Our review of Daredevil (Blu-ray), published October 13th, 2008, is also available.
A man without hope is a man without fear.
Springing from the pages of Marvel comics, Daredevil is a flawed, feeling superhero who just wants to see truth and justice prevail in his own corner of New York City. Translated into digital video, the film is a moderately entertaining popcorn flick, though darker than many expect, with fine technical qualities and a solid collection of extra content.
Facts of the Case
An accident took the vision of Matt Murdock (AKA Daredevil) (Ben Affleck) but granted him unusual sensory powers. Though he was able to adapt to his new abilities, the tragedy that soon afflicted him as a young teenager damaged Matt in unavoidable ways. As an attorney, tirelessly fighting for the wronged of little or modest means, he seeks justice in the courts, aided with bemused exasperation by his partner, Franklin Nelson (Jon Favreau). However, when the system fails, Matt dons the Daredevil persona and takes justice into his own hands.
Into this dark world comes the bright flash of Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner), a lovely mystery who bonds with Matt over some light hand-to-hand combat. Meanwhile, evil rears its ugly head in the criminal persons of The Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan) and his unerring weapon Bullseye (Colin Farrell). To no one's surprise, Daredevil soon comes into conflict with that criminal duo, but when a mistake puts Daredevil in Elektra's sights, Matt Murdock is in serious trouble. Having Ben Urich (Joe Pantoliano), a determined newspaper reporter, sniffing around the Daredevil secret identity is not much fun either.
This might just take another forty minutes to figure out!
Since April 1964, Daredevil has been entertaining comic book aficionados in nearly five hundred issues, annuals, specials, and graphic novels. Thus, it should not surprise anyone that Hollywood would look to Marvel Comics for another successful blockbuster, released a little less than a year after Spider-Man cleaned up to the tune of over $400 million. In a bit of only in Hollywood irony, though Daredevil and Spider-man share the very same universe, have appeared together many times, and know each other quite well, it is likely that they will never appear in the same movie. Why? Simple economics, since Spider-Man is a Sony property and Daredevil is a Fox asset, and the latter's box office draw is not nearly as impressive (just over $100 million to date). Apparently, in movies as in comics, Daredevil still must toil in the shadow of Spider-man. Ironically, as you learn from the making-of documentary, during the long process of bringing the comic to the silver screen, at one point in the studio shuffle it was a Sony property.
Ironies aside, basing a full-length Hollywood feature on a well loved, long-running comic book is always a mixed blessing. On the one hand, you have a stupendous wealth of source material and a built-in fan base. On the other hand, you then have the challenge of distilling and adapting that source material into a film, with that same fan base ready to savage any real or perceived flaw (why else do you think fan is short for fanatic?). However, Hollywood bean counters are an unsentimental lot, so if commercial appeal conflicts with established lore, the fans get the finger.
Daredevil, in the hands of Mark Steven Johnson (writer of Grumpy Old Men and writer/director of Simon Birch), comes out of the frightful process bearing a number of scars and lacking a vital degree of depth. As near as I can follow, Daredevil takes a very generous portion of the comic book background (particularly the Elektra arc) and slices and dices it into this one film. This exacts a price by only sketching out Murdock's complex motivations and allowing even less time to develop Elektra, a worthy character in her own right. Worse still, when it comes to Bullseye, background was omitted entirely. For shame! A stylish villain with a murderous talent for accuracy and a large bullseye on his forehead deserves at least a few minutes of explanation.
Sharing in the blame is J-Lo paramour Ben Affleck (Chasing Amy, Dogma, Sum of All Fears). For a dark, gritty role as Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Affleck has too much People magazine and not enough Hell's Kitchen. He pulls off the physical demands of the role well enough, but his limited range and general demeanor are severe impediments to convincing the audience. On the other hand, Jennifer Garner (Alias, Catch Me If You Can) has the athletic prowess and feminine charms well suited to rich girl ninja Elektra. Sadly, the script gives her less to work with than she deserves, but doubtless that will be remedied in her own Elektra spin-off. Colin Farrell (Hart's War, Phone Booth) throws all restraint to the wind as he snarls and sneers his way through the film, which is all that the role requires!
The supporting cast is excellent. Jon Favreau (Swingers, Very Bad Things) has the bad form to steal scenes right out from Affleck's nose with his endearing working-stiff lawyer schtick, Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile, Planet of the Apes (2001)) adds a unique quality of dignity and grace to a role that could just as easily been one-dimensional evil, and Joe Pantoliano (The Matrix, Memento) is remarkable for his sedate restraint as a likeable reporter (now that's a tough role!).
On other fronts, Daredevil injects surprising notes of reality into the story. Murdock may be a superhero, but as the text commentary points out, his (erratic) Catholic faith and spectacularly unlucky love life set him apart from many (though he at least partially shares the former with new X2 mutant Nightcrawler). Furthermore, while Daredevil is able to execute amazing physical feats, Murdock needs to swallow a pharmaceutical rainbow to manage the cruel pounding on his still human frame. These are small points (worthy of more development than they receive in Daredevil), but they add welcome texture to the film.
With the Spider-Man and X-Men budding franchises humming along nicely, Daredevil could yet become that third jewel in Marvel's movie crown. Rumor has Daredevilalready spawning production of a sequel and a Jennifer Garner-starring Elektra flick. Will the Powers That Be will learn from their mistakes and improve upon the original? Possibly. Only your Magic 8-Ball knows for sure!
The anamorphic video is superb. The frequent low light scenes are challenging, but the level of detail is good. The picture is clear, lines are crisp, and colors solidly saturated, with digital artifacting practically invisible. For recent films with a competent DVD authoring crew, all films should look at least as fine.
The audio track is a fine 5.1 mix, and that goes double for the DTS track. Though it never quite reaches the immersive, paint-loosening heights of the very best action-film mixes, Daredevil has a most entertaining sound. Discrete effects appear and move with precision around the speakers, and the rear surrounds and subwoofer chime in with properly punchy support.
In addition to the general technical merit of the audio tracks, Fox is due special commendation for its inclusion of a descriptive video track. This is particularly pertinent to Daredevil, as this is an audio track meant for the visually impaired members of the audience. Carefully edited in among the music, dialogue, and other effects, the descriptive track puts into words what appears on the screen. Very few DVDs can boast such a track, which perhaps will become less rare as time goes on.
On the first disc, the commentaries and the "enhanced viewing mode" keep the main feature company. A text commentary seems to be an increasingly popular component of special edition discs, and one that I heartily endorse. The specimen for Daredevil is a solid example of the type, namely a way to present a wealth of information about the production and comic book background while watching the film at full blast! The Mark Steven Johnson (director)/Gary Foster (producer) commentary track is a relaxed, almost frat-buddy banter between the two of them, covering the usual topics. I appreciated the fact that Johnson and Foster have a passion for their work, but do not take their work, themselves, or the whole Hollywood grinder too seriously.
DVD-ROM content on the first disc includes brief background on the history of the comic book series and the major characters, wallpaper for the characters (at 800x600, 1024x768, and 1280x1024), links, and a "sensory quiz" pitting you against Daredevil. Nothing too lame, nothing too thrilling.
Extra content is a decent assortment on the second disc, divided into "The Film" and "The Comic Book" sections.
The HBO First Look featurette (25 minutes) covers much the same ground as the documentary, but in a slicker, jazzier fashion. It does have additional appearances by Stan "The Man" Lee and visually impaired consultant Tom Sullivan. The short (2 minute) featurette on The Kingpin is a trifle. If you've seen the documentary, then this adds nothing new. Jennifer Garner's screen test (2.5 minutes) is also a trifle, but a much cuter one. Tom Sullivan gets his own featurette, "Moving Through Space: A Day With Tom Sullivan" (8 minutes), but this is only the briefest glimpse into his life and his world. I would have rather had Sullivan's featurette extended, as seeing how he adapts the world to his abilities is simply fascinating.
Rounding out the section are multi-angle dailies (featuring two takes of the Daredevil/Kingpin fight and four takes of the Elektra/Bullseye fight), theatrical trailers for Daredevil (three in total), 28 Days Later, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a quite extensive still gallery (covering storyboards, costumes, set design, production stills, and props), and four music videos ("Won't Back Down" by Fuel, "For You" by The Calling, "Bring Me to Life" by Evanescence, and a spot for the album itself).
"The Comic Book"
"The Shadow World Tour" featurette (6 minutes) juxtaposes clips from the movie with portions of the original Daredevil comic. Finally, the main characters each have a "Modeling Sheet" that is a one-page summary taken from the Marvel Encyclopedia.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The "enhanced viewing mode" is enhanced all right, it's an enhanced pain in the ass, much as it was in X-Men 1.5. The idea is nice, namely that during certain sequences of Daredevil an icon will pop up. The icon, in turn, leads to one of eight excellent concise featurettes narrated by visual effects producer John Kilkenny (Titanic, Gone in Sixty Seconds) that covers the special-effects construction of each particular sequence, roughly speaking. What is not so nice is that the only way to view these featurettes is by waiting through Daredevil to select the icon. Not only is there no separate menu of the featurettes, but also the disc prevents you from directly accessing them. Worse yet, the main "making-of" documentary has a similar feature, but instead allows you to separately view the additional featurettes. Fox gains a few points for the idea, but loses a few hundred for this poor implementation.
Jennifer Garner looks even lovelier with green contacts, but toned down color would be better. At a moment or two, the green looks particularly bright and fake. Still, you're looking at Jennifer Garner at the time, so that is adequate compensation. While we're on the subject of appearances, I hope I'm not the only one who thinks writer/director Mark Steven Johnson looks a bit like Mike Piazza? (Don't ask me where that came from, I'm not even a huge baseball fan!)
Finally, non-legal people might not mind, but actual legal people may be justifiably annoyed at the liberties Mark Steven Johnson takes with Matt Murdock's legal role. One moment he's a prosecutor, the next he's a criminal defense and general civil attorney in the same court system. That may work in the English legal system, but not over here in the Colonies. While it does not make a difference to Daredevil, it is one of those details that is as easy to get right as it is to get wrong, so why not go for perfectly suitable reality? While we are at it, how does Matt Murdock afford his superhero lifestyle as the son of a hard-knock boxer and working in a tiny law firm whose clients pay what little they can in fish and sporting goods?
Daredevil is a based on a comic book, but it comes very close to being a "real" film. Indeed, many "real" films (like xXx or Die Another Day) seem more cartoonish than Daredevil. That may be the reason Daredevil met with less than expected commercial success—if you go to a comic-book film, you might reasonably expect action and characters drawn in large, outlandish strokes. Daredevil is dark and toned down by comparison.
If you are looking for an evening of popcorn and ass kicking, I heartily recommend Daredevil for rental (especially if you have a DTS capable setup). Otherwise, a purchase of this two-disc set is a bit pricey ($30 list), but fans of the comic book series (and Marvel or comic aficionados in general) will find enough decent extra content to make it worth their while.
Don't even think about the full-screen version.
What, are you crazy? Acquitted, of course. I don't want that Daredevil psycho coming after me!
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Scales of Justice
• Enhanced Viewing Mode
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