Retrospective - Daredevil (2003)

Daredevil (2003), PG-13, 103 minutes - Marvel's Daredevil series on Netflix launches this week (Friday, April 10), and I couldn't help but look back twelve years to the last live action version of the character to be seen: the 2003 feature length film starring Ben Affleck.  Distributed by 20th Century Fox (who held the film rights to the character at the time), Daredevil is widely regarded as one of the miss-steps in the flood of comic book to big screen adaptations that have proven quite successful more often than not (this film pre-dated Marvel's creation of their own film studio, which has yet to produce a box office dud).  This 2003 film suffers from a few things, but holds a special place in my heart to this day as it was my introduction to the character that has since become my favorite in all of comics.

"I waited outside the Olympic for my father. In some ways, I'm still waiting. Nobody cared much about the death of a washed-up prizefighter... nobody but me." - Matt Murdock

When I first saw this film, I had no prior knowledge of Daredevil's long comic book history (I was only familiar with the fact that he was a blind super hero), and really enjoyed the story about a blind lawyer named Matt Murdock (Affleck) who works the courtrooms by day and prowls the streets as a justice-seeking vigilante by night.  The cast was loaded with actors and actresses I liked: Affleck, Jennifer Garner (Elektra), Colin Farrell (Bullseye), Michael Clarke Duncan (Kingpin), Joe Pantoliano (Ben Urich), and Jon Favreau (Foggy Nelson).  The very same Jon Favreau from Swingers who went on to help launch Marvel Studios by directing Iron Man five years later (among other films).

Matt: [in coffee shop] I was just looking for some honey. Could you help me out?
Elektra: [not looking up] Right in front of you.
Matt: [chuckles] Well, could you be a little bit more specific?
Elektra: [looking up] What are you...
Matt: Blind? Yeah.

Because I didn't have a frame of reference at the time, the severely-lacking script didn't stand out quite so badly.  It certainly wasn't amazing by any stretch, but only after my curiosity in the character led to my reading as many Daredevil collections as I could did I realize just how off the film was.  Not only were portions of the script badly written, but characters acted in ways that their comic book counterparts wouldn't have.  Now I'm not against differing interpretations when adapting a story to film.  I'm all in favor of an alternative take as long as it still fits within a story or character's basic essence.  However, when you make changes to a character's DNA, causing them to act differently than they should, that bothers me (i.e. the way the Matt/Elektra relationship is handled).  Things like this stood out to me after eventually reading the entirety of Daredevil's now-fifty year comic book history.  On the flip side, cosmetic changes made to both Kingpin and Bullseye worked well for the film (Kingpin is white in the comics, Bullseye had/has a more spandex/tights look in the comics).  Bullseye's film look was actually adopted in the comics for a few years, as it fit in well with the gritty, down to Earth tone of the stories being told.

"I need a f***ing costume!" - Bullseye

Daredevil is a bit of an interesting case when discussing comic book movie flops  There are actually two very different versions of the film: the theatrical release and a Director's Cut.  The theatrical version is the one that is derided to this day.  Writer/Director Mark Steven Johnson has made no secret of the fact that a hard ninety minute time limit was imposed during the editing stages of the film's production, forcing him to cut substantial portions of the original story.  The Director's Cut was released to DVD in 2004 and is the version that Johnson has said he intended to produce all along.  Oftentimes a film's Director's Cut doesn't actually change much of the film, adding only superficial footage or including some gratuitous language/violence/skin that had previously been cut.  But in this case the overall tone of the film was changed by adding an extra thirty minutes to the film's run time.  Not only were scenes added, but a couple were even re-cut.  Depth was added to Matt's murder investigation, and even though it also adds some levity via a character named Dante Jackson (Coolio - who doesn't even appear in the theatrical version), it fixes some other character issues, primarily the aforementioned Matt/Elektra relationship.  Any time this film comes up in conversation, I'm quick to ask whomever I'm speaking with if they've seen the Director's Cut.  Its slightly darker, crime oriented tone makes it an easier film to view than its theatrical counterpart.

Kingpin: How do you kill a man without fear?
Bullseye: By puttin' the fear in him.

Compared to other comic book related films of the early 2000's (Spider-Man, X2, Spider-Man 2), Daredevil didn't perform all that well at the box office.  But compared to its production budget, or even to the other films showing in theaters at the time, it held its own.  With a fairly modest budget of about $78 million, Daredevil was a profitable film, clearing just over $179 million globally (about $102.5 million of that domestically).*  It finished first at the box office the weekend it was released (February 14, 2003), ahead of the previous box office leader, the Kate Hudson/Matthew McConaughey romantic comedy How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.**  In its second week, Daredevil finished a close second to the Will Farrell/Vince Vaughan comedy Old School.***  Both are films more fondly remembered twelve years later.

"Look at me, Matt. I'm a 'Plus One'. Plus Ones don't get anywhere by themselves. They need somebody to bring them. That's why it's 'plus one'!" - Foggy Nelson

Comic book films have - at least partially - become known for their easter eggs: winks, nods, and references to their comic book history.  This was one area in which Daredevil excelled.  A number of characters are named after creators who had worked on the comics.  Daredevil co-creator Stan Lee (the other being Bill Everett) has a cameo, as does Kevin Smith (director/comic book writer who launched Daredevil's volume two with a story titled 'Guardian Devil'), and Frank Miller (widely considered the most influential creator in Daredevil's history).  There are a number of references to story lines from the comics, including an entire scene between Bullseye and Elektra lifted straight from the Miller-penned issue #181.

"You're good, baby. I'll give you that. But me? I'm magic." - Bullseye

The official soundtrack to the film was also pretty good.  A mix of rock and hard rock, it helped launch Evanescence to mainstream recognition by including not one, but two songs from their debut album.  It also included the likes of Fuel, The Calling, Saliva, Seether, Nickelback, Drowning Pool, Rob Zombie, Moby, Chevelle, and Hoobastank.  Sure a couple of those bands seem a bit dated now, but at the time it was a pretty good cross-section of popular rock.

Foggy: I hate to bring it up again, but I spent $3,000 on that seeing eye dog...
Matt: I didn't ask you for the dog, I didn't want a dog!
Foggy: Can I tell you something else? Seeing eye dogs bond for life - yours ran away. What does that tell you about how emotionally available you are?

A lot of people lump Daredevil in with films such as Gigli and Paycheck as being responsible for the downturn in Ben Affleck's career.  I argue that this is a bit of a bad rap.  Affleck's performance was not one of the problems with this film.  Was it award-worthy?  No.  But he didn't mail it in.  His performance was fine considering what he had to work with.  And that isn't a dig at his co-stars either.  This film had a very talented cast, none of whom gave poor performances.  It really all comes back to the script and the run-time limitations enforced by the production company.  There are just a number of unnecessary scenes or in-explainable and inexcusable plot points (playground fight scene or subway killing anyone?).  Again, some of the problems are addressed in the Director's Cut, but not enough to save the film completely.

"Do you or do you not concede that there are alligators in the sewers!?" - Foggy Nelson

This film piqued my interest in the character and led me to Kevin Smith's 'Guardian Devil' story.  I really enjoyed it and shortly thereafter a good friend suggested some of Frank Miller's work, including the seminal 'Born Again'.  I devoured it all and quickly caught up with what was being published at the time - the middle of the Brian Michael Bendis/Alex Maleev run.  I then went back and read whatever older stories I could get my hands on (and I've read every issue since).  It was at this time, after becoming more familiar with the characters' history that the film's issues became more apparent.  As time has passed, my overall enjoyment of the film has diminished, but I am thankful that it opened my eyes to the rich history of the Hell's Kitchen corner of the Marvel Universe.  These days, this film is more of a guilty pleasure for me than anything else.  Its deficiencies stick out like a sore thumb, but I have a personal appreciation for it as it drove me to learn more about what has since become my favorite cast of comic book characters.  Despite my generally being oddly defensive of the film (or at least the Director's Cut), I honestly have a hard time recommending it to anyone unless they are already curious.  If you do happen to be interested for whatever reason, make sure to track down the Director's Cut.

Ben Urich: Go get 'em, Matt.
Daredevil: [nods] Hell's Kitchen is my neighborhood. I prowl the rooftops and alleyways at night, watching from the darkness. Forever in darkness. A guardian devil.

It's a shame that it has taken over ten years to re-visit a live action Daredevil.  The 2003 film did well enough that Fox considered re-booting the property (even after its 2005 spin-off Elektra was another dud, but that's a conversation for another day), but poorly enough that they dragged their feet in making that decision.  They eventually decided against it and the film rights to Daredevil reverted to Marvel in April of 2013.  Despite the ten year wait, that was definitely the best outcome for the property.  Marvel has proven time and again that they have an uncanny ability in creating live action productions worthy of their comic book counterparts.  If the teaser trailers that have been released via Netflix over the past week - and that can be seen at the end of this post - are any indication, the latest incarnation of Daredevil may finally raise the reputations of Matt Murdock and friends (and even enemies) out of the proverbial sewers.




* data from BoxOfficeMojo.com
** data from BoxOfficeMojo.com
*** data from BoxOfficeMojo.com




Marvel's Daredevil (Netflix) - "Fear" Trailer:




Marvel's Daredevil (Netflix) - "Origins" Trailer:

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