How does 2003 Ben Affleck vehicle Daredevil hold up 14 years later? When compared to Netflix’s take on the same titular defender, not very well at all. In fairness, it’s probably among the least rubbish comic book movies of the early 00’s, which also gave us Ang Lee’s Hulk, Halle Berry’s Catwoman and Jennifer Garner’s Daredevil spin-off Elektra, but it’s no X2 or Hellboy which came out around the same time. Still, it was a little slice of nostalgic nonsense that I enjoyed in a post-modern ironic kind of way whilst remarking on 2003’s questionable fashion and music choices. So here, in all its grungy glory, is 2003’s Daredevil…
As I mentioned in my last blog post (which you can read here), I absolutely adore Netflix’s Daredevil series. It’s dark and gritty without being pretentious, it cares about its characters and makes sure that you feel the same way. It has a great reverence for the source material whilst also forging its own path and style. And it feels like a very real, believable corner of the world, even one filled with sentient robots and vengeful gods.
The 2003 film has none of these things going for it.
In all fairness, it’s surprisingly good for a solid half hour at the start, before promptly descending into Evanescence nonsense. Seriously, there are two Evanescence songs within a three-minute period – it’s like the film makers wanted to make sure future viewers knew without a doubt this film came out in 2003. Plus, the songs seem to be used as a substitute for acting: example, when Elektra attends her father’s funeral (her comic book counterpart’s motivation for becoming an assassin), she just wanders around whilst Evanescence’s ‘My Immortal’ – the ‘it’ funeral song of the noughties – plays (and injects far more emotion than the actual acting does). Not two minutes later, Elektra is yet again blaring Evanescence, specifically ‘Bring Me to Life’, whilst taking out her grief on some unsuspecting sandbags. Is this the only band Elektra listens to? It also feels oddly gendered, as the Amy Lee-fronted Evanescence is the only band associated with her scenes, whilst Matt and Bullseye get shouty male-fronted bands scoring their action scenes. Frankly, ‘Bring Me to Life’ would have felt much more natural in a Daredevil fight scene than in Elektra’s training room. But I digress.
There also seems to be a rain cloud stalking Matt and Elektra so as to erupt at emotionally-poignant moments. I’m not joking; practically every time these two get within fifty feet of one another, a monsoon erupts and someone in the vicinity starts up a playlist of 2003’s nu-metal post-grunge top 40. Even when Matt’s on his own, he has his own personal rainstorm on hand for brooding ambience. What is it with this man and water? At this rate, he’s more Aquaman than Daredevil.
I admit, that was a lot of focus on the music in the movie, but the fact that it was the main thing that irked me during my re-watch proves just how dull this film is – and according to film critic extraordinaire Mark Kermode, if something trivial is distracting you from the story, the story’s just not that compelling. The directing’s uninspired, the writing’s cookie cutter, the acting’s not terrible but is pretty lifeless nonetheless. Also, the film is very poorly structured – many people criticised Suicide Squad for its virtually non-existent structure, and this film suffers from the same problem. There are a few fights here and there, but Matt doesn’t really change during the film, there are no consequences to his actions, and his motivation for doing what he does falls flat.
Speaking of the action scenes, they’re surprisingly ambitious – even if the CGI wasn’t there at the time: case in point, a scene where Bullseye and Daredevil are swinging around a church organ looks about as realistic as the music video of Eiffel 65’s ‘Blue (Da Ba Dee)’, and Matt/ Elektra’s meet-cute sparring match is cheesy in the extreme (not to mention that Matt decides that flirting with a stranger is more important than keeping his super skills on the DL). To add insult to injury, the years have not been kind to the VFX, but some elements can still be appreciated even 14 years later, like the comic book-y ‘Matt on a rooftop’ shots, and the ahead of its time effects showcasing Matt’s heightened senses and radar vision.
I was pleasantly surprised to see so many of the characters from the source material – even Karen Page (although her entire contribution to the plot is turning a piece of paper upside down), and Fisk’s right hand man Wesley (although his entire contribution to the plot is vaguely scowling below a truly dreadful dye-job, even for 2003 standards). The director’s cut has an extended story line where Matt is trying to exonerate Coolio that goes absolutely nowhere (but still has more courtroom scenes in one movie than in two seasons of the Netflix show). And despite the on-the-nose, woodenly delivered dialogue, most of the major characteristics of Matt Murdock are covered in the film: his tragic past (nicely portrayed by the film’s only solid – and first – half hour), his Catholicism (manifested in a not-so-subtle but visually interesting shot of Matt clinging to the crucifix on a church roof), his friendship with Foggy Nelson (flippantly and fantastically played by a perfectly cast Jon Favreau), and his romantic tribulations (heralded with a not-so-subtle answer phone message from a former flame who bemoans his inability to commit). His romance with Elektra is so 2003 it’s painful to watch at times – they spend about three minutes, collectively, in each other’s company, and it doesn’t do the comic book arc justice. However, it’s the film’s one major omission – Matt’s refusal to kill – which puts the final nail in the coffin. They simply don’t do enough to highlight this crucial element to his character and, in fact, at several points in this film, especially the climactic fight with Bullseye, it looks like he straight up kills people in this movie. There’s no inner turmoil with Affleck’s Matt Murdock, and its omission shows just how little the filmmakers understand their hero.
But there is one element in which both the film and the show excel – their villains are great! And the film certainly didn’t pull any punches when it came to the heavyweight baddies they brought in for this film: Kingpin and Bullseye, two of Daredevil’s fiercest – and most infamous – foes. Colin Farrell isn’t in as much of the film as I’d remembered, but he makes the most of this scanty screen-time with a memorable turn as Bullseye, a crazy hit-man with deadly accurate aim. He’s clearly having the time of his life and, frankly, I’m not even sure he knew he was being filmed. Michael Clarke Duncan, much missed, manages the near impossible task of imbuing nuance and gravitas in a horribly underwritten role. His Kingpin is menacing and megalomaniacal, but there’s a look in his eyes and weariness to his line delivery that hints to a tragic past behind the tailored suits and fancy cravats.
So 2003’s Daredevil isn’t a completely worthless film, and it has many flaws, but its poor reception and myriad mistakes compelled the people at Netflix and Marvel to realise what not to do the next time around – and for that, at least, I’m glad it exists. (Well, that and the scene of Colin Farrell valiantly acting whilst attempting ignore the stupid bullseye tattoo/ mark/ thing on his forehead).
In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts and comments, and expect a post on doubles and Netflix’s Jessica Jones next week.