Marvel, being one of the Big Two with DC Comics, has a large number of heroes in its stable. Many got their start during the 1960s, when the threat of nuclear war was a palpable threat but the power of the atom was being harnessed for beneficial means. Characters from this time featured a brush with radiations, from Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider and gaining power to Professor Xavier taking in the children of the atom to become his X-Men. The focus of the review, Daredevil, was splashed as a young boy by radioactive waste leaking from a barrel*. The waste destroyed his sight but amplified his other senses, allowing him to see using a form of radar. The sight isn’t perfect; small details can’t be made out nor can he determine colour, but the power allows him to target opponents.
Matt Murdoch was the only child of “Battling Jack” Murdoch, a former pro fighter who got mixed up with organized crime to make ends meet. Matt’s mother was missing, presumed dead. After the accident, as Jack tried to go straight, Matt tested out the extent of his new found abilities. Unfortunately for Jack, there is no retirement plan from the mob. Matt soon became an orphan, but he was determined to be there for people who needed help. Murdoch worked his way through law school, and teamed up with Franklin “Foggy” Nelson to work in the old neighbourhood, Hell’s Kitchen. Where Matt Murdoch, lawyer, couldn’t get justice, Daredevil could. Along the way, Daredevil made a few enemies, including the Kingpin, who controlled crime in New York City, and Bullseye, the Kingpin’s assassin. Ben Ulrich, reporter for the Daily Bugle, was more thorn than enemy, but her did deduce that Matt Murdoch was Daredevil.
/Daredevil/ was created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett, with Jack Kirby providing the character’s original yellow and red costume, later replaced by an all red costume. While Lee was the first writer on the title, others followed, including John Romita, Sr, Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman, and Frank Miller. Miller’s run in the 1980s was key to increasing the title and the character’s popularity, introducing a film noir style to the comic. Once given the reigns as writer, Miller changed Daredevil’s backstory, altered the personalities of the supporting cast and rogues gallery, and revitalized the title. The introduction of Elektra and her relationship and romance with Daredevil occurred under Miller’s watch.
For the 2003 film, Daredevil script writer Mark Steven Johnson dug heavily into Frank Miller’s run on the comic. This is where I need to make an aside, to set up the remainder of the review. The version used for this review was the director’s cut, not the theatrical release. A featurette on the DVD goes into detail about the differences between the two. The theatrical release was mandated by the studio to be a PG-13 rated action film running under 100 minutes (actual runtime was 103 minutes) and included a romance between Elektra and Murdoch that was consummated onscreen. The director’s cut restored at least a half-hour’s worth of footage, including scenes between Matt and Foggy, a subplot about an innocent man accused of murdering a prostitute that led to a link through to the Kingpin, and Murdoch’s use of a sensory deprivation chamber to get peace. The cut also removed the love scene, showing Matt having to leave Elektra because of heroing business, and changing the plot, according to Johnson, from a “you stole/killed my girlfriend” ending to becoming a hero. The director’s cut has a total runtime of 133 minutes and received an R-rating from the MPAA.
The biggest change in the movie with the director’s cut was the feel of the movie. While there was still action, the changes brought the movie towards film noir, the same style that Frank Miller used during his tenure with the comic. The story starts in media res as Daredevil drops into a Catholic church. He explains what is happening, putting most of the movie as a flashback, starting with how he got the powers, how he lost his father, Jack “The Devil” Murdoch, to a mob hit, how he became the Man Without Fear. The first appearance of Daredevil is after Matt loses a case trying to prosecute a rapist; in costume, Murdoch tracks down the rapist and ensures that justice is served. Ben Ulrich, a reporter for the New York Post** specializing in urban legends***, has been following Daredevil sightings, trying to track down the elusive being. That night, Murdoch hears the murder of a young woman just before he seals himself inside his sensory deprivation chamber.
The next morning, Matt and Foggy meet for breakfast. Both notice an attractive woman enter the diner. Matt tries to get her interest, using his blindness as an opening for an introduction. When the woman leaves without telling Matt her name, he follows her to a playground. Naturally, the woman is annoyed at being followed and tries to show Matt the error of his ways, forcefully. They trade martial arts moves, nothing to injure the other, enough to first dissuade then to impress the other. Elektra Nachios gives Matt her name, but not her number or address; she’ll find him.
Afterwards, Matt rushes to the courthouse to meet with Foggy and their new client, a young man accused of murdering the woman Murdoch had heard overnight. Matt, able to hear the young man’s heartbeat, is reassured that the man is innocent and takes on the case. Meanwhile, the Kingpin, already upset about a leak in his organization, has to deal with a partner who wants to retire, Nicholas Nachios. The Kingpin calls in his best assassin, Bullseye. Bullseye has a power; he always hits his target, no matter what he throws.
An evening soiree later, Nicholas Nachios leaves in a rush, Elektra following. Matt detected the father’s elevated pulse and follows as Daredevil. He sees Bullseye take out the bodyguards and jumps into the fight to protect father and daughter. One of the first actions he has is to block a thrown missile from hitting Nachios. Or, as Bullseye put it, “He made me miss.” The fight ends when Bullseye hurls Daredevil’s baton at Nachios. An explosion makes it impossible for Daredevil to see the baton properly with his radar sense and the baton impales Nachios, killing him.
Elektra sees to her father’s funeral, then continues her training. She was never in a good place to see the fight and blames Daredevil for killing her father. Elektra manages to track down Daredevil; Bullseye tracks them both. In the major fight sequence of the film, Bullseye injures Daredevil and kills Elektra****. The flashback catches up to the beginning of the film as Bullseye enters the church to finish the job he started. During the fight, Matt discovers the identity of the Kingpin and that he was responsible for his father’s murder. Defeating Bullseye, Daredevil leaves the church to confront the Kingpin.
As mentioned, the movie uses the Frank Miller run on Daredevil to the point where Miller gets a cameo as well as Stan Lee. The film noir style is used for effect, giving the movie a grittier feel and setting up the sense of loss Murdoch has with Elektra. The acting holds up; Ben Affleck is able to be both Matt Murdoch and Daredevil, while Jennifer Garner makes Elektra memorable despite a lack of screen time. The main problem is pacing. Frank Miller’s run covered four years, a lot to pack into a two hour, fifteen minute movie. The director’s cut does involve most of the character’s supporting cast in one way or another, but there are moments where the film drags a little and where it feels rushed. A movie may have been the wrong format for the story told; a mini-series or a short TV series might have worked better, but wouldn’t have had the pull that a feature film does. It’s not even a case of too much story; the theatrical release managed to cut a subplot without too many issue. However, a longer format, one that could develop relationships, both beneficial and adversarial, would have helped.
* The same radioactive waste then spilled into the sewers of New York and on to four adolescent turtles. Really.
** The Daily Bugle is considered to be part of Spider-Man’s mythos, and Sony has the rights to that part of Marvel while Twentieth Century Fox had the Daredevil rights, since reverted back to Marvel.
*** In a missed shout out, Ulrich mentions that there are no alligators living in the sewers of New York City. He never said a word about turtles. The alligator may have been the Spider-Man villain, the Lizard, if Fox had the Spider-rights instead of Sony.
**** Or apparently kills. She gets better for the spin-off movie, Elektra.