My father has an oft-repeated saying about understanding limitations: you can’t put 10 pounds of shit into a 5-pound bag. It would seem that the makers of Daredevil, as well as numerous other subpar superhero films, never had a comparable saying to guide them. In a lot of ways Daredevil feels like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, an assemblage of pieces without a coherent central storyline. Events don’t happen based upon story or character, they happen because people expect them to happen. It gives the audience exactly what they think it wants without drama or suspense. All it amounts to an unsatisfying cinematic experience despite flashes of visual flair.
At its best, the comic Daredevil is a personal drama, courtroom procedural, detective story, and superhero saga. Revisiting the film for the first time since theaters, and the director’s cut at that, the problem with the film is that it wants to be all of those at once in an entirely different medium.
The film features many winks and nods to the famed artists and writers of Daredevil’s past. While it’s nice to see their work and influence recognized, at a certain point it becomes slightly distracting. Minor characters are named Kirby, Colan, Romita, Bendis, and Miller, just to name a few. Much like trying to cram all of their names in, the film also tries to cram in all their styles. While, yes, each one of those named have left an indelible mark on Daredevil, their styles just don’t magically blend. Their impact upon the character are felt over hundreds of issues and decades, not 2 hours.
As a character, Daredevil has always been my guy. Matt Murdock is a character who arguably does more good as a lawyer than through his work as a vigilante. Intelligent and capable, Murdock is also a man of obsessions which have a way of wrecking his personal life. He never turns back, being the man without fear that he is, often to devastating consequences. Those consequences fuel the undercurrent of rage that manifests itself as Daredevil. Where countless superheroes are practically impervious, perhaps the most important characteristic of Daredevil is that his greatest strengths are also his greatest weaknesses.
Ben Affleck has become a lightning rod for scorn. While by no means great, I would argue that Affleck is perfectly decent actor who is treated like a genuine movie star without being a genuine movie star. Affleck’s rise to superstardom feels like he won a war of attrition. By simply having appeared in movies and being referred to as a movie star by checkstand tabloids, he has gained the title. Unlike his best friend and sometimes collaborator, Matt Damon, Affleck has done all this without having the distinction of an iconic role, or even appearing in a number of good films. The combination of being a number of bad films, staying away from his own strengths in roles, and tabloid chatter make Affleck an easy target. Daredevil only compounds this situation.
As Matt Murdock, Affleck plays him like a charming nice guy from a generic rom-com. While he plays most of this with breezy charm, it’s fluff that ignores the heart of the character. To make thing really baffling, Matt makes a passing joke about Fight Club, also produced by 20th Century Fox. Did Matt go see (is that the right word?) Fight Club? Wouldn’t the Foley effects disorient his radar sense? I know I’m nitpicking here, but it’s a really odd thing to just toss in there when the main character is, you know, blind.
Since I’m already nitpicking, the film’s courtroom elements are incredibly stupid. In the first courtroom scene, Matt and Foggy Nelson are serving as the prosecutor in a trial. Yes, two storefront lawyers are doing the work of the District Attorney’s office pro bono, and that’s cool. Their next court case has them operating as defense attorneys, and in one subplot the two attorneys break into a crime scene in order to conduct their own investigation. That may seem like the perfect job for a masked vigilante alter ego, but, no, do it in broad daylight no less. Just so you know, the second defendant is played by Coolio, confirming that Coolio was not murdered following his public feud with Weird Al Yankovic. However, his whereabouts following the 2010 Gathering of Juggalos have not been confirmed.
Anyways, when Murdock dons the mask, Affleck can’t bring the seething rage necessary. There’s nothing menacing or worthy of striking fear, and his ill-timed shit-eating grin doesn’t help. But as much as Affleck is a poor fit, the real disservice to the character comes from the writing. By not giving Matt Murdock anything resembling a story arc, his origin doesn’t propel the story forward, it just kills twenty minutes telling us about a character’s childhood.
The film tries to tell most of Daredevil’s most famous story lines in one movie – Born Again, the Death of Elektra, Last Rites, Battlin’ Jack Murdock (the movie calls him Jack “The Devil” Murdock. Bleech.), Daredevil’s origin, and a murder mystery/courtroom drama with Coolio. Condensing these stories just leads to ineffectual scene after ineffectual scene. Cut them all together you get a movie that is nothing more than a CliffsNotes version of a bunch of comic book stories.
The romance between Matt Murdock and Elektra is so brief. It certainly doesn’t help that Jennifer Gardner plays Elektra as a non-entity. The two flirty fight on the playground after they first meet. How cute. Then they go on one date and a fancy ball where Elektra’s father is murdered by Bullseye but she thinks Daredevil did it. Since she now must seek vengeance on who she suspects is her father’s killer, she dumps Matt. Their rooftop battle carries no weight, no tension has been built. It’s the same when Bullseye stabs Elektra. It proves, like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, that you can’t just transpose frames from a comic to the screen. Adaptation is necessary.
With Bullseye, Daredevil’s arch nemesis, the same could be said. The two battle only once before the climactic fight, and there’s nothing to indicate that this is larger feud. Collin Farrell gives the character the right level of derangement, eyes completely wild. But the character only appears on screen with other main characters maybe once each. His lack of presence doesn’t allow any real animosity to brew between characters. Not only did they make Bullseye look like the lamest member of the Trenchcoat Mafia, they give him the line, “I want a fucking costume,” and then don’t give him a costume.
Of all the wasted opportunities, none is more glaring than the complete under-use of Michael Clarke Duncan as Kingpin. With the perfect demeanor and intimidating size, it’s a shame they only gave him a handful of scenes. It’s even sadder when you realize he’s no longer around to play the role in a proper film.
Also perfectly cast and poorly utilized was Jon Favreau as Franklin “Foggy” Nelson, Matt’s partner and best friend. At the very least Favreau likely learned what not to do in a comic book film as evidenced by the first Iron Man, though it does seem possible he forgot all of that noise by the time he reached Iron Man 2. Another side character, Ben Urich (Joe Pantoliano), reporter for the Daily Bugle and longtime Daredevil character, only appears so stuff can reflect in glasses. Karen Page (Ellen Pompeo), Matt Murdock’s first comic book romance, only appears as a bit of fan service with maybe three lines of dialogue.
Out of spite to the legacy of Sergei Eisenstein, Daredevil relies on montages backed by music that was shitty in 2003 and even shittier now. There is absolutely no shame in the manner with which they try to hammer the audience with soundtrack. Every chance they get. If you’re curious to listen to the soundtrack, go down to your local Goodwill or Salvation Army and pick up copy.
Like he did with his other comic book film, 2007’s Ghost Rider (a surefire future entry in this series), writer-director Mark Steven Johnson shows glimpses of visual intrigue in an otherwise dismal and borderline incomprehensible film. His last effort, 2013’s Killing Season, featuring John Travolta with a laughable Russian accent is currently streaming on Netflix. Johnson, showing that he’s still capable of ruining beloved things, also served as producer on Grudge Match, which featured an aging De Niro boxing an aging Stallone – La Motta vs. Balboa, except they couldn’t call them that.
The director’s cut of Daredevil only makes the film feel worse with scenes and storylines taking seemingly forever to get nowhere. It furthers my theory that director’s cuts are typically inferior than the theatrical cuts because they restore moments that were rightfully cut in the first place. Do we really need an extended sequence of Bullseye arrogantly going through airport security?
Luckily for us, True Believers, the film rights to Daredevil have reverted back to Marvel. Next year a new series featuring the Man Without Fear will be streaming on Netflix, and overseen by Drew Goddard, director of the wonderful The Cabin in the Woods. In another good sign, it has been announced that the series will film in New York, whereas the 2003 incarnation tried to have Downtown L.A. double for New York City. In 2016, Ben Affleck will make his initial appearance as Batman. Whether or not that film will be any good remains to be seen, though I’m not exactly anticipating that film. Love him or hate him, Affleck is DC’s problem now, but he was nice enough to let them repurpose his old costume for TV’s The Flash.
Up Next: X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)