On the heels the success of the X-Men, Marvel pushed forward to get other properties going. Spider-Man was in the works and so was the Hulk. This was before Marvel Studios existed and the company was working with other studios. There was no cinematic universe, because different studios had the rights. Then the Marvel brass worked out a Daredevil deal. Daredevil was getting a resurgence due to the Marvel Knights line (being one of Kevin Smith’s first gigs for the big two). Daredevil had a classic background among Marvel books and certainly, would be less costly than Spider-Man or the X-Men.
Add to that the interest from some high profile actors and everything seemed good on paper. And so the film got greenlit. Unlike the X-Men, Spider-Man and Hulk, they opted to go with a director who was relatively unknown. Daredevil was Mark Steven Johnson’s second film, having recently directed Simon Birch.
Casting news was where the strength was. You had Ben Affleck as the Daredevil/Matt Murdock, Colin Farrel as Bullseye, Jennifer Garner as Electra, John Favreau as Foggy Nelson, Joe Pantoliano as reporter Ben Urich and the most controversial choice…Michael Clark Duncan as the Kingpin. The fans were unhappy, because the Kingpin was a large and rotund white man. The problem is, there did not seem to be a way to translate that without it looking pretty comical. Duncan actually is a large man, and had both the muscle and height to be an imposing threat, as the Kingpin should be. Granted, this was years before Vincent D’Nofrio made the role his.
Oddest casting complaint: They totally whitewashed Electra!!! (for those unsure why this is so strange…Electra is Greek but more than one person seemed to think she was Asian)
The film introduces us to Matt Murdock. He idolizes his boxer father (a nicely cast David Keith) until the day he discovers that his father is also working for the local mob as an enforcer. Matt gets into an accident as he runs away and gets a chemical splashed in his eyes. Matt is blinded, but soon discovers his other senses have taken on enhanced sensitivity. It creates an echo effect that allows Matt to “see”. What is really neat in the film is that they do let us see from Matt’s perspective. The way the film shows his powers is pretty wild, a world that is turned into sensory braille.
Grown up Matt is a lawyer, specializing in helping the poor in Hell’s Kitchen by day and dressed up at night as the Vigilante Daredevil. The police deny he exists, but he does leave telltale signs. Ben Urich is trying to prove the Daredevil is real.
Daredevil himself is working to track down the Kingpin. He scours seedy locations for lowlifes working his way towards the Kingpin, as the law has been unable to take the crime boss on.
The Kingpin hires expert assassin Bullseye to take out Nikolas Natchios (Erick Avari). He and his daughter Electra are in town for a gala event. Daredevil interferes and had a battle with Bullseye. Bullseye succeeds in killing Nikolas using one of Daredevil’s fighting sticks.
Electra goes on a revenge kick and falls in love with Matt/Daredevil. Meanwhile, Bullseye is now trying to take out the Daredevil and Electra is trying to kill Bullseye, because it turns out she is a ninja because…of course she is.
In a fight with Bullseye, tragedy strikes and Matt finds himself on his own. He is getting more and more desperate, and eventually takes down Bullseye. He manages to get to the Kingpin, in a big fight, the Kingpin is taken down. Happy ending, people!
The film got a very lukewarm reception when it opened on Valentines Day. This is not a totally unexpected. It is not a terrible movie, but it is far from perfect. The story seems to attempt to force a lot of stuff from the comics. It is clear that the primary source of inspiration comes from Frank Miller years. No big surprise, as those were part of the innovative years of Daredevil (before his more recent run by folks like Ed Brubaker).
But there seems to be some problems with a single movie that takes a massive character arc and compresses it. The film tries to take the character from a positive place and drag him through hell, all while also bringing Electra into it and having him take down the Kingpin. It seems a bit counter intuitive, considering they were attempting to get a franchise started. The darker edge seems like it might have been better saved for a sequel, as it all feels very rushed and not fleshed out here.
There seems to be confusion in the script as how to present Daredevil as well. Noble hero or grim vigilante. You have a sequence where he could save a rapist he failed to put away or let him get killed. Yeah, he may be a rapist and therefore scum…but it really is not the best portrayal to show Daredevil so callous about death. Then there is the moment where Daredevil dives in through a window and takes to pummeling one of Kingpin’s enforcers. Daredevil realizes that he is being watched…by the enforcer’s terrified kid. This would have been a great bit in a stronger film. In a sequel, you could have really sold a tale about Matt Murdock wallowing in darkness and being pulled back to reality. And that is what they are trying to do here…but it never has enough time to make it work.
It is nice the way they try and weave Murdock’s Catholicism into the story (with some great shots of Daredevil standing atop a cathedral to boot). It is fairly nicely handled with some interaction between Matt/Daredevil and his Priest.
Affleck does pretty well, though he and Garner (ironically for the time) don’t have a lot of chemistry. I am not sure I feel Ben fully carries the movie as a solo hero, he has little support from other heroes like the X-Men. Colin Farrel is pretty entertaining and he clearly just decided to really ham it up.
The odd thing with Bullseye is he has no costume. On the one hand, I get the concerns about his outfit from the comics. On the other, they gave Daredevil a pretty close approximation to his comic book costume. Bullseye simply has a bullseye carved into his forehead.
Jennifer Garner is kind of lifeless. I never really buy Electra’s hearbreak and thirst for vengeance-even though they give us a training montage set to a Evanescence song. The direction of the film feels pretty pedestrian, resulting in a film lacking real identity. And nothing really saves it. There is not a real unique sense of style to the film.
The film does a nice job in addressing Matt’s powers though-including how distracting they can be. In the film, he sleeps in a sensory deprivation chamber. And as I said, the times when we see things through Daredevil’s sonar are nicely handled.
But ultimately, while I appreciate the effort, in the end it is a film that is simply “okay”. The director’s cut is actually a slightly improved version, though the flaws remain.