Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 26, 2003)
Just like the way 1989’s Batman caused a wave of imitators, 2002’s enormo-hit Spider-Man sparked the resurgence of comic book movies as a viable cinematic form. Not that Spider-Man was the only member of the genre that found an audience. For example, both 1998’s Blade and its 2002 sequel did fairly nicely.
However, they didn’t approach the $403 million juggernaut that was Spider-Man. Indeed, no other comic book flick neared those numbers, even when adjusted for inflation. Plenty more high-profile releases like The Hulk will attempt to challenge Spidey for supremacy, though.
First we got a medium-profile comic book flick with 2003’s Daredevil. The lead character falls somewhere in the middle when it comes to fame. Certainly better known than Blade and much less famous than Spider-Man, Batman or Superman, Daredevil has been around a long time, and the character also enjoyed a brief period of super-popularity in the early Eighties when writer/artist Frank Miller became a star. It didn’t last, and Daredevil now exists as one of those in-between superheroes.
Or at least he did until the folks at Fox decided he deserved his own big-screen adaptation. Daredevil opens with its hero (Ben Affleck) apparently on the verge of death. It then launches into a look at the early life of Matt Murdock, a kid who grew up in a hardscrabble neighbor with his father Jack (David Keith), a once-substantial fighter now fallen on hard times. Jack urges young Matt (Scott Terra) to make something of himself with his mind, not his fists.
After Matt sees proof that his dad works as a thug for a local gangster, he flees and accidentally runs into a tub of chemicals. This leaves him without vision but gives him incredibly enhanced hearing and other senses. He trains himself and develops great abilities.
In the meantime, Jack returns to the ring with a renewed sense of purpose. However, his former boss tells him the fights were fixed and instructs him to take a dive in a match. He refuses to do this, so inevitably, the thugs exact their revenge. Now fatherless, Matt decides to seek justice, and the movie advances to his adult life.
When we see the grown-up Matt, we see him work as an attorney along with his partner and friend Franklin “Foggy” Nelson (Jon Favreau). When a rapist gets away with it, he enters vigilante mode as crime-fighter Daredevil. This gives us a glimpse of how Daredevil works, and the plot thickens as additional threads emerge. Matt meets a sexy and mysterious babe named Elektra (Jennifer Garner) at a coffee shop; when she plays hard to get, he persists, and the pair tussle as foreplay.
Connected to Elektra, we encounter her dad Nikolas Natchios (Erick Avari), part of a criminal network run by Wilson Fisk (Michael Clarke Duncan), a figure who’s become known as “The Kingpin”. However, no one knows the actual identity of the Kingpin, though some leads head toward Fisk’s organization. Natchios wants out of the business due to all the press attention about the Kingpin, so Fisk hires an Irish assassin named Bullseye (Colin Farrell) to off his associate while he also creates a paper trail to make the newspapers think that Natchios is the Kingpin.
Speaking of the press, we also meet reporter Ben Urich (Joe Pantoliano). He follows the trail of Daredevil. The police deny the crimefighter’s existence but Urich plugs away as he tries to learn more about the mysterious vigilante.
These storylines dominate the movie, with a particular emphasis on the interactions between Matt/Daredevil and Elektra. I won’t give away the specifics, but that triangle intensifies partway during the film when Elektra develops an intensely negative opinion of the crimefighter. All of this leads inexorably toward conflicts between our main characters.
Unlike Spider-Man, Batman or Superman, I never got into the Daredevil comics enough for me to judge the faithfulness of this movie. Frankly, it’s been so long since I read those books that I remembered very little of the DD universe. That’s probably a good thing, for unlike the others, I found it easier to take Daredevil on its own terms and not compare it to the character’s history.
However, that doesn’t mean I won’t contrast it with other comic book flicks, and Daredevil firmly falls in the Batman camp. (That’s the Tim Burton Batman camp, not the campy Batman camp.) During the audio commentary, director Mark Steven Johnson gleefully makes sure we know we’re not in Spider-Man territory here, but that doesn’t make Daredevil an especially original piece of work. Admittedly, this flick is even darker than Burton’s two Bat-movies, but it definitely owes a tip of the hat to those films.
This flick’s Matt Murdock also comes across an awful lot like a low-rent Bruce Wayne. He’s a sullen loner with a playboy’s affinity for the babes and an obsession with vengeance. As depicted by Affleck, he even varies his voice from his natural tones as Murdock to a rough growl as Daredevil, just like Michael Keaton did for Batman.
Despite all these similarities and others, Daredevil doesn’t really feel like a rip-off of Batman, and it actually presents a pretty good comic book experience. A lot of that stems from the actors. Unfortunately, Affleck isn’t one of the best elements of the movie. He seems perfectly decent in the role but he never adds any spark or flair to the part. At least in the first two Batman flicks one could blame the director, since Burton clearly favored his villains. That doesn’t occur here, for Johnson keeps Daredevil the focus much of the time. Affleck simply lacks the power and magnetism for this kind of role. He never becomes a liability, but he fails to sizzle either.
His fellow actors fare better. Farrell makes more than the most of his supporting turn as Bullseye. He chews the scenery with gusto in a genuinely over-the-top performance. Had we seen more of him, I’m sure the routine would have become tiring ala Alan Rickman’s desperate – and futile – attempt to inject life into Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. However, since Bullseye appears pretty sporadically, Farrell becomes a consistent pleasure to watch as he tears through his scenes.
Garner also brings solid grace and power to her parts of the film. She certainly looks great as Elektra, and she makes her action sequences believable. She also brings a sense of danger to the role that keeps her from becoming just another action chick. Favreau gets stuck with the traditional comedic relief part, but he acquits himself wonderfully. I know his moments are gratuitous attempts to lighten up the film, but damn if they don’t work anyway.
As with Affleck, director Johnson proves neither a boon nor a bane to the film. Clearly he wears his influences on his sleeve, but he makes Daredevil go at a good rate. Granted, the first two acts lack as much good action as I’d like, but things cook nicely toward the end.
Overall, Daredevil comes across as a good but unexceptional superhero flick. Its box office performance seems just about right for it: the movie’s $102 million gross makes it a modest hit but not a smash, and that’s what it deserves. I enjoyed Daredevil and thought it offered more than just a little excitement and fun, but it didn’t enthrall me like the best members of its genre.
Inside joke footnote: alert comic fans will notice scads of references throughout the film. In addition to cameos by Stan Lee, Frank Miller and Kevin Smith – who wrote a recent Daredevil series – we find the names of others listed at times during the flick. This becomes a little cutesy at times, but the film handles the incidents subtly enough that they won’t distract viewers who don’t get them.
Note that this DVD features the “R”-rated director’s cut of Daredevil. It runs a whopping 30 minutes longer than the theatrical version. That doesn’t mean it simply add half an hour of footage. That’s usually the case, but it also removes some elements in the theatrical rendition, so we get more than 30 minutes of extra shots.
The main addition comes via a subplot totally excised from the theatrical version. This relates to the slaying of a prostitute and the trial of suspect Daunte Jackson (Coolio). This leads to an investigation and defense mounted by Murdock. It’s interesting and helps flesh out some elements, but I think it slows the pacing and ultimately doesn’t add enough to the movie to justify its inclusion.
Other moments move by more quickly. There’s more of Matt and Foggy in the coffee shop before they meet Elektra; expect some funny moments there and elsewhere via the interaction of the two characters. Additional violence appears in some existing scenes plus new ones like a shot in which the Kingpin kills his bodyguards. More of Bullseye shows up in bits like his troubles getting past airport security.
Anyway, we get these changes and many more in the director’s cut. Do they improve the movie? In some ways, they help make it a better fleshed out piece of work. We certainly get a richer feel for the characters, and more humor appears. Foggy certainly receives much more screentime, and the Kingpin’s assistant Wesley (Leland Orser) also is allowed more of a role.
Although I enjoyed the director’s cut, I think I ultimately prefer the brisker, more visceral feel of the theatrical version. Actually, maybe a compromise would have worked best. Lose the entire Jackson subplot and keep the rest of the changes. That cut may have been the best mix of the bunch. In any case, I’ll stick with the theatrical take, but I’m sure fans will enjoy the chance to see this reworked edition, and many will likely prefer it.