The 2003 pre-MCU “Daredevil” avoided the inglorious fate endured by “Catwoman,” “Green Lantern” and “Supergirl.”
Just barely, though.
Ben Affleck’s Marvel’s Man Without Fear gets little appreciation in modern geek circles. That’s a shame given how much it got right without the bells, whistles and cash of the modern MCU.
A pre-Batfleck Ben plays Matt Murdoch, the blind superhero who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “quit.” His super-senses guide the way, shown via an ingenious blast of FX.
Only we need to learn “how” he earned those superpowers, which means a primer on past-his-prime fighter Jack Murdock (David Keith). It’s a perfunctory, but solid flashback told as briskly as needed.
Now, the adult Daredevil must grapple with three intriguing souls.
Michael Clarke Duncan’s Kingpin offered an early example of colorblind casting, and it’s as perfect a choice as possible. Duncan not only physically compares to the Marvel supervillain but captures his cunning sway over Hell’s Kitchen.
Next up? Colin Farrell’s Bullseye, played with crackpot glee by the Irish actor. He’s one-dimensional but as vicious as any mid-level baddie.
And then we have Elektra. Jennifer Garner gets a thumbnail sketch for a back story, one of many ways “Daredevil” deserved to be longer. She still has plenty of romantic, and athletic, chemistry with Affleck’s Matt Murdoch.
Her inclusion connects as intended without seeming like super-stunt casting.
“Daredevil” moves like lighting thanks to a streamlined narrative and parts likely left behind in the editing room. This critic hasn’t watched the longer Director’s Cut, although its court subplot featuring Coolio sounds unnecessary on the surface.
Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson nails the Sam Raimi-like visuals from the era’s comic book adaptations. A few scenes, though, ape the cinematography we see in the genre today. Johnson’s screenplay is a hit or miss affair, bouncing from cliches to fleeting inspiration.
The grittier flourishes, something vital to the character, all land.
Consider how Matt sleeps in a sensory depravation tank or how he yanks out a tooth after a furious fight. Matt Murdoch isn’t ready for his superhero closeup in the Superman mold. His flashes of Catholic guilt help explain why.
It all moves so fast you want something more, either richer character development or just more time in Hell’s Kitchen. That’s a sign the film has you in its grip, even if it sounds like a damning statement.
Affleck remains a curiosity in front of the camera. He’s movie-star handsome then, and now, but occasionally a poor fit for the material in play.
Then again, who could emerge triumphant from “Surviving Christmas?”
Ben Affleck as Daredevil in Daredevil. Dir.Mark Steven Johnson (2003) pic.twitter.com/XhfLcNaY2D
— best of ben affleck (@BstOfAffleck) October 31, 2020
Recent films like “The Way Back” show Affleck growing, albeit slowly, in ways that suggest a rich second career act in the Kevin Costner/Pierce Brosnan mold.
Here, he’s hardly the ultimate choice but sturdy enough to anchor the material. Netflix’s “Daredevil” delivered a superior Matt Murdoch in Charlie Cox, but Affleck isn’t as miscast as, say, Brie Larson in “Captain Marvel.”
“Daredevil” doesn’t skimp on slick fight sequences, offers one surprising death scene and nails the hero’s unique approach to crime fighting.
The film lacks embarrassing sequences, eye-rolling yuks or other tropes from previous super stumbles.
Those eager for strong supporting players can feast on fine turns by both Jon Favreau (future “Iron Man” co-star/director) and Joe Pantoliano.
There’s a lot to admire about “Daredevil” even while acknowledging its flaws. Here’s betting the film’s critics might have a good time if they watched it with fresh eyes today.