Most movie adaptations worth talking about fall more or less into one of two groups: those that tend to be more satisfying to viewers without previous familiarity with the source material than to true fans, and those that tend to be more satisfying to fans of the source material than to casual viewers. Few manage to satisfy both audiences equally (a rare exception would be Peter Jackson’s first Lord of the Rings movie). Of course many adaptations please neither fans nor anyone else, but they aren’t worth talking about.
Daredevil is unquestionably a comic-book movie made for fans by a fan, writer-director Mark Steven Johnson (Simon Birch). The more familiar you are with the title character’s history and the world of comics generally, the more you’re likely to appreciate this retelling, which draws extensively from the source material and is full of throwaway
How you’re likely to feel if you’re not a fan is a question I’m probably too close to the source material to answer. The central events in this film come from stories I first read as a teenager, and they made a lasting impact on me.
Daredevil was created in 1964 by Marvel Comics patriarchs Stan Lee and Bill Everett, but reinvented in the 1980s by artist-turned-writer Frank Miller. Lee and Everett came up with the idea of a blind superhero whose remaining senses function with superhuman acuity, and later gave him another sense, a kind of radar. Miller’s contributions were a gritty film-noir style, a passion for martial arts and religious imagery, and a flair for reimagining a character’s back story.
Johnson’s dark, effective, sometimes troubling film shrewdly distills and conflates key events in the established continuity, and vividly conveys the hero’s experience of being able to detect the subtle drop in temperature before it begins to rain, hear a man’s heartbeat jump when he tells a lie, and and track the movements of dozens of assailants at once.
The film captures the essence of the comic-book stories, from its effective retelling of the childhood traumas that made Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck) who and what he is, to brief but deft glimpses of Matt’s relationship with his law partner Foggy Nelson (Jon Favreau), to the exuberant sparring of Matt’s first meeting with his lover-antagonist Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner), to Colin Farrell’s over-the-top performance as the psychotic assassin Bullseye, agent of criminal mastermind The Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan).
The well-told origin story, drawn straight from Miller, introduces us to Matt as a young boy (Scott Terra) who wants to look up to his aging prizefighter father Jack Murdock (well-cast David Keith, Behind Enemy Lines), a flawed man who wants his son to be a better man than he was. We feel young Matt’s disorientation and terror as he wakes up in a hospital bed after the accident, deafened by every sound, chafed by every surface, overwhelmed by disjointed perceptions of things on both sides of the walls of his room. In these scenes Keith brings tarnished, dogged decency to the role of Jack Murdock, while Terra as young Matt is the most sympathetic character in the film.
The transition from the gifted young child to the mask-wearing adult is too abrupt, unfortunately, and the grown-up Matt is far less accessible than his younger self. Partly this is simply due to the casting of Affleck, who just lacks the charisma and the range to play the driven, troubled hero. But partly it’s also the screenplay, or the editing, which doesn’t give Matt enough time to have a life away from the cowl. He’s more like the various aloof Bruce Waynes of the the Batman franchise than the more human heroes of Spider-Man or X‑Men.
Yet if we don’t get into Matt’s heart and mind, we do get into his experiences and perceptions. Particularly striking is the depiction of Matt’s radar sense, especially when enhanced by falling rain. To Matt’s hyperactive senses, the sound of each individual raindrop landing casts the surface on which it lands into sharp relief, illuminating faces and other objects like a shower of fairy dust.
In keeping with the theme of Catholicism with which Miller infused the book, Matt is raised Catholic, and his secret is known to a sympathetic priest, Fr. Everett (Derrick O’Connor), to whom Matt goes for confession — though as Fr. Everett himself rightly scolds, "You’re not coming for forgiveness, you’re coming for permission, and I can’t give you that." In spite of this, Fr. Everett can’t help resignedly giving Matt absolution anyway — which would be illegitimate in the real world, but is probably excusable in a comic-book movie — but not without a parting shot: "And I don’t like the costume!"
What is not excusable is what Matt has on his conscience as he comes to the priest: He’s just chased and fought an acquitted rapist onto subway tracks and then allowed the train to run him over. This is in glaring contrast to the comic book, in which DD once rescued even Bullseye from being struck by a train, and in which it’s repeatedly made clear that DD does not kill. Daredevil tries to grapple with the morality of justice and vengeance; yet as this scene suggests, its treatment of the issue isn’t always persuasive.
Nor is this the only instance of excessive violence in the film. In fact, Johnson had to repeatedly cut the film in order to qualify from the PG‑13 rating; whatever the rating, the violence is sometimes nastier than it needed to be, and is one of the film’s chief drawbacks (and, along with a sexual encounter between Matt and Elektra, definitely makes it inappropriate for young viewers).
In spite of this, the action and fight sequences are generally well-done, particularly the film’s true climactic fight between Daredevil and Bullseye in a cavernous church, which includes some nifty comic-book conceits before concluding with a pointless, jokey crucifixion motif. Wirework and some CG effects, though obvious, create an appropriately heightened super-hero physicality without going completely over the top into Crouching Tiger or Matrix territory.
Affleck as Daredevil isn’t the only miscast main player: Garner and Duncan are also wrong, as is Joe Pantoliano (Memento) in the supporting role of reporter Ben Urich. Garner looks nothing like Miller’s Greek beauty and lacks Elektra’s dangerous edge (though the character has been fundamentally reimagined anyway). Still, her performance is considerably more effective and engaging than Affleck’s.
The most glaring casting blunder is Duncan as The Kingpin. What makes Duncan so wrong for the role is not first of all his ethnicity (the original character is white), nor his muscular body type (so different from the massive but corpulent-looking figure in the comic book), but the persona he projects. The Kingpin is meant to be a chillingly cool criminal mastermind, a calculatingly brilliant strategist. Duncan was cast for his size and voice, not acting chops (probably a mistake in this post-Lord of the Rings world), and unfortunately no one will ever buy him playing a genius, criminal or otherwise, in any movie. Nor, despite his awesome size, does he generate real menace.
Ultimately, Daredevil works best as a triumph of screenwriting redaction and well-utilized effects over weak characterization and generally uninspired casting. As super-hero movies go, I rank it below Spider-Man, but above any of the films in the Batman franchise.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.