Be wary of superheroes that seem like they were invented as puns. You might end up with a passionate mess, with 85% Dutch angles, undeveloped characters, and a soundtrack like a prepubescent DJ’s iPod on shuffle. “Justice is blind,” proclaims Daredevil. So is Matt Murdock. So is Mark Steven Johnson.
Johnson directs Daredevil knowing that comic books are all about movement, that dynamism is their first language and color pays the bills at the newsstand. He knows it so well that he overcompensates—everyone in Daredevil over-moves. Colin Farrell over-emotes his face as the insecure discount bin serial killer, Bullseye, dressed in Jack Nicholson eyes and trench coat. If Marvel got a toy line together for this movie, Bullseye would be the one every store has piles of. Jennifer Garner over-exerts as Elektra Natchios in fight sequences seemingly designed to whoosh by in a Wachowski Brothers kind of way, but awkward angles and tween TV banter musses its perfect hair.
Then preposterous music by Graeme Revell waltzes in; garage romance band Incubus helps serve Elektra and Murdock (Ben Affleck) their garage band romance, consecrated in early 2000s ‘tude and birthed in angst.
Murdock fights for justice by day as “the blind attorney of Hell’s Kitchen” and by night as Daredevil, Marvel’s red-leather Batman. He can hear saline drip like a car accident impact and he can hear car accidents in other states. Focus is an issue for him, but when he masters it he uses his power for truth and court justice by listening to the nervous hearts of guilty parties when they take the stand. This doesn’t seem to help him win cases, but it does help him make his hit list for the nightshift. When Daredevil picks up the legal slack, folks usually don’t survive. “I used to think one man could make a difference,” he rues, “Now I’m not so sure.” Maybe he’d feel better if he stopped bifurcating acquitted rapists with subway trains.
His father (David Keith) was a boxer killed by the mob, we learn in flashback. Young Murdock discovers his powers with a tad too much of the gee-whiz attitude Raimi used in Spider-Man (it only works when your protagonist’s apple pie smile makes you think he believes it himself). But the film properly begins in present day, with Daredevil slumped on a stone cross lit by shears of rain, so we know he grew out of it, if he ever had it to begin with.
He lives in a huge bank safe, surrounded by masks and lifeless walls. He sleeps in an isolation tank so he can’t hear the cries of his city. It’s a shame Johnson doesn’t linger on this because it’s a great little detail (even the recent Daredevil series on Netflix, better in almost every way, could have benefited from some of this theatrical angst). By showing him become vulnerable because of his powers, it asks an important question of the superpowered. What would happen to the world if Superman plugged his ears, for even just a second? Does he wish he could?
The “guardian devil,” said without a hint of the laughter it inspires in others, never addresses these questions. Johnson adapts quite a bit of the comic’s sinew but none of its heart. Artist John Romita pops up on a playbill. “Daredevil Born Again” author Frank Miller shows up dead in the street. Johnson will often recreate a comic panel verbatim (such as that stony cross from, you guessed it, “Guardian Devil”). But it’s merely reflective to its comic’s heritage and not inciteful about it, as Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho was to its original. I don’t mean it’s as bad as that—I just mean that it hasn’t grasped the characters within those action figure dioramas it painstakingly recreates.
Murdock is unique among superheroes as a devout Catholic. Even Superman, presumably raised a corn-fed Protestant, never has to practice or confess. It never comes up, and for Daredevil it never stops coming up. Murdock’s flagellating real-talk with Father Everett (Derrick O’Connor) only hints at Murdock’s conscience. The imagery here could have been relentless—bloodied devils, stigmata, angel wing, tears, cross, penance, death, rebirth. Everyone on the production knew that Daredevil was a religious man, but none of them, even the valiant Affleck, knew how to portray it. It’s all disembodied and ineffectual, like a diorama of Sistine cutouts.
No less so than the villainous posturing of Michael Clark Duncan’s Kingpin. He stands in a window smirking to “Lapdance” by N.E.R.D. and you have to wonder if this guy’s supposed to be a monster or just a dude. Studio intervention evidently removed the scenes in which he confirmed his presence as the film’s villain to keep it PG-13 (a rated-R version exists that I have yet to see). As a result, like so much in Daredevil, we have to take the movie’s word that he’s bad without any demonstration. Knowing that comics are about movement isn’t enough—Johnson needed to realize that they’re about visual storytelling, and risk the R-rating to show the characters demonstrating their talents. Instead they talk like it’s all a given. The studio hoped to please a broader audience, so it gave us a con for all ages. Yet the unaltered line in that song reads, “And I dare a motherf---er to come in my face.” Who is this movie for?
The manic editing, constant track shifts, perpetually tilted camera, and aerial zooms all contribute to the desperate feeling of a feature-length music video. The playground fight is particularly janky: it has the taste of Catwoman in it. It was hard for me to find a frame short enough to screenshot for this review. Daredevil wishes for the microcosmic vanity of the city in The Crow or any of the Gothic temperament of Tim Burton’s Batman. But it languishes in its under-processed characters, too numerous for a director that doesn’t feel like talking about why anyone does anything. He read the holy text but he didn’t get the message.
Daredevil’s sepulchral bed projects his inner demon for the two frames it's on-screen better than the surplus of once-trendy tunes and secondhand images. The whole thing feels like a professed Catholic that doesn’t attend mass: someone in the know, aware of the symbols, but not devoted to the commitments that count. I used to think that style could make all the difference. Now I’m not so sure.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Mark Steven Johnson
Mark Steven Johnson (screenplay)
Stan Lee and Bill Everett (characters)
Frank Miller (book)
|Matt Murdock/Daredevil||Ben Affleck|
|Elektra Natchios||Jennifer Garner|
|Wilson Fisk/Kingpin||Michael Clarke Duncan|
|Franklin "Foggy" Nelson||Jon Favreau|
|Ben Urich||Joe Pantoliano|
|Jack Murdock||David Keith|