Daredevil (2003) [Review Re-View]
Originally released February 14, 2003:
Not as bad as it could have been. That’s the best way to sum up Ben Affleck in tights.
Nate’s Grade: B-
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS
For many years, 2003’s Daredevil has become my handy threshold for assessing superhero cinema: if I liked the movie better than Daredevil, it was likely a good movie, and if I liked it worse than Daredevil, then it was a bad movie. It’s also fascinating to think back to a time after X-Men but before the behemoth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where superheroes could be cheesy while trying to be edgy and cool. This is a time before Ben Affleck was Batman, before Jon Favreau kickstarted the MCU by directing 2008’s Iron Man, before the gritty Netflix TV series of the same character, and before Colin Farrell became a widely respected actor. Behold the cheesefest that is the big screen Daredevil, written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, previously best known as the writer of Simon Birch and Grumpy Old Men. Johnson is an avowed superfan of the comics and blind crime-fighter from Hell’s Kitchen, but in a recent 2023 interview on Yahoo, even Johnson admits his fandom sank the movie. The director admits to trying to cram in too much to appease fans and hook new audiences, and then there’s the obvious studio notes trying to make Daredevil into more popular and well-known super folk.
In the age of dour, gloomy superheroes that are held to unreasonable standards of gritty realism, or the creative control of the MCU, it’s fun to look back and see something stand out, even for some of the wrong reasons. Daredevil is still, to this day, a cheesy delight that you can have fun with or you can laugh yourself silly. Early into my re-watch, I settled into the kind of movie I was in for, with a smile on my face and the knowledge that things were going to be goofy. Young Matt Murdock is looking for his dad when he comes across him shaking down someone for money. Oh no, his dad really is a mob goon, and after he swore to his son it wasn’t so. Matt runs away from this traumatic realization only to get magic toxic waste sprayed into his eyes, but before he does so, he drops a paper in the alleyway, and it just so happens to be his report card with straight As that he couldn’t wait to show his not-a-goon dad. I laughed out loud. Daredevil cannot be taken seriously and that’s okay. He leaves a calling card of two criss-crossed D’s written in flammable liquid on the ground, which is a mystery how someone would discover this and even funnier thinking of Daredevil writing this signature after his work. Another fine example is the entire introduction to Elektra (Jennifer Garner) where adult Matt smells her before she arrives, becomes infatuated with her enough to use his blind status as an excuse to hit on her, then grabs her hand and refuses to let her go, which corresponds to the two of them flirt-fighting on a playground. It is an absurd, and occasionally creepy, sequence from start to finish, and that’s not even accounting for the blood-thirsty children chanting against the fences for the adults to fight. I was smirking or chuckling throughout Daredevil, and while I doubt that was Johnson’s artistic intention, it’s his movie’s best selling point from an entertainment standpoint.
There is too much going on here, which makes all the storylines feel clipped, underdeveloped, and ultimately also worthy of derisive entertainment. We get two scenes with Elektra before she’s fallen in love with her blind man in shining leather, and then the next moment she blames Daredevil for her father’s death, and then the next moment she’s seeking vengeance, and then she’s dead, but she’s not really dead because she’s been resurrected… somehow… and spun off into her own solo movie that will be released in 2005. In this regard, being over crammed with side characters and storylines with the intent on setting up later movies, conflicts, and commercial chains of characters is very in-keeping with today’s overburdened, interconnected IP universe. It’s the same with the villains. We have two; Kingpin, the hulking crime boss played by Michael Clarke Duncan, and Bullseye, a hired killer with killer aim played with gusto by Farrell. It’s not enough to make the Kingpin the big boss of crime, the movie has to also make him literally the one responsible for the death of Matt’s father in Act One. Jack Murdock (David Keith, not to be confused with Keith David) is a washed-up boxer who wants to try again but be legit, so he ignores the warning to take a dive and is murdered for his pride. Seriously, I know his kid wanted him to win, but I think Matt would rather have an alive father with wounded pride. Bullseye is a contract killer from Ireland but why would Kingpin hire him and fly him across the Atlantic to just bump off one of the man’s subordinates? Surely there are any number of more efficient and less time-wasting manners to eliminate an underling. I guess he’s another of those comic book villains that just gets so involved in their overly complex schemes. Maybe it’s really the schemes that bring him to life (Evanescence nod) and keep the big guy from getting bored.
The action vacillates greatly from decent to ridiculous. I am absolutely positive that the Fox executives saw those 2002 Spider-Man box-office records and said, “Hey, put some of that building jumping stuff in there too.” This is a Daredevil where he just dives face-first off of buildings and plummets to the ground. Remember, he has advanced hearing and other senses, but he’s still supposed to be a human being, not a mutant, not a meta human, not a god. Diving face-first off of high buildings seems like a sound way to practice your eventual suicide. He also leaps and kicks like he’s in The Matrix, including dodging bullets too, which seems like his skills are pushing the “faster than a speeding bullet” realm of other heroes. In fact, Daredevil’s abilities seem to rival that of Superman with his intense hearing. Apparently, the man can lock in on a specific conversation blocks away. It’s these heightened moments of super impunity that make him less vulnerable even though the movie also wants to highlight his scars and bruises. This is the guy that needs to sleep in a water-filled sensory deprivation chamber (so pruny) but will throw himself into battles with multiple points of competing gunfire. The fight choreography has some slick moves but is also fairly mediocre, and it’s worse when the rubbery CGI Affleck is slotted into action to make even more preposterous moves (never dodge when a glorious backflip could do). I was beside myself when Bullseye collected broken stained glass, that he plucked from the air like snowflakes, and then piled into his hands like a server balancing stacks of plates, and then he started hurling them at Daredevil. For a guy whose notoriety is not missing, you think he would readjust or figure out that a guy flipping backwards is always going to have a turning middle of mass.
The movie is struggling to juggle all these characters, all these storylines, and all of its would-be brooding themes and Catholic imagery of sacrificial bloodshed. It makes the movie feel like you’ve accidentally sat on the remote, speeding up the process of its 105 minutes. Johnson had a longer cut of the movie with a whole subplot of lawyer Matt Murdock, but that’s not what the people come to see. The character arc of Matt finding love and losing love is rushed and feels insufficient, more of a checkbox for the studio. Given the material, it’s surprising that Affleck and Garner would fall in love in real life and get married in 2005 (and then divorced in 2018). The arc of him learning restraint, to not be “the bad guy,” is laughably simplified to the point where just not killing the big crime lord is supposed to qualify as applause-worthy character growth. It’s enough that the crusading journalist (Joe Pantoliano) trying to bring light to this case decides to become part of the conspiracy and withhold information, enough so that he stares out of his home, jacket slung over his shoulder, and sees Daredevil watching from atop the street (how would he know?) and says, “Go get ‘em,” like he’s Mary Jane Watson cheering on her web-slinging beaux. It’s moments like this that you can’t take seriously but can appreciate as goofy mid-level supes entertainment. Daredevil is not great but it could have been much worse.
After the reception of this movie, it’s surprising that Affleck would want a second chance to suit up as a superhero, but then again being Batman is like playing Hamlet in our modern society. With Daredevil, he does seem uniquely qualified as a handsome man staring blankly. Garner was ascending thanks to her breakout role in J.J. Abrams’ Alias, and Farrell was becoming a Hollywood It boy in 2003 before finding a higher artistic ceiling with 2008’s In Bruges. He’s a hoot in the movie but he might have twenty total spoken words. It’s more a performance of grunts and scornful growling. Duncan was a controversial casting but an early example of race-blind casting traditionally white comics characters. It’s rare to find an actor of imposing size and stature that can still, you know, act well. With respect to Vincent D’Onofrio, who was my favorite part of the Netflix Daredevil series, but if the Kingpin were cast today, it would be Dave Bautista (Knock at the Cabin) hands down. Johnson was given another chance at superhero franchise-making with 2007’s Ghost Rider, which was also enjoyably goofy but also bad. I feel for the guy because he was fighting battles for genre credibility and superhero universe logic that most of the filmmakers in the MCU today take for granted. He walked so that James Gunn could run.
Twenty years later, Daredevil still kind of works as my superhero movie grading threshold. It’s not traditionally good but it has a nostalgic charm, an artifact of a time before the eventual boom. It’s so goofy and so early 2000s-edgy (the hard rock soundtrack is its own contribution of hilarity). With the right mindset, I think Daredevil can be fine albeit dated and cheesy passing enjoyment.
Re-View Grade: C+
Posted on February 8, 2023, in 2003 Movies, Review Re-View and tagged action, ben affleck, colin farrell, comic book, jennifer garner, mark steven johnson, marvel, michael clarke duncan, super hero. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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