Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Many Devils of DAREDEVIL (2003)

Earlier today, Netflix released the first substantial trailer--a glorified teaser, really--for their upcoming series based on the Marvel comic Daredevil. The initial reaction from online fandom seems to be one of excitement and even glee of a most giddy character. I've been a DD fan myself since I was but a wee lad, but in general, I tend to be more cautious in my optimism for such projects. Still, I'll readily concede that I'm quite pleased with what I saw. If the tone of the trailer reflects that of the series, we may have a winner on our hands.

This will be DD's second screen adaptation and after what happened with the first, that he's getting a second chance is something akin to a  miracle. The release of the new trailer seems as good an opportunity as any to conduct an autopsy on the corpse that is that previous outing. And "corpse" is the right word for it. DAREDEVIL (2003) was a spectacular failure, a near-complete creative abortion. The comic on which it was based is packed with literally years of great--and wonderfully cinematic--plot material that could have been adapted to the screen. Where did a film with so much potential go so terribly wrong?

One place it didn't fail was at the box office. The studio, which had tried to shape the film into a Summer blockbuster tentpole, eventually assigned it a Febrary release, a traditional dead-zone for moviegoing where big films are exiled when the moneymen have no confidence in them.[1] The idea is to allow a movie the chance to become the king of a substantially smaller hill rather than quickly wash out and disappear in the torrent of a more competitive season. Sometimes it works. DAREDEVIL was one of those times. On a budget of $78 million, it managed to draw nearly $180 million, a victory due less to its merits than to the fact there was little else showing.[2]

It would be the film's only success.

When DAREDEVIL was in development, Mark Steven Johnson reportedly lobbied hard to get the directing assignment. That he eventually landed it is still baffling. His only previous directing experience was an insipid children's movie he'd ground out 5 years earlier (SIMON BIRCH). He is, by his own description, a comic fanboy and perhaps it was felt a fanboy could understand the material. Johnson succeeded only in proving that being a fanboy doesn't translate into talent as a cinematic storyteller.[3] It did, however, contribute to the royal mess he made of this film. I could unlimber my rhetorical arsenal and be quite extensively unkind in my assessment of Johnson but his film speaks to that louder than any tirade I could unleash. His shortcomings are painfully obvious in every frame. DAREDEVIL was doomed from the moment he landed the director's chair.

Johnson also wrote the screenplay for the film, which went over about as well as his direction. Instead of trying to tell a single story well, Johnson the fanboy tried to cram in years worth of material from the comics featuring the rather complicated central character, whose origin and later m.o. had to be established, Elektra, DD's college love who becomes his adversary, the Kingpin, the ultimate crime-boss of New York who becomes DD's greatest enemy, Ben Urich, a reporter who learns DD's real identity and becomes an ally, Bullseye, DD's mutant arch-nemesis, and so on. The result is an unfocused mess, a virtually plotless, completely illogical spectacle of would-be colorful characters crashing into one another.

The direction of the actors shows the same lack of focus. Ben Affleck, essaying the title character, has, in the years since the film's release, gotten a lot of abuse for his performance but I'm inclined to be a lot less critical. Actors can only do so much; beyond a certain point they're at the mercy of the script and of those behind the camera. The performances of Affleck and the other cast members are all over the board, veering wildly from entirely naturalistic to absurdist camp melodrama with no effort at a consistent tone. Joe Pantoliano as Urich and Colin Farrell as Bullseye offer the only two performances that are internally consistent from beginning to end, but they're at opposite poles that represent the film's extremes. Pantoliano is a down-to-earth guy who plays his relatively small part straight and to the point. Colin Farrell mugs, spouts ridiculous dialogue in a way-over-the-top-of-the-top manner, bounces around on wires--his character seems as if he's come in from an entirely different movie and every second he spends on screen is a painful embarrassment.

The studio suits made all of this much worse. In the wake of SPIDER-MAN's phenomenal success in 2002 they wanted to ape that film by piling on the CGI and filling the movie with lots of ludicrous wirebound action scenes--things Spider-Man could probably do but that DD most certainly could not. So instead of a Jet Li in a red suit--the only thing you really need to do Daredevil--we get DD the super-grasshopper who can leap tall buildings in a single bound and drop 40 stories off the side of a building, land on his feet and just keep going.

DAREDEVIL is another one of those productions about which I'm loath to say anything particularly positive merely because doing so risks leaving the false impression that there's any significant merit in it. In its favor, I will allow that the film's visualization of DD's "radar" is well done; there is an undercurrent of violence and nihilism in portions of the film that is appropriate to the material, some awareness of the romanticism of the Daredevil character; some of the music, particularly the two Evanescence turnes ("Bring Me To Life" and "My Immortal"), suit Daredevil--at least considered generically--remarkably well.

After the film's release, Johnson prepared a significantly longer director's cut. This second release is undeniably a better film but its merits have been absurdly overstated in some quarters. It's not the vast improvement some will assert. Comparing it to the theatrical cut is like making the argument that this pile stinks a bit less than that pile over there--it may be true, but you don't really want to step in either. After Johnson's film (and the even-worse follow-up ELEKTRA), Daredevil is extremely lucky to be getting another chance. It took 12 years and Marvel finally reacquring the screen rights to see it through but if today's teaser is any indication, the new series seems to be on the right track. Hopefully, it will be as good as it feels right now and will leave this film, at the moment the title character's greatest exposure to the larger public, a fading memory.



[1] The current-in-the-works Batman/Superman film was recently moved back to this same period--read into that what you will.

[2] And even at that, it was only the 2nd biggest February release that year.

[3] He hasn't developed any of that in the years since DAREDEVIL either.


  1. I love your Marvel posts a lot. It really displays your passion and vast knowledge of comics.
    I envy you :c

    Also, the Daredevil series looks very good.

    1. Thanks I try. I'm cautiously optimistic about the DD series. The trailer probably made me a bit more optimistic than cautious.

      If the subject interests you and you have a Facebook account, come by the group. I've launched 3 of them in the last few weeks (yeah, it sounds like I've lost my mind). I'm trying to grow them at the moment.