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Daredevil   A-

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Writer: Mark Steven Johnson
Cast: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan, Colin Farrell, Jon Favreau, Joe Pantoliano, David Keith, Scott Terra.

Review by Rob Vaux

Daredevil represents one of the first real tests for the burgeoning line of Marvel Comics adaptations. After cracking the door with Blade, hitting critical mass with X-Men, and finally reaching white-hot status with Spider-Man, their superhero flicks are just about due for a letdown. Along comes Daredevil, a minor figure in Marvel's pantheon without a lot of name recognition outside of the hardcore fanboys. His shtick is disturbingly similar to that of the better-known Batman -- a hooded vigilante who prowls the rooftops at night -- and while he has his share of engaging traits, there's little to distinguish him from other costumed crusaders. If the growing Marvel juggernaut is going to stumble, he's a logical speed bump, right?

Wrong. Not only does Daredevil gloriously recreate the best elements of the title character, but it touches on ideas that other comic-book films haven't dared approach. It has the usual pop and zing of its ilk -- the moody sets, the flashy edits, the elaborately choreographed fight scenes -- but its underlying pulse draws it along in wholly unique ways. Daredevil himself (Ben Affleck) has a neat hook: he's blind, his eyes rendered useless by the obligatory ruptured drum of radioactive sludge. In exchange, his remaining four senses are enhanced to superhuman levels, granting him lightning quick reflexes, exquisite balance, and hearing that functions as a bat-like radar. When his boxer father (David Keith) is murdered by the mob for refusing to take a dive, he resolves to fight evil as so many of his predecessors have before. By day, he's crusading lawyer Matt Murdock, striking a blow for the little guy in the courtrooms of Hell's Kitchen. By night, he takes to the streets in body-hugging red leather, stomping the crap out of the thugs he missed on the legal docket.

It's all familiar territory, and while director Mark Steven Johnson brings a lot of energy to the material, it doesn't appear to break any new ground. The Batman motif is readily apparent, as are flourishes from other dark comic-book films (the fiery logo from The Crow, for example). But Daredevil's strength comes in the nuances that those earlier works passed over: the questions that they often lacked the nerve to answer. Murdock's targets are street-level scum -- rapists and drug dealers instead of cartoonish supervillains -- and his battles against them take their toll on mind and body alike. His back is a mass of scar tissue, his bathroom an apothecary of prescription painkillers. There's no off-switch to his powers: he sleeps in a deprivation tank in order to block out the incessant chatter of the outside world. And his crusade walks a dangerous tightrope between justice and vengeance. Execution is perfectly reasonable in his eyes (he throws one ne'er-do-well in front of the Number 6 subway), and the cost to his soul becomes slowly visible as the film progresses. Credit Johnson for putting these notions front and center, rather than leaving them as an afterthought to the fights.

Indeed, the "violence begets violence" thesis gains real weight when Murdock finally finds someone to care about: Elektra (Jennifer Garner), a sort of ninja debutante whose father works for the city's crime syndicate. They meet cute (meaning that they periodically try to kill each other), but their blossoming romance quickly falls prey to Daredevil's ongoing "heroics" and an assassin named Bullseye (the gloriously over-the-top Colin Farrell) who wants to add both their heads to his trophy wall. All of this stays close to the spirit of the comics, particularly author Frank Miller's famous run in the 1980s. Some choppy editing leaves a few dangling questions (ten more minutes, properly placed, would have done wonders for the plot) and the corporate rock soundtrack is overly intrusive at points, but Johnson makes the rest of it so compelling that Daredevil never feels the loss.

It also demonstrates one of the real keys to Marvel's recent cinematic success. They aspire to keep the heroes true to their roots, to recreate them as fastidiously as possible rather than distorting them into something more demographically appealing. Daredevil continues that encouraging trend, not only in the story and themes, but in the use of actors who, while well-known, don't guarantee huge openings with their name above the credits. They're simply right for their respective parts, embodying the characters instead of just using them to showcase their own personae. (Contrast that with the Batman films, where movie star recognition trumped genuine characterization every time.) Affleck brings the right touch of grim determination to the role (a surprise considering his lightweight image), and the remainder of the cast fits the bill to a tee -- amiable Jon Favreau as Murdock's law partner Foggy, cynical Joe Pantoliano as his tabloid-reporting fan Ben Urich, behemoth Michael Clarke Duncan as his ultimate nemesis, the Kingpin. Garner is initially a little shakier, but her athletic skills and searing charisma quickly silence those doubts, and Farrell... well, Farrell's just having a blast.

All of them serve to buoy an already overachieving production. The film's dark side gives it a distinctive edge, but Daredevil never feels oppressive or unhappy. Johnson lightens the mood just often enough to relieve it of its pretensions, letting us enjoy the fun and excitement without losing its intriguing subtext. It takes on quite a bit -- certainly more than most would expect -- and its joys are all the more pleasurable because they come as such a surprise. Not bad for a project shaping up to be the runt of the litter. Sooner or later, one of these movies is going to seriously chunk. But for now, we can breath a sigh of relief: Daredevil takes the Marvel franchise to the next level.

Review published 02.14.2003.

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