RETRO REVIEW: Daredevil Director's Cut
"They say your whole life flashes before your eyes when you die. It's true... even for a blind man."
As a kid, Daredevil was always one of my favorite comic book heroes. Sure, he wasn’t as high on my list as Superman, but the character fascinated me nonetheless. I mean, a blind superhero? There are a lot of flawed superheroes, but Daredevil took the cake for me.
Let me put it this way: in the fewest words possible, I’m going to describe these characters.
Spider-Man: he crawls walls.
Batman: he’s got awesome gadgets.
Iron Man: he’s got a robot suit.
Daredevil: he’s blind.
You see, Daredevil is a character who’s not defined by his powers, but by his disability. From the get-go he’s established as a man that’s forced to live with an incredible pain, and though I might not have known it when I was a little kid, that was what attracted me to him.
Fast-forward a couple years to 2003. By now, I’d seen both Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Bryan Singer’s X-Men. I was ecstatic. I mean, Spidey and Wolverine had both gotten the royal treatment, so it wasn’t hard to imagine my other favorite heroes following suit.
Then I saw a preview on TV for a Daredevil movie. Oh man, little 9-year-old me was pumped. My father took me to see it opening week, and...
I didn’t really know what to think. I left the theater scratching my head and thinking, “Something wasn’t right with that movie.” It was the same feeling I would have several years later after walking out of Ghost Rider. I thought the fight scenes were pretty cool and all, but so were the fight scenes in Spider-Man. Daredevil just had something missing that I couldn’t put my finger on.
Now let’s flash forward another nine years. I am eighteen, and I’m sad to say my interest in Daredevil has waned. I still respect him greatly as a character, but I’ve finally been able to figure out why I didn’t quite like his movie. Then one day, while cruising around ComicBookMovie’s fan-fiction section, I find a script written by fellow CBM-user BattlinMurdock. It’s called “The Man Without Fear” and is essentially a retelling of Daredevil’s origins. I like the script, and I’m excited that there’s two more.
So I read all of them and began interacting a little bit with BattlinMurdock. To make a long story short, I end up editing several trailers for his scripts in the style of Joe Carnahan’s Daredevil sizzle-reel. In doing so, I watched (and re-watched) numerous movies including Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Darkman, and the director’s cut of Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil.
What did I think of it after roughly ten years?
Surprisingly enough, I enjoyed it. Actually, I might go far enough to say that it’s a genuinely underrated CBM. Okay, so it’s not The Dark Knight, but it doesn’t intend to be. What it does intend is to be a respectful adaptation of one of Marvel’s oldest characters, and in that sense it succeeds.
Part 1: The Story
One thing that Daredevil has been repeatedly criticized for is its story. It had been called derivative of other, better superhero films... and I have to admit that it’s true. Daredevil does borrow elements from other superhero movies, be it a Spider-Man-like kiss in the rain or a climactic showdown in a church bell-tower, a la Tim Burton’s Batman. At the same time, however, it manages to be its own movie.
Let me explain that before I go on.
Daredevil may not be entirely original in its presentation, but it’s in no way an outright rip-off of Batman or Spider-Man. Take a look at the kiss that Matt Murdock and Elektra Natchios share in the rain. Similar to the iconic upside-down kiss between Peter Parker and Mary Jane, but at least the scene serves a genuine purpose. It exists mainly to develop the relationship between Matt and Elektra, but also as an example of how rain sharpens Matt’s radar sense -- something that becomes crucial in Daredevil’s final showdown with the Kingpin.
What about the fight scene in the church? As it’s established early in the film, Matt is Catholic. When he’s wounded, he flees to a place that’s offered him solitude in the past: the church. Now let’s look at why the climax occurred in a bell-tower in Batman:
Batman crashes the Batwing outside the tower and follows Joker inside.
...Yep, that’s it.
To be totally honest, Daredevil has more of a reason to be in a church than Batman, so I don’t see how that particular scene is a rip-off. If anything, it’s what the climax of Batman should have been.
Now on to a crucial part of the director’s cut: the supposed “subplot” involving Kingpin’s assistant, Wesley Owen Welch.
In the theatrical cut of the film, this story is nowhere to be seen. Wesley is reduced to the role of “Kingpin’s lackey” and serves no purpose to the story whatsoever. In fact, cutting Wesley’s story out of the movie left an enormous plot hole in Kingpin’s downfall. When the crime lord is finally brought down, the sound of approaching sirens causes Kingpin to laugh and tell Daredevil, “You hear that, blind man? They’re coming for you.”
To which Murdock replies, “Didn’t you hear? Word’s out on the Kingpin. They’re coming for you.”
This made me wonder: how exactly did word get out on the Kingpin? Sure, Bullseye had previously let it slip that Kingpin was actually Wilson Fisk, but the cops hadn’t heard that. This problem is rectified in the director’s cut, in which one of Matt’s cases turns out to be linked to a murder committed by Fisk’s assistant Wesley. Not only does this patch up an enormous plot hole, it gives larger roles to supporting characters such as Foggy Nelson, Ben Urich, and Detective Nick Manolis. Instead of being random faces floating around the background, they’re all given integral roles in Kingpin’s takedown.
If you ask me, this isn’t so much a subplot as it is a large portion of the film’s main plot. By removing it from the movie, it cuts out much of the lawyer/crimefighter dynamic that made Frank Miller and Brian Michael Bendis’s “Daredevil” runs so compelling. Without this part of the story, the movie is just kind of a flimsy revenge-thriller.
Thankfully though, Mark Steven Johnson seemed to realize that. With the actual plot of the movie restored in the director’s cut, the movie has solid ground to build its characters off of.
Part 2: The Acting
Speaking of characters, I feel like I should address another thing that usually comes under fire in this movie: the acting. And what better place to start than with Ben Affleck, our leading man?
Affleck has gone on record saying that Daredevil was an embarrassment and a generally awful experience for him. Harsh words, but he received so much criticism for the role that I don’t really blame him. What did I think of his performance?
Honestly, I think a lot of the hate Affleck got was unwarranted. There was an odd line delivery or two (“I don’t ask for mercy -- people ask me!”) but on the whole I felt he portrayed Matt Murdock fairly well. Take a look at the image up above, a still from a scene where Matt selects dollar bills from braille-marked sorting cases. With the vacant look in his eyes and the dreary impression of having done this a thousand times, I could easily buy Affleck as a blind man. Compared with the few actors I’ve seen portray blind characters -- including Jamie Foxx, Al Pacino, and Rutger Hauer -- I have to say I found Ben Affleck pretty damn convincing.
As Murdock’s costumed alter-ego, he does a decent job. He exhibits Daredevil’s pain and anger without going too overboard, although the red leather S&M costume makes it a little difficult to take him seriously at times.
Sorry, low blow. Couldn’t resist.
I can’t think of much else to say about Affleck. I have a lot of respect for the guy, and it’s a shame he’s come to resent this role so much. In my opinion, he fit the part and gave us a good portrayal of Matt Murdock.
Unfortunately I can’t quite say the same for Jennifer Garner as Matt’s love interest, Elektra Natchios. Don’t get me wrong, Garner did alright with the material she was given (which makes me think this was more a fault with the writing than the acting), but she certainly was no Elektra.
Fans of Daredevil will know that Elektra was a college flame of Murdock’s who eventually resurfaces in New York as an assassin. Her character is further developed in Frank Miller’s “Elektra - Assassin” limited series, and her relationship with Matt is given a bit more depth in “The Man Without Fear,” also written by Miller. In the latter, the two characters seem to be attracted to each other for their mutual tendency to “live on the edge.” Matt claims to love her, but to me these claims always came off as the bold declarations of a kid who’s just experiencing his first romance. Their relationship is, after all, characterized mostly by rooftop parkour and frantic sex. I never got the sense that they cared for each other quite as deeply as, say, Matt and Karen Page. Maybe that’s just me, but even if my perception about the Daredevil/Elektra dynamic is way off the mark, I know that Elektra alone was not portrayed very well in the movie.
In the comics, Elektra is an incredibly cold and detached character. While reading “The Man Without Fear” and “Elektra - Assassin,” there were even moments where I had to question her sanity. To me, she’s the epitome of a femme fatale -- beautiful, but also ruthless and cold-blooded. Jennifer Garner plays Elektra as quite the opposite. In Daredevil, she’s got the same innocent, “girl-next-door” sort of vibe that Emma Stone had in The Amazing Spider-Man. Now that works just fine for Amazing Spider-Man, since Gwen Stacy is supposed to be an innocent girl-next-door type. Elektra is a killer!
I understand that the filmmakers were trying to make Elektra more sympathetic and relatable, but if you’re going to adapt a character you can’t completely change the basics of who they are. In other words, Elektra from Daredevil was just a generic love interest who happened to know karate. She wasn’t nearly as interesting as Elektra from the comic books.
So sorry, Jennifer Garner. You looked great in the outfit, but you’re no Elektra.
Filling the role of the movie’s big bad is the Kingpin, played by the late Michael Clarke Duncan. Race aside, Duncan is every inch the Kingpin in appearance. His enormous frame should certainly make him frightening... but I just can’t shake off his image as a gentle giant. It makes watching him play a villainous character a little odd. What’s more, I always pictured Kingpin as a very quiet menace, whereas Michael Clarke Duncan plays him much more directly. There’s absolutely no subtlety to the character, which is odd since Kingpin in the comics is one of the more subtle villains I’ve read.
He straddles the line between miscasting and decent casting, but Duncan does a serviceable job as Daredevil’s arch-nemesis.
Joe Pantoliano plays Ben Urich, the hard-nosed reporter for the Daily Bugle (sorry, New York Post). After reading Frank Miller’s “Born Again” storyline, Urich became my favorite supporting character in the Daredevil mythos, and thankfully he was portrayed pretty well. He’s only a peripheral character, but Pantoliano turns in his usual solid performance. I can’t find much to complain about here.
Before directing Iron Man, Jon Favreau played Matt Murdock’s best friend, Foggy Nelson. The script doesn’t give him much to do besides crack jokes and lead the police to Wesley, but Favreau is still one of the highlights of this film. His Foggy was maybe the most faithfully interpreted character in the movie, and added a good dose of heart to a relatively grim story. Jon Favreau gets a thumbs up from me.
Bullseye, on the other hand...
Oh man, do I have a lot to say about Colin Farrell’s Bullseye, but maybe that’s because Bullseye is my favorite Daredevil villain. I’ll just come right out and say it, I did not like Farrell’s portrayal of this character at all. I think that he’s a fantastic actor (watch In Bruges if you need proof), but he was so over-the-top and campy in Daredevil that I legitimately cringed a few times.
It all started out well enough. We first meet Bullseye at a pub in England, where his uncanny aim helps him win a game of darts. After his disgruntled opponent slights him for being an “Irish piece of trash,” Bullseye casually murders him -- right in front of an entire crowd. He doesn’t say a single word in the entire scene, but is still just as gleefully violent as Bullseye from the comics. It’s a great introduction for the character.
But as we go on, Farrell’s performance takes a dramatic nosedive into overacting territory. At one point he kills a talkative old woman by flicking a peanut into her open mouth (yes, you read that right), and as she chokes to death Bullseye leers at her sadistically...
Or at least, I think he’s supposed to look sadistic. Can someone tell me what this expression is?
In behind-the-scenes footage, director Johnson explained that Farrell’s interpretation of Bullseye was supposed to be “sort of a hybrid of Sid Vicious and Alex from A Clockwork Orange.” Now this sounds like a great idea in theory. I mean, Alex is one of my favorite characters of all time. But unfortunately, Colin Farrell just can’t pull off “menacing” the way Malcolm McDowell can. Actually, I doubt there are many actors who can pull off “menacing” the way Malcolm McDowell can...
Oh well. I can only hope that when Marvel decides to reboot Daredevil, they do a better job casting Bullseye.
Part 3: The Directing
So despite several cases of miscasting, I’ve enjoyed this movie.
But now we come to what is, in my opinion, the weakest part of the film: the directing.
Back during the conception stages of Daredevil, Fox was looking at filmmaker Chris Columbus to direct a movie based on Mark Steven Johnson’s script. I kind of wish they’d gone with Columbus. I’m not the biggest fan of the Harry Potter movies, but as a kid I was still pretty awestruck by the magic Columbus brought to the screen in The Sorcerer’s Stone. Compare this to Johnson, whose only previous directing endeavor was... Simon Birch?
I think I saw that on ION Television once.
Johnson’s shots are clunky and inconsistent, and some of his storytelling decisions are questionable at best. The flaming D’s on the subway platform are as ridiculous as the flaming bat-symbol on the bridge in The Dark Knight Rises -- and yes, the infamous playground fight scene is still in here. Since I don’t feel like beating a dead horse though, I’ll let this picture do the talking.
To top all this off, Johnson relies far too heavily on digital effects and wirework for his action scenes. It doesn’t help that the CGI makes the characters look like something out of a Playstation game, either. Seriously, check out the right arm on this model of Daredevil. I can’t tell if that’s an elbow or a knee. I’m not expecting Ridley Scott-level special effects or anything, but damn.
Speaking of weird CGI, what’s with Johnson’s annoying habit of putting digital reflections where they shouldn’t be? Even the opening shot is a fake reflection of the New York skyline in a puddle!
Let’s not speak of the fact that we shouldn’t be able to see the Chrysler Building from that angle, anyway...
“Oh, come on, Splenda. That’s only a couple times.”
Is this some kind of weird fetish for Mark Steven Johnson? Good lord.
The fight choreography ranges from decent to terrible, the worst offender being the aforementioned playground fight. Still, the massive brawl in Josie’s Bar was pretty cool, and I loved the fact that Elektra’s death was taken beat-for-beat from the comics.
“You’re pretty good... but me? I’m magic.”
All in all, I guess Daredevil makes a misstep for every couple things it does right. It may not be a great movie -- heck, it may not even be a particularly good one -- but I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as some people make it out to be.
But what do you think? Is Daredevil just a guilty pleasure for me, or is it actually an underrated movie?
In either case, I’m glad to have re-watched it. It’s been a pleasure becoming reacquainted with the Man Without Fear.
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