The new Marvel Comics superhero adaptation, Daredevil (20th Century Fox), has been getting such an across-the-board critical drubbing that I feel rather daring saying it’s not that terrible, it’s just kind of lousy, and it sends you out feeling dour and mean. The film has a relentlessly gloomy, tragic cast: It’s full of drenching rain, urban filth, cruel death; it features kids watching their parents get horribly murdered. Its darkness would be sort of cool, except it doesn’t mesh with the comic-book syntax and the lazy, shorthand characterizations. The director and writer, Mark Steven Johnson, has aimed at once too high and too low. He wants to stir your emotions, but he wants to spoon-feed you, too—to cut to the emotional chase. He doesn’t earn all the grandiose religious symbolism or the anguish. Not with these heavy-handed comic-book frames. Not with a tragic superhero played by Ben Affleck.
Affleck is Matt Murdock, a lawyer for the indigent and wronged who by night dons a red-leather costume with a horned mask and beats up or kills sundry gangsters and rapists who’ve escaped justice in the courts. He is also blind—which has somehow given him the power to see evil more clearly, or at least to hear its heart of darkness throbbing. Daredevil begins with the traumatized, gravely wounded hero clinging to the steeple of a cathedral, with images of fighting and death coming in near-subliminal blasts. The film flashes back to show how Matt was blinded as a child in an accident, splashed by toxic waste while running from his drunken ex-prizefighter dad (David Keith), whom he has just stumbled on roughing up a man at the behest of a gang boss. The horror comes thick and fast, but the narration is so primitively straightforward (“I lost my sight, but my other four senses were heightened. … I trained my body. … I made a silent promise never to give up—to be fearless”) that it makes the original comic seem as expressive as The Odyssey.
Hold on, the original comic was a little like The Odyssey, at least when Frank Miller got hold of it and began playing up the fevered vigilantism that made his Batman series, The Dark Knight, so riveting. If the spiritual struggle of Daredevil feels familiar, it’s because Sam Hamm and Tim Burton took some of their inspiration from it for the first Batman feature. But Hamm circled back to Batman’s heartrending origins more cunningly, and Burton—no great comic-book maven—took his visual cues from such Gothic silent horror films as the Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera (1925) and the work of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Abetted by Danny Elfman’s stirring, melancholy score, Burton made Batman more sublime for the faint aura of ridiculousness that attended his superheroics.
Johnson rips off a lot of Batman, especially in the cathedral climax, but that’s not so bad: The movie looks best when it looks like other, better movies. The frames are canted like a comic book and packed, but they’re not especially expressive, and Daredevil’s powers are curiously elastic. Although he isn’t supposed to have supernatural abilities—he’s like Batman, not Spider-Man—Johnson has him soaring off rooftops in defiance of gravity. The computer-generated animation is more convincing than in last year’s Spider-Man (the shadows and the darkness help), but it doesn’t make the same kind of aesthetic sense. We miss seeing how the Daredevil persona was constructed—how Matt found the power in himself and nurtured it. And Johnson rarely makes it clear how Daredevil’s other senses compensate for his visual deficiency. The fighting is just standard-issue sub-Hong Kong martial arts, only edited so stroboscopically that you can’t tell what’s happening. The whole movie seems to unfold in some abstract cyberspace in which physical laws have no sway: a good place for TheMatrix (1999), but no home for a blind urban lawyer with stigmata and a cane that transforms into a weapon.
For the last couple of years, Ben Affleck has been working to wipe the smirk off his face and to look as if he isn’t part of some colossal scam to convince the American public that he’s a movie star. He has been surprisingly successful—he was even compelling in last year’s Changing Lanes. The problem is that without that smirk he doesn’t have much personality. He seems like a good-guy stockbroker; you’d want to go out with him for a couple of drinks and some nachos.
He works hard in Daredevil to look drawn, obsessed, grief-stricken, but his best moment is his one and only smirk. It’s when he sniffs Jennifer Garner (from Alias) in a coffeehouse, then trails her outside and engages in martial arts in lieu of a courtship. This is also the movie’s best Hong Kong moment: The fighting is hilariously casual, the way it is when Fred and Ginger carry an argument into a dance. Affleck and Garner backward-somersault out of each other’s way and then hop on top of a seesaw, where they take the measure of each other’s weight. He’s wonderfully cocky, and Garner comes alive when she fights—when those long limbs and that almost-beautiful fish face are in motion.
That’s the only scene in which Daredevil is surprising, larky, large-spirited. The romance is otherwise crudely sentimental—especially when Affleck “sees” Garner in the rain and her outline swims into the frame with silvery bubbles. The one-note supervillain, Wilson Fisk aka the Kingpin, is played by Michael Clarke Duncan, who gets to do some street-fighting in the climax but is otherwise immobile—huge, dead center in the middle of the screen, and deadeningly predictable in his lines and gestures. The film’s wild card is Colin Farrell as Bullseye, a hot-dog Irish assassin who kills with knives, pencils, paper clips, even airline peanuts. Farrell’s a crowd-pleaser (and he seems very pleased with himself), but I was taken aback by the casualness of his murders. Comic-book villains, like comic-book heroes, need some mythic component—powers that are a poetic extension of their personalities. A wooden good guy fighting a cackling psychopath isn’t the best use of the medium: They don’t seem worthy of their silly costumes.