Because the Future is Fun

Unpopular Opinions: A Defence of Daredevil

Daredevil

So, Ben Affleck is Batman. It’s news that certain corners of the internet have reacted to with the good grace and charm we’ve come to expect (seriously, it’s like Heath Ledger’s Joker never happened), but here at DragonDark we happen to think it’s a fine decision, and we’re looking forward to seeing Batfleck in action.

Yeah, that’s right. We went there.

That’s not what we’re here to discuss, though. Instead this is an article that has lived in its authors head for the best part of ten years, usually at the expense of other, infinitely more useful and important information – not least because this particular scribe frequently feels like the patron saint of unloved superhero movies from 2003 (it’s a niche job, but an important one all the same). Constant defences of Ang Lee’s take on the Hulk are wearying, but the green goliath can fight his own battles. It’s stablemate Daredevil that gets a rougher ride, with the Affleck-starring superhero flick being deemed a disaster, a flop, the butt of Big Bang Theory punchlines, quite possibly to blame for everything that is bad in the world today, and proof that Batfleck will be a travesty.

Well, no more, we say! It’s time to play the role of Matt Murdock and offer an impassioned defence of Daredevil, an unfairly maligned entry into the comic book movie canon.

Daredevil was never a household name before he came to the screen. Spawned during Stan Lee’s unstoppable period of creativity in the mid-1960s, the story remains eminently cinematic; a young man is blinded by a truck of radioactive chemicals, but finds his loss of sight compensated by hugely-enhanced senses of smell and sound, in addition to a 360-degree ‘radar sense’. Following the traditional untimely demise of a parent – in this case his washed-up boxer father, assassinated by the mob for refusing to throw a bout – that youngster grew up to become an arbiter of justice on both sides of the law; an ace lawyer by day, and a spandex-clad vigilante by night.

Daredevil found his place as a low-selling Spider-Man clone throughout the 60s, constantly teetering on the brink of cancellation and frequently relegated to a bi-monthly publishing schedule. It was the introduction of a callow young artist named Frank Miller (a man we’ve expressed Unpopular Opinions on before) that changed the characters fortunes, especially when the gangly penciller began pulling double-duty as the strip’s writer.

Now, there is a reason for this meandering history lesson. For all we’ve said about Miller’s shortcomings, his stint on Daredevil throughout the 80s is cracking, peerless stuff – and infinitely less dated than some of his other, more celebrated work. Miller was often told by his editors that his scripts were ‘too dark’ and that he’d written ‘a Batman story’, but it captured the imagination in a way that no other writer had managed. Suddenly Daredevil was no longer a strictly B- or C-List character, and Daredevil was a top-selling monthly book again with a dedicated audience. An audience that included Mark Steven Johnson, future writer and director of the movie adaptation, and a teenager in Massachusetts named Ben Affleck.

Hornhead’s journey to the silver screen was indisputably a labour of love. Rights to the character were first optioned in 2007, with Chris Columbus attached as director, but unsurprisingly foundered in Development Hell; Batman and Robin had made ‘superhero’ a four-letter word in Hollywood, Blade had yet to show that mature comic adaptations could strike gold at the box office, and Daredevil was hardly a household name to rival Batman, Superman or Spider-Man. Mark Steven Johnson, best known for writing the Grumpy Old Men movies and the Michael Keaton fromage-fest Jack Frost, turned in a screenplay draft that captured the imagination, but the project remained on the shelf until X-Men and, perhaps more importantly, Spider-Man proved that costumed capers equalled cash cows. Ben Affleck, fresh from portraying a youthful Jack Ryan in The Sum of All Fears and a childhood Daredevil fanatic, was the logical choice for the lead role .

Affleck is frequently painted as the fall guy for Daredevil, which is pretty harsh – he gives one of DragonDark’s favourite superhero performances of recent times, which we’ll go into later. Alas, Daredevil was released before his career renaissance (which was first sparked by his extraordinary performance as George Reeves in Hollywoodland, lest we forget – Affleck and spandex seems to always end well), and when ‘Bennifer’ was the word on the sneering lips of every gossip columnist. In 2003, Affleck was the butt of countless internet jokes, painted as the epitome of Hollywood’s folly.

Daredevil isn’t perfect, and we’d never claim it to be so. The fight scenes are choppy, and there are occasional fleeting moments of very shoddy CGI. There are a handful of character moments that don’t  quite sit right with us (“That light at the end of the tunnel? That’s not heaven” and all that – Daredevil is arguably the most unshakably moralistic of all Marvel’s heroes, and would never cross that particular line). Colin Farrell’s performance as Bullseye is never less than entertaining, but occasionally just a little too arch camp. Having Wilson Fisk responsible for Jack Murdock’s death is, much like the similar twist in Burton’s Batman, a pointless and unnecessary addition that makes things too neat.

That’ll do. Now let’s list the reasons why Daredevil is actually awesome.

Jennifer Garner’s interpretation of Elektra is not entirely accurate when compared to the comic book, but it works perfectly as a cinematic character – and the sub-plot of doomed romance largely hits the right notes. All superhero moves need a rooftop liaison, and when Murdock ignores cries for help from a nearby mugging victim in order to spend more time with Elektra it’s an interesting twist on tradition. Sure it doesn’t necessarily fit in with the character that we know and love from the page, but it’s a human moment that goes missing from such movies all too often, and ensures that the re-enactment of the legendary issue #181 (Bullseye vs. Elektra. One Wins. One Dies.) carries some emotional wallop. This also shows an impressive ingenuity in bringing Murdock’s radar sense to cinematic life – we’ve begrudged some ropey fight scene CGI, but the ability of Murdock to ‘see’ in the rain is great stuff. It also leads to a superb gut-punch later, when a cold-hearted Elektra raises an umbrella to leave an emotional Murdock blind in the pouring rain, left in the dark in every possible sense. As far as metaphors go it may not be subtle, but when backed by the plinky-plonky piano sounds of Evanescence it is pretty effective.

The casting of the late, great Michael Clark Duncan as the Kingpin was another masterstroke (and further proof that online meltdowns and petitions are frequently exposed as nonsense). Duncan portrays Wilson Fisk as he is intended in the comic books; a master manipulator that pulls the strings and is not to be screwed with, but also a hard-as-nails fighting machine when forced into physical confrontation.

And thus, onto the elephant in the room. We’ve already mentioned our time for Affleck, and he really does inhabit this role beautifully. Capturing the contradictory essence of Daredevil (a devout catholic dressed in a devilish costume; a lawyer that operates outside the law when matters can’t be resolved in the courtroom), Affleck genuinely convinces as a ‘real world superhero’ – and if you scoff at that statement, imagine original choice Vin Diesel in the role. We believe that Matt Murdock is putting himself through hell for the greater good, and we feel the strain these exploits would take on a human body. Whether crunching aspirin while discovering yet another relationship has failed due to his secretive nature, sleeping in a sensory deprivation tank to drown out the constant background noise of the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen or displaying brief character moments which demonstrate how Murdock overcomes his disability day-to-day (folding different denominations of dollar bills and the like), we root for Affleck as Daredevil. Undoubtedly the most powerful character moment in the movie involves a pursuit that climaxes in a strangers apartment, with a small child cowering from Murdock’s presence while he implores “I’m not the bad guy, kid”. Matt Murdock acts this way because he feels obligated to, not because it’s fun. He knows that this actions will condemn his soul if his religious beliefs are to be taken seriously (hence his desperation for his priest to condone his behaviour), but is unable to give up his dual life.

This is explored further in the Director’s Cut of Daredevil, which is still available on home video. It’s something we implore anyone to watch, whether you’re  fan of the theatrical version or one of its many nay-sayers. Sure, it’s a tough sell (“hey, remember that movie you hated? Well there’s a new version, and it’s much longer!”), but it adds so much to the flick. The key addition is an entire sub-plot involving Coolio, which allows Affleck to spend more time as Matt Murdock (also demonstrating how his superpowers benefit his day job as well as his after-dark frivolities), but there’s also more Kingpin and Bullsye, uncut fight scenes (allowing for a more fluid viewing experience), and a more underplayed romantic sub-plot. Most pertinently, Murdock doesn’t ignore a strangers cries during his rooftop liaison with Elektra for help in this cut, leaving her alone in the night – this leads to a more terse relationship, adding a new dimension to their interaction. We’re yet to encounter anybody with a bad word to say about Daredevil: The Director’s Cut , making it essential viewing for even the most staunch cynic.

Despite its less-than-stellar reputation, Daredevil did respectable box office business – enough to spawn a spin-off for Garner’s Elektra (don’t worry, we’re not touching that one – not even we can defend the indefensible), and it earned Johnson another bite of the comic book pie with Ghost Rider. Granted that was received even less favourably, but once again we have time for it – watch the sequel, Spirit of Vengeance, to see what a truly shoddy take on the source material looks like. As is often the way, talk of resurrection abounds – 30 Days of Night and Hannibal’s David Slade was long-linked to a reboot, but sadly the project never got off the ground.

The rights to the character (and those of the Kingpin and Elektra) have now reverted to Marvel, meaning that while Daredevil has rarely carried an Avengers membership he may yet surface in someone else’s adventures. We certainly hope so; there are dozens of classic stories still to be told. Perhaps the most important of all, though, is this one; a movie that very much deserves re-appraisal. And proof that Batfleck has the potential to be a Very Good Thing Indeed.

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