Picking up a comic book that’s pretty good but has about one-fourth of the panels incomplete is what it feels like watching Daredevil, the latest big-budget superhero blockbuster to sprout forth from the Marvel Comics vault.
It has entertaining confrontations, a surprisingly bouncy comedic touch, some big-moment romantic overtones that work and one heck of a hateful henchman in Colin Farrell’s Bullseye. And for a time, it seems the movie is really going to tackle Daredevil’s inability to reconcile violent murders with noble intent. It’s a pretty heavy moment when Daredevil throws a freed rapist onto a subway train track.
Lest the audience be fooled, though, into thinking it’s watching the R-rated Blade, writer-director Mark Steven Johnson quickly retreats into PG-13 territory. (In interviews, he insists a “different” version will exist on the DVD.) The result is a movie that is sufficiently entertaining without really reaching a higher level than expected as last year’s Spider-Man did.
Ben Affleck plays Matt Murdock, a New York City attorney blinded as a pre-teen in an accident involving toxic waste. His other senses heightened — and, in a way, able to see through the sound he hears — Murdock doubles by night as Daredevil, a red-leather clad superhero who dispenses his own brand of vigilante justice.
Another problem is that Murdock is a heavily scarred pill popper who sleeps in a sensory deprivation chamber. He’s not the happiest chap on the block. That changes when he meets Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner), who is as much a scrappy fighter as she is a knockout beauty.
Elektra’s father, though, has ties to the scheming Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan), who controls all New York City crime. And problems really arise when Kingpin recruits psychotic lackey Bullseye to off Elektra’s father.
Affleck, hardly ever a very expressive actor, is neither awful nor spectacular in the title role. But like the Bruce Wayne / Batman role, it requires little more than a proper facial scowl to suggest brooding anger. Garner is fine, but those who have seen just how good she can be on TV’s Alias undoubtedly will be disappointed at how limited her role is.
Johnson fares better with his supporting players. As Murdock’s lawyer sidekick, Jon Favreau is hands-down the best comic-relief character in any comic-book movie. And, as Bullseye, Farrell steals the moment in every one of his scenes, attacking people with paperclips, peanuts, panes of glass and playing cards. With a high-pitched cackle and psychotic gleam in his eye, Farrell brings an unexpected black-comedy spin to the proceedings and is clearly having a great time doing it.
Johnson also uses his effects budget wisely. In place of dopey computer-generated explosions are nifty looks at the way Daredevil perceives his other senses. During one fight, the rampant gunfire is drowned out in favor of letting us know how Daredevil’s using it to “see” his targets. And later, during a romantic moment with Elektra, the same idea is used in a surprisingly touching way.
Alas, there are some really annoying problems, namely junking Murdock’s journey to resolve his inner demons. Outside of some dippy, self-help lines near the end, it’s all-but-forgotten for the almighty dollar the PG-13 can bring. It’s the same mix of hope and despair as at the end of Spider-Man, only in that film it was earned.
It also has a villain who is all but pushed out of the story. Kingpin apparently rose to power by smoking a stogie in front of his office window. Not once do we get an idea of how he rose to power. And the climactic fight between him and Daredevil is a humongous disappointment (not to mention that to the 300-pound Duncan could twirl Affleck like a straw in a drink).
At least if Daredevil is going to be a franchise (and who doubts it will), the groundwork is there for them to improve, if only because they don’t kill off Farrell, whose presence in a sequel could be truly great.