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Daredevil, written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, 2003, 110 min.

Daredevil is another marker in the current trend of comic book adaptations in Hollywood. The floodgates have opened, and there seems to be no end in sight. This may be partly due to the never-ending quest for some kind of media property to exploit, and as such is only a subset of the Hollywood aversion to originality. But my basic cynicism towards adaptations of any kind in the entertainment industry has been diminished by recent successes like the visionary The Lord of the Rings movies, competent or passable diversions like the Harry Potter movies or Spider-Man, or even relatively faithful adaptations, like Daredevil, of less than outstanding source material. That is not to hold up Daredevil as any kind of recommendation to the jaded; the movie is riddled with problems of the most basic kind. However, I was expecting it to be much worse than it is, and in a small, dim way, I was surprised by its accomplishments.

Like most comic book stories, Daredevil begins with an origin story. Matt Murdock is a young boy living in a rough area of New York City. His father has given up on life and on being a boxer, and even though he has promised Matt that he doesnít work in crime anymore, Matt comes across him one day beating up some poor loser in an alley. Matt runs away in horror, only to inadvertently get sprayed in the eyes with hazardous waste in an industrial accident. Matt survives, and his other senses become sharpened because of the loss of his sight. Due to this accident and Mattís persistence, the father begins training again, and best of all, winning fights. Then one day, a gangster comes along and tells the father to throw a fight, his father refuses and gets killed in front of Matt. This puts all of the standard pieces in place, right down to the murdered parent.

All grown up, Matt is a lawyer by day and leather-clad vigilante by night, his violence guided by his near-supernatural ability to construct a picture of reality around him using sound alone. The grown up part of his story begins with a court case, as an obviously guilty rapist gets off scot-free. Thatís just the breaks for Matt Murdock, a lawyer bound by the confines of the judicial system. But Daredevil is a whole different story, as he tracks down the rapist that night, beating the tar out of a whole bar of people to get to the man, and eventually throwing him onto a subway to get ripped in half. The point of all this is to give some urgency to Daredevilís apparent moral ambiguity. At one point, the audience even gets our nose rubbed in it, as a young child cowers in fear from Daredevilís rage, and Daredevil says, ďIím not the bad guy.Ē What follows is like an amateur night vision of angst: Daredevil sits by himself, shaking his head, and says, ďIím not the bad guy.Ē

The superhero as antihero is an interesting story, and it could even be interesting here. But Ben Affleck trying to channel Frank Miller is not a pretty sight. At one point, we see Matt Murdockís back covered with scars, a vision straight out of Millerís oeuvre. But the makeup is never convincingly lived in; pretty boy Benís Daredevil is more petulant than dangerous, more poseur than driven by obsession.

The storyline, as earnest as it is, feels quite chopped up. The Matt as a boy section takes up a fair amount of time, and itís a predictable section of the movie. The first fight, used to establish Daredevil, also uses up a longish amount of the running time. After that, the movie introduces three more characters, and we have to watch as the movie sorts out a welter of cross-purpose plot indications. Daredevil meets a woman named Elektra, who gets her own backstory and for a while thinks Daredevil killed her father. Then Daredevil finds out that a crime boss named Kingpin killed his father, and Kingpinís hired assassin Bullseye is the one who killed Elektraís father. Thereís no backstory for the villains, which is unusual for a comic book story and somewhat refreshing. But in the context of an already disjointed story, we donít really understand these people, and the movie proceeds with the antagonists as only one-dimensional.

Daredevil looks glossy and dark, as would be expected from such a film. But thatís precisely one of the problems: of course a pseudo-antihero superhero movie will be set in the night-time, with a constant downpour, and all the other predictable trappings of such exercises in angst. Thankfully, the movie easily convinces us that Matt can sense whatís going around him by sound -- some neat effects combine a kind of sonar with an impressionistic wire diagram style visual. This is used nicely once or twice, as when Daredevil knocks on a post to expose a villain behind another post, or when he asks Elektra to stand in the rain so he can see her face. The conceit isnít carried through consistently -- at many points in the movie, I was wincing in anticipation of the pain Daredevil was supposed to be feeling at some loud sound (as the Flick Filosopher pointed out in her review, even the creaking of his skintight leather suit should drive him crazy). And I was a bit mystified as to how a blind man with an augmented set of other senses was able to fly around the cityscape.

Overall, Daredevil is a gesture in the right direction, but not much more than that. Itís a comic book movie that takes itself seriously but miscasts its main character, that looks slick but has a story assembled from incoherent pieces. Fans of the ongoing comic might want to give the movie a look (and especially the DVD with its generous coverage of the comic; see below). But there are better examples of comic book movies, and certainly better examples of movies that are adaptations of existing material.

DVD Note: Daredevil comes in a 2 disc DVD set. Disc 1 has the movie along with two commentary tracks and enhanced viewing options, while Disc 2 has a few interesting extras. The special features are divided into two subjects, the movie and the comic book. The first of the two has fairly typical making-of type documentaries, while the second has an hour long interview with important writers from the history of Daredevil. This is probably the most informative aspect of the DVD, considering Daredevilís relative pop-cultural obscurity.


Last modified: August 11, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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