DAREDEVIL: How Do You Kill A Man Without Fear?

Daredevil (2003; Director’s Cut) – Directed by Mark Steven Johnson – Starring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jon Favreau, Joe Pantoliano, David Keith, Leland Orser, Erick Avari, Ellen Pompeo, Derrick O’Connor, Jude Ciccolella, Kevin Smith, Frank Miller, and Stan Lee.

If you haven’t seen the Director’s Cut of DAREDEVIL, then you haven’t seen DAREDEVIL, because the Director’s Cut is thisclose to being included among the best of all the Marvel movies.

When the theatrical release hit theaters back in 2003, I went and watched it, and kinda liked it. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t think it was bad, and I didn’t think many of the arrows people were slinging at the film were fair: the costume, the water coffin, the fact that Michael Clarke Duncan is black. I never thought the costume was a major drawback, I thought the water coffin was actually a decent idea, and I’m much more interested in actors getting the spirit of a character than I am concerned with nailing the look.

There were other problems with the theatrical cut, however, as the emphasis on the Elektra (Jennifer Garner) subplot turned DAREDEVIL into a more traditional superhero movie and robbed the film of what made Daredevil unique. I don’t think alteration of source material is, in and of itself, a bad thing, and Daredevil has, at various stages in his comic book life, been portrayed in a more traditionally superheroic sense, so it’s not the portrayal itself that bothers me, but that in doing so, it put DAREDEVIL in the company of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Bryan Singer’s X-Men and X2, and in comparison to those films, Mark Steven Johnson’s theatrical take on the Man Without Fear fell short.

The Director’s Cut, however, offers a darker, more serious, more unique superhero story, and is much better for it. We’ve become so accustomed to movie studios slapping “Director’s Cut” on DVDs and Blu-rays where the movie isn’t noticeably different than the theatrical cut that we’ve almost become inoculated to the idea that the Director’s Cut could be something significantly different, and DAREDEVIL’s Director’s Cut is a definite and significant improvement. Because the film had a lukewarm reception on its release, the film has slipped through the cracks a bit, and the release of the Director’s Cut hasn’t fully impacted the cultural perception of this movie, and as a result I am pretty comfortable in saying that the Director’s Cut of DAREDEVIL currently stands as the most under-appreciated superhero movie ever made.

I love DAREDEVIL, and the reasons why it falls just short of the very best superhero movies is the execution of the idea in several spots, and not the idea, itself.

How could DAREDEVIL has been just that little bit better? Ben Affleck could be who he is now, as an actor, instead of who he was then. Colin Farrell could have toned down Bullseye’s kewl and been more the driven killer that he is in the second half of the movie. Mark Steven Johnson could have had his movie shot with a little more grit and a little less slick. And Jennifer Garner …

I am not a totally unkind person, and if doing this movie is where Affleck and Garner fell in love … well, if the trade off for love is a bad performance, then that is a small price to pay. But it doesn’t alter my belief that Garner’s performance here is simply not very good, and the de-emphasis of her character in the longer Director’s Cut helps to make DAREDEVIL a better film.

DAREDEVIL opens in the present, with a busted up Daredevil clinging to the cross on top of a church. He lowers himself in and the cathedral’s priest (Derrick O’Connor) offers him some comfort before we drop into an extended flashback that gives us Matt Murdock’s origin as a child. As anyone who’s been reading these reviews knows, I’m not overly fond of origin stories, yet the presentation here is exceedingly well done. What helps is that the story of young Matt (Scott Terra) is a self-contained story about a boy, his dad, and a fateful decision by the father to buck the mob. David Keith is excellent as Jack Murdock, a down on his luck fighter that’s been working for the mob as an enforcer. When Matt catches him roughing someone up, he runs away and gets blinded by radioactive chemicals. Father and son make a bond with each other to start attacking life, and this thread ends with Jack refusing to throw a fight, which gets him killed.

It’s a concisely told, effectively rendered short story at the beginning of the film, and it does an excellent job setting not only the violent tone for what follows, but also demonstrates there’s a real consequence to people’s actions.

Cut to the near present where the bulk of the film takes place. We don’t return to the moment in the church that we left and the film doesn’t end on that moment, either. Now, that’s not a huge break in chronology, but it helps to give DAREDEVIL a little something extra in the presentation of the narrative.

The primary difference between the Director’s Cut and the theatrical cut is the inclusion of a subplot that features Coolio and Jude Ciccolella. While it doesn’t dramatically alter the film because of how it enhances the scenes that made the theatrical cut, it adds to the overall tone of the film by having an honest-to-goodness legal subplot. No longer is Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson bit players in Daredevil’s film, but they’re actual characters in the larger story. It’s important to see the Matt persona at work, as it increases the tension between what he does as a member of the Court and what he does as a vigilante. With all of these extra legal scenes put into the narrative, we get a much greater sense of Matt’s frustrations with the legal system.

There’s a fantastic scene between Matt and Officer McKensie where Matt loses it. He uses his increased sense of hearing to help determine if people are lying by listening to their heartbeat, and he’s frustrated at how both his client (Coolio) and the main witness against him (Ciccolella) are telling different versions of the same story, yet both appear to be telling the truth. Matt goes after McKensie, but as Matt and not Daredevil. The officer is obviously confused about being roughed up by the blind attorney, but after Matt bangs up his car and rips open McKensie’s shirt, he sees a scar that tells him the cop has a pacemaker, and thus his heartbeat wouldn’t be affected by lying.

It’s good stuff and it shows the failing of a superpower, something that’s not often done unless it’s a total breakdown in powers. This isn’t that; instead, Matt’s powers are in full effect, but they fail him because he’s become over-reliant on them. It’s a small touch but it adds a nice sense of pathos to the film without taking control of the narrative.

At a coffee shop one morning, Matt and Foggy (Jon Favreau) are having their morning jolt, arguing about the alleged veracity of Daredevil and giant alligators in the sewers of New York. There’s great chemistry between Favreau and Affleck, and one of the film’s better touches is how Foggy will try to lie and trick Matt by using Matt’s blindness against him, suck as when he tricks Matt into dumping mustard into his coffee. The trick is on Foggy, of course, as Matt is fully aware of what his friend is trying to pull, and when the opportunity presents itself in the arrival of Elektra Natchios (Garner), Matt switches their cups so Foggy gets the mustard blend.

Matt decides to try his hand at flirting with Elektra, who’s not having any of it. Matt pursues her down the street, where they engage in some painful banter and then do a much more effective form of banter when they start punching and kicking each other over a kid’s playground. On the whole, the scene doesn’t work for me, but what does work is that it’s nice to see that Matt has a life outside of being Daredevil. And yeah, he’s not good at personal relationships, but there’s a genuine spark of life when he goes after Elektra. He’s not doing this as cover, but because he likes chasing after a pretty lady.

Good for him, and good for including that in this film. Mark Steven Johnson doesn’t appear to have any delusions of grandeur here, nor any shame in directing a superhero movie; he’s just trying to tell the very best Daredevil story he can tell.

Matt’s life is interrupted when the Kingpin (Duncan) hires Irish assassin Bullseye (Farrell) to kill Elektra’s dad, who wants out of the criminal business. Bullseye kills Elektra’s dad with Daredevil’s billy club/walking stick/grappling hook, which gets Elektra to think that Daredevil is to blame. With her father dead, Elektra does what every daughter would do in this situation: she goes home, puts on some tight leather, sets up some sandbags, arms herself with a pair of sais, cuts open the sandbags as she’s twirling and kicking around the room, and then goes after Daredevil.

DD, of course, doesn’t want to fight her, but that doesn’t stop Elektra from jamming a sai through his left shoulder, which causes Daredevil to do one of those slow slides down the wall. Matt decides now is the time to pull off his mask (because doing it before would have been silly), and Elektra instantly realizes that Daredevil couldn’t possibly be responsible because … because they made out? … and then Bullseye shows up and kills her. We get a really nice scene of Daredevil and Elektra crawling towards each other as the police move up through the building, and it’s one of the few scenes between them that really works.

The action sequences in the film are solid without being exceptional, though I really like how the film depicts Matt’s radar sense (though I would have gone with a dark red echo effect instead of blue to better fit the film’s color scheme). I do like how Johnson takes advantage of his locations – there’s a fight on the rooftops and another inside a church – but he’s not very adept at showing people punching and kicking each other. The film uses some special effects to make the three principals jump higher and stuff and it looks really silly. Daredevil, Elektra, and Bullseye don’t need to be able to jump to a rooftop no one else can get to in order to be awesome. They’re already/always awesome.

Matt defeats Bullseye in the church fight and then goes after the Kingpin. Duncan is really good as the Kingpin; maybe it’s not the pure Wilson Fisk we’ve seen in the comics, but I love that he’s standing over this film, casting a huge shadow before entering the film as a real physical force in the final act. His dismissive line to his assistant that, “I was raised in the Bronx. This is something you wouldn’t understand,” as he readies himself for Daredevil’s arrival tells us more about the character than all the posturing ever could, just as Matt’s conflict over his Catholicism tells us he feels guilty about his actions as Daredevil much more effectively than him weakly telling a scared kid that, “I’m not the bad guy” ever could.

I really love the Director’s Cut of DAREDEVIL. While just short of that ultimate tier of Marvel films, this is an exceptionally good movie. It’s still a little too slick and the acting isn’t what it needs to be, but this darker DAREDEVIL is an under-appreciated and important superhero movie.

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2 thoughts on “DAREDEVIL: How Do You Kill A Man Without Fear?

  1. Was glad to see this review. The director’s cut still does have flaws — Garner is just so miscast — but it’s so much stronger than the theatrical cut. One of the things I like is that Foggy’s role is elevated above that of simple comic relief and Matt ends up attacking the Kingpin on two fronts — both physically and through the law.

    The movie just tried to do too much, I think — cramming Frank Miller’s entire run into one film is just biting off waaaay more than you can chew. Johnson would have been much better served by leaving Elektra out of this film, as her portion of the story is easily the weakest.

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    • I think the mistake wasn’t in bringing Elektra in, but in killing her – that’s where the stuffed feeling really hurts the film. Even if she had just been winged and sent to the hospital, I think it would have helped. But you’re right in that it’s the weakest subplot and the one most easy to remove.

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