Daredevil (2003)

The idea of this entire opening is, you can’t trust what you see.
— Mark Steven Johnson, commentary track for Daredevil

Leather, zippers, boots. Like a lot of movies derived from comic books, Daredevil, now available on a chucky-full DVD from Fox, features a superhero who suits up as if for an elaborate s&m fantasy. When the Daredevil dons his outfit, the camera pays very close attention. The belt is buckled, the zipper’s zipped, the leather-hoodish mask with little devil horns atop is fitted snugly to his skull. As to the red leather bodysuit, well… it’s tight.

Daredevil/Matt Murdock has good reasons for the gear, and for the screwed-up attitude that goes with. For one thing, he suffers one of those comic book accidents that transform ordinary characters into superheroes. As a child (played by Scott Terra), Matt sees his alcoholic, cauliflower-eared dad, Jack (David Keith) beat down a chump in an alley (washed up as a prizefighter, he’s thugging for a notorious crime-boss). Horrified, Matt runs away, smack into a barrel of biohazardous waste, which splatters into his eyes and blinds him but also enhances his other senses. That is, he kills the speed-bag, leaps like a ninja, and hears everything, from far-off traffic to street corner conversations.

This hyped-up existence is obviously cool, but it’s also daunting (in particular, the unremitting super-hearing; as an adult, Matt spends his downtime in a sensory deprivation tank). As young Matt adjusts to his talents and limits, he hits speed bags (intercut with his dad being battered in the ring) and does handstands on building ledges; at this point, enthusiastic writer-director Mark Steven Johnson remarks on his entirely charming and often instructive audio commentary track, which he shares with producer Gary Foster, “You take a kid and you put him in peril, and it always works! I did it in Simon Birch too! Parents must hate this stuff.” But it’s not all bad: soon, as Johnson notes, the boy comes into his own, and as the “power” shifts between him and the local bullies, Johnson also helpfully points out the “dutching,” or the canted angles that grant a new perspective.

The DVD includes much instructive material, including something called “Enhanced viewing mode,” in which “Specially prepared multi-layered sequences” are accessible during the film. These include “behind the scenes looks at production, narrated by special effects producer John Kilkenny. As well, “text commentary” (as opposed to audio commentary) provides “extensive notes relating to” the film’s production and “the Marvel universe.” In fact, these notes are not that extensive, though you can read that Matt’s NYC rooftop workouts were “actually filmed on a rooftop in downtown Los Angeles,” and “The Braille code was invented by French 12-year-old Louis Braille (1809-1852).”

A second disk includes documentaries (“Hell’s Kitchen and Beyond: The Making of Daredevil” shows makeup, costume, production, and wire-fight designs; “The Men Without Fear: Creating Daredevil” is comprised of interviews with Daredevil comic writers, painters, pencillers, including Kevin Smith, who killed off Karen; “Moving Through Space: A Day With Tom Sullivan” documents the film’s blind advisor’s life), six production featurettes (“Shadow World Tour” walks you through the comic book; an HBO First Look glossies up the shoot), multi-angle dailies, some music videos (Fuel, the Calling, and that overplayed Evanescence track), and background on Kingpin (“You don’t think of him as being a fighter,” says Michael Clarke Duncan, “because you think he’s going to be slow”), among other items.

All this deep background ranges from engaging (Johnson and Gordon’s commentary) to bland (“Beyond Hell’s Kitchen”). And some of it resonates with repeated viewings of the film, and deciphering its better inclinations to represent Daredevil/Matt’s experience — his “vulnerability” that Johnson repeatedly mentions he “loves” (“I always wanted to open with, the idea of the superhero in trouble”; “Ben wore these contacts that really made him blind, so it’s great”) — but they do help you to appreciate the limits imposed on this particular production (Gordon and Johnson recall shooting the arming scene in their DP’s living room, giggling about how “independent” it makes them feel).

Matt’s own career is most determined most plainly by his father’s murder. Trying to resurrect his boxing career, Jack refuses to take a fall in the ring and suffers the inevitable consequences (one of the killers is Kane Hodder, Jason in the Friday the 13th movies). Or rather, Matt suffers. It’s standard that a dead dad makes a superhero angry and aggressive (see Batman, Spider-Man, Superman; also, note Stan Lee’s appearance on the sidewalk and bumping into Matt). For all the conventional thematics, however, Daredevil also goes an extra step. That is, Matt’s umbrage is complicated and exacerbated by his literal and metaphorical blindness. Sure, he thinks he’s seeking justice (he promises his dad always to help the needy). But you know he’s seeking vengeance, as well: ruthless, violent, and never cathartic enough.

And so, the familiar split: by day (as they say), Matt’s a lawyer, taking cases for the poor, abused, and innocent (and only the innocent). He works with a sighted buddy, Franklin (Jon Favreau), who provides some healthy comic/practical relief, worrying out loud and often that their two-man firm (with Ellen Pompeo as secretary, for fleet seconds) needs to make cash-money rather than the fish, liquor, and athletic equipment that their clients tend to use as payments.

By night, when moral lines are less distinct, Matt becomes Daredevil, vindictive and hardcore. He dons his leather (looking rather black here, rather than red, a condition resulting from some folks’ early anxiety about a foofy-seeming hero, “fear of the red devil costume,’ Johnson calls it). And he takes to the streets with the express aim of killing lawbreakers who get off in court (like its protagonist, the film seems convinced that the legal system is wholly corrupt). The scene that introduces Daredevil’s noxious leanings has him taking out after a rapist who has eluded his courtroom machinations earlier that day. He finds the culprit in a sleazy bar full of brutes with pool cues, then descends like hell’s fury, flipping as the camera spins, kicking and slamming all comers until the joint is strewn with bodies.

Amid this delirious choreography, the rapist escapes; Daredevil chases him out into the street and down into the subway, an appropriately underground stage for their showdown. And the execution is hard, a nasty fight on the platform that leaves the loser on the tracks, where he’s smashed by a train (Johnson and Gordon discuss the debate about this moment, concerns that the hero would leave a man to die: “It’s really ballsy, man,” says Johnson of his supporters at Fox). Returning home, Matt slumps and stumbles, briefly touching his dad’s boxing gloves (hanging on the wall as memento and talisman) as he enters his dim hallway. He downs a few Darvons and Percocets, then showers, whereupon you see his bloody wounds, bruises, and scars. In this frankly depressing aftermath, Daredevil looks less like a hero than a troubled and sadistic killer.

His gloomy psyche is mirrored in the film’s aesthetic scheme: incessantly wet and dreary, its urban exteriors suggest that Daredevil is of a piece with his environment rather than deviant. That is, though he keeps telling himself that he’s “not the bad guy,” increasingly, he looks like he is. As if in an effort to cleanse himself of his internal darkness, Matt makes regular visits to his Church, where he confesses to a priest (Derrick O’Connor). “You don’t want absolution,” observes the Father. “You want permission.” And, by the way, violence just begets more violence. Matt keeps framing his crusade as a test of some sort: “I’m not afraid,” he avers. “I’m afraid for you,” sighs the priest, “A man without fear is a man without hope.” Bingo.

Indeed, Daredevil’s known on the street as the Man Without Fear (mostly for all his webless, not to mention sightless, leaping between buildings — as Johnson suggests, this is part of the character’s appeal, his obvious and alarming vulnerability combined with sheer nerve). Looking for clues his grisly murder scenes, the cops and a New York Post reporter, Urich (Joe Pantoliano, whom Gordon calls a “good luck charm” because all his movies are hits), mutter about his motive and his pattern. For instance, he tends to leave a sign behind, serial-killer-like, namely, his initials in flammable gas (Johnson remember that the first attempt at this effect left the top of one D unburning, so it looked like “UD,” suggesting that maybe Underdog had come to the rescue).

Such histrionics aside, it’s clear that Matt is looking, in his way, for a killer rep, and Urich is happy enough to help, to exploit the pain. Matt wants to spread that pain in another way, specifically, to face his father’s killer. And how fortunate that said killer, a large bald-headed fellow, Wilson Fisk, also called the Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan), is available. In repeated interviews, Duncan is asked to address the fact that the character is white in the circa-’60s original comic books. Duncan typically answers, as he did for the Denver Post, “Back then, you would never have thought about a black man playing Kingpin. But this is 2003 and it’s a new world, a new day, and this is more acceptable.”

Perhaps to that multicultural end, Kingpin’s psychotic hired assassin, Bullseye (Colin Farrell), is definitively Irish. Summoned by Kingpin while carousing in a pub, he’s introduced listening to the “House of Pain Anthem,” to indicate his Irishness: “I’m moppin’ up the comp / That’s short for competition / I write my lyrics like / The Irish mob in Hell’s Kitchen.” Got it. He’s also into pain. And he’s got this penchant for throwing things; hence the name, and the bullseye branded into his forehead. He’ll throw anything — darts, pencils, airplane peanuts, Daredevil’s fancy-equipped blade-in-a-cane — in order to slay his victims by painful penetration (his bartender in this first scene says something mean about him being Irish, and he dies an excruciating death, choking with a bunch of needles in his throat.

Daredevil and Bullseye, in other words, are quite a good match, both damaged and quarrelsome boys looking to get even with the world. They are temporarily distracted — as is everyone in the film’s audience — by the appearance of Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner), whose name, Franklin observes, sounds like a “Mexican appetizer.” She’s got her own stuff to deal with, namely, a Greek gazillionaire dad, murdered when he tries to leave a crooked business and ends up dead. Yes, this sounds a lot like Matt’s situation, and yes, she develops a thirst for vengeance as well.

It’s not clear what Elektra does, exactly, aside from look terrific and kick up a martial arts storm, but she does both expertly. Her first encounter with Matt has them leaping and wireworking all over a playground, using the seesaws and observed by a crowd of black kids (more multiculturalism). Their mutual fondness for showing off, as well as for proving dominance, makes this couple both perfect and unusual: girls in comic books are usually rescued, repeatedly. (As Garner confided to Conan O’Brien on 14 February 2003, their stunts had consequences, and she, with her background on Alias, knew enough to seal wounds with Krazy Glue: “I Krazy Glued Ben all over the place,” she smiled.)

At the same time, because Matt is so messed up he can’t give up the secret identity, Elektra’s encounter with Daredevil (whom she believes killed her father, due to some plot contrivances) is not at all friendly. Performed at night over a series of rooftops, they dodge and slash their ways through someone’s drying laundry, an army’s worth of white sheets fluttering like ghosts between them. It’s a gorgeous concept, and less dependent on CGI than some of the cornier bits of business. When he insists that he did not kill her father, she’s enraged: “Liar!” hisses, just before she leaps on him, scary martial arts blades extended.

Like most every other relationship Matt has, this one is premised on violence and suffering; their firelit love scene has her responding, silently and sweetly, to the many scars on his back. Still, she’s right, he is a liar. And while the confessions and the lonely nights make Matt look like he’s fretting about his duplicities, he never really changes his basic attitude: he’s into the pain, his own and everyone else’s.

Instead, he remains pretty much bent on payback, right down to the film’s big finales with Bullseye and Kingpin. The change comes in you, presumably — by the time he’s battling Psycho Assassin and Extreme Capitalist at film’s end, you’re happy to see him exact retribution. It’s a grim, wholly familiar place to be in an action movie, to feel thrilled by abuse and carnage. That Daredevil makes you pay for it, even a little, is to its credit.

It’s unlikely that this gloominess accounts for Daredevil‘s big success. There are any number of plausible explanations — the “Sexiest Man Alive” and his J. Lo glow, the promotional blitz, the Marvel machine. No matter. Bring the pain.