Saturday, July 25, 2009

Daredevil (20th Century Fox/Regency/Marvel, 2003)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a disc Charles had downloaded recently: the 2006 “Rifftrax” version of the 2003 superhero film Daredevil, from 20th Century-Fox and Marvel Entertainment. “Rifftrax” is the latest venture from the final cast of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 — Mike Nelson as himself, Kevin Murphy as Tom Servo and Bill Corbett as Crow — in which they record snarky soundtracks to be played over feature films and sell their works as mp3’s, along with a program you can use to synch their riff tracks to a commercial DVD of the film they’re lampooning.

The 2003 Daredevil was a potentially interesting movie based on one of Marvel’s quirkier characters — Daredevil, son of a prizefighter who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, New York and was blinded as a boy when an accident involving a toxic-waste truck led to some foul liquid being splashed into his eyes, rendering them non-functional and turning them a steely grey color, eyeballs and all. His non-hero name is Matt Murdock, and despite his handicap he grows up to be an attorney and does justice in the courtrooms by day and on the streets at night, billing himself as “Daredevil — The Man Without Fear!” In this film Daredevil himself is played by Ben Affleck — who for some really quirky reason doesn’t come off as well as a superhero as he did as an actor playing a superhero (George Reeves playing Superman) in Hollywoodland three years later — and the film opens with a closeup of a rat prowling the streets of New York City (we expect to hear Michael Jackson crooning “Ben” at any moment!) — and then Daredevil himself comes crashing to earth in the middle of a Roman Catholic church, shattering its stained-glass window as he does so, and he’s revived by his parish priest, Father Everett (Derrick O’Connor) — this may be the first superhero movie I’ve ever seen that took pains to let us know the superhero’s religion.

Anyway, we find out about two-thirds of the movie later that Daredevil suffered these injuries in the middle of a battle with Bullseye (Colin Farrell, who for my money is a lot sexier than Ben Affleck even in his villain’s drag, which is basically a lot of studded leather clothing and a bull’s-eye scar carved into his forehead), hired hit man of the Kingpin, the organized crime boss of New York City, whom at first we’re led to believe is Nick Manolis (Lennie Loftin) but we eventually learn is Black gangster Wilson Fisk (Michael Clarke Duncan). So six years before an African-American became president of the United States for real, one became a gangland boss in a movie — even though he’s played in a rather retro fashion and comes across more like Bumpy Johnson, the real-life numbers king depicted at the end of his life in the film American Gangster (where ex-Mod Squad member Clarence Williams III played him) than like anybody we’d expect to see running a whole city’s crime syndicate today.

The version of Daredevil the Rifftrax folks were ridiculing was the 100-minute theatrical version (there’s also a 133-minute director’s cut on DVD, and at least one commentator on swears by it — sometimes, as with The Butterfly Effect, seeing the director’s cut is a far better experience than watching the original theatrical release, but something tells me that in this case all it would add to the experience is length), and it’s virtually a compendium of all the aspects of the superhero genre at its modern-day worst: murky, brown-dominated cinematography; sotto voce line deliveries from the hero; preposterous super-powers (for somebody who’s supposed to be a normal guy who trained to be a superhero, like Batman, Daredevil has such overdeveloped acrobatic skills he’s practically able to fly and he seems — though this may just be sloppy scripting on the part of director/writer Mark Steven Johnson — to be able to make it rain any time he wants merely by willing it to); a ridiculous female lead (Jennifer Garner as “Elektra Natchios” — “Electric nachos?” the Rifftrax crew inevitably joked — who comes on with acrobatic skills of her own and a pair of elaborate daggers, one in each hand, which Bullseye easily takes from her and uses against her; she also spends several reels hating Daredevil because Bullseye killed Elektra’s father and framed Daredevil for it); maddeningly arbitrary plotting; a slow, deliberate pace that takes the edge off the action scenes that are the one reason anybody bothers to go see a movie like this; and, above all, an infuriating sense of its own self-importance, an attempt to get us to see this as not just a fun excursion in a trashy but entertaining genre but some important statement about the human condition.

Daredevil was billed in the comics as “The Man Without Fear,” and Johnson takes that conceit and runs with it far faster and further than he ought to have — virtually all the villains in the movie take it upon themselves to teach him fear (thinking of Wagner’s Siegfried, I couldn’t help but joke, “He has to go through the magic fire and rescue the woman who’s lying on the rock on the other side of it … ”), leading to a series of pretty pointless confrontations that obviously kept Ben Affleck’s stunt doubles, Tim Connolly and Christopher Caso, busy but are too dully staged and paced to be much fun for us. Johnson also clearly wanted to project Daredevil as tapping into the iconography of Satan, and while his red costume with the little Batman-like horns on the cowl does lend itself to that interpretation, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that in the world the rest of us live in a daredevil is someone like Evel Kneivel, the sort of entertainer who astonishes his audience by risking his life in live performances of pointless stunts, and doesn’t advance himself as an agent of the Dark Side unless he’s specifically chosen that as his marketing strategy.

Daredevil is one of those movies that just sort of drones on (one reason I definitely think I wouldn’t like it any better if it were half an hour longer!), blowing the potential in the material and with so relentlessly dark and unappealing a set of characters that Jon Favreau as Matt Murdock’s law partner (who’s concerned about all the pro bono work Matt is doing and wants to get their firm some clients who will actually pay) is easily the most likable person in the film. It’s also cursed with a voice-over narration, delivered by Affleck in the sepulchral tones of Liberace in The Loved One and so stupidly written by Johnson it wasn’t always easy to tell the movie’s actual voiceover from the ones the Rifftrax crew were supplying — which were funny enough (especially the lampoons of other Affleck bombs, like Gigli), though without the endearing characterizations they played on MST3K they just sound like three wise guys you’ve invited over who insist on talking over the film you’re showing them.