Ironically, the problem with “Daredevil” is that it takes absolutely no risks. Maybe it was inevitable that in fashioning a live-action vehicle for Marvel Comics’ second-tier costumed superhero, writer-director Mark Steven Johnson should have taken his cue from Tim Burton’s “Batman” movies, just as Sam Raimi used Richard Donner’s original “Superman” flick as the template for his “Spider-Man.” After all, if the Web Spinner was always Marvel’s answer to DC’s Man of Steel, the Man Without Fear is its counterpart to its rival’s Caped Crusader–another vigilante who, after suffering a loss in his youth (in the present case, of his sight as well as a parent), has honed his athletic abilities and senses to remarkable levels in order to battle crime. Like Bruce Wayne, blind lawyer Matt Murdock dons an unusual outfit–a red (here, burgundy) suit, a mask complete with little horns to add a devilish touch–to strike fear in criminals’ hearts. And Daredevil, like Batman, though fearless is highly vulnerable.
But while the similarities might understandably invite a measure of imitation, Johnson’s approach seems both slavish and sadly incomplete. The shadowy New York landscapes and bleak, dangerous alleyways mimic the dreary urban backdrops that Burton created in great detail, but unfortunately they lack the eccentric, imaginative touches that made Gotham City so bewitching to the eye. Moreover, Johnson–whose only previous directing credit was the brightly-lit, gauzy “Simon Birch” (1998)–proves incapable of using the dark ambience created by Ericson Core’s cinematography effectively; the numerous elaborately-choreographed fight scenes that fill “Daredevil” are often staged in such gloomy tones that it’s almost impossible to see precisely what’s going on–a fact that tends to dim whatever admiration one might otherwise have mustered for the stunt work and special effects. (On the other hand, perhaps we’re lucky: another martial-arts set piece, one with comic-romantic overtones set in daylight, comes across as studied, and the final confrontation between the hero and the major villain, which occurs in a fairly well-lit office, isn’t terribly impressive, either.)
If Johnson’s visual sense leaves a good deal to be desired, his script isn’t much better. The plot is a compendium of threadbare genre cliches. The troubled Daredevil, who questions the morality of his own methods, is pitted against a crime lord called Kingpin and his hair-trigger henchman Bullseye. Into the mix comes Elektra, a beautiful martial arts expert who falls for the blind Murdock but believes that Daredevil has killed her father (an act for which Bullseye is responsible). The upshot of it all is that Elektra targets Daredevil while Bullseye target them both, and after that triangular battle is finished, Daredevil still has Kingpin to deal with. Lurking in the background, moreover, is an inquisitive reporter seeking to discover the secret of the vigilante’s identity. (The scribe, incidentally, works for the New York Post, and the name of the paper is displayed in the picture so often and so brazenly that it’s one of the more gruesome displays of product placement seen in recent years. Of course, it may be considered just an example of synergy within the Rupert Murdoch empire.)
If the narrative is entirely too familiar, the execution weakens it further. Though he’s obviously buffed up, Ben Affleck lacks the acting chops to make much of an impression in the title role; his stiff, stilted attempts to convey the Murdock’s uncertainty about his mission are particularly weak, but even when in costume he doesn’t convince (and it’s obvious that much of the time stunt men or computer-generated images replace him, anyway). Jennifer Garner, of TV’s “Alias,” makes a statuesque Elektra and looks good in leather, but she doesn’t generate much chemistry with Affleck (it doesn’t help that Johnson’s staging of their scenes together is so clunky, complete with slo-mo and tasteful nudity). Michael Clarke Duncan is an imposing physical presence as Kingpin, but his lip-smacking effort to be colorful is all too calculated, as is Jon Favreau’s strenuous attempt to be lovably dense as Murdock’s law partner Foggy Nelson. Joe Pantoliano, looking remarkably spry after being dismembered by Tony Soprano and eschewing Ralph’s horrible orange wig, does his usual shtick as the reporter Urich, and David Keith looks persuasively over-the-hill as Mudock’s doomed dad. But among the major players, only Colin Farrell, hamming things up mercilessly as Bullseye, relieves the general tedium; he’s allotted the three or four amusing lines of dialogue that Johnson’s been able to concoct, and even has fun swishing around the long coat he’s obliged to wear. But his is essentially a side-show routine, and even his final appearance, in a tacked-on joke during the end crawls, falls flat. A cameo by director Kevin Smith, playing a smarmy police lab technician, doesn’t work either: he’s a comic aficionado, of course, and has even penned some issues of the Daredevil title, so his appearance may tickle fanboys, but otherwise it’s an embarrassment. Actually, the most likable performer in the cast isn’t any of the above, but Scott Terra, who plays Murdock as a kid and exudes a good deal of the charisma that Affleck sadly lacks. But even his scenes in the first reel are weighed down by Johnson’s heavy approach, and the ponderousness only increases as the picture goes on. The seemingly endless tracking shots of the skyline and overused special-effects sequences showing us things from the perspective of Daredevil’s “radar” vision result in a picture that’s long on style and atmosphere but short on energy and verve. With its formulaic plot, banal dialogue, wooden performances, familiar effects and leaden direction, even when you watching it for the first time, it feels like a movie you’ve already seen.
One other point. For some reason “Daredevil” is cluttered with Catholic symbolism, from almost ubiquitous shots of crucifixes to climactic sequences set in bell towers and against stained-glass windows and episodes in which Murdock confesses to a priest in the sort of box that went out with the Second Vatican Council. (The Catholicism depicted in Hollywood movies is always half a century out of date.) One villain even suffers a fate that mimics the stigmata, raising his arms in a gesture of crucifixion so that it’s made even more apparent. All of this seems utterly gratuitous when it’s employed merely for visual effect–having such stuff in a picture so devoid of any spiritual element is like the cinematic equivalent of completely secular people who wear necklaces bearing silver crosses not out of any religious motive, but simply because it’s cool and trendy.
Most people won’t remember that there was an earlier effort to bring Daredevil to life on film. Back in 1989, the character was introduced in a television movie called “The Trial of the Incredible Hulk,” which brought Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno back as David Banner and his big green alter-ego after their successful series run. Rex Smith played Banner’s lawyer Murdock, who switched into an outfit reduced to basic black (without the horns, too) for his nocturnal battles against the Kingpin (John Rhys-Davies, now better known as Gimli in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy)–rather like the X-Men uniforms were simplified in Bryan Singer’s 2000 picture of that comic. But as a pilot, the concept went nowhere, and the Man Without Fear disappeared after that single adventure. A similar fate is likely to befall Affleck’s version of the character: Singer’s X-Men are about to reappear, and The Hulk will soon hit the big screen too (under Ang Lee’s hand, no less); another episode of Spider-Man is also inevitable. But thanks to the deficiencies of Johnson and Affleck, “Daredevil” is likely to be a one-shot deal again.