[box cover]


20th Century Fox Home Video

Starring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan,
Colin Farrell, Joe Pantoliano, Jon Favreau,
and David Keith

Written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson

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Review by Clarence Beaks                    

If, as Kevin Smith posits, Daredevil is essentially, within the four-color realm of the Marvel Comics Universe, the Grateful Dead to Spider-Man's Beatles and Captain America's Elvis, then writer/director Mark Steven Johnson must be the zonked-out Deadhead who digs the band's groove but hasn't the requisite vocabulary, nor the musical expertise, to express why they're so exceptional. "He's just... Daredevil, man! Look at him, with his tragic childhood and his darkly vengeful rage — he's the most, man!"

For this reason, Daredevil (2003) feels like the single most expensive fan film ever made. It's an awed disaster so in love with the source material that it confuses fidelity with inspiration. And, like its inexpensive but often amateurish brethren (e.g. the recently buzzed-about "Batman: Dead End"), it's hampered by the hyperactive need to hit every iconic moment at the expense of alienating those unfamiliar with the character's mythology, while turning off hardcore fans who've already seen it done better and more vividly in the graphic novels. As a result, there's not a singular vision guiding the film; rather, it's Johnson acting as a surrogate for the combined voices of the various artists and writers who've helped shape the character over the last 40 years (with the most pronounced assist coming from Frank Miller, who, writing for the series in the late-'70s to the mid-'80s, was pivotal in transforming the character into a guilt-ridden vigilante; a trick he would later work with Batman in the watershed limited series The Dark Knight Returns.) Compounding matters are Johnson's dubious abilities as a filmmaker, which haven't yet matured to a level even remotely equivalent to the considerable talents of his idols; thus, rendering the picture a painfully off-key attempt at transferring perfection to a different medium.

*          *          *

Daredevil, created by the beloved Marvel Comics godfather Stan Lee back in the early 1960s, is the alter-ego of attorney Matt Murdoch, who, as an adolescent, was blinded in a freak accident incurred at the very instant of his tragic discovery that his ex-prize-fighter-turned-dock-worker father has been working as muscle for a local mobster. Though robbed of his sight, Matt's other senses become preternaturally heightened, most notably his hearing, which crucially compensates for his lost visual faculty with the creation of a shadow-world of sound that keeps him attuned to the happenings of the neighborhood he calls home: Hell's Kitchen in New York City. But just as Matt is beginning to adjust to his deficiency and its unexpected side-effects, his father, who rededicated himself to boxing after his son's accident, is murdered for refusing to throw a fight so as not to betray Matt's newfound trust in him. This ignites in Matt an obsessive desire to see justice done, if not in the court of law, then on the streets.

Most of the above information is tersely conveyed at the film's outset in a pulpy 12-minute sequence that feels weighted with obligation to get the origin just right, all the way down to every last evocative detail the filmmakers can cram into the frame. Though moodily shot by Ericson Core (who does great work throughout) and tightly cut by editors Amen Minasian and Dennis Virkler (who do the best with what's given to them, which often isn't good enough), it's little more than rote recitation so concerned with covering all the bases as completely and faithfully as possible that it never bothers to be at all captivating.

These problems haunt the film into the present day, where Matt is now practicing law by day while prowling the streets in a red leather jumpsuit (substituting for spandex) as Daredevil by night. We finally get to see the "Man Without Fear" in action after Matt and his law partner, Foggy Nelson (a wildly improvising Jon Favreau), lose a pro bono rape case brought against a slimy thug tight with the Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan), the appropriately monikered controller of all criminal commerce in New York City (note: this is the alternate NYC where Rudy Giuliani and Disney never happened.) Outraged by this miscarriage of justice, Matt delegates the righting of this wrong to Daredevil, who catches up with the rapist in a local nightclub. Ostensibly the sequence in which the audience thrills to the sight-deprived exploits of the protagonist, the action is so poorly choreographed and shot that one never gets a charge out of Daredevil's nearly suicidal moxie. It's here that the film, for the first time, flagrantly traffics in two of the more annoying trends currently being abused in Hollywood productions — wire-work and CG (computer generated) effects, both of which are so poorly rendered and executed (in order to compensate for the filmmakers' lack of imagination or skill in pulling this off practically) as to take the viewer right out of the movie.

Having been truncated to a 103-minute running-time from its original two-hour-plus length, Daredevil wastes little time in setting up the pivotal romance between Matt and Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner), the lovely daughter a Greek crime lord, which is consummated through a stand-alone sparring courtship in a playground before the two ever hit the sheets. While not a terribly original idea, it should be a good bit of goofy fun, but it's wrecked yet again by the eye-poppingly awful wire-work that effectively prohibits any willing suspension of disbelief. (It's a shame, too, because the chemistry between Affleck and Garner is decent enough.) From there, they fall madly in love and all goes swimmingly until Elektra's father is murdered by the maniacal assassin Bullseye (Colin Farrell), for which she incorrectly blames Daredevil — thus, turning her into a font of self-destructive rage much like Matt, who watches helplessly as she descends into the dark art of revenge. Now he must save her from herself, and Bullseye, who's been contracted to kill Daredevil by the Kingpin (who, coincidentally, is also the man responsible for rubbing out Matt's father many years ago.)

*          *          *

With Johnson listlessly going through the paces of the story, worrying at every turn about remaining faithful to the comic's canon, Daredevil only springs to life when either Favreau or Farrell are on the screen. The latter is particularly sensational as the unhinged Bullseye, to whom murder is a perfectly reasonable course of action in any situation, even just to deal with life's little problems (his dispatching of a chatty old woman on a trans-continental flight is refreshingly mean-spirited). Though he has yet to impress as a heroic lead, Farrell's performance here indicates that his real calling may be playing the bad guy. He certainly cuts a far more intimidating figure of villainy than the hulking Duncan, who's just too much of a teddy bear to convince as the Kingpin.

Unfortunately, blame for the film's failings has largely been dumped on Affleck, one of the more reliable whipping boys around (particularly for Internet fanboys), but he's merely been miscast in the underwritten role of a brooding, blind attorney. In the right role, and with an attentive director, Affleck is a fine performer equipped with a jocular charisma that, when correctly utilized, can carry a film pretty effortlessly (cf. Changing Lanes and his work with Kevin Smith.) There are glimmers of this light touch in his scenes with Favreau, but, when asked to play the more angst-heavy notes, he flails.

What has been most refreshing about the creation of the Marvel Films universe has been the way in which the individual directors have incorporated their own style into the telling of stories, making them more palatable to the masses, while tinkering with the stories just enough to keep things interesting for the most devoted fans. But for those too closed-minded to accept any deviations from the source material, arguing that the stories are fine as-is, and need only be cut-and-pasted to the big screen, consider Mark Steven Johnson's awful Daredevil a cautionary tale in slavish fidelity and misplaced enthusiasm. When it comes to making compelling entertainments, being a fan just isn't good enough.

*          *          *

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment presents Daredevil in a pristine anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with appropriately vivid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Though the film might be a clunker, Fox has put together an exhaustive two-disc set that covers every aspect of the production in such detail that even the minutiae has minutiae. To begin with, Disc One offers three different ways in which to watch the movie — with commentary from writer/director Johnson and producer Gary Foster, in an enhanced viewing mode comprising featurettes focusing on the visual effects, or with a pop-up text commentary. Of these, the featurettes are probably the most interesting, though they can only be accessed by watching the movie in full. As for the commentary, Johnson pretty candidly addresses the budgetary limitations and resulting f/x shortcomings that forced them to be more resourceful than one would normally need to be on a big-budget Hollywood production (they actually picked-up those early isolated shots of Matt gearing up as Daredevil in Ericson Core's living room), though he does tend toward the self-congratulatory a little too often. He also discusses how they had to restructure the narrative due to the studio mandated truncating of the film, which highlights the notable absence of deleted scenes. Rounding out Disc One is some so-so DVD-ROM content that provides a history of the characters and the comic book, along with some wallpaper and an interactive "Sensory Quiz."

Disc Two is stacked with extras, and split (like Fox's X-Men 1.5 DVD) into two sections: "The Film" and "The Comic Book." Though the latter is pretty slim on content, it does contain a nifty documentary titled "Men Without Fear: Creating Daredevil" (59 min.), which features individual conversations with the many artists who've been involved in the evolution of the character over the last 40 years, beginning with Stan Lee and continuing on through the likes of John Romita, Gene Colan, Frank Miller, John Romita, Jr., Joe Quesada, David Mack, Brian Michael Bendis and Kevin Smith. Lee is, as always, a delightful raconteur, sharing insights about the creation of the Marvel aesthetic as a sort of hipster's club, while confessing that he spent more time deciding where to put the dialogue balloons within the frame rather than writing the actual dialogue. And Colan is heartfelt in his admission that the long hours spent drawing a comic book came at the expense of spending any substantial time with his family. But it's Miller who proves the most interesting of the bunch, nailing the fascination with Daredevil in one succinct statement: "How many superheroes are known for what they can't do?" No artist better captured the emotional desolation of the character than Miller, and he elegantly articulates his connection to the character, without which the title, never a great seller in the first place, might've been discontinued altogether. Other features in this section include a "Shadow World Tour," a futile attempt at depicting the film's successful realization of this sensation from the comic book, and a series of modeling sheets that give roughly the same lowdown as can be found in the DVD-ROM content on Disc One.

Moving over to "The Film" section, the big fish here is "Beyond Hell's Kitchen: Making Daredevil" (58 min.), an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film that includes six branching segments — "Costume Design," "L.A. for NY," "Combat Choreography," "Smoke and Fire," "Film Work," and "Seeing with Sound" — that should leave even the most demanding completist feeling sufficiently edified. Those looking bummed out over the exclusion of deleted scenes will find hints of them here, though probably just enough to heighten their ardor for a potential "Director's Cut" somewhere down the line (the problem with that is that there can't be many extras left after this otherwise relatively definitive release). The most telling moment of this documentary has one of the CG artists, already under considerable pressure thanks to the film's compressed production schedule and fixed release date, complaining that Johnson's desire for a photo-real look left little margin of error for their f/x work, which explains, if not outright excuses, the shoddiness of some of their output (the pipe organ fight being the most odious offender). But at their best, and the shadow world really is beautifully realized, their contributions to the film are a reminder of how these artists can sometimes be responsible for the most visionary passages in these kinds of pictures (see also the final swing in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man).

Elsewhere in this section, there's Jennifer Garner's screen test, multi-angle dailies that allows the viewer a cursory glimpse at how a scene is constructed, a brief discussion of the Kingpin with Michael Clarke Duncan and, as if the other behind-the-scenes documentary wasn't enough, the "HBO First Look Special." There's also an inspirational featurette titled "Moving Through Space: A Day with Tom Sullivan" that shows how the one of the film's visually impaired advisors manages everyday life, theatrical trailers, three music videos, and a still gallery. Keep-case.

— Clarence Beaks

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