...in the details
'You don't like my costume? Have you seen Daredevil's costume? He looks like a complete tool and nobody blames nuclear sabotage on him.' Peter Parker, in Ultimate Spider-Man #18
Younger readers may find this a little difficult to believe, but we are currently in the middle of what will one day be remembered as a Golden Age of Superhero Movies. Admittedly not every comic-inspired project is of the same high standard as, for example, Blade 2 or Spider-Man, but given that only a few years ago the average superhero picture was an aberration like Captain America or Steel, I think you'll agree that the genre has taken a quantum leap forward of late.
The main beneficiary of this advance has been Marvel, who throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s were the world's bestselling comics publishers but were unable to translate this into big-screen success, whilst their Distinguished Competition bestrode the world with the Superman and Batman franchises. But now it seems that every Marvel book from Ghost Rider to Brother Voodoo is in development for the big screen, and every major star in the world has got in touch with their inner fanboy and set about playing their childhood hero.
So stand up Ben Affleck, who's doing exactly that in Mark Steven Johnson's new movie Daredevil, based on a comic with a cult following but little mainstream name recognition. Affleck plays the troubled hero, who by day is blind lawyer Matt Murdock, and by night is blind vigilante Daredevil. (Being hit in the face by toxic waste as a child destroyed Murdock's eyesight but boosted all his other senses to superhuman levels of acuity, also giving him a bat-like sonar sense.) Trouble comes our hero's way when he falls for beautiful heiress-turned-ninja chick Elektra (Jennifer Garner), who is the latest target for a crimelord known as the Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan) and his deranged executioner Bullseye (Colin Farrell).
I really, really wanted this film to continue Marvel's run of success. I'm not enormously familiar with the book, but I know it well enough to appreciate its quality, and the difficulty of adapting it successfully for the screen. (A previous attempt, in the TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, was pretty much an unmitigated disaster, notable only for the Kingpin being played by Lord of the Rings' John Rhys Davies.) But I have to say that Daredevil is a deeply flawed movie - but for a rather strange reason: the director is too big a fan of the original comic.
Why do I say this? Well, for one thing this is a movie trying to do too much. Into a relatively brief 105 minutes it attempts to squeeze Daredevil's origin, some day-in-the-life-of-Matt-Murdock material, plus his romance with Elektra and his various bouts with her, Bullseye and Kingpin. This results in some extremely choppy pacing and a disjointed, episodic feel. And it shortchanges the characters - instead of an assassin plagued by an uncontrollable dark side, Elektra becomes a simple avenger motivated by a case of mistaken identity. Kingpin, too, loses much of his depth (along with height, girth and weight, but let's not quibble).
The crowded marketplace as far as these kinds of films are concerned is another problem the film has to contend with: on the surface of it, the Daredevil comic looks like an amalgam of Spider-Man and Batman, but it's distinguished by some intense, mature themes and imagery. The film attempts to do the same, but with limited success, lacking the dark poetry the comic often achieves. The result is a film that too often resembles Batman or Blade. It's not really helped by Johnson's lack of skill when it comes to the action sequences where this kind of film should really come to life - they're either confusingly choreographed, often in that tedious, sub-Matrix style we've surely all got a bit sick of, or they're flatly directed with little energy or flair.
It's by no means totally lacking in merit. Affleck is actually perfectly competent in the lead role, but then again for some reason he's always at least okay in any project where he works with Kevin Smith, and Smith has a cameo here as a morgue attendant (this is due to Smith writing the comic for a while - Stan Lee, who created the character, and Frank Miller, who made him famous, also have cameos, and there are a huge number of not-so-subtle comic fan in-jokes in the script). Colin Farrell is clearly having a whale of a time as Bullseye, a demented, snarling psychopath (he almost makes you forget that this is a supervillain whose sole power is that he's, uh, really good at throwing things. Probably for copyright reasons, his adamantium skeleton hasn't made it into the movie1.) There are some quite good jokes along the way. And the film's depiction of the grim, scarred realities of life as an all-too-vulnerable vigilante is striking, going much further even than the Tim Burton Batman movies. (Although 'grim superheroics' always seems to me to be like arranging punk rock for a string quartet to play - it seems to overlook the fundamental charm of the form - in the case of superheroes, their lack of grounding in the real world.)
It's interesting to compare Daredevil with last summer's Spider-Man. They're both based on Stan Lee characters, they share the same executive producer, the same costume designer (no, not Ann Summers, though it's an understandable misapprehension), the title sequences are strikingly similar and in both cases the director is an avowed fan of the hero in question. But where Spider-Man was irresistible, crowd-pleasing fun, smart and self-mocking, Daredevil takes itself too seriously and never really establishes an identity of its own. It's too faithful to the darker elements of the comic to really win over a mainstream crowd, but too slick and glitzy to satisfy most hard-core fans of the book. This may have been a labour of love for Johnson and Affleck, but sometimes love is not enough.