Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:40 - Released 2/14/03

I guess it had to happen sometime. It seems every actor has to jump into big-budget action films sooner or later, and Daredevil is Ben Affleck’s entry into the genre. Actually, I suppose Armageddon was his first such project—and I’d think he would want to forget that one—but this time he’s the star, a Marvel superhero character rife with sequel possibilities, a cash-cow role that will provide him with job security in between his more intelligent films. It’s a curious genre of films, intentionally overblown and willingly unrealistic like the comic books they came from, designed both to resurrect popular interest in the classic superhero characters and make obscene amounts of money for movie producers. One might think it’s a reflection of the times in movies, with the computer-effects technicians anxious to show off their hyper-real visual wonders, but superhero movies have been around for years before computers, and somehow they just keep busting blocks year after year, as evidenced most recently by the phenomenal success of last summer’s Spider-Man. In case you haven’t picked up on it, this is not my particular favorite type of movie. But Daredevil, directed by Mark Steven Johnson, does what it does, and reasonably well.

Affleck, who seems almost less suited to a superhero character than Tobey Maguire did last summer (if that’s possible), plays Matt Murdock, a blind defense lawyer from the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City, who, as we learn from Brian Helgeland’s screenplay based on the characters of legendary Marvel Comics creators Bill Everett, Stan Lee, and Frank Miller, possesses special powers. After being blinded in a toxic waste accident as a pre-teen (played by Scott Terra), he discovered that his remaining senses were heightened to superhuman level, and that he could use sound as a kind of radar to allow him to make out the shapes and positions of objects around him. This in turn allowed him to take up extreme acrobatics, jumping, sliding, and bouncing around the roofs of local buildings, taking physical risks we normal humans would never attempt, and never getting a scratch. Or maybe he was just a big fan of Jackass. Not long after this, he witnesses the murder of his beloved prize-fighter father (David Keith) by the Kingpin, a notorious crime leader in the community whose identity, and in fact existence, has yet remained unproven. After this, he resolves (in that way superheroes do) to seek justice by “helping those that others wouldn’t.” So he becomes a lawyer?

In addition to championing the causes of the downtrodden in the courtroom, he adopts the secret nighttime persona of Daredevil, using his ultra-nimble physical abilities, a cane that hides more gizmos than Batman’s utility belt, and a hooded maroon leather costume that must have been sold to him by a gay designer taking advantage of the fact that he couldn’t see. Before facing the Kingpin (who turns out to be very real, played by Michael Clarke Duncan), he must fight his henchman, Bullseye (Colin Farrell), a deadly and remorseless projectile-throwing champion, while trying desperately to woo a comely and ridiculously well-trained martial-arts expert named Elektra (Jennifer Garner), who momentarily mistakes Daredevil for her own father’s killer.

Since Daredevil’s moves are almost identical to those of his Marvel colleague Spider-Man, and that film is just a few months old, comparisons are inevitable. The obvious difference between the two is that Daredevil only works at night, which necessarily gives this movie a darker and more macabre tone. Director Johnson makes the most of this, using weird lighting and atmosphere, not to mention the music of Graeme Revell, to make a movie that looks more like an ultra-athletic episode of Dark Shadows than your traditional superhero flick. In fact, Daredevil possesses one extremely vampire-esque habit: because of his ultra-sensitivity to noise, he is forced to sleep in a coffin-like sensory deprivation tank. Imagine sleeping every night in a tubful of water with a lid over it—I suppose Matt Murdock’s fingers just always look like raisins.

It is unfortunate that Affleck, a gifted actor who, except for a few occasions (like Chasing Amy, Dogma, and Shakespeare In Love), has been unable to find a role equal to his talent, should be upstaged by his villains, but that’s exactly what happens here. The over-the-top, scenery-chewing work of Duncan and Farrell is far superior and much more interesting to watch than Affleck’s dull dialogue or his stuntman’s swinging around the city. Likewise, Garner has little success proving she’s there for anything more than her pretty face. But characterization is not of primary importance in action films, and that which is—namely, the special effects work—does its job well. ***

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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