Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…
Until they end up here.
The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). Next up on the rack: Ben Affleck’s superhero debut as the titular crime-buster, Daredevil!
In 2003, superheroes were in. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man had demolished box office records, proving once and for all that both colorful crime-fighters and Marvel Comics properties could mean big money for Hollywood. The following year, audiences were treated to an unheard-of glut of comic book fare: THREE whole movies released in a single year. And the first up to bat (released on Valentine’s Day for some inexplicable reason) was a relatively modest-budgeted action flick about a B-list character that almost no one outside of comic book circles had ever heard of.
Daredevil had been in development for years before gaining traction, bouncing from studio to studio before landing at New Regency (with 20th Century Fox distributing). What really brought the project into focus, though, was the vision of a single man: Mark Steven Johnson, the writer of Grumpy Old Men (one AND two) and the writer/director of Simon Birch—his first and only feature at the time. Truly, this was the right man for the job.
To fill the role of Daredevil himself, Johnson scoured the ranks of Hollywood’s talent pool, testing actors for months to find the right fit for the role… by which I mean he called Kevin Smith, fresh from writing a short stint in the Daredevil comic books, and just asked him who he should cast. Smith, nothing if not fond of plugging his friends, suggested that Ben Affleck would make a good superhero. A year or so later …
Affleck plays Matt Mordock, a blind lawyer by day who fights crime at night as the vigilante known as Daredevil. Blinded by chemicals when he was a boy, his other senses became massively heightened, allowing him to “see” the world through sound waves; driven by the murder of his father, he pursues justice for “the little guy”, on the streets and in the courts. But Matt’s life gets upended when he meets and falls in love with Elektra Natchios, a beautiful… uh, smelling woman whose father is in deep with the mysterious Kingpin of Crime, Wilson Fisk. Soon Fisk hires a master assassin named Bullseye to murder the elder Natchios, and Elektra ends up blaming Daredevil for the crime, training to kill him herself. Then Fisk hires Bullseye to kill Elektra too, for some reason. Oh, and it turns out that Fisk actually killed Matt’s father, too.
… You get all that?
IN THIS ISSUE: Daredevil is like a weird fusion of a ‘90s Batman movie with Raimi’s Spider-Man—and if the product of that union sounds like a total mess to you, then you’re on the right page.
To begin with, Daredevil is massively overstuffed. It falls into a pattern that would repeat itself throughout Marvel’s early-21st century releases: cramming as much of the character’s iconography, supporting cast, and history into a single, condensed narrative as is humanly possible without rupturing the celluloid. Johnson includes Bullseye, the Kingpin, and Elektra in the movie, plus a protracted origin-story flashback1, a courtroom subplot (in the Director’s Cut), Matt visiting a priest, Elektra’s origin AND death, and some detours where Daredevil fights some random guys who are completely incidental to the plot. Worse, none of these threads are well integrated with each other; the Director’s Cut rearranges large sections of the plot structure, and it really doesn’t have an effect. And to top it all off, the film opens and closes with a seemingly ENDLESS voice-over narration by Affleck, intoning hardboiled clichés and artless exposition (“My sense of sound gave off a kind of radar-sense!”) to speed as much information to the audience as possible.
Tonally, the film walks the fine line between “broad” and “cartoonish”. Director Mark Steven Johnson only seems to know the biggest, boldest, least subtle ways to convey a concept or emotion to the audience, so everything is played HUGE. Matt’s dad is a bit of a mook? Fine—then he’ll be the mook-iest mook this side of The Sopranos. Matt’s life is hard? Let’s do a three-minute sequence of him coming home to a break-up message, pulling his suit off to reveal a back COVERED in scars, yanking a tooth out in the shower, and chewing pain pills like they were Skittles. Matt and Elektra need to flirt in a way that’s cute and romantic but also physical and a little dangerous? Let’s get them sparring together on an elementary school playground!
Daredevil is a movie at war with itself. It wants to be gritty and grounded at times, and at others it veers into delightfully self-aware camp (“I want a f%$#ing costume”). One minute, Foggy Nelson’s unknowingly feeling up a sculpture of a griffin, the next our leading lady’s father is murdered right in front of her eyes. This is the kind of tonal dissonance you’d expect from, say, Gotham.
Ben Affleck is… unremarkable as Matt Murdock, I’d say. He’s a moping sad sack throughout most of the movie (he’d be glumly staring off into the middle distance even if he WASN’T playing a blind guy)… but for scenes in which he’s supposed to be funny, he suddenly turns up the smirking bro-charm and comes off as a completely different character. His first scene with Foggy Nelson (a funny and welcome Jon Favreau) is a legitimate shock; forty minutes into the movie, Matt goes from an angry, violent, depressing character to being the straight man in an improvised comedy routine.
One has to admit, though: the man does cut an impressive figure in a superhero suit. And as the only character in the film who GETS a real costume, that’s probably a good thing.
For our second lead, we get Jennifer Garner, a decidedly white woman, playing Elektra Natchios, an explicitly Greek woman. Garner is cute, charming, and has genuine chemistry with Affleck in all of their romantic scenes together 2… it’s just that, in pretty much every way, she’s nothing like the comic character of Elektra. Perhaps it was Garner’s inherent sweetness that comes off wrong, or perhaps it’s the fact that her storyline—meets Matt, falls in love, father dies, leaves Matt, trains to become a killer, fights Daredevil, dies herself—plays out over the course of, like, a single week, rather than years. We just never get a chance to believe anything Elektra does before she shuffles to the next plot beat.
And don’t even get me started on the fact that the climax is built entirely around the fridging of our sole female character.
Like the Batman films of the nineties, this film is overrun with characters. Luckily, where our heroes Daredevil and Elektra are stuck in mopey, self-serious storylines (complete with Evanescence-accompanied training montage), our VILLAINS get the chance to be big, silly, and fun—injecting energy and life into the film just where it needs it.
Colin Farrell is, in my opinion, one of the best camp comic book villains of all time as the gleefully sadistic Bullseye. Openly citing Sid Vicious as one of his main inspirations, Farrell and his Irish growl steals the movie from right out under the leads with his punk rock, mad dog villainy. The movie relishes the opportunity to show Bullseye kill people with paper clips, peanuts, pens, anything he can get in his hands… and Farrell is clearly having so much fun DOING it that his enthusiasm becomes infectious. And the look they chose for him—bald with a target carved into his head, sporting an alligator-skin duster jacket and a belt-buckle filled with shuriken—is dynamic enough to soften the blow that, naw, he never does get his own costume. Every scene Farrell pops up in is a highlight; he’s the best thing in the whole movie.
On the other end of the spectrum, the late Michael Clarke Duncan gets to play the man on top of the world as Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime. Duncan’s Fisk isn’t really a scary or intimidating presence in the movie—Duncan himself is such a charming and likeable actor that you can’t really see him as a bad guy. Dude’s like a teddy bear. But man oh man, is he having fun playing a Mr. Big-type crime boss with a penchant for mustache-twirling. This is like the ’60s Batman version of the Kingpin: a name actor chewing some scenery while winking at the camera with a big grin on his face. One thing he DOES undeniably bring to the table, though, is a massive and powerful physical presence; whether he’s dwarfing the six-foot-four Affleck in their big climactic fight scene or just standing around his office and having a smoke, Fisk is an undeniable tower of power from start to finish.
So when Spider-Man hit it big in 2002, 20th Century Fox went ahead and bumped Johnson’s special effects budget by a few million—hoping the filmmaker could create some visuals to rival the dazzling web-swinging sequences in Raimi’s blockbuster. As a result, Daredevil is filled with moments in which our hero is replaced with a weightless digital cartoon, who bounces around rooftops and inside churches with a twenty-foot vertical leap. It’s ugly C.G.I., and a clear quick-and-dirty effort to cash in on the Spidey craze… but it’s clear that the REAL stylistic inspiration for this film, like with every OTHER action film at the time, was actually The Matrix.
It’s not just the incidental stuff, like the fact that three of our four main characters are clad in leather, and the fourth in a suit and tie. Or the fact that Bullseye rocks a duster, the most iconic fashion trend to come out of that movie. No, the greatest plagiarism lies in the action scenes, which are entirely built around the gravity-defying wire-fu style popularized by the Wachowski Sisters’ magnum opus. Characters float for no discernible reason, leaping gracefully from surface to surface despite inhabiting what is, texturally speaking, a pretty dirty, realistic world. Daredevil’s enhanced senses give Johnson an excuse for slow motion, and even bullet time sequences. It’s transparent and cheap, and—considering the Matrix sequels came out the very same year and killed all lingering affection for THAT franchise almost immediately—it dates the movie terribly.
IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: A bad movie with flashes of camp brilliance is still a bad movie, but Daredevil has enough going for it that it manages to be pretty watchable. It boils down Frank Miller’s seminal run on the character to the broadest of broad strokes, tied all together with the flimsiest of Hollywood hack-work plotting… yet the characters and the situations are so strong that some of the heart still shines through.
DISCOUNT PRICE: $0.75
- The answering-machine message early in the movie, from Matt’s newest ex-girfriend (played by the most bored-sounding voice actress in the world):
“Matt, it’s Heather. Are you there? … Of course you’re not there. You’re never there. At least not for me.”
- The Devil-Cave: After Matt’s first foray into crime-fighting, he returns home to his apartment… which is an enormous stainless-steel loft with no windows, a massive bas-relief sculpture of cherubs lining a wall, and a hidden entrance to another enormous room filled with several back-up Daredevil outfits and a row of hooks to hang his many billy clubs from. And then he goes to sleep in a hydraulic sensory-deprivation tank. Jesus Christ, Matt—how are you paying for all of this?!
- Kiss from a Rose: In the scene where he’s plotting with Fisk to take on Daredevil, Bullseye actually recoils from the smell of a rose that the Kingpin tosses to him. It’s a quick moment in an already fun scene, but it encapsulates Bullseye’s acid, punk-rock mindset perfectly.
- Church Battle: Daredevil and Bullseye pull off the movie’s dodgiest wire work and C.G.I. jumps as they battle their way up an enormous, seemingly ENDLESS pipe organ. After falling from the top of it, Daredevil actually has time to retract his billy club and FIRE IT AGAIN before he hits the church pews below.
- “More peanuts. Please.“: Bullseye gets stuck on a transcontinental flight with a babbling, racist old person, and his mounting discomfort as he tries– and fails– to drown her out with metal music is hilarious. Of course, it doesn’t take him long to come up with a solution: one peanut, an upright tray table, and a good shot later, he gets some peace and quiet.
NEXT TIME: We take a look at Ryan Reynold’s third swing at playing a superhero (and DC’s first attempt at building a cinematic universe) as he takes on the OTHER Man Without Fear, Green Lantern!