Film Reviews

The Devil You Know

The fanboy suckled at the teat of comic book writer-artist Frank Miller, circa 1980-81, will be satisfied, for the most part, with this cinematic Daredevil; if nothing else, the thing's got enough Marvel Comics in-jokes to amuse 'em down at the comics shop for ages, or at least till Hulk smashes the summer. Writer-director Mark Steven Johnson's adaptation of Miller's seminal story arc -- which (re)introduced blind hero Daredevil (here, played by the buff, bland Ben Affleck) to the bountiful bounty hunter Elektra (Jennifer Garner), psycho killer Bullseye (Colin Farrell) and muscle-bound fatman Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan) -- has been stripped to the barest of bone and made palatable if all one craves is brawl after skirmish after fight after bloody murder. If nothing else, the kiddie-pop gloss and soap-opera sheen of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man have been washed off with a good dousing of gore, the kind rarely seen in superhero movies intended to spur newsstand sales and a run on action figures.

But once more, the printed page provides more emotional and visceral satisfaction than the big screen, upon which Johnson has tossed yet one more shambling story about people in costumes who beat hell out of each other because that's what people in costumes do. Johnson wants it both ways: to keep the story line intimate (the Elektra-Daredevil love-hate affair, shortened from several years to a few days) and play his movie huge (the action's so ridiculously computer-generated the movie might as well have been animated -- that, or it was actually filmed in the Matrix). It's grittier than your average comic adaptation -- people curse, villains die, heroes kill, sidekick Jon Favreau cracks a cranky Sanford and Son joke -- but oddly more cowardly, because it hasn't the courage of its maker's alleged convictions to keep it real. A pain-pill-popping hero is hinted at, as Matt Murdock, after an early battle as the leather-clad Daredevil, gobbles down Vicodin and dozes off in a bed-bath-and-beyond filled with water to drown out the city's sounds, but the idea is ultimately abandoned when push comes to shove off a 50-story skyscraper. By film's end, Daredevil is no more mortal than Superman; Johnson's big talk of rendering his hero small-scale and "real world," down to his biker-inspired costume that's oddly S&M in vibe, is just that -- talk.

It's a shame Johnson couldn't give the movie over to Bullseye, since Farrell displays more danger with a cocked brow and sharpened pencil than Affleck with pages of melodramatic mush he can't force out without sounding like a high school drama student with a sore throat. (The movie even sounds like a 1960s Marvel Comic, back when Stan Lee believed everything needed to be explained again and again; no one does anything without telling us why beforehand.) Alias's Garner, way too small-screen even when 20 feet tall, never stands a chance against Bullseye, in keeping with the comic. Farrell's Bullseye, with his trademark target carved into his forehead, would have dispatched Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin with ease; where Spider-Man's nemesis hammed it up to camp effect, Farrell's killer is cold and menacing -- genuinely nuts, totally bereft of humanity. (Appropriate he gets the last word; do not leave when the credits begin to roll.)

Johnson, who previously adapted John Irving by gutting him (Simon Birch), apparently watched Tim Burton's first Batman (itself a sort of homage to Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns) and decided to imitate it. It makes a certain sense: Daredevil and Batman are mortals motivated by the deaths of parents, guys who don ridiculous costumes to exorcise their demons by beating up the rest of the world. But Burton could commingle flash and flesh; in between all the sweeping camerawork over Gotham City miniatures and the scenes gnawed on by Jack Nicholson's Joker, Burton's hero hurt, and it was a tangible pain in the hands of Michael Keaton. Johnson, clumsy with a lens as he is with a keyboard, works with an added handicap: Affleck is a black hole of emotion, a frat boy playing sensitive while the tear ducts are under construction. And the director isn't the visionary that Burton is; like Daredevil, he has a hard time seeing straight. (Every scene appears filmed at an angle, as though the movie were staged on a sinking ship.) The best moments occur when we "see" what Daredevil does: the echoes of people and places he picks up with his radar. We're in his head, and that's better than watching Affleck's blank stare.

But all criticisms will be dismissed by fanboys who will smirk and giggle themselves silly at myriad mentions of the artists and writers who worked on Daredevil over the years (from John Romita to Brian Michael Bendis). They'll laugh at the copious references to Marvel's editor in chief Joe Quesada, the name given a particularly evil character Daredevil hunts down in the film's early minutes; they will pass out at the sight of writer-director Kevin Smith as forensics expert Jack Kirby -- two in-jokes (Kirby co-created Captain America) for the price of one. And everyone else in the theater will wonder what the hell's so funny, if they care at all.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky