Studio Meddling Ensured That Most Never Saw the Best Version of ‘Daredevil’

In attempting to re-edit Daredevil to fit the Spider-Man mold, Fox turned a pretty decent film into a muddled mess.

Eight and a half months after the release of 2002’s Spider-Man, on Valentine’s Day, the next Marvel superhero film was released. An agile, red-suited superhero that swings over New York City, Daredevil certainly seemed like a character primed to take full advantage of the post-Spider-Man comic book film craze. But the distributer, Fox, was not taking any chances. The studio raised the budget of the in-production film from $50- to $80-million and requested it be modified to qualify for a PG-13 rating rather than the planned R rating. The resulting theatrical release was a muddled mess, and disappointed fans of the character were immediately promised a Director’s Cut that would hew closer to the original vision of the film.

By analyzing and comparing the Daredevil Director’s Cut and the Daredevil Theatrical Cut, we have the rare opportunity to explore how studio meddling changed the course of a film. At the end of the day, the filmmakers behind Daredevil may rue the fact that their movie was released in the wake of Spider-Man‘s enormous success.

The character of Matt Murdock/Daredevil was first introduced in Daredevil #1 (April 1964), created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett with input from Jack Kirby. At that point, Marvel Comics had been enjoying increasing success in the comics market, having introduced a large swath of original, deeply human and flawed characters over the previous few years. With Daredevil, Marvel made the bold move of introducing a superhero with a disability: blindness. Matt grew up in the rough-and-tumble neighbourhood of Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, raised by his boxer father. Matt is accidentally blinded by radioactive material, but his other senses are heightened to a superhuman degree, allowing him to control his body and experience the world in unique ways. While he’s in college, Matt’s father is killed by gangsters for refusing to throw a boxing match. Seeking justice by any means, Matt trains himself to become a lawyer by day and vigilante by night. Despite the uniqueness of his power and the compelling moral conflict between his personas, Daredevil did not enjoy the same success as its contemporaries in the ’60s and ’70s, and was viewed as a secondary Marvel property.

That changed in the ’80s, largely due to the efforts of Frank Miller. Along with the likes of Alan Moore (V For Vendetta, Watchmen) and Art Spiegelman (Maus), Miller is one of the handful of comics creators credited with legitimizing and elevating the comics artform during the ’80s, mostly with his groundbreaking work on Batman (Year One, The Dark Knight Returns). But the seeds of Miller’s Batman work were found in his runs on Daredevil, which Miller turned into a gritty, noir-ish crime comic book. Miller introduced many popular elements to the Daredevil mythos, introducing Matt’s college girlfriend turned assassin Elektra, adding a ninja element to his stories, layering in Matt’s Catholic faith and guilt, and making New York’s Kingpin of Crime, a Spider-Man villain, a major villain in the book.

He also penned the controversial murder of Elektra at the hands of Bullseye in Daredevil #181, a sequence that would be recreated shot-for-shot in the Daredevil film. The comic declined in popularity once again in the late-’80s and ’90s, but Marvel had now identified its niche. In one of its efforts to recover from bankruptcy, Marvel Editorial launched a new, more mature imprint entitled Marvel Knights in late 1998. Daredevil was a lead title for the imprint, with a high-profile first story written by indie filmmaker Kevin Smith (who cameos in Daredevil) and drawn by Joe Quesada. Led by Daredevil, Marvel Knights would be so successful that Quesada was soon named editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics. In the early ’00s, leading up to the film, Brian Michael Bendis took over Daredevil for a very popular run.

This recent success in comics made Daredevil an attractive property for a film adaptation at a time when comic book films began to take over Hollywood. Unfortunately, what was initially conceived as an adaptation, both in tone and specific events of Daredevil’s more successful stories, was soon caught up in the wave of post-Spider-Man excitement, compromising the vision for the film. The Director’s Cut, released on home video in late 2004, is likely not an exact representation of the original vision for Daredevil, but it is close. I will review that film, and then detail the major changes made to the Theatrical Cut, trying to understand the reasoning for the changes.

Daredevil The Director’s Cut

Daredevil begins with its title character, apparently near-death after a recent fight, seeking sanctuary in a Catholic Church. As a priest tends to his wounds, Matt Murdock reflects on the events that led him to that moment. He grew up in a rough neighbourhood with his washed-up boxer father. When Matt, shocked to discover his father works for a local gangster, runs right into his accident, their lives change. Recovering, Matt learns to use his new abilities, while his father starts a boxing comeback. These early scenes of the film are quite affecting. They effectively sell the father-son relationship that will fuel Matt’s future self, and self-destruction. However, after his father refuses to throw a fight, he’s beaten to death by an unseen enforcer and left to die in a back alley. This brutal, violent end to the origin story certainly sets a different tone for the film than that of Spider-Man. Uncle Ben was shot off-screen in a random carjacking, then sadly dies holding on to his nephew’s hand surrounded by a crowd of onlookers. Jack ‘The Devil’ Murdock is viciously beaten on-screen, and is found by his blind son alone in an alley, as if no one cares.

The film then jumps to an adult Matt Murdock, portrayed well by Ben Affleck. Matt Murdock/Daredevil as portrayed in the film is in the middle of his career and maybe thinking about the end of it. He’s battered and bruised, the effects of his nightly work showing in his scarred flesh, his creaky bones, and his dour attitude. He pops painkillers and sleeps in a sensory deprivation tank to give him peace from the horrors of the city that his enhanced hearing relentlessly detects all around him. Matt and his partner Franklin ‘Foggy’ Nelson spend their days defending the downtrodden and innocent in court, while Matt spends his nights doling out justice to criminals who beat the system. Daredevil makes the bold choice to introduce its hero as a cynical figure who has lost his way. The first crime-fighting sequence, in which Daredevil hunts down an acquitted rapist, ends with him cracking wise as his prey is run over by a subway train. This is certainly not Spider-Man. This is harsh and serious.

But then again, it’s not totally serious. Daredevil often undercuts the seriousness with unintentional silliness, and the tonal shifts are not welcome. Daredevil, for example, jumps around the city like Spider-Man, despite being only a regular human with enhanced senses. The film depicts his knees painfully cracking as he emerges from his tank then, five minutes later, shows Daredevil diving off of a 30-story building onto a window-washing platform. Such a move would, conservatively, shatter the bones in his legs. The film cannot have it both ways: a hero who gets realistically injured, and characters with no special powers flying around rooftops with ease.

The film also features two ridiculously over-the-top villains in the forms of Kingpin and Bullseye. The Kingpin, played by a game Michael Clarke Duncan, fronts as a top-tier businessman while secretly ruling all of New York’s criminal underworld. He’s the kind of villain who brutally murders his own bodyguards in his first scene because … he wants the film audience to know how tough he is? The Kingpin’s character seems less over-the-top only as compared to Colin Farrell’s Bullseye, who chews every last bit of scenery. Bullseye turns any mundane object into a deadly weapon with his throwing skills. He also intimidates dogs, growls at rats, kills talkative old ladies with peanuts, and really likes saying his own name. These characters have no nuance, no motivation, besides being bad.

Over-the-top villains have always been a part of superhero culture. On film, this cliché reached its zenith when Jack Nicholson’s Joker stole the show from Michael Keaton’s Batman in Batman (1989). For the rest of that series, actors such as Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Uma Thurman and Arnold Schwarzenegger seemed to be in an unacknowledged competition to see who could overact in their villainous roles better than the rest. Marvel Films ,up to this point, seemed to be avoiding the Villain Problem, however. However, it stepped right up to the line of over-the-top villain with Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin in Spider-Man. That film was saved, in my opinion, by its unerring focus on the main character and by Dafoe’s surprising conviction. Daredevil flies right over the line, however, undercutting fine work on its realistic, beaten down hero with cartoonish villains. Superhero films deserve a better class of criminal, and Marvel seemed to be providing it — until Daredevil.

As the plot of the film unfolds, Matt and Foggy take the case of Dante Jackson, played by Coolio, an ex-con accused of killing a prostitute. Their investigation finds them crossing paths with Ben Urich, a semi-sleazy journalist from the New York Post who has been working to expose such myths as the existence of Daredevil and the Kingpin. Finally, Matt meets Elektra Natchios, played by Jennifer Garner, who, after an incredibly silly and poorly choreographed dance/fight in a playground, he recognizes as a kindred spirit. Elektra represents a possible way out, a reason to stop, in Matt’s endless cycle of violence. But then things fall apart. To quickly finish the plot summary: The Kingpin, concerned by Urich’s reporting, frames his partner, Elektra’s father, for his crimes. He hires Bullseye to kill Elektra’s father, but Elektra blames Daredevil. Meanwhile, Foggy and Urich’s investigations come together, and they gather enough evidence for police to identify and arrest the actual Kingpin. But first, Elektra must fight Daredevil, Elektra must fight Bullseye, Bullseye must fight Daredevil, and finally Daredevil must fight Kingpin.

Elektra v Daredevil (© 2003 Twentieth Century Fox / IMDB)

The fights are interesting. They are at times visceral and violent, and at other times silly and unrealistic. The most brutal, uncompromising fight is, of course, between Elektra and Bullseye. Adapted directly from the pages of Daredevil #181 (April 1982), I once heard the fight described as the superhero version of a rape/murder. Bullseye taunts Elektra as he beats her, before thrusting one of her own sai weapons through her, kissing her, then tossing her aside. The scene is shocking, brutal, horrific, and it deserves a better film around it. It provides yet another example of the type of R-rated film that was originally intended, but Daredevil undercuts it with cartoonish action elsewhere.

Case in point: the very next fight catches up to the opening of the film, as Daredevil and Bullseye fight on and around a church organ. They fly around the pipes as CGI figures with no weight, and the size of the organ varies from normal to the size of a skyscraper. Bullseye smashes a small stained-glass window, impossibly catches two large piles of shards, then somehow hurls them at Daredevil, who dodges every last one with backflips. This particular gag mirrors a fight between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin in Spider-Man, where the tone of the fight fit much better. The fight ends with Bullseye striking a Christ-pose after being shot through the hands, then Daredevil throwing him out of a window. And yes, he quips “Bullseye” when the villain lands on Urich’s car. There’s no better example of the jarring tonal shifts in this film than the contrast between the Bullseye/Elektra and the Bullseye/Daredevil fights. One is haunting and brutal, the next is campy and weightless.

The film ends with Matt refusing to kill the Kingpin, which is meant to indicate that he has pulled himself back from the cynical brink and regained his soul. Of course, given that he killed a rapist earlier in the film, beat a low-level mob enforcer in front of his son and, minutes earlier, threw Bullseye out of a high window, one wonders how much Matt has really grown. Given the fact that the Kingpin runs all of the crime in the city and is revealed to be the man who murdered Matt’s father, it seems odd and sequel-baiting to leave the Kingpin alive.

As I mentioned, the Daredevil Director’s Cut is an imperfect film, with wild tonal shifts, over-the-top villains, and an over-reliance on CGI and wire effects, but it has a lot going for it. It attempted to tell a hard-edged, R-rated, faithful adaptation of Daredevil, which was a noble effort. Affleck nails the title character, while Jon Favreau’s Foggy, Joe Pantoliano’s Ben Urich, and David Keith’s Jack Murdock are warm, likable supporting characters. But, unfortunately, this noble failure was not the version of the film seen by most audiences.

Daredivil The Theatrical Cut

Again, hoping to bolster its potential success in the wake of Spider-Man, Fox added an additional $30 million to Daredevil’s $50 million budget. But this money came with a few strings attached. Three to be exact: make the film PG-13, expand the Matt/Elektra romance, and shorten the 133-minute running time.

PG-13, of course, increases the potential audience for a film, allowing teenagers to attend without adult supervision. This is a common practice for studios over the past 20 years, leading to depictions of violence without blood, horror films without teeth, and less sex and cursing than the Bible in most Hollywood blockbusters. Spider-Man certainly didn’t start this trend, nor did it completely kill the R-rated comic book film. Fox and other studios were certainly aiming for the Spider-Man model, however, and that established a trend. In the coming years, The Punisher (2004), Blade: Trinity (2004), Constantine (2005) and Sin City (2005) would keep the R-rated comic book film alive, but it would not be until Deadpool (2016) that one would be successful enough for studios to seriously question the PG-13 model. What did that mean for Daredevil? Basically, all of the swearing was cut out, including one awkward scene where Bullseye says “I want a fucking costume”, but is poorly dubbed with “bloody” instead. The violence in the fights was cut way down, meaning less hitting and blood, more wire-assisted leaps. The hard edges were shaved off, making the silliness even more apparent than in the Director’s Cut.

The increased focus on the romance subplot was the clearest example of Spider-Man-related meddling. Spider-Man was presented as a “story about a girl”, and the romance between Peter and Mary Jane was heavily baked into the plot. In the Daredevil Director’s Cut, Elektra appears as a glimmer of hope for Matt, something to strive for instead of endless vengeance. But they spend tragically little time together before Bullseye kills her father, and then her. The love is left unrequited, Matt made more isolated. In the Theatrical Cut, they have extra scenes together. They happily stroll through New York one afternoon and sleep together in a scene straight out of the cheesy sex scene playbook — the camera pans to a roaring fire in the fireplace. Besides adding unnecessary cheesiness to the film, these scenes also serve to make Matt less brooding and alone, undercutting his struggles. The time added by the inclusion of these scenes also meant that even more needed to be cut from the rest of the film.

This posed a serious problem. The Director’s Cut of the film leaves it extremely plot-heavy and very nearly overstuffed. Sadly, to meet the requirements of a shorter running time, the filmmakers excised the entire subplot involving the Dante Jackson case. This subplot demonstrated Matt’s work as a lawyer, featured the majority of Favreau’s performance as Foggy, and included much of the tremendous, bantering chemistry between Affleck and Favreau. The subplot also featured one of two scenes with Ellen Pompeo’s Karen Page who, correct me if I’m wrong, is the only female character besides Elektra with a speaking role! The excised subplot also details the take-down of the Kingpin which, in the Theatrical Cut, literally comes out of nowhere. In the commentary on the Director’s Cut, director Mark Steven Johnson admits that things occur for seemingly no reason in the third act of the Theatrical Cut. Extra scenes with Matt’s priest and Ben Urich were added into the Theatrical Cut, clearly in an attempt to explain what was happening in the eviscerated new version of the film. They do not help, however, and the film that greeted audiences was a muddled mess.

Besides the PG-13 rating and the increased romance, Daredevil demonstrates the impact of Spider-Man in a few other ways. As mentioned before, Daredevil leaps around the city with Spider-Man-like agility, despite not having the powers to do so. When young Matt is doused in biochemical waste, the film shifts to a CGI interior of his optic nerve that mirrors Peter Parker’s transformation in Spider-Man. Finally, the film features a soundtrack heavy with radio rock such as Nickelback, Seether, and Evanescence, similar to the successful Spider-Man soundtrack. Fox and the filmmakers wear their recent influences on their sleeve, but Daredevil‘s unique, original vision is nearly lost in the process.

For an extra $30 million, Fox got its PG-13 rating, the added romance, and a shorter film. It also got a movie that made little sense, and the silliness overwhelmed the already-diminished hard-edge of the original version. Daredevil was not a grand success. Critics and audiences were not particularly pleased with the film they saw, and it floundered at the box office. It ultimately earned less than a quarter of Spider-Man‘s final gross. Is it possible that the harder-edged, R-rated, more complete (but still flawed) original version of the film would have been more successful? That’s impossible to know for sure. I believe it would have been much better received, at least.

If I ever watch this film again, I will watch the far-superior Director’s Cut. Financially, the bar for success on the film would have been lower if Fox didn’t have to recoup its additional $30-million investment. Studio meddling is still rampant in comic book films, particularly at Marvel Studios, but they are at least more upfront about it. Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, has done an admirable job of hiring newer directors with talent and vision, but it’s clear that the only vision that matters belongs to him. Filmmakers decide whether to opt into his oversight, rather than have massive studio notes dropped on them like Fox did to Daredevil‘s filmmakers in late 2002.

Daredevil the character had a long road back to screens after this film and has yet to appear in another theatrical release. After a failed spin-off for Elektra in 2005, Fox considered many different approaches before defaulting the rights back to Marvel in October 2012. Rather than introduce the character in its Cinematic Universe, Marvel Studios used Daredevil to launch its shared universe of Netflix shows in April 2015, reaffirming the importance of the property to Marvel. The Netflix shows have served as a harder-edged version of the MCU, not unlike the Marvel Knights comic imprint. Despite that recent success, however, Daredevil is the first Marvel property to flunk out of films in this era. Unfortunately, it was not the last.

Stan Lee Cameo Corner: Lee appears briefly as a man reading a newspaper that a young, newly blind Matt prevents from walking into traffic. This is a reference to Daredevil’s comic book origin, where Matt loses his accident is the result of pushing an old man out of the way of traffic.

Credits Scene(s): In a first for a Marvel film, a scene appears in the credits. The mid-credits scene depicts Bullseye recovering in hospital, and retaining his throwing skills. In the Director’s Cut, this scene is featured in the body of the film during a closing montage.

First Appearances: Mark Steven Johnson would return to the Marvel films as the writer/director of Ghost Rider (2007).Jon Favreau joins the Marvel world in a supporting role. Connections made while on set of Daredevil ultimately led to Favreau being hired to direct Iron Man (2008), the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Next Time: Marvel’s merry band of mutants return to the big screen with a practically perfect sequel.