As a kid, I read a lot of comics. In fact, I devoured them, typically going through two or three a day. There were a lot of comics I read on a regular basis. But the two characters I never missed out on were Conan and Daredevil.
My love for Conan goes back further than I can remember, but my love of Daredevil is much more personal.
When I was born, I was essentially blind. The diagnosis was congenital cataracts. In order to regain my sight, I was one of the youngest babies ever to have corrective eye surgery. The story didn't end there. As a kid, I wore ultra-thick bifocal lenses. I had continued bouts with other visual impairments, including detached retinas, extreme photosensitivity and most of all, severe glaucoma. To this day, I take two forms of eye drops, have extensive check-ups every few months and I do not drive a car.
And through it all, the only thing I will not tolerate is anyone feeling sorry for me.
Like everyone else who has had some impairment, I have dealt with it. These days, my glasses are considerably thinner. I have adapted to the world around me with relative ease. I have had the benefit of a loving family and supportive friends. I live a fuller life than most people and if it's not as full as I'd like it, that's my own doing. Whining and boo-hooing because you're not a perfect physical specimen has never benefited anyone. And as my doctor once said, "It's only a handicap if you treat it as one."
In other words, my eyes are far from a handicap. But a chip on my shoulder would be. Believe me, it's no big deal.
The DAREDEVIL comics had at least some influence in building my self-confidence. Here was a guy who had a rough childhood and then had his sight snatched from him. Still, he became a selfless hero, both in the courtroom and on the streets. As the covers always shouted, Daredevil was "the man without fear." Overdramatic? Sure, but that's what many comics are all about and as an impressionable youth, I ate it up.
So, when I heard that Daredevil would finally be getting the cinematic treatment, I was very excited, but also very critical. Batman, X-Men and Spider-Man are all great, but this is one character they had better not screw up. Surprisingly, I found myself in a more forgiving mood after actually sitting through the thing.
After a trip through his origins, we meet up with an adult Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck - and yes, he was the bomb in PHANTOMS). Murdock is a lawyer, who of course, only defends people who are innocent and down on their luck. If he loses the occasional case, no problem. At night, he dresses up in a stunning crimson bodysuit, turns his cane into a lethal weapon and busts the criminals on the streets.
That's the good thing about losing your sight to a chemical spill. You may not see a single color of the rainbow, but your other senses are enhanced. Murdock has incredible hearing and smell, which enables him to locate anything with just a little adaption - an exaggerated take on the very techniques I described earlier.
But Murdock feels he may be slipping away. The line between hero and vigilante is slim and he's walking the tightrope. He doesn't tie these criminals up in some webbing for the police to arrest, so much as smugly wait for a gangster to get severed in half by an oncoming subway. Much like another pointy-eared hero, Daredevil tries to reassure himself that he still fights for justice.
As his desire to lead a normal life increases, he meets Elektra (Jennifer Garner - ALIAS). The daughter of a wealthy businessman, Elektra is everything Murdock has been looking for. She's smart, witty, athletic and she has a good heart. But of course, outside forces will threaten that relationship. Though they will ironically have even more in common, when all is said and done.
Pulling the strings for the villains is Adrian Fisk, a.k.a. Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan - THE GREEN MILE, PLANET OF THE APES). Like a modern-day Al Capone, he runs the city's underworld and is responsible for most of the crime on the streets. All the while, he keeps his nefarious activities secret. In his employ is a cold-blooded assassin named Bullseye (Colin Farrell - PHONE BOOTH, MINORITY REPORT). Bullseye is about the most ruthless person you could imagine. He has an enormous ego and a skill for always hitting his mark, no matter what he throws. This skill is used to dispatch everyone from heroic crimefighters to annoying old ladies.
Daredevil has been filmed before, in the horrid TV movie, THE TRIAL OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK. Not only did they take all the oomph out of the costume, they took all the character out as well. He was reduced to one-liners and generic action set-pieces. It even had the annoying scene where DD "takes the Hulk's picture" by feeling his face. Showing that not only were the filmmakers unoriginal, they likely hadn't known a blind person who grew up after the 1960s. Arrrgh!
This better DAREDEVIL is helmed by Mark Steven Johnson, still unproven as a director. Johnson's only other credit is SIMON BIRCH, a charming coming of age story, but hardly comic book action material. His direction of DAREDEVIL is solid, but not faultless.
The main problem lies in the way many of the early dramatic scenes are staged. Just because a film is based on a comic book does not mean it should play like a filmed comic book (read Kevin Smith's SUPERMAN LIVES script to see how this approach does not work). But this is the territory the film falls into.
The origin story of Murdock, for example, is handled very poorly. Everything moves along so swiftly and clumsily that it seems designed for comic pages, not script pages. It's a form of storytelling you can make effective in print, but not necessarily on film. A strong performance by David Keith (FIRESTARTER) can't save these twenty sloppy minutes.
Also hurting the finished product is an overdramatic narration from Affleck. There are lots of pauses and words are stressed for importance. The lines may as well have been written in yellow panels at the corners of the screen - complete with bold print and exclamation points. Yet, for all the emoting, almost no information is given that isn't already plainly evident on the screen. Thus, it makes the approach unnecessary. It only stresses a more "gee whiz"-style comic book atmosphere.
This is at odds with the rest of the film, which is surprisingly violent. DAREDEVIL was never a kid's comic. The guy had enough pathos to fill a Bat Cave, and he dispensed justice usually through a series of extended beatings. But this film was something else, seriously pushing it's PG-13 rating (15 in the UK). Daredevil kills in cold blood while Bullseye severs the necks of half of Hell's Kitchen. It's a return to earlier, heavier fare of superheroes, like Tim Burton's BATMAN.
Unfortunately, all this is done to the rantings of a rock score that will be dated in a few years. Oh well. Dub over it with a more orchestral score and you've got one of the grittiest superhero movies in some time.
The performances are strong. Ben Affleck plays Murdock with a lot of grace and emotion. He has always shown a lot of respect for fandom, with his View Askew street cred. Here, he plays Murdock as an emotionally torn human being trying to hold onto what really matters in his life, all the while torn by his duty. And yes, he handles his blind scenes very well. He focuses on people in just the right spots. He does have an advantage with those heightened senses, after all.
Even more surprising is Jennifer Garner as Elektra. Far from the seasoned professional in ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN, this is a younger and more vulnerable character. On ALIAS, Garner's is a strong performance on a show that's high on entertainment and short on logic. The skill in which she transfers herself to the big screen is nothing short of amazing. She's emotional and athletic, with a winning personality to boot. The scenes between her and Affleck are easily the film's high point. No wonder she's getting all the good press. It's the first great performance this year, and it's from someone who kung fu's people on New York City rooftops.
The villains add the necessary touch of menace to the part. Farrell slips into a bad guy persona with surprising ease. His Bullseye is an absolutely brutal and unpredictable character, with only his hubris as an Achilles' Heel. Michael Clarke Duncan is simply the only person who could have ever played Kingpin on the big screen. He serves as the puppet master, but gets his hands dirty from time to time as well. As he takes his suit off for battle, he says to his underlings, "I grew up in the Bronx. This is something you wouldn't understand."
As Murdock's comrade, "Foggy" Nelson, Jon Favreau (SWINGERS) is here mainly for comic relief. Meanwhile, Joe Pantoliano (THE MATRIX, THE FUGITIVE is so perfect as skeptical reporter, Ben Ulrich that we wish he had more to do. Maybe in the sequel.
As comic adaptations go, this is not one of the classics, but not one of the colossal failures either. It has enough going for it for me to forgive its transgressions and give it a recommendation. The layout here could be a blueprint for a superior film to come.
So, after a very rough start, DAREDEVIL turns out to be a success. Let's just hope that when the inevitable DAREDEVIL II comes around, it has less rap metal, a stronger beginning and an understanding of a completely cinematic experience.