As a fan of the Marvel Comics superhero Daredevil, I was pleased when the long-aborning screen version finally go into production last year. However, there were two big question marks attached to the project: writer-director Mark Steven Johnson, whose previous turn behind the camera was the decidedly un-superheroic “Simon Birch”; and star Ben Affleck, who wasn’t exactly who most DD readers envisioned donning blind attorney Matt Murdock’s famous red horns. The finished “Daredevil” shows the two big gambles paying off in a solid, though not perfect, start to a possible screen franchise.
Of the two gambles, the one that perhaps incited the most fan fretting was the casting of Affleck, and he proves to be up to the challenge. All of the so-called “Afflecktions” (the smirk, the cocksure persona) are completely absent in his portrayal of Matt, who lost his sight–and, in turn, gained a superhuman heightening of his remaining senses–at an early age in an accident involving radioactive waste. Affleck does a convincing job of acting sightless and makes a capable action hero when donning Daredevil’s red leather get-up; but more importantly, he captures the anguish at the heart of Murdock: the unquenchable thirst for justice fueled by his father’s (David Keith) years-ago murder, which led to his contradictory existence as a lawyer by day, law-flouting masked defender of Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, by night.
That all said, Affleck’s is the least colorful performance in “Daredevil,” which is a measure of just how well Johnson cast the supporting characters. Walking away with top acting honors is Jennifer Garner, who completely nails every facet of Matt’s lady love–and Daredevil’s nemesis–sexy sai-wielding heiress Elektra Natchios. As she shows every week in her regular TV gig on the spy series “Alias,” she is more than up to the role’s demanding physical requirements, but she also has a vulnerability that lends the character and the Matt/Elektra love story genuine pathos. With his imposing size, formidable presence, and booming voice, Michael Clarke Duncan is a snug fit for the part of “kingpin of crime” Wilson Fisk; Colin Farrell is a scary hoot in his fairly limited screen time as assassin Bullseye; and Jon Favreau has some choice wisecracks as Matt’s partner Franklin “Foggy” Nelson.
However, that supporting cast points up one of the chief flaws of “Daredevil.” With no less than three primary adversaries facing our hero over the span of only about 100 minutes, the film feels overstuffed and rushed; once everyone is set up, the film is barreling headlong into its climactic stretch. It’s understandable that Johnson would want to cover all three of Daredevil’s main villains in the film in the event there would not be a sequel, but something cannot help but feel as if it’s given short shrift–namely, Kingpin. Johnson would have been wiser leave him out or keep him at the fairly background status he has for most of the film; with the tied-together Elektra/Bullseye resolutions carrying both a visceral charge and dramatic weight, the final face-off that follows between Daredevil and Fisk feels tacked-on and anticlimactic.
While it helps to have an avowed fanatical fan in the director’s chair to protect the integrity of the material (and, despite some necessary alterations and cuts, the Elektra thread is a worthy homage to Frank Miller’s legendary original storyline in the comics) Johnson, as his previous credits would indicate, isn’t too seasoned when it comes to action, and it sometimes shows. The first action sequence in particular, set in a bar, is too murkily edited and lit to make much sense, let alone thrill; and while Cheung Yan Yuen’s wire martial arts choreography works wonders for a memorable fight sequence between Daredevil and Bullseye, his elaborate aerial stunts stretch the already-shaky credibility of the meet-cute between Elektra and an out-of-costume (!) Matt.
Nonetheless, “Daredevil” is a faithful translation of the character and one of his more memorable tales on the page; it satisfies as an adventure and as a more intimate story. It certainly isn’t as definitive an adaptation as last year’s Spider-Man, but there’s definitely potential and promise for any future installments.