Because it was on yesterday, that’s why.
Like everyone else who saw it, it seems – many non-comics-fans not excluded – I tried to like it. Oh, how I tried. I watched it twice on DVD, looking for things to enjoy about it.
And, I found some. Surprised? You shouldn’t be…I may not be a big fan of Ben Affleck, but given what he’s asked to do here, he makes a pretty good job of it. Jennifer Garner does, too: did she have to throw herself into the stunts and the athleticism of the Elektra role? No she did not. She’s a big star, she could’ve passed it off to somebody else. But she chose to commit more fully, instead, and it makes the movie better. Colin Farrell is twitchy and crazy as Bullseye; Michael Clarke Duncan is obviously having a great deal of fun as Wilson Fisk; every minute spent by Jon Favreau onscreen as Foggy is a natural minute; even Joe Pantoliano is there as Ben Urich, doing whatever he can to hold the movie up, apparently out of the goodness of his heart. These are likeable actors. Even Affleck, who I’m not usually too crazy about, is likeable here. Whatever anyone says, I believe his Matt Murdock; it’s a good performance.
Unfortunately, what he’s asked to perform doesn’t hang together too well.
I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Daredevil: The Movie, but in the end it’s sympathy I have to use – I can understand and relate to every rationale for every wrong move it makes, so I convince myself to overlook those faults. But there’s no denying there’s a lot of them. Oh, what a lot of them there are! And they start up early:
Despite the Daredevil fan’s love of Frank Miller’s semi-noir adornments to the comic during the Eighties, there’s a limit to how well that sort of thing was ever going to translate into a movie like this. Of course they just had to have the DD-wrapped-around-the-steeple bit, and how could they not have needed it? I needed it, too. But it takes the movie in a wrong direction right away. Likewise, the D.O.A.-flavoured flashback-with-voiceover thing has been done in more than one place, sometimes successfully, and as it starts up here it even gives the strong impression that it’s going to work…but it isn’t going to, because what it mostly does is confine the presentation of characters that were cliches already, to the shortest possible string of lowest-common-denominator director’s notes. The has-been boxer father, for example, just has to do enough to get us to the point where we recognize that that’s what he is, and then his job is (sadly, given the great casting) done: this kind of flashback can’t afford to linger over details. Matt himself, after the hospital scene that almost works…and you know, it’s a shame, because the way they present his sonar – not RADAR, damn it, SONAR! – sense is clever, but it just doesn’t have enough time allotted to its introduction, and the idea of the church bells calming everything down kind of goes right by you…along with any chance of understanding how he can make sense of the noise his heightened senses produce…after this scene, Matt himself is caught by the limitations of the D.O.A. flashback, because he has to exposit so much for us where he shouldn’t. “I developed superhuman senses, which gave me strength, speed, and balance”…I’m sorry, but what? I’ve said it before, that in a movie or a TV show or a play, the change that the powers bring to the character’s sense of self is the most important thing about bringing a superhero property to life, but here it’s just flashback-fodder…and worse, the hand is misplayed. Because there’s already a Marvel movie superhero whose shtick is having the city as his playground, bouncing over rooftops, and so forth, and although DD does those things too he’ll always do them less well. So he can’t compete with Spider-Man for the moviegoer’s attention this way. He’ll lose. But, Spidey can’t pit his spider-sense against DD’s 360-degree sensory awareness, either: later on in the movie, the idea of Daredevil being better than Bullseye at his own game does work, but unfortunately it isn’t made integral to Matt’s character back in the flashback-to-origin. It’s slid over a little bit, instead of punched-up. Peter Parker spends as much time just figuring out how to fire his webbing as Matt Murdock spends learning how to make sense of his whole new sensorium, with the result that Matt’s changes are underplayed for the audience by comparison.
Not a big deal, maybe?
But Matt’s world is shadowy, flickering, difficult: we never see a Daredevil movie where he learns that the overload of information is a blessing amounting to a superpower in its own right. We never see a scene where the chaos of the SONAR sense resolves itself into a visual that the audience can understand as ordered, to a practised mind. Peter Parker could lose at pool, you see, but Matt never could, unless he wanted to…Spider-Man will get an occasional disordered panic-flash of “danger coming from that direction!”, but Daredevil always knows everything about what’s going on in his environment already, and can factor it in ahead of time. And I can think of three or four cool ways to show this off the top of my head, can’t you? As well as arguments between kids who’ve seen the movies: “Daredevil could kick Spider-Man’s ass!” “Oh no he couldn’t…!” Oh well, but I don’t have a big-budget movie’s deadlines to cope with, and film costs money. This approach got missed, but I’m not saying it’s because the filmmakers are such dolts, I’m just saying it’s too bad.
Just like it’s too bad that the promise between father and son is so muddied, or that the dichotomy between Matt and Daredevil creates way too much pull, too much unzipping, in the wrong direction. In the comics, Matt Murdock is a brilliant defence attorney who makes quite a bit of money, partly (though only partly!) because his enhanced senses allow him to know if people are telling the truth. In the movie, Matt Murdock is a lousy lawyer, who stays poor because he operates in a crime-and-justice universe where the system doesn’t work, and therefore only uses his ability to know who’s guilty to target the wrongly-acquitted for overdue justice. Well, moviemakers love their conflict; but this is too much conflict, and it’s the wrong kind. Too semi-noir. And too sloppy: when we first see Matt in court, he’s grilling a rapist on the stand…we see the tearful victim in her seat, looking on…but, hold on, Matt is a defence lawyer, isn’t he? So who’s he representing? Not, I can assure you, the tearful victim: she can hardly be accused of raping herself, right? So, it must be somebody who was set up to take the fall, by the real bad guy. But then where is this patsy, and why doesn’t Matt do anything to defend him? Again, you might argue: big deal. And maybe you’re right, but I don’t think so, because I think this, too, is a misplayed hand: Matt Murdock, the most brilliant lawyer who’s absolutely useless in a courtroom that there ever was…we are still supposed to think he’s brilliant, right?…but it’s not his fault, because it’s the system that doesn’t work. Because Matt, as Foggy tells us down at the coffee shop, is pure. Unstained. An excellent human being, if inarguably a really bad lawyer…wrong profession, Matt! Of course one second after Foggy relays this information to us, Matt is trying to use his blindness to pick up a girl…
And oh my God, does that work? Really? AWESOME…the old “pretending to be blind” trick…jeez, chicks are stoopid, eh?
Of course everyone in this movie seems to know (if not to actually realize) that Matt is not blind at all. They only forget this when they want to make some terribly inappropriate comment: “I wore this to look beautiful for you, even though you can’t see me in it because you’re BLIND!” Elektra tells Matt, gazing into his eyes for some reason, and making adorably invisible dimples at him like an idiot…but then they remember again when it’s time for them to do something that wouldn’t make any sense otherwise. Joe Pantoliano gives Matt his card, and I’m not saying he shouldn’t, but I would probably say something like “look…I mean, uh, sorry, figure of speech…if I give you my card, would you…? I mean, could you, y’know, arrange to call me back, if I give you my card?” And then Matt would probably let me know I should relax, and that he’ll take my card, and then he would stick out his hand and that’s where I would put the card. In his hand. Because it HAS TO be impolite to stick your card in a blind man’s shirt pocket without first letting him know that’s what you’re going to do, right? RIGHT? Not to mention that if I were blind, and you told me “hey, I’ll just put it in your pocket so you don’t forget it,” I’d say “the hell you will, buddy, or I’ll put something in your pocket so you don’t forget it.” Yes: every once in a while I might be a little assholish in the protection of my personal space, as a blind man. And yet Joe is fine with this space-invasion, and Matt’s fine with it, and everyone’s fine with it, and that’s ridiculous. Oh, let’s stick with this party, while we’re here, just for one more thing: Wilson Fisk throws the party, he attends the party as its host…and he has a bodyguard with him telling people not to talk to him? I DOUBT THAT…
But sorry, anyway as to Matt’s well-known unblindness…even as a child he is yelling at his father to get up off the canvas in a boxing match, and then he cheers him when he does…which is IMPOSSIBLE, to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention. The kid is BLIND. He can’t SEE. Later in life, he follows Elektra down the street…HOW? He reaches out spontaneously to touch her face, and lays his hand on her cheek…NO HE DOESN’T! They have a big martial arts fight in a playground, and she asks him “are you sure you’re blind?” Well of COURSE HE ISN’T BLIND, ELEKTRA! You KNOW he isn’t blind ALREADY, and you just met him! But this question passes right away, thank goodness for the plot…Matt counters cleverly with something like “are you sure you’re Greek?”, and then they fight, and all is forgotten.
Wow, how they fight, too. Who’d she train with, Jackie Chan?
I know, I know…not important. Sorry. But you see how it’s all back-to-front, in this movie? Matt goes out at night as Daredevil, and kills criminals the system (i.e. him) can’t put behind bars where they belong…and then leaves a stupendously uncalled-for calling card to let everybody (well, Ben Urich) know that there’s a new sheriff in town. As to Ben Urich…crime reporter slash urban legend oddspot reporter slash high-society black-tie ball reporter? Really? No, not really…something must’ve gotten pretty lost between the floorboards here, huh? Again, I don’t blame. I just notice that’s what happened. As I said, I’m very kindly disposed to this movie, and want to like it. I’ve actually seen it three-and-a-half times now. And I tellya, you don’t really notice just how good the performances are, until you fully realize the shit you’re accepting because of them. Certainly no one I’m aware of before me has seen fit to realize that if Ben Affleck wasn’t acting his little brains out here, people would’ve walked right out of the theatre. But, you don’t really notice, do you. And besides, it’s Ben Affleck. Hey, have you ever seen him on Saturday Night Live? He’s really funny on that show, y’know…
Wow, so it’s come to this for me. Defending the guy. Who ever would have believed it?
Moving on, Nation…the dialogue is in as bad shape as the flashback is, too. “I beat him”, “I know, Dad”, “I didn’t get your name”, “I didn’t give it”…aaaargh. “My senses became superhuman…suddenly I was DAREDEVIL.” Even the Kingpin gets dragged down by things like “I’m not the bad guy”…this is the line Affleck most acts the hell out of, because it’s the worst line in the whole movie…no, in fact he isn’t the bad guy. The Kingpin is the bad guy, because he’s the cause of how “the system doesn’t work”…and yet, how screwy is it that I quite like the Kingpin? I’ll get back to that in one sec, actually…first I’ve gotta talk about the nasty, nasty fan service…
No, wait! One more second! The fight in the bar!
Aww, forget the damn fight in the damn bar…never mind it could’ve been an excellent showcase for Matt’s extreme super-senses…
Okay, the fan service. Even as a fan, I felt a little bit like “hey, Daredevil makers…don’t touch me there.” Because, does it ever bloody end? Romita, Colan, Lee, Miller, Mack, Bendis…Kevin Smith…it’s just too bloody much, it really is. It overloads you after a while. (Still questioning the wisdom of including a nod to Ditko in Spider-Man 2: if he ever saw it, which he probably won’t, you just KNOW it’d piss him off…I mean, you think Alan Moore’s recalcitrant…)
Even this: “Justice is served.” I mean really.
Okay, back to the Kingpin. Wait, one sec: Bullseye and Elektra. You know, I think it’s really funny that Elektra is shocked to discover DD is Matt…even more shocked than I am at how the clothesline stuff didn’t work for him and against her…but then this SONAR sense seems to exist to do what the plot needs of it in general, sometimes to good effect and sometimes not…but mostly I think Elektra should’ve known Matt is Daredevil because she’s seen his cane! Ohhh, that came out badly. I mean, how can she not recognize his billy club? Ohhh…uhhh…damn. I don’t think there’s any good way to say that. Anyway she should just know. And, see how good I am, I’m not even complaining about how they all meet up on a rooftop at the same time so perfectly! Hell, I won’t even complain about how everyone in this movie has no-good-reason superpowers except for Foggy! Who should probably look into getting some…I mean, a few years of martial arts training and you can fucking fly, man…
I do have a slight problem with how Bullseye can have the same “powers” as Matt, and I suspect this very problem is the reason Bullseye wasn’t explored too much as a character…“Hey Colin, can you hang a bit of an unlantern on this for us?” “Well, I could act real twitchy and psycho and scenery-chewing, would that help?” “Let’s see it!” [Colin snarls, grinds his teeth, wiggles his eyebrows, looks like he’s gonna cry] “Wow, Colin, that’s AMAZING!” “You like it?” “Like it?! It saves the whole damn movie!” “Well…here to help, mate.”
Now how much of a monster would I have to be, to quibble over that?
“He made me miss.”
I’m reminded of about four seconds of Oliver Reed’s performance in Gladiator, when for some unknown reason he cast the bullshit aside and acted. Great stuff. I give Bullseye, as a character, a total pass in this movie. Criticism is inappropriate, and unnecessary. If they’d made plushtoys of him, they could’ve made a billion dollars.
Anyway. I say that a lot, don’t I? Anyway…
Michael Clake Duncan, the speaker of the greatest line in this movie…well, frankly the speaker of four of the top five greatest lines in this movie, but this one’s the best, just look at how he does it: “I don’t understand.” Now there’s your noir, finally! Because I want to know too! Oh…because “I’m not the bad guy.” What a letdown. I’m not sure the question – and it’s a good question! – has been answered, frankly. But we can’t do anything about that, we’d have to re-shoot the whole movie to get a better answer. And look at this: Michael laughs appealingly and says (as Daredevil threatens him with Riker’s Island…is that the prison Wilson Fisk would be going to, though?) “I’ll get out”. And DD says: “I know. And I’ll be waiting.” Which, sorry to sound like someone from Television Without Pity, is just stupid. On so many levels. One, it’s just dumb period, because why not kill him then? If the system doesn’t work. I mean what exactly are you going to do when he gets out, as you’re so sure he will? We definitely don’t hear Matt Murdock the lawyer, here. I mean you’d think when you’re getting rid of the very cause of the system not working, you’d threaten him with an it is too working by the time he gets out…but no. Apparently semi-noirness won’t permit that. But it probably should: oh, how “I’m not the bad guy” compares unfavourably with “I won’t kill you…but I don’t have to save you”. As a Batman-analogue, DD makes a good Spider-Man analogue, and vice versa…and yet I’ll tell you what might have saved the whole movie, if they’d only done it…if Daredevil smiled. It’s right there, after all. Look it over again: he wants to smile. When he beats up the bully-kid from the Sopranos (and by the way: neighbourhood bully picking on a blind kid? Would that happen? And does anyone else sense a suppressed-script echo of Matt’s response to the Kingpin saying he’ll reveal his identity?), he should be smiling…when he plummets to the pavement from on top of a building he should be smiling…when he chews up the painkillers (a part of this movie my non-comics-fan friend liked) he should be smiling to beat the friggin’ band. But how can he be smiling? The tone of the D.O.A.-narration won’t permit it. It’s become too controlling as a device: the end of the movie comes along and I keep thinking I’m gonna hear Ben Affleck’s voice saying “I will stop…the First Wave.” Truthfully, this movie can’t help the fact that it zigged when it should’ve zagged, way back when in the development process, and the wrong zigging does a lot, it percolates through everything: at the fancy ball, Foggy says to Urich “A “Kingpin” of crime? Sounds a little far-fetched, don’t you think?” And Urich responds: “No more far-fetched than an urban vigilante nobody’s ever seen.” BUT I’M SORRY BEN, THAT IS NOT A “GOTCHA”! Jeez…
And so you ask me, O Faithful Reader, what would I have done instead? If I’m such a smartass?
Honestly, beyond the odd tweak, nothing. It had to be this way. It had to be this movie, and no other. There’s no getting around it. I told you before, I also need DD tangled around the steeple after Elektra dies… I need everything that’s in this movie. You couldn’t make a Daredevil movie that wasn’t like this, what’re you gonna do, have it be while Matt and Foggy are in college? Are you going to ignore Elektra for Karen Page, the Kingpin for Stilt-Man? You most certainly are not. And then, besides, you’d lose our pal Michael Clarke Duncan, who sadly is right about everything in this movie, that Daredevil is wrong about…ouch. And yet it has to be so, not just because M-C-D is so great (which he totally is), but because Matt Murdock himself has been set up by semi-noirness to prove it. “I don’t understand”, the Kingpin says, and I’m right there with him: I don’t understand either. I need someone (and forgive me for quoting the one truly impossible comic-movie) to explain it to me.
And that, for all the efforts of the actors, is something Daredevil isn’t gutsy enough to do. It shies away from it, instead.
They tried hard, though. Problem was, it all went wrong at the beginning: with Matt’s promise to his father, and his father’s promise to Matt.
Read DD #1. Sometimes it’s simple. Except, sometimes, it’s not allowed to be. Even in retrospect.