’s cinematic potential wasn’t readily apparent. Bar a few notable classics (namely Born Again by Frank Miller), he was never a massive pull in the Marvel Universe and was relegated to cult appreciation by devotees like myself who admire the blind superhero’s quirky charm. The development of a Daredevil movie goes all the way back to 1997 when 20th Century Fox optioned the rights from Marvel, who were failing financially at the time. They decided to give Hollywood studios the chance to pilfer their archives. X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) had yet to come out and the concept of the comic book film was still in its infancy, buoyed by the surprise success of Blade (1998). Daredevil aimed to follow in the mould of that film, and fans were promised  a “more character-driven, darker, edgier” movie by producer Gary Foster. The eventual success of Spider-Man only helped to fast-track the cinematic exploits of the “Man Without Fear.”

After a brief stint under the auspices of Chris Columbus (who was also on the list to direct Fantastic Four), the film landed in the hands of Mark Steven Johnson, a screenwriter best known for the Grumpy Old Men series. He only had one directorial credit to his name – the sentimental family drama Simon Birch (1998). It was hardly the resume you’d expect from a man tasked with making an action-packed comic book movie. It was Johnson’s love of the character and knowledge of the source material that ultimately impressed Fox, and he would both write and direct Daredevil. His intentions were noble, and it is obvious when watching the film that it was planned as more adult entertainment. The edge has been removed, so we get fight sequences which feel like they should be more graphic and darker moments that stick out like a sore thumb. There’s that great bit when Daredevil, having just beaten a thug senseless, encounters a scared, sobbing child. “I’m not the bad guy,” he says, but Murdock doesn’t seem to believe it himself. The Catholic guilt that Miller had so cleverly woven into his landmark comic occasionally rears its head, showing us a movie that could have been. Everything wrong here seems to be a studio mandate to make it more commercially-viable. That’s pretty much Fox’s goal over the last fifteen years.

Some of the action on show here isn’t too bad, including a rather pacey fight between Daredevil and Elektra, who doesn’t realise she’s fighting the love of her life, but the quality of these tentpole moments is too infrequent. The hero’s reveal in a seedy bar, where he takes on a whole roomful of gun-packing baddies, is an early highlight and is probably the best set-piece of the movie. But even that is lensed rather frenetically by an obvious newcomer. Johnson is at his most confident in the film’s prologue, and he sets-up Murdock’s typically tragic origin with a pizazz worthy of Sam Raimi’s best moments in Spider-Man. It’s all excellent build-up for a picture that will be ultimately superficial. By the time Daredevil seems to be working, it’s almost over and the flick has devolved into a CGI mess that is barely comprehensible.

Daredevil isn’t a performance showcase, but it does feature some misunderstood turns. Affleck appears at first glance to be miscast in the lead role, and you can’t help but wonder if the modern Ben of Argo would have been more suitable, but he’s never less than fine. He was clearly passionate for the material, having written a glowing essay on the character for Kevin Smith’s Daredevil story (Smith also cameos here as a portly lab assistant). The lead seems self-conscious whenever he’s in costume, but his scenes as Murdock are great. It’s a shame that most of his story hit the cutting room floor, including an entire sub-plot focusing on his defence of a drug addict (played by Coolio) that helped to flesh-out the character immensely. I also think Duncan, whilst doing his best, isn’t the perfect Fisk. He comes across as smug when he should be menacing. The Green Mile star does, however, represent the comic character’s hulking frame, which is put to good use in the film’s finale.

As spin-off bait and sai-wielding heroine Elektra, Garner is also a mixed bag. There’s no doubt that she looks damn fine in her superhero attire, but the theatrical cut doesn’t do her or the role any favours (it certainly doesn’t do justice to Miller’s incarnation). Since she would marry Affleck years later, it goes without saying that she has great chemistry with the star and this is one of the rare comic book films where I actually buy the romance. Their evident connection manages to give some of the action a sense of meaning, but her tacky training montage to the sound of Evanescence – as well as a gratuitous sex scene with Murdock – don’t bring out the best in the actress. The latter moment just doesn’t jive in a film that has been re-shaped into something more tween-friendly, and is completely absent from the Director’s Cut. Garner deserved more than being mere eye candy when playing such an iconic role.

It’s not all mediocre on the acting front, though. Jon Favreau, who would later kick-start the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the director of Iron Man (2008), is a great deal of fun as Murdock’s legal associate “Foggy” Nelson. Very much the comedic relief, Favreau makes the most of it by delivering quips with ease. Joining him in the fun category is Farrell as Bullseye. This could be the only memorable performance in the film, and the actor hams it up at just the right pitch. He seems to be the only one relishing the opportunity, and his anarchic Bullseye – while completely over-the-top – makes for entertaining viewing.

If you really must revisit Daredevil for something, however, make it Johnson’s preferred edit. The Director’s Cut doesn’t turn it into a genre classic by any stretch, but it does make everything more coherent and polished. The plot threads are more focused, the actors are allowed to savour their dialogue more, and there aren’t as many crude soundtrack choices. Who the fuck likes Hoobastank? Gee, I just carbon-dated this article.

Daredevil isn’t a film that should be purchased in swanky HD to keep for posterity, but if its on television really late and I’ve had a few pints, it would pass the time pleasantly. In essence, that’s probably all the filmmakers on this venture could have wanted from a movie as half-baked as this. Let’s just hope that the new Netflix series finally gives the Devil his due…

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The Daredevil writers and artists referenced in the film: Stan Lee: Daredevil co-creator makes his cameo as the man whom young Matt Murdock stops from crossing the street. Wrote Daredevil (1964-1969). Kirby (Lab assistant played by Kevin Smith): Comic book artist Jack Kirby (assorted Daredevil covers in 1964-1968). Father Everett: Shares his name with Bill Everett, Daredevil’s co-creator (drew first issue of Daredevil in 1964, then assorted covers between 1966 and 1972). Jose Quesada (the acquitted rapist) shares his last name with Joe Quesada, the editor in chief of Marvel Comics, as well as the one-time artist of Daredevil (1998-2000). Colan (a boxer that won a bout that Jack Murdock fell asleep while watching), a reference to Gene Colan, another Daredevil artist (1966-1974). John Romita (the boxer that Jack Murdock is supposed to dive against): Father and son artists Johnny Romita (John Sr.) (1966) and John Romita Jr.(1988-1990). Kane (a thug): Named after Gil Kane, Daredevil cover artist between 1971 and 1978. Miller, Mack and Bendis (three other boxers that Jack Murdock previously “won” matches against), a reference to Frank Miller, writer/artist (1979-1983), David Mack, one of the artists (1999-2001), and Brian Bendis, the current writer of Daredevil, as of the time of the film’s release (1999-present). Kevin Smith wrote some Daredevil comics (see Daredevil Visionaries: Kevin Smith), and he plays the lab assistant Kirby.
  • Daredevil made his first appearance in a Marvel comic in 1964.
  • Ben Affleck was cast as Daredevil because Kevin Smith suggested him to the director, Mark Steven Johnson.
  • Although the characters Daredevil and Spider-Man coexist in the comics, it was decided that all obvious references to the latter character had to be removed since the licenses were given to separate film companies. This includes the decision that The Kingpin (a Spider-Man enemy) would never appear in the Spider-Man film franchise, and the character Ben Urich (a reporter who is a colleague and occasional professional partner of Peter Parker in the comic) would not work for the Daily Bugle. Michael Clarke Duncan would nonetheless reprise the role of Kingpin for the animated Spider-Man series.
  • In November 2006, Ben Affleck stated that he would never reprise the role, having felt “by playing a superhero in Daredevil, I have inoculated myself from ever playing another superhero… Wearing a costume was a source of humiliation for me and something I wouldn’t want to do again soon.”

This episode of Dinner for Five comes highly recommended. Favreau, Smith, Affleck, Garner and Farrell. Possibly the best thing to come from Daredevil. 

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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