As much as I’m a total nut for Spider-Man or X-Men, I jumped into Daredevil basically as blind as the horny hero himself. I’ve never read a Daredevil comic and I probably never will. In this instance, that enabled me to trudge into this particular screening experience a blank slate, influenced only by the titillating marketing campaign Fox has been shoving down before us.
After a brilliant opening credit sequence, perhaps the first I’ve ever seen to actually incorporate Brail, Daredevil settles in to the business of telling a story firmly from the perspective of a superhero who just happens to be very much blind. Cursed with sadly cliché origins, pre-teen Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck) is splashed with Toxic Waste. No, he doesn’t become a pizza lovin Ninja Turtle, but rather loses his sight. To compensate, the conveniently available sludge also enhances all his other senses, touch, smell, hearing (and I assume taste) pushed beyond the limits of normal human use. This gives him a sort of radar sense, a super-hearing that lets him see with his ears, rather than his eyes. With superpowers like that, you have to wonder if he’d have called himself Batman had the name not already been so selfishly taken.
Enter the obligatory and deliberately low-key origins montage. Matt Murdock grows up, and dons the slick leather reds of a superhero to, as all superheroes seem to do, avenge his father’s death. For all its frequent and nearly silly unreality, Daredevil is a movie in which people react to life in a very realistic way. Matt Murdock is very much limited by his lack of sight, and his life reflects that. He isn’t some puerile justice monger who lives a life dedicated to ideals that no real person could ever life up to. Sometimes he crosses the line. Sometimes he chooses hot steamy love over fighting crime. Sometimes he even questions whether or not he has become one of the bad guys himself. That focus on giving us the world through Daredevil’s eyes, or lack of them, is truly this movie’s strength, and the thing that most sets it apart from other superhero outings.
Daredevil is someone who has chosen to fight for justice on all fronts. By day he’s a lawyer, fighting within the system to make things right. When that fails though, he has no compunction about going out and taking care of things his way. Murdock’s lawyer persona is every bit as much “the real him” as is the leather clad one he wears at night. Both lives are intertwined parts of one man, not some multiple personality disorder battling for dominance within Daredevil’s head.
Yet at the same time, even though the movie focuses so closely on the man inside the suit, I never really felt like I identified with Daredevil or connected with him. There are so many nice touches director Mark Johnson uses here to try and draw you into his world and make you sympathize with him. Sure, by day he’s a lawyer, but a struggling one who works pro-bono in beat up old courthouses, REAL courthouses with bad fluorescent lighting, not posh justice palaces borrowed from Ally MacBeal. Then there’s “Daredevil vision” which is a brilliantly cool way to let us see the world the way Daredevil does. There’s human moments of struggle and sadness, of pain and overwhelming confusion as young Matt Murdock awakens in a hospital bed frightened, blind, and drowned by his new senses. All of that is great, but the character himself is still never someone you care deeply enough about.
Maybe Affleck just lacks the right kind of charisma. His acting here is a mixed bag of excellent inner conflict and bouts of morose blandness. Elektra suffers similarly, with Jennifer Garner never really “lighting up” the screen. Elektra’s relationship with Murdock lacks real heat. Yeah they have sex and yes there’s a beautifully crafted scene in the rain, that very nearly does take the romance up a notch or two. But ultimately their love seems pretty hollow and light, where maybe something a little more charged would have ended up working better. Both are decently acted, but easily overshadowed, even by something as simple as a cameo by Stan Lee or director Kevin Smith. It’s a relief to see the afterthought-wisecracking Foggy Nelson (Jon Favreau) show up just to goad Murdock into showing some excitement. It’s a joy to see Daredevil start kicking ass just because those are the only times, even if the action is all filmed with that horrid MTV shaky cam, that the character actually feels like he hits some sort of comfortable flow.
On the other hand, maybe it’s just the pacing that throws it all off. The beginning is slow and Daredevil’s origins are so uninspired that you’d no doubt be better off missing them and constructing something better in your head. It isn’t until Colin Farrell stomps on camera, staring down the screen like a drunken sailor ogling his next conquest, that things feel like they get rolling. Farrell has real presence, as does fellow baddie Kingpin, played by Michael Clarke Duncan. Duncan is boldly imposing, towering over the theater like he’s ready to step right out of the screen at any moment. Neither bad guy character is honestly all that creative, but Farrell and Duncan make it impossible for Kingpin and Bullseye to be anything other than interesting.
I just can’t help feel something is missing from Daredevil. Did someone take a hatchet out and edit things away to give it this halting, deliberate feeling? Daredevil is NOT a bad superhero film, it just could have been more. The environments are lush and detailed, though occasionally cartoonish. The gore levels are non-existent, yet somehow Daredevil makes you squirm with every cut by tricking you into thinking you’re seeing more than there really is. The soundtrack kicks hard and in more brilliance sound or lack of it is used as an integral part of Daredevil’s sonar seeing world. The ideas are grand, the fights fun if not perfectly filmed… but little lackluster flaws, and mediocre work by Affleck and Garner keep dragging it down.
Director/Writer Mark Steven Johnson has poured so much brilliance into the way he uses sound and effects to draw us inside Daredevil’s environment, that it is a shame that the man playing this particular hero doesn’t have the kind of screen shining power needed to get the absolute most out of wearing red leather tights. Chemistry is everything. Garner and Affleck don’t have it with each other and Daredevil never quite has it with the audience.
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