The recent release of Elektra: Director’s Cut on Blu-Ray has gone more or less unnoticed. This is largely because the 2005 film, one of several disastrous efforts to bring super-heroics to the screen in recent years, earned almost universal contempt. Critics shoveled disdain on the Daredevil spin-off and audiences, the few it found, had really no idea what was going on from the first frame to the closing credits.
Most of Elektra’s viewership probably had very limited familiarity with the Marvel comics character Elektra that Frank Miller created during his legendary 1979-1983 run on Daredevil. In Miller’s imagining (which he discusses in one of this Blu-Ray’s featurettes), Elektra was meant to be operatic in the range and power of her character, a female action hero able to stand toe to toe with the male “lead” not only in her ability to dispense violence but in her character’s inner complexity and nuance.
Elektra’s name, of course telegraphs her central trauma, the death of her father at the hands of a crime syndicate. Although not exactly a dexterous use of symbolism, Elektra worked on a number of levels and quickly became one of the most beloved, and certainly one of the most original characters, in the Marvel Universe.
In a thoughtful twist on one of the central conceits of the genre, her father’s death does not turn her into a superhero that swears vengeance on the underworld. Instead, she herself becomes a skilled assassin with little respect for human life.
Perhaps most compelling, Elektra’s death is at the center of her mythology. In a classic series of comic panels in Daredevil #181 (one of the more valuable single issues from the 1980s), Elektra and her nemesis Bullseye fight it out in an intricate ballet that ends with the hero stabbed with her own sais, her weapons of choice.
In those days before comics became a panorama of brutal violence with characters who died and resurrected with predictable regularity, the death of Elektra affected comics fans in a way few events have done (the infamous death of Spider-man/Peter Parker’s love interest Gwen Stacey is the only other example from this era that comes to mind). Although Elektra has had numerous resurrections and incarnations since the 1980s, many of these have themselves been brilliant explorations of the multi-faceted character. Frank Miller himself returned to his prodigy in Elektra: Assassin and Elektra Lives Again.
In other words, the filmmakers cannot claim they had shoddy source material. What they did with that source material feels less like an imaginative failure and more of an outright desecration. The Elektra we are presented with is an assassin with OCD whose peculiar obsessions are supposed to be read as part of her darkness and complexity, but actually just makes her appear weak. Even worse, she seems less haunted by the death of her father than simply wounded. This shows grave disrespect not only for this character and for women in the genre more generally. Why does Batman get to be haunted and psychotic while Elektra seems only whiny and needy?
Speaking of being needy, the film’s greatest crime against this character is to create a redemption story in which Elektra, the cold-hearted assassin, learns to embrace her maternal side. The film introduces the character of Abbey into Elektra’s life, a young girl who has as many “midichlorians” (or whatever) as Elektra and so becomes a target for the secret criminal organization known as the The Hand. Elektra, presented to us as the archetypal “frosty bitch,” learns extra-fuzzy-mommy-love and falls in love with an average guy who she would seem to literally no reason to have an interest in, romantic or otherwise.
The exploration of Elektra forming human attachments borrows from a beautifully realized graphic novel by Greg Rucka and Yoshitaka Amano called Elektra and Wolverine: The Redeemer . Rucka, with Amano’s art that turned Elektra into a wispy spectre of death, pulled this off and allowed the character to form a connection without forming an emotional attachment. Elektra the film squanders this possibility by creating a narrative of “Career girl wonders if she made the right choice and longs for a family”. I kept waiting for Garner to interrupt ninja combat by banging her foot on the ground and yelling, “Meanwhile, my biological clock is ticking and ticking…”
Surprisingly, the new Blu-Ray special features do contain at least one great treat for Elektra fans. “Mythology: Incarnations” provides a history of Elektra’s creators and their engagement with the character. We hear not only from Frank Miller but from Brian Michael Bendis who re-launched the character in a compelling series. A very insightful interview with Greg Rucka gives some sense of the complexity of Elektra’s character and how much there is to explore.
Another strong, rather short, featurette, “Blood Feud”, offers a very detailed discussion of the role of the original Elektra in Athenian drama. Katerina Zacharia, professor of Greek Studies at Loyola Marymount University is our guide to the classical Elektra. Unfortunately, we don’t get to hear from Frank Miller on his decision to make use of the classical tragedy as his inspiration.
Extras also include production and post-production featurettes including a revealing moment in which director Rob Bowman notes that there was “nothing that he could watch” to provide inspiration and guidance in crafting the film since no one had done the character before on film. This is an interesting contrast to the interviews with comic artists who talk in detail about the powerful cultural symbolisms that helped shape their vision and handling of Elektra (including, for Brian Michael Bendis, Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name”).
Fans who saw or will see this film will be rightfully angry at what was done to this character. Elektra could, and should, have been a game-changing superhero flick. It could have explored the darkness lurking beneath the tights and capes genre in a way similar to what Christopher Nolan has been able to do with the Batman franchise. At the very least, the film should have been a love letter to a significant character in the comic’s canon and to a central moment in comic’s history. Instead it’s an effort to cash in on some fanboy love with shmaltzy special effects, stilted emoting in the style of the worst relationship melodramas and Jennifer Garner in what is supposed to be Elektra’s iconic red costume but that looks more like the cheesiest thing in the Fredericks of Hollywood catalog. Elektra deserved better.