Daredevil (2003)

daredevil film

What an ignominious end for Daredevil. Unloved during its initial release and relegated to bargain bin hell thereafter, the 2003 film has been resurrected, in conversation at least, because of the success of Netflix’s critically acclaimed series of the same title. If it was a good punching bag before, it’s even more so now as it faces a fresh round of abuse.

With so many mercilessly mocking this movie these days though, there’s a bit of an underdog that almost makes me want to defend it. Daredevil is thirteen years old, a mere teenager, but seems much older. Christopher Nolan’s entire Batman franchise could be a lifetime; add to that an X-Men reshuffle, a Spider-Man and Superman reboot, and those minor Avengers flicks. Daredevil’s primary failing could be that it is hopelessly square, a product of a time when fancy acrobatics, growling villains, and a tight suit just might do the trick.

Fans have come to expect a certain sophistication and gradiosity when it comes to their superhero movies. Nolan tapped into audiences’ hunger for dark, psychological heroes and anti-heroes, in some ways elevating such films above mindless popcorn fare. Marvel, meanwhile, with its ever-expanding cinematic universe, has excelled at the “super” part of superhero. It’s not just that their explosions are bigger or that they achieve urban destruction on a more massive scale; they also have whole, imagined worlds to play with – how many of us wish we could jump through a portal to visit Asgard? Moreover, their characters have so much bombast, a lone sequel can’t contain these larger-than-life personalities.

Daredevil never reaches that level of intensity. There is a distinctly darker tone that presages Nolan, but ultimately the film resembles a grittier Joel Schumacher Batman. Both have a pulpy, comic book aesthetic, like when Daredevil’s hulking shadow emerges in an alley to scare a tough, but most of its attempts to be edgy instead come off moody. The hero’s alter-ego, blind lawyer Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck), provides a mopey, self-important voiceover. And though it will make your eyes roll, it matches the emo fight scenes, which are shot like an early 2000s grunge-metal music video (infamous seesaw fight excepting).

What surprised me most, after I’d binged on the Netflix show I should add, is how remarkably small scale this supposed blockbuster turns out to be. Michael Clarke Duncan plays a hulking Kingpin, a physical and criminal force of nature who masks his illegal activities in a cloak of corporate respectability. Duncan eats up the screen with his toothy grin and an evil laugh that comes from some dark recess of his belly, but he doesn’t appear enough to be a true menace. That job is outsourced to Bullseye (Colin Farrell), a trigger-happy assassin, if his weapon of choice was a gun. It’s not; he prefers to kill with every day objects like paper clips and peanuts.

And while death by playing card has its appeal, the film is limited by its linear storyline and static characters. The generic, ill-defined goal is to get the big, bad guy, a man whose evil is proportional to his size. Affleck has gotten the most heat for his portrayal of the title character. It’s true he can be something of an emotional blank, but that’s more a fault of the writing. There’s not much duality between Matt and Daredevil. By day, he has the air of a smug jock. He basically stalks Elektra (Jennifer Garner) after their initial meeting and then is surprised when she fights back because a stranger invaded her personal space. As Daredevil, he really is the Man Without Fear, a self-assured vigilante who is not all that conflicted about righting injustices the way he sees fit in his Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, even if it means pushing a rapist in front of a train. The stakes are pretty low until the end of the second act when he’s framed for a death. Elektra, by now his girlfriend, turns against him, and Garner’s vengeance-fueled performance gives the final act a good kick.

After my Netflix Daredevil marathon, I feel I need to add some thoughts related to the show. The film probably doesn’t deserve the drubbing it got, and continues to get, but the series certainly magnifies the movie’s shortcomings. So much of what doesn’t work is dispensed with, and the best and biggest improvement is a reimagining of genre. Daredevil as a man with fear – rather than a superhero – lends an intimacy to the whole story. Absent Spider-Man-like dives from skyscrapers and Superman levels of invincibility, he makes a far more sympathetic character. The extended form certainly helps flesh out the story and characters, but so does blurring the lines between good and evil. It’s not just Daredevil vs. Kingpin, but Daredevil vs. Matt Murdock and Kingpin vs. Wilson Fisk.

Released: 2003
Prod: Avi Arad, Gary Foster, Arnon Milchan
Dir: Mark Steven Johnson
Writer: Mark Steven Johnson
Cast: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell, Michael Clarke Duncan, Joe Pantoliano, Jon Favreau, David Keith
Time: 103 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016