My take on Daredevil may be different from that of many critics because I’m a fan of the comic book on which the movie is based (and of comic books in general). Over the years, I’ve had great interest in films that bring comic book characters to the big screen, and 2003 is bound to be a banner year for that interest. The coming months will bring us Hulk, X-Men 2 and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. My hope is that these movies will live up to my expectations the way Daredevil did.
It pleased me that the movie didn’t give short shrift to the character’s origin. In a 15-minute prologue, we learn the story of young Matt Murdock. His father (David Keith) was a champion boxer who descended into a booze-addled existence. He also worked as a low-level organized crime thug. Matt witnessed his father roughing a guy up and ran away in horror. In the process, a freak accident caused him to get sprayed in the face with radioactive material. He was permanently blinded, yet also developed heightened senses, including an increased hearing that allows him to perceive things like radar.
Matt’s father was murdered not long after staging an amazing career comeback. As an adult (played by Ben Affleck), Murdock is a lawyer who specializes in representing underdogs. He works with partner Franklin “Froggy” Nelson (Jon Favreau) for little money. By night, he puts on a maroon leather costume and fights crime as a vigilante. His name is Daredevil; his gravity-defying feats have rightfully earned him the moniker “the man without fear.” Murdock does this as a way of exorcising his demons; he feels the need to get revenge against the kinds of criminals who killed his father.
Early in the film, Murdock meets a young woman named Elektra (Jennifer Garner). She is the one bright spot in his life, and one of the few people as skilled a fighter as he. Meanwhile, the villainous Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan) - a ruthless man who runs all the crime in New York - hires an assassin named Bullseye (Colin Farrell) to take out one of his business associates, who just happens to be Elektra’s father. Bullseye is a skilled marksman who never misses. In one scene, we witness him kill a man simply by hurling paper clips at him. Murdock figures out what is happening and dons his Daredevil costume to defeat Bullseye and take down Kingpin once and for all.
I’ve long been drawn to superheroes who were kind of dark and brooding. Superman was always kind of boring to me because he’s one-dimensional – an indestructible being from another planet. My two favorites, on the other hand, are Batman and Wolverine, both of whom have tormented pasts that account for their present-day behaviors. Daredevil is the same way. The movie doesn’t back away from that. One of the themes here is vigilantism. Murdock repeatedly tells himself that he’s “not the bad guy” but he can’t be sure. While pummeling a punk, he notices the guy’s kid watching and crying in fear. Murdock grapples with the idea that he might not be any better than the people he’s fighting. Just how good can a guy who takes the law into his own hands be anyway?
I like that theme, and I like the fact that Daredevil keeps the focus on the characters. The relationship between Murdock and Elektra is believable, and it has a surprising resolution. Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson (Simon Birch) clearly recognizes that the fascination with superheroes comes from their motivation. The costumes aren’t nearly as interesting as the psychology that leads the characters to wear them. Daredevil is not a movie concerned with special effects and mindless action; it’s an examination of the psychology of costumed vigilantism.
That is not to say that the film lacks action or effects. It has both. The effects credibly make it seem like Daredevil is flying through the air. The action scenes are definitely exciting, and they actually add something to the story. As in a good comic book, the action compliments the story and the character development rather than overshadowing it. Johnson has an obvious affinity for Daredevil as more than just a superhero; he wants to explore what makes this tortured soul tick.
Ben Affleck – himself a devotee of the comic – makes a perfect Daredevil. He understands Murdock’s moral dilemma as well as the demons that drive him. It’s a good performance matched fully by Jennifer Garner. She is not merely eye candy here (a flaw that too many comic book movies unfortunately make). Elektra is a tough, intelligent woman with a few demons of her own. Garner, the star of TV’s “Alias”, makes a strong impression. Bullseye perhaps doesn’t occupy as much of the movie as he should, but Colin Farrell brings such charisma to the demented assassin that he’s instantly rendered one of the most memorable villains ever in this type of movie. The actor gives Bullseye a winning combination of deadly precision and mental instability.
The comic book movie has become a genre all its own. The low end is made up of cheesy films produced simply to capitalize on a well-known franchise. If you’ve ever suffered through, say, the Captain America movie, you know what I mean. In the middle are movies like Blade and its sequel, which were good if not necessarily groundbreaking. On the high end, for me at least, you have the masterpieces: Tim Burton’s original Freudian Batman and Bryan Singer’s X-Men, which dealt with themes of tolerance and political discrimination. Those films just oozed ambition. Slightly below that level are the comic book movies like Spider-Man – pictures that really do a fantastic job bringing these characters to the screen in a smart, sophisticated, and entertaining way. Movies, in other words, that respect the creations of fine comic book writers like Stan Lee and Bill Everett. Daredevil certainly belongs in the pantheon of comic book movies to get it just right.
( 1/2 out of four)
Daredevil is rated PG-13 for action violence and some sensuality. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.
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