Released: 30 November 2004
Originally Released: 14 February 2003
Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $78 million
Stars: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan, Colin Farrell, Jon Favreau, and Joe Pantoliano
After being blinded by radioactive waste as a child and discovering his other senses are superhumanly keen as a result, Matt Murdock (Affleck) works as a lawyer by day and devil-garbed vigilante by night. While falling in love with the mysterious and beautiful Elektra Natchios (Garner), Daredevil draws the ire of Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin (Duncan), who hires the assassin Bullseye (Farrell) to rid him of Daredevil’s interference once and for all.
Following his creation in 1964, Daredevil has been no stranger to multimedia ventures; while Angela Bowie’s 1974 proposal for a television movie was never produced, the character made his live-action debut in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (Bixby, 1989), portrayed by Rex Smith, and made occasional appearances in various Marvel cartoons, particularly in the nineties, and a live-action movie was in the works since as far back as 1997 but could never quite get off the ground thanks to Marvel Comics’ legal issues at that time.
Development finally gained traction in 2000, with 20th Century Fox (who would also find success with another of Marvel’s properties, the X-Men, around this time) distributing the film and Mark Steven Johnson signed on to both write and direct. Taking inspiration from the “Guardian Devil” (Smith, et al, 1998 and 1999) storyline and Frank Miller’s celebrated work with on the character, Daredevil was poised to be one of the darker, grittier superhero films of its time.
Despite turning a sizeable profit, making nearly $180 million in worldwide gross (and having a rocking soundtrack that propelled one of my favourite bands, Evanescence, into mainstream popularity), Daredevil was less-than-favourably received upon release, with even star Ben Affleck speaking out against the film after its release (despite all the positive comments he had made to market the film…) The “Director’s Cut” of the film (which restored an entire sub-plot, swear words, and was far more violent) released about a year later, is generally regarded by many (including myself) to be the definitive version of the film, however, though the critical and commercial failure of spin-off Elektra (Bowman, 2005) and Affleck’s refusal to revisit the role put an end to any hopes for a sequel and Daredevil would not reappear in live-action until Marvel Studios regained the rights to the character about ten years later.
Daredevil was released at a time when superhero movies were just really starting to hit their stride; they weren’t the multimedia juggernaut they are today thanks to the efforts of Marvel Studios and Disney so, while there were many highly regarded and influential superhero films released in the early 2000s, not all of them were guaranteed smash hits and even the ones that were haven’t exactly aged well (or have been done better) since then. As a result, most superhero films tended to feature a major focus on the character’s origin, a lot of fast-paced and frenetic action scenes, and a plot that moved at a relatively brisk pace to cover a lot of ground as quickly as possible. They, like many other action films of the time, were also heavily influenced by (or blatantly ripping off) The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999) so black leather, “wire-fu”, and CGI were plentiful during this time and, of all the superhero movies released in the early 2000s, perhaps nowhere are all these now-cliché elements more apparent than in Daredevil.
Daredevil begins in medias res with the titular vigilante wounded, seemingly fleeing from the police, and seeking sanctuary at Father Everett’s (Derrick O’Connor) church. As he lays incapacitated and hurt, Murdock begins to narrate his childhood and life up until that point under the illusion that his life is flashing before his eyes as he dies; this flashback-heavy first portion of the film separated Daredevil from its contemporaries as, while the Spider-Man films (Raimi, 2002 to 2007) featured a bit of narration from the main character, most superhero films started at the beginning and progressed from there, with us following the hero along his journey and learning alongside him/them. This technique, though, means that we experience Daredevil from a uniquely different perspective, that being through the haunted, tumultuous memories of its main character.
We’re thus introduced to Murdock first as a battered and injured vigilante and then, very quickly as a young kid (Scott Terra) from Hell’s Kitchen who is constantly harassed by a gang of local youths. These bullies like to rag on young Matt because his father, Jack Murdock (David Keith), is not only an over-the-hill, washed up prize-fighter who once fought under the name “The Devil” and wore a devil-themed robe to the ring but has now taken to working as an enforcer for Fallon (Mark Margolis), a local mob boss. Matt, maintaining a staunch belief in his father’s glory days, accolades, and abilities, stands up to such bullies and trash talk and takes a beating as a result, much to the dismay of his father. Jack, however, wants more from Matt and discourages him from fighting, wishing instead for Matt to devote himself to his studies and to make something of himself and it is clear from their brief scenes together that the two have a very strong relationship, one built on mutual trust, respect, and dependency.
Jack is determined to have Matt grow up unafraid, to be the best version of himself, and to not be a “bum like [him]” but this goes so far that he is too ashamed and too despondent to admit that he really has been forced to rough people up on Fallon’s behalf in order to provide for his family. The very next scene shows Matt witnessing this and, distraught and heartbroken, he flees from the sight only to end up narrowly avoiding a collision and being blinded by a biohazardous waste product as a result. Similar to Spider-Man, an elaborate CGI sequence shows us the effect this has on Matt’s DNA and, when he awakens in hospital, he is immediately bombarded with sensory overload as, while he has been rendered permanently blind, his remaining senses (particularly his hearing, which gets the most attention) have been augmented to near-superhuman levels.
Unlike in the character’s debut appearance, where Matt barely flinched at being blinded, very little time was spent dwelling on how he or his father felt about it, and where Matt never once struggled to adapt to his new abilities, Daredevil adds a few wrinkles to this turn of events. Firstly, because Matt’s accident happened as a direct result of him running away from his father, Jack feels a tremendous amount of guilt and shame about the accident; secondly, Matt is overwhelmed to the point of terror at his newfound abilities and struggles to get them under control. However, the two have such a strong bond, love, and dependence upon each other that Matt doesn’t bare a grudge and the two resolve to redouble their efforts to overcome their limitations, with Jack getting back into training and back into the ring and Matt continuing his studies using Braille and discovering that his echolocation provides him with a version of sight. In experimenting with his newfound abilities, he loses all sense of fear as he easily traverses rooftops and overwhelms his tormentors (who “dare” him to fight them) with little more than his walking stick and his dexterity.
Of course, Daredevil is still a superhero story and what superhero origin is complete without a dash of tragedy? It turns out that Fallon has engineered Jack’s comeback and threatens both him and Matt to coerce Jack into taking a dive in his next fight; with his son in the crowd and refusing to compromise his principals, Jack refuses and wins through heart, determination, and brute strength/force of will. However, Fallon’s goons jump Jack after the fight and beat him to a pulp before an unseen third assailant delivers the finishing blow, beating Jack to death and leaving a red rose on his bloodied corpse. Tragically, Matt hears it all and is absolutely heartbroken when he comes across his father’s beaten and bloody body. He resolves to keep his promise to his father to help those that others wouldn’t and seek justice one way or another, with the film glossing over his time in college and law school and jumping ahead several years to find him fully grown into Ben Affleck.
The older Murdock is a haunted, heavily conflicted individual; in order to block out the constant barrage of noises, he sleeps in a sensory deprivation tank and regularly chews a number of pills and painkillers to dull the constant pain from the many wounds he has suffered in his nightly jaunts. The effects of his double life can be immediately seen not only in his weary expression but also the multitude of scars, bruises, and injuries his body exhibits; though Matt’s abilities make him faster and stronger than the average man, he’s still human and we constantly see him suffering blows and injuries during his activities as Daredevil, taking hard shots to the ribs and even losing a tooth during the film’s first big action scene.
I’m no fan of Affleck (largely because of the way he crapped all over this movie after professing to be such a big fan of the comics during its marketing) but he’s actually really great as Murdock; the special contact lenses he wears are only a small part of selling him as a blind man as Affleck assumes a slightly skewed posture and thousand-yard stare, always positioning himself in such a way that you can tell he’s lacking his sight. Additionally, Murdock uses Braille to identify his belongings, and even folds his notes in certain ways to recognise them (though it’s not entirely clear if he needs to do this, since we know he doesn’t, or if it’s all part of playing up his persona as a simple blind man), all of which go a long way to showcasing how a blind man might life his life.
Affleck is also able to showcase a multitude of emotions with a surprising amount of nuance; Murdock is a pragmatic, yet passionate, bastion of the innocent in the court room, has a fantastically realised love/hate relationship with his friend and colleague Franklin “Foggy” Nelson (Favreau), and transforms into this violent, sardonic, brutal vigilante when donning the incredible blood-red leather outfit of Daredevil. It’s clear that Murdock is a man of many conflicting emotions and suppressed rage and that Daredevil is his outlet for those sensations; he takes deep offense to those who flaunt or break the law or who are under the clear influence of the mysterious Kingpin of Crime and takes it upon himself to bring such individuals to justice. His methods to achieve this are vicious and violent, involving the unrelenting beating of any law breakers and even more direct and indirect murder as he moves fast enough to avoid bullets that other thugs then take and not only willingly knocks Jose Quesada (Paul Ben-Victor), an obvious rapist and all-round bad person, to a gruesome death by train but even takes the time to mock him before his grisly dismemberment.
Clearly a tortured, haunted individual, Matt keeps others at arm’s length and actively sabotages his relationships because of his unwavering commitment to bringing criminals to justice as Daredevil and his unresolved issues. Foggy makes this abundantly clear as he calls Matt out on his bullshit time and time again while still being in quiet awe of Matt’s adaptability, dedication towards helping those in need even when they receive very little payment (or payment in fluke or sports gear, which makes for an amusing running gag), and his capability in the court room. Their relationship is a real highlight of the film, with the two sharing banter, matching wits, pulling pranks on each other, and even using Matt’s disability to wind up strangers or to win the sympathy of the jury. Any time these two are onscreen together, it’s a joy to see; Favreau is instantly charming and likeable as the goofy Foggy and, while he was always able to stand out by questioning Matt’s approach to the women in his life, the Director’s Cut expands Foggy’s role and gives him a character arc where he is able to resolve Dante Jackson’s (Coolio) case and help lead the authorities to the Kingpin.
Speaking of Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin…how amazing was Michael Clarke Duncan? The man had such a charisma and a presence not only because of his massive frame but also his charming smile and deep, dulcet tones. Though traditionally a white character, Duncan is a perfect fit for the role and exudes power, charisma, and a commanding respect from the moment he is introduced in the film garbed in a flashy suit and puffing away on a chunky cigar. Though the character was an eloquent and calculating individual in the theatrical cut, the Director’s Cut goes even further in establishing Fisk’s threat when he is seen viciously bludgeoning two of his underlings (one with his massive cane and the other by first throttling and then breaking his neck), which makes it all the more ominous when he later lays a seemingly innocent hand on the shoulder of Nikolas Natchios (Erick Avari) and gets his large hands on Daredevil in the film’s conclusion.
The added runtime afforded by the Director’s Cut also adds further nuance to Fisk’s character; on the one hand, you could argue that we don’t really learn much about him and that he’s every typical, one-note criminal mastermind but, on the other, you can really see a number of layers to Duncan’s performance. Like Murdock, Fisk is keeping his raw, animalistic urges and primal rage at bay with a suit (literally a business suit); he explodes in a burst of rage and pure, unbridled power then immediately calms and composes himself and is so eager to put his abilities to the test against Daredevil for the climatic final fight that he all but invites the vigilante in to take him on man-to-man. Cold, calculating, but also articulate and oozing menace, Duncan portrays Fisk as a man at war with his clearly street-smart upbringing and the sophistication required of his role. Indeed, while he takes immense pleasure in the suffering of others, he also maintains that none of his actions have ever been personal; it’s with a glimpse of regret, maybe even sorrow, that he admits to Daredevil that his entire criminal enterprise has only ever been “business” and nothing more.
Fisk’s “business” finds itself somewhat compromised not only by Daredevil but also the continued attempts by reporter Ben Urich (Pantoliano), whose speciality is urban legends, to expose the Kingpin. Fisk solves that problem by hiring Bullseye, a charming, animalistic, cold-hearted, sadistic, masochistic hitman, to kill Natchios. Unlike Murdock and Fisk, we learn very little about Bullseye save that he is a ridiculously good shot who talks little, kills on a whim, and has a flair for the dramatic. Like Fisk, Bullseye enjoys killing but takes a perverse pleasure out of it rather than revelling in his power like Fisk does; he’s also incredibly egocentric and takes it personally when Daredevil causes him to miss a shot, happily accepting an extended contract to take out both Daredevil and Natchios’ daughter, Elektra.
Of the three main characters in the film, it’s Elektra who I feel brings the weakest performance; I’m not really a fan of Jennifer Garner and find her to be a bit of a blank slate who is sleepwalking through the film. She phones it in well enough to portray Elektra as a strong, independent, and forceful character when she needs to be but her romance with Matt is incredibly rushed and convenient. He basically becomes infatuated by her on scent alone and they have an absolutely cringe-worthy flight/flirt in a neighbourhood playground that seems more like Matt stalking and forcing himself upon her than a genuine attraction. However, she respects Matt’s ability to perform heavily choreographed wire-fu enough to give him her name and the time of day.
To be fair, Elektra is a fairly layered character; she hates being under the constant supervision of her father and her bodyguards and wants her independence yet is incredibly devoted to him and her family. She is feisty and strong-willed but also lonely and you get the sense that her relationship with Matt is the first time she’s really been able to open up to someone. After her father is killed, though, she turns into a cold, venge-seeking individual, blanking out Matt’s pleas to turn away from vengeance and showcasing her formidable martial arts and sai-based combat skills in preparation to take out the man she believes responsible for her father’s death: Daredevil.
All-in-all, Daredevil’s cast is pretty solid, ranging from top notch to mediocre performances that do a serviceable job given the film’s run time. And there is a lot happening in this film, especially in the extended Director’s Cut, yet the film’s pace is relatively speedy all throughout, glossing over such things as how Matt was able to construct his suit, multi-purpose cane, and the “Devil-Cave” compartments of his apartment and often padding out action scenes or stunts with some very dodgy CGI. I remember the effects not being that bad at the time but they really haven’t aged well now, with the CGI Daredevil, especially, looking particularly rubbery and cartoony as he ludicrously jumps from building to building or battles Bullseye up a ridiculously large church organ. The film is at its best when the action and fight scenes are simple, raw, and gritty, such as the one-on-one action between Daredevil and Elektra, Bullseye, and, especially, Fisk. Perhaps because of the success of Spider-Man, though, and definitely because of the popularity of The Matrix, Daredevil seeks to portray not just Daredevil but also Elektra and Bullseye as being capable of performing incredible, physics-bending stunts. While this is somewhat fitting for Daredevil, who is generally about as agile and adept as Spider-Man in the comics, it definitely feels like the film would have benefitted from downplaying the more nonsensical stunts and focusing on more dark and gritty action and fights.
In contrast to the beliefs of some, one of the best things about Daredevil, for me, has always been its soundtrack; sure, either the score or a host of licensed tracks are usually playing over every scene in the film but Daredevil boasts some rocking tunes and uses them to really help establish the mood or the character onscreen at the time. Murdock drowns out the sounds of the city with some Seether, for example; Nickleback’s “Learn the Hard Way” plays while Daredevil kicks the crap out of Quesada and his goons (who all need to “learn the hard way” that their actions have consequences), Fisk is introduced to the sounds of N.E.R.D.’s “Lapdance”, the appropriately-named “Man Without Fear” by Drowning Pool and Rob Zombie brings a manic energy to Bullseye’s elaborate motorcycle chase against Natchios, and, of course, the iconic “Bring Me to Life” and “My Immortal” by Evanscence feature prominently to set the stage for Elektra’s grief and her thirst for vengeance. Honestly, I don’t give a damn how much music is in the film because when a film’s soundtrack is as bad-ass as this one, all you can really do is sit back and rock out!
Fittingly, Daredevil is also rife not only with references to some of the character’s most influential writers (John Romita, David Mack, Joe Quesada, Brian Michael Bendis all get name dropped, Frank Miller and Stan Lee pop up for brief cameos, and, most egregiously of all, Kevin Smith has the gall to appear as a coroner named “Jack Kirby”) but also with religious imagery; the opening of the film provides a perfect excuse to recreate that iconic shot of Daredevil clinging to a cross atop a church, Matt is only able to control his newfound abilities by focusing on the ringing of a church bell, the Director’s Cut features a handful of quasi-dream sequences where Matt is visited by a Nun (actually his deceased mother), Daredevil subdues Bullseye by causing a sniper’s bullet to pierce his hands in the style of the stigmata, and Matt frequently finds solace in Father Everett’s church. In the theatrical cut, Everett was the only other person who knew of Matt’s dual identity and he strived to turn Matt towards a more righteous path; here, this role is largely the same but slightly different as the film focuses more on Matt’s dark path and the violence of his life. We’re led to believe that this comes to a head when he spares the Kingpin but, arguably, Fisk deserved to die more than any of Matt’s other victims. Instead, Matt is happy (or, at least, willing) to kill small fry like rapists in the opening but not the primary crime lord of New York simply to serve a wonky character arc and to set up sequel bait.
One thing the Director’s Cut really brings to light is just how conflicted and full of anger Matt is; his violent double life is clearly at odds with his Catholic upbringing and is taking its toll on him, as expertly seen by a new scene where Matt is literally haunted by the screams and suffering of those he cannot help in the city. He lashes out at criminals when under the mask and takes his anger and frustration out on both them and his Devil-Cave when he is unable to save Natchios and, unlike in his original debut, Matt is a flawed and fundamentally broken character; he struggles with his newfound abilities at first and his quips are more like cruel taunts than light-hearted whimsy. There’s a sense that he does what he does out of a sense of duty to his father and because of his abilities but it’s also pretty clear that he’s using Daredevil to exert all of his emotions and rage; when he sees a child cower in fear of him, he is stunned and desperately tries to convince himself that he’s “not the bad guy”. Finding little solace in Father Everett’s talk of faith, Matt struggles to reconcile his actions and inner turmoil and he is noticeably tetchy and short with Foggy the next day as a result. This all goes to great lengths to explain why he was unable to get through to Elektra at the funeral since Matt is hardly a bastion of virtue. How can he hope to convince someone not to seek vengeance when he does it every night?
Another thing I always enjoyed about Daredevil was its dark and gritty aesthetic and the costume design; when taking to the streets as Daredevil, Murdock dons a thick, uncomfortable-looking but super bad-ass leather outfit that is a fantastic blood-red and is one of the few live-action superhero suits to actually use lens over the eyes. The practicality of this suit might be in question but it sure looks awesome (…when it isn’t rendered in shitty CGI), though I do find myself questioning how Matt was able to make it and the many duplicates hanging in his Devil-Cave. Matt also, of course, wields his multi-purpose cane (seriously, it’s a baton, nunchaku, a grappling hook, and even an axe!) but I find it hard to believe he could do both to such a high standard and exactly how does Matt manage to change into Daredevil in the middle of the city? There’s no way he’s wearing that suit under his clothes and he can’t be that close to his apartment all the time so either it’s a convenience for the sake of keeping the film’s frenetic pace going or Matt has stashed spare costumes all over the city!
Bullseye and Elektra don’t fare quite as well as Daredevil on the costume front, unfortunately, with both opting for black leather and relatively simple attire despite Bullseye demanding a “fuckin’ costume” from Fisk. Still, Bullseye makes up for it with a preposterous bullseye scar on his forehead and an absolutely gorgeous Matrix-style trenchcoat that he even uses to disorientate and distract Elektra during their fight. This whole sequence is a bit of a let down, to be honest; earlier, in their civilian clothing, we saw Elektra and Matt go toe-to-toe and that they were largely evenly matched until Elektra got the better of him. Considering Matt’s augmented strength and reflexes, this is a pretty impressive feat and, overwhelmed by hatred and her desire for revenge and helped by the fact that Matt refuses to fight her, we see Elektra again able to best Daredevil in a fight, incapacitating him with a stab to the shoulder that, for all intents and purposes, leaves Daredevil seemingly near death! After discovering the truth about her father’s murder, though, she immediately redirects her anger towards Bullseye, a man we have seen exhibit absolutely not fighting prowess up until that point, and is summarily overwhelmed! Seriously, I get that Bullseye is agile and all about the misdirection and the perfect shots but he toys with Elektra all through their fight and kills her without barely breaking a sweat!
Daredevil’s fight against Bullseye isn’t much better as not only are they depicted as being physical equals (though at least Daredevil has the excuse of being badly wounded), the fight is hindered by the worst instances of CGI in the film that sees them leaping and hopping up about the place like in a videogame, Daredevil catching all of Bullseye’s shurikens with swift movements of his club, and Bullseye expertly snagging every single shard of broken stained glass and tossing them at Daredevil (who avoids them all with a superb series of well-timed backflips). It really hasn’t aged too well and is ridiculously over the top for what should have been a simple, brutal affair.
Thankfully, the climactic fight between Daredevil and Kingpin makes up for this even more in the Director’s Cut; in the original version, this fight is depressingly short but, here, it’s noticeably longer and stands out from the rest of the film by beginning with the simple, raw sounds of the two adversaries kicking the crap out of each other. Thanks to his immense strength and Daredevil’s wounds, Fisk is able to subdue Daredevil with a concussion-induced blow to the head and a rib-breaking toss into a concrete pillar; like the bullies of Matt’s youth, Fisk is incredibly amused to find that his rival is “the blind lawyer from Hell’s Kitchen” but finds himself on the back foot when Matt uses the sprinkler system to focus his radar sense and brutally bring the Kingpin to his knees. Driven to the floor in pain and at Matt’s mercy, Fisk is spared and handed over to the police despite promising that he’ll get out, and tell others of Daredevil’s identity. Matt, however, is unfazed, believing that no one would believe Fisk’s story and vows to be ready for Fisk when he gets out, setting the stage for a rematch and an escalating conflict that, sadly, we never saw. Like when Matt threw Bullseye out of the church window and to what should have been his death (he survived but was left in a full body cast so I guess that makes it okay…?), this is treated as a heroic, character-defining moment as Matt finally choose the higher, more noble and heroic path…despite the fact that he’s killed before, both directly and indirectly, and leaving Fisk alive is arguably more dangerous to both him and the city.
While many of the CGI shots and fight/action scenes haven’t aged too well, there’s actually a lot to like here; Daredevil’s suit is incredible and, while the costumes are very Matrix-y (as are the fights), they still work and allow each character to stand out from each other. The cast (with the exception of Elektra) is also really strong; Affleck may have talked shit about the role but he’s really good, shaking off a lot of his boy scout persona and really selling the idea that he’s a blind man and an emotionally tormented sole trying to do good through violent actions and getting lost down a dark path, and Duncan is phenomenal as the Kingpin. He has a real weighty presence, exuding power and intimidation but also layering the character with subtle nuances; it’s like he’s constantly keeping his anger and brutality in check through the veil of civilisation and decorum and is itching to let his emotions loose. Daredevil allows Matt to do this but Fisk has few opportunities to do it; the only one not hiding behind some kind of a mask is Bullseye, who is unapologetically sadistic through and through
The soundtrack is also incredible; sure, music and songs fill nearly every scene but the hard rock, metal, and nu-metal tracks are a welcome inclusion for me. It’s not perfect; the plot is kind of all over the place, even in the Director’s Cut, and full of conveniences and contrivances but it does a really good job of establishing this world and it’s a shame we never got to see this cast all come back for at least one more film. Seriously, we got two mediocre Fantastic 4 movies (Story, 2005 and 2007) but we couldn’t get a sequel to Daredevil? As much as I loved the Netflix series, I still think that’s a real shame since the intention was clearly to do something akin to “Born Again” (Miller, et al, 1986) in the follow-up.
What did you think about Daredevil: Director’s Cut? How do you think it compares to the theatrical version? What did you think to Ben Affleck in the title role, and the film’s cast in general? Did you enjoy the film’s soundtrack or did you find the constant influx of songs distracting? How well do you think the film holds up compared to its modern equivalents? Perhaps you prefer the Netflix series (I mean, who doesn’t, right?); if so, why and what are some of your favourite moments from that? Do you have a favourite Daredevil character or storyline you’d like to see adapted into live-action? Whatever your thoughts on daredevil, feel free to leave a comment down below.