How Ben Affleck's 'Daredevil' got all the right stuff wrong
Rewatching the little-loved superhero calamity on the eve of Netflix's reboot.
You approach the 2003 Daredevil feature film with trepidation. There are worse superhero movies, but Daredevil‘s rep is uniquely toxic. Even though the movie grossed over $100 million domestically, that vague success just became a signal moment in the national Affleck backlash. (Now that his career’s been resuscitated, Affleck is not shy about throwing Daredevil under the bus—it’s his version of Clooney and Batman & Robin.)
And Affleck wasn’t the film’s only problem. It was also key point in the weird first act of Colin Farrell’s career, the sudden-onset overexposure that catapulted him from plucky Irish newcomer to Britney-dating punchline star of troubled box office failures like Alexander and Miami Vice. (Farrell in 2006 was basically Taylor Kitsch in 2012: Oh, to be a fly on the wall during True Detective season 2!)
The movie is bad, and it had the misfortune of coming out right before superhero movies got really good. It hit theaters the same year as X-Men 2, one year before Spider-Man 2, two years before Batman Begins. The sad thing is that Daredevil is not all that different from Batman Begins. In fact, when you watch the Daredevil movie now, you might be struck by the fact that, on a purely superficial level, Daredevil seems to be doing a lot of things right.
Before this week, I hadn’t seen Daredevil since its theatrical release. But after watching the first five episodes of Netflix’s new Daredevil series—which is pretty good!—I thought it was worthwhile to revisit the movie. I had always heard good things about Mark Steven Johnson’s director’s cut, which reinstates half an hour of missing footage. That half-hour only heightens the weird reverse echoes of Batman Begins. Like Christopher Nolan’s brilliant first Batman movie, Daredevil adopts a flashback structure, complete with an extended origin story; like Begins and Tim Burton’s Batman before it, Daredevil tries to merge the origin story with the main plot of the film. (In both movies, the Big Bad killed the superhero’s father—indirectly, in Ra’s Al-Ghul’s case.)
Like The Dark Knight, Daredevil feature a cocktail party where all the characters—hero, sidekick, lover, villain—get together to hang out in nice clothes and push the plot forward into an action scene. Weirdly, this also happens in Spider-Man 2, Iron Man, and Green Lantern. (Perhaps the credit’s due to Burton, again: The defining superhero cocktail party moment comes in Batman Returns.) And if you watch Affleck’s Daredevil right after you watch an episode of Netflix’s Daredevil, you might initially think that the two aren’t all that dissimilar. Both Daredevils start off in a church and feature scenes with a lovable priest trying hard to get Matt Murdock back on the Catholic straight and narrow. Both Daredevils show Young Matt Murdock learning how to use his powers, while lovable pop Jack Murdock teaches him fortune-cookie wisdom about never giving up.
Notably, only one Daredevil features Coolio.
At least, that’s true of the Daredevil Director’s Cut, which adds a completely new subplot wherein the law firm of Nelson & Murdock takes on a mysterious murder case, which mostly involves the man behind “Gangsta’s Paradise” giving one of the single best-worst musician performances ever.
Like pretty much everything in the Director’s Cut, the Coolio stuff doesn’t make Daredevil better or worse; it’s just longer. Johnson wrote and directed the movie, and he’s clearly a fan of the comics. He layers in a truly insane amount of fan service: practically every throwaway character is named after a writer or artist who worked on Daredevil. (Kevin Smith also has a cameo; in those days, that meant something.) Johnson explicitly recreates some famous Daredevil panels, a visual-translation aesthetic that anticipates Sin City. And the movie overloads on Daredevil mythology, featuring two love interests—a pre-Grey’s Ellen Pompeo is on hand to provide her trademark nothing as Karen Page—and two iconic villains.
Well, three villains—if you count Elektra as both a love interest and a bad guy. As Matt Murdock, Affleck unquestionably has a thankless role—his eyes are covered up most of the movie—but Jennifer Garner actually has an even tougher job. As Elektra, she’s called upon to play a poor little rich girl who’s also a martial artist on a vengeance kick. It’s like trying to simultaneously play Julia Roberts in Notting Hill and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, with worse writing and outrageous green contact lenses.
Daredevil is not completely awful, though the best parts feel accidental. Colin Farrell’s Bullseye is a miles-over-the-top sensation—his Tasmanian Devil mugging is close in spirit to the kinetic charm Farrell showed off in In Bruges—and the late Michael Clarke Duncan makes the Kingpin an imposing presence, even if “imposing” is pretty much all he’s asked to do.
Like D’Onofrio’s more human-sized version of Wilson Fisk, Duncan is often framed by the Manhattan skyline. And the Director’s Cut makes it clear that Johnson’s ambitions for Daredevil were considerable. He wanted to make a movie about Hell’s Kitchen, the same way Christopher Nolan wanted to make Gotham into a real, expansive place in his Dark Knight trilogy.
There are a lot of straightforward explanations for why superhero movies go wrong. They throw in too many villains; they’re not true enough to the source material; they’re too true to the source material; the costume looks stupid; the actors are miscast.
But Daredevil doesn’t really have any obvious structural problems. Its main issue is that pretty much everything that could work doesn’t. The action scenes reflect the post-Matrix vogue for digital-assisted wirework, but there’s none of the visual invention of The Matrix. And whereas, say, the Bourne films would cut around the fact that Matt Damon isn’t actually one of the world’s greatest martial artists, Daredevil holds every action shot justlong enough for Affleck to look painfully awkward. At the time, most people read Affleck’s let’s-call-it-minimalist performance as evidence that he didn’t really have the chops to be a leading man. Post-redemption, it just feels like you’re watching the star of a movie actively retreat from the film around him—behind a mask, behind sunglasses, behind self-blinding contact lenses.
There’s a great sequence in episode 2 of the new Netflix series that uses minimal digital effects to create the impression of a single-take, lo-fi action scene. It’s the polar opposite of the fights in Daredevil, which use maximal digital effects to create the cinematic equivalent of a Street Fighter II showdown.
The new Daredevil reflects 12 years of refined superhero cinema—and expanded superhero culture. Unlike the movie, it doesn’t feel the need to overexplain Daredevil’s powers. It’s also more clever with its exposition: Charlie Cox sounds like a real human being when he says that his powers let him see the world as “an impressionistic painting”; Ben Affleck sounds like a bored kid reciting the pledge of allegiance when he narrates how his sense of sound “gave off a kind of radar sense.”
You want to find something good to say about the Daredevil movie; anything with such a horrible reputation should qualify for some kind of critical reappraisal. Yeesh, even Batman & Robin has bad-camp eccentricity in its favor. But more than anything, this Daredevilis joyless, with a soundtrack stuffed full of mopey alt-trash like Nickelback, Hoobastank, and the Calling, plus the House of Pain song that isn’t the good House of Pain song. (Jennifer Garner-as-Elektra performs a stabby music montage set to Evanescence’s “Bring Me To Life,” which might be the most 2003 moment this side of a 50 Cent/Good Charlotte/Jason Mraz supergroup.)
Daredevil grossed enough money to launch an even worse spinoff, Elektra. No one’s career really suffered—Affleck and Farrell set off on their inexorable spiral/redemption cycle, while costar Jon Favreau segued into his role as a key foundational creative mind in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Daredevil was enough of a going concern that rumors of a reboot never really faded; The Grey‘s Joe Carnahan was working on a new Daredevil trilogy before the rights went back to Marvel. Carnahan’s trilogy sounded wild and ambitious.
Netflix’s Daredevil is safer and more straightforward. Its main ambition is not doing whatever the Daredevil movie did. So far, no Hoobastank; so far, so good.