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-[Film Reviews]-, English Language Film Industries, Hollywood

‘Daredevil’ (2003): The “Apotheosis” of New Millennium Superheroes on Film

Directed by: Mark Steven Johnson || Produced by: Arnon Milchan, Gary Foster, Avi Arad

Screenplay by: Mark Steven Johnson || Starring: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan, Colin Farrell, Joe Pantoliano, Jon Favreau, David Keith

Music by: Graeme Revell || Cinematography: Ericson Core || Edited by: Dennis Virkler, Armen Minasian || Country: United States || Language: English

Running Time: 103-130 minutes

In my early retrospective of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU, 2008-2019), I noted the contrasts in popularity of mainstream superhero movies before, immediately after, and several years removed from Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (B&R; 1997). That uber-theatrical, flamboyant, cornball disasterpiece and box office disappointment (not a box office bomb, however) represents a clear dividing line in the history of Hollywood superhero blockbusters. Prior to B&R, superhero movies were a consistent and profitable but not ubiquitous presence in 1980s-1990s Hollywood, where their budgets averaged notably cheaper than later decades’ comic adaptations even after adjusting for inflation. B&R’s infamous reception almost killed the mainstream superhero film for several years until the debut of Bryan Singer and then 20th Century Fox’s X-Men (2000), but Hollywood didn’t collapse in the meantime because the theatrical market was more diverse and less blockbuster-dependent than it is today.

After the underdog success of Singer’s project, as well as the massive blockbuster debut of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) a couple years later (fun fact: future Marvel Studios president and MCU producer, Kevin Feige, was attached to both as an associate and executive producer, respectively) the movement more or less rehabilitated itself; the distant twinkles of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012) and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) were still on the horizon, but in the meantime a far greater number of mediocre to bad mainstream superhero movies returned to Hollywood cinemas (e.g. Hulk [2003], The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen [2003], Catwoman [2004], Fantastic Four [2005, 2007], Superman Returns [2006]) or concurrently entered development.

Colin Farrell, in one of his worst performances, stabs Jennifer Garner in one of her… typical performances. The angle of that puncture bulge looks off.

One of those lesser comic book-adaptations was Mark Steven Johnson’s 2003 film, Daredevil. Long before the character was rebooted for Netflix (2015-2018) by Marvel Studios under Walt Disney Pictures, this was my and I suspect most audiences’ introduction to what is de facto a Marvel knockoff of Batman (I know… the character didn’t start that way, but that’s how he’s since developed thanks to Frank Miller). A passion-project of longtime screenwriter and then onetime feature-film director Johnson, the man somehow convinced New Regency (then a subsidiary of Fox and later Disney) to give him the director’s chair in addition to penning the script. I say “somehow” because most every problem with this early 2000s superhero disappointment can be traced back to Johnson’s ineffective direction.

Because Johnson was and remains an unknown director (he’s continued to find work on various smaller films no one’s ever heard of), as was then Marvel executive Feige, most of the blame for the movie’s critical and box office underperformance fell on star Ben Affleck’s shoulders. The bad reputation from this film combined with that of two other disappointments from 2003, Gigli and Paycheck, for a career downturn prior to his resurgence several years later with his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone (2007). Much of my early disinterest in Affleck’s career was a function of my “coming of age” during this period (see also Pearl Harbor [2001]), as I was too young to appreciate his earlier Good Will Hunting (1997), Armageddon (1998), etc. To be fair to Affleck’s critics, Affleck is quite dull as the title character and his line delivery feels uninspired throughout.

One could also argue Affleck’s lackluster performance is further evidence of Johnson’s bad direction, as I do. Most of the cast give middling to poor performances, including Affleck’s then future wife, Jennifer Garner, as female lead Elektra, Colin Ferrell as subvillain Bullseye, and Michael Clark Duncan as main villain Kingpin. That’s just the start of this film’s problems, however, as most everything about the execution of its screenplay feels off: Affleck’s narration feels flat and overused, fight choreography is forgettable, humor doesn’t land, and the editing’s pace of the much lauded, R-rated “director’s cut” is too slow to justify the 130-minute running time. Top to bottom, the story told is worthwhile — Affleck’s vigilante persona is introduced well, his lawyer day-job intersects with his superhero alter ego, and the story builds to a reasonable conclusion — yet it all feels so… boring.

What I’m left to conclude is that Johnson’s Daredevil, while written by a seasoned writer, is kneecapped by a then inexperienced and to this day unrecognized filmmaker. I’ve noted before with Blade Trinity (2004) how established screenwriters who transition to the director’s chair can fumble the audiovisual execution of their film’s written outline (i.e. most screenwriters are not Taylor Sheridan), and I think that situation applies here. Between the overall pace of the movie, the flatness of so many dramatic scenes, the uninspired performances of most of a well seasoned cast, and the tediousness of so many action sequences, Daredevil has potential substance but zero style.

An unmasked Affleck (right) battles a bulked up Michael Clark Duncan (left).

Mark Steven Johnson’s sophomore feature is therefore somewhat exceptional relative to most 2000s superhero flicks even though its ultimate low quality is representative of most of that decade’s comic adaptations: It’s based atop an apparently sound written foundation but lacks any concrete directorial vision. Most Hollywood blockbusters in general and superhero flicks in particular succeed or fail on the cinematographic talents of their filmmakers more so than the soundness of their screenplays. Superhero features before and since the Marvel Cinematic Universe have depended on charismatic lead performances, strong special FX, memorable action set-pieces, and flourishes of self-important camerawork, illustrative of how far these types of movies have come since the controversial days of Batman & Robin. Daredevil, at least its extended version, has none of those strengths but the blueprint for a sensible vigilante screen debut.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: If Bryan Singer’s X-Men represents the scrappy ensemble version of 2000s superhero cinema, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007) is the movement’s expansion, and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films are the intellectual, dramatic inversions of superhero formula, then the burgeoning MCU metamorphosed the movement into a corporate empire. Daredevil, like the bulk of cheaper looking, poorly realized superhero movies from that era, is the decomposing soil from which those better movies spring.

However… Daredevil’s story is at least easy to follow, describes motivation for its main character, and builds to a satisfying ending… again, in theory.


? This is the only film or television series I’ve seen in which Joe Pantoliano doesn’t play a conniving scumbag.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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