With this week’s premiere of the Netflix Daredevil series, we thought it would be fun to resurrect this March 1, 2003, review of the Ben Afflect Daredevil flick.
In order, my favorite live action comic book movies are Batman Returns, The Phantom, Supergirl, Batman and X-Men. I mention this only to give you a gauge in which to measure this critique. There are certain common threads in these films. They deal with heroes who are close to their sources. They are all technically accomplished films with strong directorial intent, and they all have original scripts that only borrow elements not storylines from previous comic book adventures. Daredevil I’m sorry to say shares little in my opinion with these more entertaining films.
There are some assets to Daredevil. Ben Affleck, whom I neither like nor dislike, is convincing as Matt Murdock and as an urban vigilante. I hesitate however to call him Daredevil for reasons that will be discussed. Jennifer Garner star of Alias is the finest actress on television, and naturally her portrayal of Elektra is phenomenal. The chemistry between them is crystalline, and I kept wishing for more of the love story than the alleged comic book elements. The supporting cast also give strong performances. The direction impresses. The dialogue for Daredevil is well written. The film is technically well made, but it’s not a well put together film and fails to produce the essence of what makes Daredevil distinctive from other heroes.
I remember idiots from far and wide panning Spider-Man, a film I never have seen, because the movie Spidey biologically synthesizes his own fluid while the comic book Spidey makes his web in a beaker. The departure in Daredevil is more than superficial. It fundamentally changes the character and affects the entirety of the film. Daredevil in the movie is a killer.
I am not against heroes who kill. I am a big fan of the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films. Killing can be found in Bond’s job description, but Bond does not wantonly kill nor are the eliminations unjustified. The filmmakers show the villainy and the need for Bond’s skills. There is a line asked by Bond’s former rival and now friend in Goldeneye that beautifully sums up Bond’s role: “What did he do to deserve you?” Furthermore, although an assassin for Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond goes beyond his function. He often risks his life for the sake of humanity. In Tomorrow Never Dies for instance, Bond ignores orders to pull out of his fact-finding mission because a pre-emptive strike threatens to detonate a jet fighter’s arsenal of nuclear missiles. Bond selflessly takes the more dangerous option of infiltrating the weapons bazaar and pilot the plane out of range of the incoming friendly fire. In contrast to Bond, who is licensed to kill, Daredevil risks his life for nobody and kills only to vent his anger. Never do the filmmakers justify any of his homicides.
In the film, Matt Murdock represents a rape victim, but we never see exactly what kind of defense he provides for her. An airtight case would have given his actions somewhat more credibility. We also never learn how the system has been corrupted. Are we to assume jury tampering? The court scenes are glossed over and dismissed as unimportant. The filmmakers are mistaken. The end result leaves the viewer unsatisfied. The appearance seems to suggest that Matt has accepted the corruption of the legal system, plays his part in the system–how well we shall never know–and simply lets his target stay free so he can later as Daredevil kill him.
The rapist in the story is prepared as the lamb for the devil’s unappetizing feast. Daredevil tracks him to a sleazy bar, and instead of waiting for him to leave besotted and likely alone, he predictably wars against every plug-ugly presence to excuse a shallow display of pyrotechnics. He then tracks the fleeing rapist to the subway, scares the idiot onto the tracks and then lets the subway slice him in two. Our hero.
If Daredevil’s intent is to kill criminals, why even study law? Why put on a red suit? Why use a stick? Daredevil’s radar sense should allow him the ability to operate a submachine gun quite nicely, and this would allow him to kill many, many miscreants who escape his vaunted prowess in the courtroom. Of course then you would have another Punisher movie, but whereas there is a stark contrast between the Punisher and Daredevil in the comic books–especially during the Frank Miller/Klaus Jansen era; there is no such contrast in the film.
Daredevil is technically the film’s hero only because the filmmakers insist. We do not see any evidence that he is the hero. You root for Bond, but it will be very difficult for anybody to cheer Daredevil. The character’s humanity can be found in Matt Murdock, but Daredevil is presented as an alter-ego in every sense of the word. He’s quite possibly insane, and these elements simply do not fit with the more recognizable characterization.
Daredevil’s almost casual killing not only damages the character. The acts undermine the impact of his attempted murder of Bullseye. Bullseye becomes just another of bloody guy at the end of the billy club. Compare these scenes to the source material where upon learning of Elektra’s murder, it seems after all these years Daredevil has crossed the line. Instead, he maintains his heroic dignity and metes out Bullseye’s sentence for his crimes. He cannot kill Bullseye without becoming an entirely different character.
The filmmakers probably saw the change in Daredevil’s character as a very tidy way to solve certain problems: how can Elektra be manipulated into believing Daredevil killed her father and how can we take seriously a guy in tights who fights crime. The change however does not solve any problem. It leaves the movie empty and contrived. It creates a schism for the film. Is this a super-hero movie where good triumphs over evil and women can leap twelve feet without the aid of wires, or is this a realistic study of a vigilante as hollow as the Deathwish guy? The movie tries to do both and ends up accomplishing neither.
There are other problems within this film. It tries to do too much without giving thought to pace or motivation. The Kingpin is given the status of an archvillain, and yet the only crimes we see him promote are the framing and the killing of Elektra’s father which really does not make sense. Is he the Kingpin of the drug trade? We see no evidence of drugs. Is he the Kingpin of prostitution? We see no evidence of hookers. Is he the Kingpin of money laundering? What exactly does he do that he deserves Daredevil? Another problem with the film is that it fails to establish a history between Kingpin and Daredevil apart from the traditional “You murdered my father.” routine: a fact Matt knows nothing about until the end of the film. So why are these two enemies? The comic books incrementally show Daredevil becoming Kingpin’s nemesis. The movie expects you to blindly accept.
The other villains of the film make little impression. Bullseye is a cliche. We’re supposed to laugh with this murderous cretin as he kills his way to New York and offs several annoying people. We are supposed to thrill to his horsing around on a motor cycle and accept that all killers listen to heavy metal. He is supposed to represent our darker thoughts unleashed. I found him tiresome. Colin Farrell does well with what little he has, but really there’s nothing to this character that we haven’t seen before in countless other low-budget films. They have taken a unique monster and turned him into a trite happenstance. Too much is done too soon. Elektra isn’t immediately killed in the comic books. The readers are given time to grow fond of her before she is killed. They’re given the time to understand what she means to Matt. The movie is like a whirlwind tour. She’s killed with as much thought as the exasperating name-dropping.
Ben Affleck is a willing Daredevil. Jennifer Garner embodies Elektra a well as she embodies Sydney Bristow. I just wish they were in a different movie that really brought Daredevil to the big screen.