Daredevil (2003)


In 1965, The Amazing Spider-Man #16 featured the story, “Spidey Battles Daredevil.” It was one of the first, and one of Marvel Comics’ most successful, crossover features, pitting superhero against superhero. At the time, Daredevil and Spider-Man were among the biggest stars in Marvel’s stable of costumed crusaders. As usual in such match-ups, neither actually won out over the other; instead, they ended up battling a third, villainous figure (in this issue, “The Ringmaster”).

This link between the heroes makes it seem appropriate that Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil comes hot on the heels of last summer’s blockbuster Spider-Man, preceding a number of upcoming films based on comics (Ang Lee’s Hulk, Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One, and Stephen Norrington’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). In the box office battle between The Man Without Fear and the Web-Slinger, who will win? Likely, as in the comics, neither, but both will win huge audiences.

Daredevil follows the outline of most superhero comics: attorney Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck) has a secret identity, Daredevil, who protects the citizens of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. Blinded as a boy by a chemical accident (in the comics, he’s exposed to radioactive material) that heightened all his other senses, Daredevil was the comics industry’s first superhero with a disability.

Marvel’s representation of disability as far back as the ’60s was decidedly progressive. Then as now, Matt Murdock/Daredevil’s blindness is not something to be pitied or overcome. Still, Daredevil’s superhero status may at first appear to dovetail with what recent scholars in disability studies, like Rosemarie Garland Thomson, have called the “supercrip” model. That is to say, he becomes the object of a presumably able-bodied spectator’s patronizing celebration of the disabled individual’s “perseverance.”

But in Daredevil’s case, this attitude is mitigated by the fact that his blindness is not “limiting” in any way. He interacts with the world just as completely as his able-bodied peers. His disability is not the entirety of his identity; it is no more or less important to Matt Murdock/Daredevil than his intellect, morality, or skills in the martial arts.

The good news is that Johnson’s Daredevil follows Marvel’s disability politics, and even adds detail to represent his (and real blind people’s) experience. In one scene, when Matt is first romancing Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner), he asks that she stand with him as it begins to rain. As the individual raindrops hit her, a solid object, he perceives her differently than in dry weather: this is one of the ways in which he can “see” her.

The water hits in slow motion, representing Matt’s sensory perception. It’s a compelling special effect, but it does go on a bit too long. And it exemplifies what’s annoying about Daredevil: it’s a little too enamored with its own FX. That and the fact that it plods along for the first half-hour.

In part, this laborious start has to do with the film’s requisite exposition of Daredevil’s “origin myth.” Growing up with a single, working-class father, the young Matt (Scott Terra) is concerned about rumors on the playground that dad is hired muscle for some local thugs. Matt tries to answer the gossip with his fists, and fails. Jack Murdock (David Keith) denies the accusations, and urges his son not to fight, but to study hard and make something of himself.

In fact, Jack is actually working as a strongman, and Matt’s of this leads directly to his accident. The truth behind his father’s lie is, he says in voice-over, “the last thing I ever saw.” Cut to present day, when Matt works by day as an attorney, representing NYC’s disadvantaged, and protects the streets by night. Unfortunately, his dedication compels Matt/Daredevil to spout platitudes about justice being “blind” and “served.”

All of which brings us back to the rain-droppy moment with Elektra. Matt’s burgeoning romance with her brings him to the “truth.” As it happens, her father, Nikolas Natchios (Erick Avari), works for Daredevil’s primary adversary, Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan). When Nikolas tries to quit, Kingpin hires the psychopathic assassin Bullseye (Colin Farrell) to finish off both Nickolas and Elektra, a martial arts diva in her own right, as well as a rumored assassin.

As Elektra’s ambiguity suggests, Matt/Daredevil’s absolute belief in good and bad needs to be complicated. When he beats up one of Kingpin’s hired hands (Kane Hodder) in front of his little boy (Luke Strode), the scene replicates one where young Matt has seen his father roughing up someone. Though Daredevil tells the boy that he’s “not the bad guy,” he certainly looks like one to the child. This leads to a number of questions. Was Daredevil’s father a “bad guy”? Has his lifelong motivation been justice or vengeance? If Elektra is some sort of assassin, does that make her “bad”? Or is she “bad” by association with her father?

Such questions are true to the film’s source. As the story goes, in the ’60s, Marvel transformed the superhero genre by having its characters acknowledge and embody moral ambiguity. Unlike their self-righteous DC Comics counterparts (like Superman, standing up for “truth, justice and the American way”), Marvel’s heroes were full of self-doubt, reflecting the uncertainty of many U.S. readers during the ’60s and ’70s.

This complication of truth, justice, and right has renewed urgency in the U.S. today, under an administration that traffics in black-and-white notions of the same in its increasingly confrontational war rhetoric. In addition to its progressive disability politics, Daredevil stages critical moral doubts, challenging us to extend these questions into our daily lives.