Elektra (Jennifer Garner) prefers red. Oh yes, she owns the requisite assassin’s skintight blackness, and her weapons of choice — all piercing implements, from tridents and stars to swords and knives — gleam fierce silver. But her favorite look is scarlet: bustier, leggings, boots with heels, as well as a wind-catching cape or, when she’s feeling (relatively) demure, a scarf so sinuous it seems almost to breathe. And she has red lips, too: brilliant, blood red.
Now starring in her own movie (following the generally dismal effort called Daredevil, in which she was, by the way, killed), Elektra is all rage, careening between hyper-organization (she arranges her bananas so they all point the same way) and finely honed, utterly scary violence. Her range is delimited by her rage. The girl is mad at everyone and everything, a family-tortured soul to rival Batman, Hellboy, or the similarly resurrected Catwoman. She’s mad she was dead, mad she’s alive. She’s mad that her mother (Jana Mitsoula) was murdered, that her father was a control freak, and that her father figure (a blind sensei named Stick [Terence Stamp]) kicks her out of training facility because she’s too angry. So now she kills people for money. And if she doesn’t enjoy it, well, at least she’s distracted.
But only briefly. The problem for Elektra is that she’s never quite free of the past, as she spends much of her time in Elektra flashbacking to the various traumas that have brought her to this pretty pass (one particularly disturbing image has her child self lying across her mom’s corpse, but none recalls precisely her own death, in front of that blind boyfriend in the red suit). Her first appearance makes clear most all of this, as she penetrates all the security devices and bodyguards some rich guy (Jason Isaacs) has assembled in a vain effort to ward off his doom. When she arrives, the electricity goes wrong, the automatic weaponry proves useless, and the assassin, initially obscured by artful shadows, takes out everyone in sight. When her agent, a smart-ass named McCabe (Colin Cunningham), shows up to pay her, Elektra’s on her hands and knees, scrubbing the crime scene. He worries about her obsessiveness; she says she’s only eliminating DNA (in fact, she’s got OCD).
But film argues otherwise. Despite her valiant front, Elektra can’t separate personal from professional problems (when she tells one victim her name, he nods, sagely: “Elektra, like the tragedy. Your parents must have had a sense of humor.” She looks at him straight-on: “Not really”). Instead, like most superheroes, she’s working out her issues by taking them out on the world at large. And because she’s a terrifically skilled and trained killer (she can sort of bend time when she mediates, envisioning what’s about to happen in black and white blips), she’s very good at killing. Elektra’s current trauma, the one that drives the plot of Rob (The X-Files) Bowman’s movie, drags in all her old stuff and then some. Her next job is to take out a very pretty fellow named Mark (Goran Visnjic) and his rebellious daughter Abby (Kirsten Prout): Elektra falls for the dad and identifies with the girl, which means for the first time, she has qualms about the job. Good for the development of her “heart,” bad for staying alive. Then again, Elektra doesn’t really fear death, because, you know, she’s been there.
And so she takes up another mission, self-appointed, which puts her in direct conflict with the Hand, a group of nefarious, unwhite super-villains who want these particular targets dead. The head of the Hand, Roshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), dispatches his son Kirigi (Will Yun Lee) and his very derivative and literally named minions. And so: Typhoid (Natassia Malthe) makes everything from underbrush to people wilt, turn brown, and die. She likes especially to suck the life out of victims, so they convulse and turn gray and veiny, sort of like the Rogue effect in X-Men. Stone (Bob Sapp) is solid and hard to shoot, like The Thing in Fantastic Four. Yeah yeah, and neither proves much trouble for Elektra once she puts her mind to it.
Tattoo (Chris Ackerman), on the other hand, is slightly strange, but not as compelling as he needs to be. He sends forth his tattoos (a hawk, a lion) to rip up his adversaries), a gift that would benefit from dazzling special effects, which this movie doesn’t quite manage. And so, the creatures wrest their ways out of his torso or shoulder, zapping after Elektra like little points of light, not quite achieving the menace of, say, the bamboo shoots in House of Flying Daggers. Elektra has ready battlefield answers for this gimmick as well (some wirework, some leaps and kicks, some elaborate flailing), but you know she’s saving up the most intricate and exciting fights for the end, when she’ll be dressed in red again.
Elektra‘s most unusual point — for comic book movies especially — is its intent focus on the relationship between Elektra and Abby. While the guys offer occasional cryptic commentary (Stick: “I’m blind and I see more than any of you because I don’t look!”), the girls bear the narrative energy. That they’re both carrying dead mom baggage makes their connection seem both too predictable and complicated at the same time. The movie can’t possibly dig into this emotional morass and maintain its rating (PG-13, even for all the flesh-penetrating violence), and so it skims the surface. Dead moms are, after all, the most common trope in superhero stories.