WFTB Score: 8/20
The plot: Fuelled by a burning sense of justice from his childhood, blind lawyer Matt Murdock spends his spare time dishing out just desserts to Hell’s Kitchen’s criminals. His world is turned upside-down by the arrival of sparky heiress Elektra Nachios, but the interference of the ruthless Kingpin in her family affairs causes both of them a world of pain.
There’s a quaint little quiz show on British television called Pointless, in which people attempt to answer simple questions with the most obscure answers, in an attempt to achieve the lowest possible score. For example, were the category ‘Stan Lee comic characters’, answers such as Spider-Man or The Hulk would be bad, because everyone has heard of them. However, in the UK at least, Daredevil would most likely be a very good answer, since he remains pretty much unknown despite this 2003 movie treatment. That’s not, however, entirely the film’s fault.
As a youngster, Matt Murdock (Scott Terra) worships his boxer father, until the moment the boy witnesses him working as a heavy for crime boss Fallon. Fleeing from the scene, Matt has an unfortunate collision with toxic chemicals which robs him of his sight, though his remaining senses are heightened, proving a useful compensation. Matt’s father is killed for refusing to throw a fight, which fuels the adult Matt’s (now Ben Affleck) passion for justice some years later, where he athletically rights the wrongs by night that slip out of his reach in his day job as a pro bono lawyer.
While being berated for his lack of ambition (and money) by partner Foggy Nelson (Jon Favreau), Matt catches the scent of a woman, Elektra Nachios (Jennifer Garner); and although their initial meeting is more martial arts-based than many first encounters, the pair eventually hit it off romantically too. Meanwhile, Elektra’s father Nikolas incurs the wrath of his boss Wilson Fisk (Michael Clarke Duncan), and despite Elektra and Daredevil’s best efforts they cannot save him from the deadly accuracy of Colin Farrell’s Bullseye, who makes a vengeful Elektra believe that Daredevil was the assassin. Though they resolve their differences, the heroic pair will have to be fearless – and make sacrifices – to bring down Fisk, aka the evil ‘Kingpin’.
Although Daredevil the character is undoubtedly influenced by Batman, it would be misleading to associate the films too closely; after all, in 2003 the last moviegoers had seen of the Dark Knight was in the execrable Batman and Robin, Chris Nolan’s reboot still two years off. So Mark Steven Johnson’s film deserves more than a little credit for its camp-free approach to the tale, which interestingly begins in the middle, with Daredevil severely wounded.
It’s interesting too that our superhero is a man of limited powers, meaning that he (for example) can’t prevent the death of Mr Nachios; he’s also a bundle of uncertainties, despite his profound claim of being a ‘man without fear’: he takes pills, has a confessor (Derrick O’Connor’s helpful Father Everett), and generally wears the weight of the world on his shoulders. Murdock has a lithe, lively partner in Garner’s Elektra, an affable comic foil in Favreau, and a quirky enemy in Farrell’s paper clip-flinging bad guy, whose exaggerated comic-strip nature works well, especially during cinema’s first and only* recorded fight on the pipes of a pipe organ. Perhaps best of all, amid the otherwise merely loud soundtrack there’s the wonderful Evanescence track Bring Me To Life, which excuses a multitude of sins.
Which is just as well, since Daredevil has plenty of sins that need excusing. The biggest problems lie in Daredevil himself, because his blindness never feels much more than a gimmick. In fact, because Murdock’s other senses are so acute that they allow him to, er, see, more or less, it barely even qualifies as a disability. Furthermore, for all his moral qualms, fancy moves and nice burgundy outfit, Daredevil is not so interesting. Johnson seems to admit as much halfway through, when the movie starts lingering jealously over Elektra’s leather outfits and athletic workouts instead: no bad thing for the viewer, but something of an indictment of the titular hero and Affleck’s (sadly) typical charmless performance.
It’s not that Affleck doesn’t do the action bits well, or even the tortured soul act, but that sneer on his face robs Matt Murdock of sincerity, vulnerability and warmth. That said, he’s not alone: Michael Clarke Duncan is, of course, a physically imposing figure, but his Kingpin is completely generic – the cigar, the laugh – and his battle with Daredevil provides half a climax at best; and quite what Joe Pantoliano is doing in the movie is anyone’s guess (actually, it’s not – his character, floppy-hatted reporter Ben Urich, is a plot device and nothing more).
I should also say that while Garner looks nice, she doesn’t exactly possess great range; her chemistry with her future [ex-]husband is all but spoilt by their risible impromptu fight, which recalls the illogic of The Avengers (which can never be a good thing), and the non-sexual sex scene becomes laughable as it resorts to the desperate cliché of the roaring log fire (which must have been a joke – tell us it was a joke, Mark!). Finally, there are some visual niggles: a lot of the fightwork looks fake, as does the improbable building-leaping where, just like Spider-Man, computer models fail to realistically replicate the actors’ movements.
Since Daredevil preceded Batman Begins, comparisons with Nolan’s instant classic are almost entirely unfair. On the other hand, if this film were more substantial or subversive it might be remembered alongside Nolan’s vision, rather than being totally eclipsed by it. Heck, Elektra got her own film in 2005, while Daredevil himself was left in the shadows/on the cutting room floor. A competent comic strip adaptation, Daredevil has a few things going for it; but in many respects it doesn’t help its own cause, and later, better films have made this one feel rather – what’s the word? –pointless.
NOTES: Prove me wrong, if you can.