Marvel Comics’ blind superhero reached the big screen in a movie indifferently received by critics and pernickety fans. It remains underrated and worth watching, especially in this director’s cut which restores thirty minutes of footage and claims to be “darker and edgier”. The essential plot remains the same: the striking opening sees Daredevil/Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck) badly wounded, clinging to a cross atop a church. Thereafter the story plays in flashback. Young Matt is blinded by toxic waste (although not while saving a blind man from an oncoming truck - a slight, but regrettable alteration from the comic), and is endowed with super-senses. His father (David Keith), a down on his luck boxer, is murdered after refusing to throw a title fight, which spurs Matt to become both a crusading lawyer by day alongside partner Foggy Nelson (John Favreau), and a superhuman vigilante at night waging a one-man war against the Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan). A star-crossed romance with beautiful, ninja-skilled Elektra (Jennifer Garner) results in a tragic misunderstanding, as they each face psychotic assassin Bullseye (Colin Farell), before Daredevil’s showdown with the Kingpin himself.
The major addition here is a sub-plot with Matt haunted by the vision of a murdered prostitute, and then called on to defend the man accused of her murder (Coolio). These restored scenes enrich the plot, meaning it isn’t just brawn but actual detective work that enables Matt to bring down Kingpin’s organization. The result is slower paced, but more engaging, less like a collage and more a real movie. Supporting players John Favreau and Joe Pantoliano (as newshound Ben Urich) have more to do. The former fares best thanks to some improvised gags, and a moving transition from comic relief to guy who saves the day. One of the comic’s great strengths is its supporting cast and Karen Page (Grey’s Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo), Matt’s lovelorn secretary, contributes more here too. More problematic is an additional scene where Daredevil lets a subway train slice a rapist in half. Intended to establish a darker, more ruthless hero, it leaves us with someone who kills a random thug, but spares the murderers of his girlfriend and father.
Mark Steven Johnson (like Sam Raimi with Spider-Man, a fan of the original comics) proves adept at reinventing the story in cinematic ways. His fluid visuals aren’t too MTV and feature an intriguing meld of Catholic iconography and nightmare street life that echoes Martin Scorsese. Graeme Revell’s score makes inventive use of street sounds, police sirens and choral voices, but like many Marvel Comics adaptations (including the wonderful Spider-Man films) the soft-rock soundtrack is too intrusive and liable to date. That said, Evanescence’s “Wake Me Up” works surprisingly well.
In-jokes include several characters named after Daredevil writers or artists (Miller, Quesada, Bendis), plus cameos from Stan Lee and filmmaker/Affleck buddy/occasional comic scribe Kevin Smith. The gritty, noir-drenched cityscapes reference classic gangster films of the Thirties and Forties, especially in the origin sequence which, thanks to the well drawn relationship between father and son, moves more than most. Daredevil’s super-senses are especially well rendered via some inventive sound effects and animation, but he remains a genuinely vulnerable hero - both physically and emotionally. Unlike Batman in his mansion, Daredevil retreats to lonely apartment to pop painkillers and lay in a sensory deprivation tank, but remains haunted by nightmare visions. Affleck (like his director, a fan of the comics. He dyed his hair red for the movie, but the cinematography is so muted you won’t notice) has been accused of blandness. Though athletic, he isn’t particularly imposing in costume, and plays better as Matt sharing some nice comic scenes with Favreau and good chemistry with future spouse, Jennifer Garner.
Many scenes others find objectionable struck me as rather charming. There is an engaging chopsocky vibe to Matt and Elektra’s schoolyard scrap in its use of martial arts as a way of exploring character (Although you have to wonder why she didn’t figure out he was Daredevil sooner), while the moment Matt finally ‘sees’ Elektra in the rain is poetic. Rather than a throwaway, sappy, romantic moment it foreshadows Matt’s eventual defeat of Kingpin, and a neat symbolic gesture when Elektra hides beneath an umbrella. Michael Clarke Duncan has an innately sweet nature that, far more than his race, makes him wrong for the Kingpin, but Colin Farell is outstanding as Bullseye. Though he’s mad as a bag of spanners, Bullseye’s professional jealousy makes him more than just another, tiresome wisecracking psychotic. His jokey coda has thankfully been re-edited, since inclusion post-credits undermined Daredevil’s victory. Jennifer Garner makes a striking anti-heroine. Like Kirsten Dunst in Spider-Man, she renders her character a lot warmer onscreen than on the printed page. The adrenalin packed fight scenes (choreographed by Yuen Cheung Yuan) benefit from her athleticism (and that of Affleck and Farrell), although her climactic duel with Daredevil still seems abrupt (DD’s church set battle with Bullseye is suitably operatic). Garner would return in the similarly overlooked Elektra (2005). Comic book fans often complain her costume doesn’t resemble Frank Miller’s original design. Seriously guys, Elektra’s costume consists of a bandana and a thong - the only place Garner will wear that is in your dreams.
A much better film than many would have you believe. Fans would do well to check out the director’s cut which, while not without flaws, provides a more satisfying experience.