November 12, 2003
The superhero genre is one that is ideally suited for the transition to the big screen, full of larger than life colourful characters with classic good versus evil struggles. Recently there has been a renaissance in these films & the latest hero to hit the screen is the lesser known Daredevil starring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan and Colin Farrell.
The movie opens well with our hero beaten & bruised in a downtown church. We quickly cut back to how the young Matt Murdock became the sightless vigilante of the night. Blinded by a toxic chemical spill young Matt awakens in hospital to find his other senses heightened, so much so that he can actually ‘see’ sound (more on that later). Life takes a further downward turn when his father, an aging boxer, is killed for refusing to take a dive. As with most hero origins it is this moment which sets the youngster on his destiny as the costumed hero Daredevil. These early scenes are great and set up the 50’s pulp noir style that is maintained throughout, indeed the look of the film is suitably dark & director Mark Steven Johnson brings a gritty moodiness to the proceedings.
Daredevil as a film is a bit of a mixed bag, coming off the back of recent hits such as Spider-man, X-men & the Blade movies it tries to emulate their success but doesn’t really pull it off. However its not all bad news, Affleck is surprisingly good as Matt, at odds with his duel role as upholder of the law by day & vigilante by night. He brings a realism to the character & despite being capable of superhuman feats of athleticism the film demonstrates that Daredevil is a very human crime fighter both physically & emotionally; sleeping in a soundproof flotation tank and far from invulnerable – pulling a battle loosened tooth from his bloody jaw after a nights crime fighting – Daredevil is a man in constant conflict with the two sides of his persona. Affleck’s performance, particularly as Matt Murdock rather than his nocturnal alter-ego conveys this well. Jennifer Garner is also good as the ambiguous Electra, another solitary figure driven by vengeance. The central relationship between these two characters is well handled, despite a rather odd first meeting – would Matt really show off his skills so readily if attempting to hide his alter-ego? – and is at the core of the movie more so than the poor revenge plot. There is able support from John Favreau. As Matt’s friend and colleague in their law firm he brings a light touch and some comic relief to the movie. Other actors are wasted such as Joe Pantoliano as the clichéd investigative reporter, this character adds nothing & should have been left on the cutting room floor.
No superhero movie is complete without some suitable villains for the hero to tussle with but this is one of the areas where Daredevil falls short. The bad guys are paper thin, almost inconsequential. Michael Clarke Duncan is OK as Kingpin but has so little to work with, he is supposed to be the crime lord of NY but this is never fully explained or made believable. Colin Farrell is hilarious as Bullseye, but for all the wrong reasons! He seems to have phoned in his performance, lazily hamming it up. Again the character is never fully fleshed out unlike the hero and there is a distinct imbalance between the characterisation of the good guys and the bad guys. As such the revenge aspect of the plot is less than engaging and it is really only the Electra/Daredevil dynamic and Ben Affleck’s strong central performance that holds the film together.
Taking its cue from the current Hollywood obsession with Hong Kong style action the screen fights in Daredevil are decidedly average. Wholly reminiscent of better fights in films such as Blade I/II, X-Men & of course The Matrix they are boring & the glaringly obvious lowlight of the film. We have seen it all before, and there is no wow factor or adrenalin rush when hero and villain meet. We should be thrilled, cheering on the good guy as he battles his enemy but the action is poorly filmed & clumsily edited leaving a confused mess of punches and kicks mixed in with some not so special FX when the actors are replaced by digital stuntmen (the new bullet time). On some occasions a few rare new touches are added with Daredevils unique way of ‘seeing’ the world presented to the audience in a brilliant way along with subtle use of sound effects; chasing down one villain our hero taps his staff against railings to create sound waves, which give him an almost supernatural image of his quarry.
How Daredevil perceives the world is essential to this film and is brilliantly brought to the screen not only, as mentioned, in the fight scenes but also throughout the film. The use of sound is well handled, some brought to the foreground others drift into the background reflecting the crime fighters heightened senses. His ‘sonar vision’ is immediately convincing thanks to great visuals. One brilliant moment has Matt on a rooftop with love interest Electra. Telling her why he loves the rain as each drop falls we see as he does, the sound waves reverberate off her body creating a haunting vision with an icy blue hue. This idea is wonderfully revisited later in the film but with different connotations and the seemingly unbelievable idea of a blind superhero is made totally convincing, one of the films strengths.
Overall Daredevil is a bit of a wasted opportunity. It has a strong central character whose abilities are uniquely brought to the screen. The direction in the films more dramatic moments is good with a style reminiscent of Tim Burton that suits the character of Daredevil. However the films dark, moody look is undermined somewhat by the rock/rap soundtrack that is annoyingly present throughout the film. The incidental score is totally forgettable and there is no real heroic theme for the crime fighter. In general the character development of the good guys is done well, but what good is a superhero movie with a soul if the action scenes are so uninspiring, slowing down the film when they should advance it. If only they had been up to the level of the more dramatic moments which, despite occasionally being reminiscent of a feature length TV pilot are the films highlights. The bad guys are poor & given little screen time to develop and as a result the plot is pretty weak. Both Daredevil and Electra are great characters but just as their relationship is starting to get interesting & more complex the film rushes through to its anticlimactic good versus evil finale. There are moments when the film hints at the brilliant superhero movie it could have been with some original touches and an interesting hero but, whilst nowhere near as bad as the likes of Batman & Robin, Daredevil ends up as an average superhero film and hardly essential viewing.