Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Radar Love: Daredevil at 20

Twenty years ago, seeing a feature film based on a Marvel Comics character was still a novelty. Due to various legal entanglements and creative complications, Marvel's iconic stable of characters were forced to languish for years while their competition at DC dominated superhero cinema with their Superman and Batman franchises. The best Marvel could muster were various TV movies of varying quality and mostly lackluster features like The Punisher (1989) and Captain America (1990) that had to settle for direct-to-video releases in the US while movies like Tim Burton's Batman were busy breaking box office records. It wasn't until Stephen Norrington's Blade in 1998 that the commercial and creative fortunes of Marvel movies finally started to turn around. By the time Daredevil arrived in theaters on February 14th, 2003, it was only the sixth Marvel adaptation to be given a wide theatrical release, with two of the previous five being Blade movies and another being 1986's Howard the Duck. In comparison, this week's Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania is the 31st (!) Marvel movie just in the MCU alone. 

Having so few Marvel movies to be compared against, however, did not help Daredevil endear itself to anyone. Even though the only other big Marvel superhero movies at the time were 2000's X-Men and 2002's Spider-Man, writer and director Mark Steven Johnson's adaptation was largely dismissed as a disappointment. It definitely did not meet with the same acclaim that greeted Bryan Singer's X-Men or Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. The immediate take on Daredevil was that it was, at best, ok with Ben Affleck earning a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor and Affleck himself stating years later "I hate Daredevil so much" in a New York Times interview in 2016, still stung by the movie's reception and then being on the hunt for comic book redemption as the Dark Knight in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Despite all the flack he got for it, I say Affleck should be proud of his turn as Matt Murdock. He does right by Matt in this movie. Now, let me say that I don't think the passage of time has turned Daredevil into a classic. It's still an ok movie in the same way that it was ok back in 2003 but, you know, the vast majority of movies in the history of cinema are merely ok. Being ok is fine. I mean, most people are just ok and that doesn't seem to bother anyone. When Daredevil was released, I was at a lost to understand the over the top animosity towards it. For whatever reason, people decided that it - and Affleck - were going to be punching bags and that's been largely unchanged since. 

On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, I'd like to present to the court of public opinion my own Matt Murdock-esque defense of Daredevil. This is a movie that offers much to appreciate, particularly for comic fans. For starters, they got the costume right. Unlike Daredevil's live action debut in 1989's TV team-up with the Hulk in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, Affleck's DD ditches the ninja look that Rex Smith rocked in that film and instead is very comic accurate, with red leather (rather than spandex but hey, at least the color's right!) and a horned cowl. As recently as Singer's original X-Men, the idea of dressing superheroes like their comic book counterparts had been waved off with a dismissive joke ("...What would you prefer, yellow spandex?") so even though Spidey had been garbed in his iconic red and blues in Raimi's film, there was no guarantee that DD would stick to his classic threads. If you look at the design sketches that were done for Daredevil, you can see that of the different looks that were considered, most of them were similar to Rex Smith's black clad DD. 

The fact that we got a Daredevil so authentic to the comics is a credit to director Mark Steven Johnson. Daredevil could have easily sported a much different look here. I'd even argue that it's a better costume than Charlie Cox's DD outfit. 

Besides faithfully retaining the look of DD's costume, Johnson displays his fanboy credentials throughout Daredevil. Right from the opening shots, Johnson pays homage to the cover of Daredevil Vol. 2 #3 from 1999 with artist Joe Quesada's instantly iconic image of Daredevil draped over a church cross. Several comic book legends connected to Daredevil comics, like John Romita, Gene Colan (referred to as a boxer called Gene "The Machine" Colon), and Brian Michael Bendis are name checked while DD scribes Stan Lee, Frank Miller and Kevin Smith make cameos.

Two specific scenes most pointedly represent the particular comic book sensibility Johnson brings to the movie and whether a viewer perceives these scenes as good or bad seems to determine how they feel about Daredevil overall. The first is the moment where reporter Ben Urich (a perfectly cast Joe Pantoliano) is talking to a detective at a crime scene where a thug has just been creamed by a subway train and Urich is arguing that this was the work of Daredevil. As the impatient detective pushes back with "...there is no proof that your so-called Daredevil was involved, nor that he even exists," Urich tosses a lit cigarette onto an area of the subway platform close by and the initials "DD" ignite in flames. Now, on any logical level, this is ridiculous. I mean, are we supposed to think that Matt keeps lighter fluid on him for the purpose of leaving his calling card? And if he does, how could he possibly know that anyone would be aware that there was a message waiting to be dramatically lit up? Any way you look at it, it's absurd. But yet it's also awesome in a shamelessly comic book way. It's not about logic, it's about whether it's a cool visual, and it is - especially when the scene ends with the fiery initials reflected in Urich's glasses.

The other scene is the playground fight between Matt and Elektra (Jennifer Garner). Many see this as being far too silly but I find it to be ridiculous in all the right ways. It's just so comic book-y to have these two sparring in a playground, testing each other's limits and sizing the other up. Having their romantic relationship begin in this fashion could only happen in a comic book world. Some might say it's a scene that's too light for Daredevil but I disagree. One, the history of Daredevil in the comics is not all grim and gritty. There is a playfulness that has been a part of the book from the start. And certainly, Matt is an irrepressible flirt when it comes to the ladies and he's also as cocky as they come. If there is an opportunity to a) win over a woman he finds attractive and b) a chance to show off, he's going to take it. So this scene is very much in line with the Daredevil of the comics. 

As light as that particular scene may be, there's still plenty of darkness to go around in Daredevil, both visually and thematically. While it may not deliver quite the same level of intensity of the '80s DD run from writer/artist Frank Miller that much of the movie's storyline is inspired by, for the time it was made, it does a respectable job of delivering an edgy Daredevil movie. In 2003, "dark" comic book films were relatively rare - certainly if you're talking about superhero films. It's one thing for R-rated, horror edged fare like The Crow or Blade to be dark but when it comes to PG-13 superheroes, Batman Returns (1992) was about as dark as it got then and that caught a shit ton of flack for its tone. Given that, Daredevil is admirable in how far it pushes the envelope. I mean, they do gut Elektra. 

Director Christopher Nolan would change the game for mature superhero fare with Batman Begins in 2005 but for its time, Daredevil was a noble attempt at portraying a troubled, tormented superhero. I really dig the scenes of Matt coming home after his nights as Daredevil, his body riddled with scars, popping pain pills before immersing himself in an isolation tank. If you're a comic fan and you watch those scenes, it's like, yeah, that's Daredevil (bonus points to Johnson for delivering a perfect illustration of Matt's hyper senses as he has Matt unlock his rooftop entrance by spinning three combination locks at once and stopping each one at just the right moment). 

Action wise, Daredevil really delivers with both Colin Farrell's Bullseye and Michael Clarke Duncan's Kingpin having solid opportunities to spar with DD. The entire end stretch of the movie is devoted to multiple battles, one after the other. There's Elektra vs. Daredevil, Elektra vs. Bullseye, Bullseye vs. Daredevil, and finally the big boss battle of Daredevil vs. Kingpin. Each one of these fights is excitingly choreographed and, whether it's Elektra slicing her sais through sheets hanging from rooftop clotheslines to get at DD or Bullseye catching shards of stained glasses in his hands and then skimming them off at a backflipping DD during their church battle or the Kingpin and DD being showered in strobing droplets of water while bathed in the blue light of Kingpin's office, they all go hard on the comic book flavor. It's especially cool to see Duncan's Kingpin effortlessly hurling DD around in true comic book fashion. If only these two could have had a rematch in a sequel.

In the end, perhaps Daredevil's most lasting legacy is in that in casting Jon Favreau as Foggy Nelson, this is the movie that ushered into the Marvel fold the man who would go on to successfully launch the MCU with Iron Man in 2008. It's wild to watch the behind the scenes, making of material from the set of Daredevil and see Favreau interacting with Johnson knowing that this guy who's playing the second banana here is going to literally change the face of popular culture and birth the MCU. For his part, Johnson went on to direct another underrated Marvel adaptation with 2007's rip roaring Ghost Rider (I really wish he'd come back for another Marvel movie or even an episode of a Disney + series) but Favreau permanently changed Marvel's fortunes. That doesn't happen without Favreau making that initial connection with Avi Arad and Kevin Feige on Daredevil. So if you love the MCU, thank Daredevil for making it possible.

The character of Daredevil may have gone on to be securely owned by Charlie Cox but Daredevil still has the sole bragging rights to being the one and only Daredevil solo movie. I do expect we'll see Cox's DD on the big screen in the next Spider-Man movie but will he ever get his own solo film? I tend to doubt it (although I'd love to be wrong on that) so for the foreseeable future, 2003's Daredevil will stand as ol' Hornhead's one big screen outing. Twenty years later, it remains a solid superhero movie, even if many remain blind to its appeal. 

No comments:

Post a Comment