Assuming you believe the claim that I am a lifelong comic book fan, would you be more surprised to learn that:
I’ve never read a Daredevil comic book, or
I actually liked the 2003 movie starring Ben Affleck?
I’m a DC guy, not Marvel.
I liked Daredevil in 2003 when I first saw it. (Continue reading to learn how I feel about it now.)
With the success of Netflix’s new series starring Charlie Cox, which I agree with almost everyone else is indeed spectacular, let’s talk about two previous, less effective versions. One is the aforementioned feature length movie from 12 years ago, and the other is an animated television version from 19 years ago. As you savor every minute binging the new show, compare with it with we’ve had to endure with the character until now.
Spider-man: The Animated Series (1996)
Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, appeared in two episodes of the third season of Fox’s animated Spider-man series. The “famous criminal defense lawyer,” with blonde hair and deep voice, represented the falsely accused Peter Parker in the sixth and seventh episodes of the Sins of the Father story arc. “They say justice is also blind, so I have a leg up,” the character states. We know that Murdock is blind, but in this version, his “enhanced senses” are represented by a type of vision which is as red as his crime fighting suit.
Through flashbacks, we learn that Matt’s father was a fighter who on the side collected money for an up-and-coming mobster. Witnessing one such transaction, young Matt was blinded when a barrel of chemicals tore and splashed his face with radioactive waste. Later, Dad was caught by this mobster and was “never seen again.” This event launches the future Daredevil’s crusade. “Now I am confident… fearless… so close to confronting my greatest enemy. He’ll pay for what he’s done to the innocent, the helpless… my father.”
Daredevil gets his battle with Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin, and Spider-man helps. However, Fisk escapes to return in the next episode. Daredevil does not return, but we’re left knowing that although he can “see through disguises,” Daredevil respects Spider-man’s right to privacy; he’s “a big believer in privacy and the law.” So, he’s a stand-up guy; great! Also, presumably because this was a cartoon, he doesn’t believe his enemies deserve to die. The only thing left in the wake of his fights is the answer to the question, “What happened to these guys?” To which Daredevil answers… “Me.”
With today’s Marvel Cinematic Universe just a twinkle in every fanboy’s eyes, 20th Century Fox tried to recreate the success of their X-Men franchise (as well as Columbia’s Spider-man franchise) by adapting another costumed hero. Written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, hot off one of my favorite guilty pleasures, Simon Birch (sorry), the movie focuses on the sweeter side of Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck), depicting his relationship with another Marvel hero, Elektra (Jennifer Garner). In fact, the best part of the story is the two minutes during which she thinks he is responsible for her father’s death.
I say “two minutes,” because Daredevil is largely episodic and unfocused. Yes, there’s the origin and vendetta against Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan), but there’s not really an overall plot to drive the movie from beginning to end. Granted, when I re-watched the movie, it was the “Director’s Cut,” and many times that means the deleted scenes are simply interwoven back into the movie that was shown in theaters. This certainly makes the movie longer by almost 30 minutes, but it might also dilute its original impact.
The voiceover narration merely sprinkled through the animated version is nothing compared to the quantity of cheesy and clichéd comments spewing from Affleck’s mouth in the movie:
“They say your life flashes before your eyes.” (How ironic; he’s blind!)
“The city became my playground… the boy without fear.”
“I would keep my promise; I would seek justice… one way or the other.”
“I hope justice is found today before justice finds you.”
“Time to give the devil his due.”
My favorite is, “That’s not heaven. That’s the C train.” It is spoken during a scene that demonstrates the big difference between live action Daredevil and cartoon Daredevil: this one kills the bad guys with no remorse. If this is a dark version of a superhero, then why does so much of it take place in the daylight? Especially when you’re wearing a red rubber costume, some dimly lit alleys and dark shadows might be more effective than the daytime rooftop that Murdock for some reason loves. Yes, it does rain a lot, but that’s really only because the falling water helps him see.
The origin, again told in flashbacks, is very much an extension of the story told in the animated version. The movie, though, has a training montage and “feel-good” scene of young Matt Murdock fighting back against the kids who had earlier bullied him. Daredevil also gets his battle with Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin, only this time without Spider-man’s help. Here, he’s also battling Kingpin’s hired assassin, Bullseye (Colin Farrell), who I now find to be the most entertaining part of the movie. He plays the typical, maniacal villain, but what he can do with a paperclip and a playing card is really quite amazing.
However, the worst part of the movie is the fighting. I know special effects have progressed in the last decade, but what about fight choreography? If it has as well, then Daredevil is simply dated. But if it hasn’t, then Daredevil is badly staged and filmed. Must every character enter the scene with a somersault flip? Are they fighting or participating in a gymnastics competition? Every duck and punch is telegraphed, slow and unexciting. Again, if the battles took place in the dark, it wouldn’t be as noticeable. It’s almost like they’re so perfectly staged that they’re unrealistic.
Truthfully, Daredevil is harmless enough, even though it’s not a good movie by any means. But I understand how fans of the comic book might loathe it. Even fans of the new Netflix series might loathe it. Sometimes it takes a few tries to get it right, and big screen isn’t always the way to go. Perhaps the nuances of the character and better appreciated in smaller doses. Matt Murdock and his alter ego might be better understood with a longer time to evolve. Each episode could be considered an issue of a comic book, and even those are often better than when they’re compiled into one big graphic novel.