For a while there in the ’80s, Frank Miller halfway legitimized men in tights. His magnum opus was 1986’s famous Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, but the work that first got him noticed was his run on Daredevil. Bringing his obsession with ninjas and film noir street grit to the blind hero — noble lawyer Matt Murdock by day, crusading avenger Daredevil by night — Miller set the bar higher for flawed, human comic-book heroes. Among the fans of Miller’s run was Mark Steven Johnson, who has now presented his very own movie version. The result is a little like a novelization of a damn good movie: Miller’s comics were more cinematic than this piece of Daredevil cinema.
Blinded by toxic chemicals as a boy, Matt developed hyperactive senses to compensate: he can smell the perfume of a woman from fifty feet away through a wall, he can tell if you’re lying by listening to your heartbeat (an asset in court). This hero’s journey begins as so many other heroes’ journeys do, with the death of the father (David Keith, who gives Matt’s broken-down boxer dad some rumpled pathos). Somewhere along the line, Matt — played as an adult by Ben Affleck — fashions himself a fabulous red leather outfit and becomes Daredevil, beating the tar out of criminals that the law can’t touch. Johnson does a serviceable job of piling this and much more exposition into the movie, though it doesn’t leave room for much else.
Matt’s (and Daredevil’s) emotional downfall comes in the shape of Jennifer Garner, as Elektra, a Greek ambassador’s daughter intimate with martial arts and ninja weaponry. They don’t make a terribly electric pair here; Affleck gives a pained and conflicted performance — and you can take “pained” literally; Matt munches Percocets and other painkillers after a hard night on the town — but Garner is athletic and robust, a bouncy jock girl, where she needs to be sullen and exotic. The let’s-capitalize-on-Alias casting is a mistake.
If anyone emerges from Daredevil as a sex symbol, it won’t be the latex-clad Affleck or Garner — it’s more likely to be Colin Farrell as Bullseye, a loose-cannon Irish assassin hired by the city’s crime lord the Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan, doing more of his jocular basso-profundo thing) to bump off Elektra. Throwing his arms out in an arrogant worship-me pose, Farrell’s Bullseye is always playing to a wildly appreciative audience in his head. Watching him, I was struck anew by the thought that the villains in Hollywood movies know themselves far better than the heroes know themselves; not sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, Bullseye is free to run amok with implements ranging from a paper clip to a peanut, and Farrell gives a large-scale performance in what’s really, in terms of screen time, a tiny supporting role.
Daredevil has some of the same problems as 2002’s lighter-than-air Spider-Man. In both, CGI figures do most of the hoofing, and you can see why in one unfortunate shot of Ben Affleck attempting to run in his head-to-toe leather. If Daredevil is a man without fear, Johnson is sometimes a director without shame: It’s been a very long time since I last saw the camera pan away from lovers to a roaring fireplace. Yet Johnson adds some fine touches: Matt sleeping in a sensory-deprivation tank; raindrops dappling Elektra’s skin so that Matt, with his super-auditory “radar” sense, can “see” her. The first living thing we see onscreen is a rat, making it clear that this isn’t the well-scrubbed Manhattan that Peter Parker swung through. Whenever possible, Johnson sticks close to Frank Miller’s hard-boiled tone, and he stages a key confrontation between Bullseye and Elektra that’s note-for-note out of the pages of Miller.
I enjoyed Daredevil while it lasted, but except for Farrell and some amusing bits from Jon Favreau as Matt’s portly legal partner Foggy Nelson, very little of it has stayed with me. The fights are your standard quick-cut unscannable fare — God forbid we should see how exactly Affleck or Garner manage to raise their legs more than two inches off the ground in their crinkly latex — and the last half of the movie seems to be devoted to them. Also, I wasn’t aware that having augmented senses of smell and hearing enables you to dive hundreds of feet down the side of a building and then land on an iron balcony without causing your legs to telescope into your stomach. These comic-book movies forget that we’ll buy things in comic books that we can’t buy in live action. A movie that has the wherewithal to show Matt popping Demerols should also at least gesture in the general direction of the laws of physics.