Even a Backup Generator Couldn't Keep 'Elektra' Charged
She's bold. She's beautiful. She's boring.
Elektra was released in January 2005 my immediate reaction was, Why does this film exist? It's a Marvel film, which appeals to me greatly. More specifically, it's a spin-off from an earlier film, Daredevil (2003), which I quite liked at the time. It stars Jennifer Garner, who was arguably at the peak of her success due to four successful seasons on the television show Alias, which I loved. It's directed by Rob Bowman, whom I knew primarily as the director of many episodes of The X-Files as well as the film X-Files: Fight the Future (1998). All of these are positive elements to me, and reasons to see Elektra. But I didn't see back in 2005. The reason I had not seen Elektra until now goes back to that nagging question, Why does this film exist?
That's a harsh question to throw at a film. It's one thing to question certain choices made for a film, but questioning its very existence is... tough. Nevertheless, I believe it to be a valid question in this case. Even after finally seeing it. I completely understand the impulse to translate Garner's television success into a film career, particularly in an action film that exhibits her skills in that arena, but this film seemed like a poor choice. Daredevil was not a particularly successful Marvel film; certainly not successful enough to warrant a direct sequel. Elektra, who was killed in that film, was not exactly a stand out character. The connection to Daredevil, therefore, would not help Elektra's success.
Forgetting Daredevil entirely, then, Elektra remains a baffling character on which to base a new series. Up to this point, Marvel tended to adapt properties that had achieved some measure of success and notoriety, at least in the comics medium. The X-Men and Spider-Man had both been hugely successful comic book properties and animated series. Daredevil and The Punisher were properties that experienced major success in comics in the '80s and early '00s. Hulk was arguably the most popular of them all, having been successful in comics but also in a mainstream network television show in the late '70s/early '80s. The only lesser-known Marvel property that had been adapted to film before Elektra was Blade. Blade (1998), however, was produced at a time when Marvel was in dire financial straits, and the film had very few indications that it was even a comic book film. The filmmakers took a basic premise and made a stylish, very of-its-time action film. In Blade's case, the gamble paid off. Elektra, a similarly deep-cut of a character, did not..
Elektra Natchios was created by Frank Miller for
Daredevil #168 (January 1981). She is a cold-blooded ninja assassin that runs afoul of Daredevil while on assignment, but he soon realizes that she is his college girlfriend. Daredevil and Elektra rekindle their relationship, and struggle with their opposing worldviews, until Elektra is killed by Bullseye in Daredevil #181 (April 1982). This murder sequence was adapted directly in Daredevil. Elektra's initial appearance was short-lived, but it made a huge impact on comic readers. In Daredevil #190 (January 1983), the ninja criminal organization known as The Hand resurrects Elektra, but Miller never intended her to encounter Daredevil again. In fact, Miller completed what he felt was the final word on Elektra in a well-received miniseries entitled Elektra: Assassin (1986-1987) with Bill Sienkiewicz. Despite Miller's wishes, however, Elektra reappeared in the mid-'90s in Daredevil, followed by a couple of short-lived solo series. Her presence in Marvel Comics was still fairly minor. Her most well-known story was already adapted in the film Daredevil. So, again, the character seemed like a strange choice to adapt.
So, what are the most likely reasons for making her story into a film? Garner's popularity on television was a clear factor. Furthermore, Marvel may have been looking for some much-needed diversity in their films. But above all, the filmmakers behind Elektra must have had a worthwhile story to tell. This is, of course, the best reason to make a film. So, knowing very little about the film itself, I approached Elektra for this article with an open mind.
Unfortunately, Elektra offers nothing more than a generic, derivative, boring underdeveloped story. First and foremost, the film seems to take for granted that audiences have seen Daredevil. Not much is explained about the title character's background, with the exception of brief flashbacks of her cruel father, her mother's murder, and her resurrection and training by Stick, a mysterious, blind warrior played by Terrence Stamp. The resurrection is necessary after her death in Daredevil, but there's no context given for those who did not see or do not remember that film. This is shortsighted, considering that Daredevil was not a huge hit. Everything in Elektra's backstory is shorthand like the film is quickly referencing common knowledge. For anyone approaching Elektra fresh, the character remains largely unexplained. This is a serious flaw in the film, as it attempts to tell the clichéd story of a cynical warrior who regains her soul by choosing to protect rather than kill. It's difficult to care about her redemption, however, when the film doesn't explain the character's backstory, or otherwise make her relatable.
The overarching plot of the film is that two ninja forces, The Hand and Stick's unnamed group (named the Chaste in the comics), are locked in a centuries-old war of good versus evil. No attempt is made to explain what, exactly, the two groups are fighting over. What are the stakes? What makes The Hand evil and The Chaste good? Besides The Hand's ninjas wearing black and Stick's ninjas wearing white, of course. Occasionally a girl with immense skill, known as the Treasure, appears and the two sides fight to recruit her. The exact nature of the Treasure is unclear. Elektra may be one. Late in the film, a little-seen villain named Typhoid reveals that she was once a Treasure. So a new Treasure seems to come around every decade or so and ceases to be the Treasure when she joins a side?
After her resurrection, Elektra trained with Stick until he dismissed her. Highly skilled but directionless, Elektra became a mythic assassin, eliminating her targets with brutal efficiency. She became cold-blooded, isolated and lonely, with her agent, McCabe, as her only friendly human contact. Even worse, McCabe indicates that her body counts have been increasing, that she is killing more people than necessary. Unfortunately, Garner does not sell this side of Elektra. I may be biased from years of watching Alias, but Jennifer Garner has always seemed too soulful and compassionate an actress to portray the murderous, uncaring loner credibly. And so, unsurprisingly, her cold-blooded Elektra facade thaws on her next big assignment.
She's hired to occupy an isolated lake house. While awaiting further instructions she strikes up a relationship with a neighboring man, Mark, and his daughter, Abby. Elektra is distressed to learn that they are her targets. Not only does she refuse to kill them, but she remains behind to protect them from the replacement assassins sent by The Hand. It turns out that Abby is the current Treasure, and the Hand will stop at nothing to acquire and corrupt her. As they evade capture by Kirigi, a Hand ninja, and his group of superpowered assassins, Elektra begins to see much of herself in Abby and tries to steer her towards better life choices. Garner's Elektra and Kristen Prout's Abby do have chemistry in the film, but there's nothing new or exciting about their dynamic. Elektra is the kind of film where, out of boredom, you begin guessing all of the upcoming plot points, then you discover you were correct every time. It's like cliché bingo, and you win when the movie finally ends.
Elektra also tries so hard to make the ninja characters seem cool. Mundane actions made by Elektra, such as closing a door or whipping off her bedsheets, are executed in a performative, ninja-esque fashion. When asked early in the film how she knows what death is like, Jennifer Garner gives a knowing look to the camera. The over-the-top score by Christophe Beck tries to inject energy where it doesn't belong, such as when Elektra unpacks and arranges her toiletries and kitchen fruit in an exact manner. It would seem, according to Beck's score, that these obsessive-compulsive actions are as exciting as fight scenes. Meanwhile, Kirigi's team is introduced strutting in slow motion, with glamour shots of tattoos, goth costumes and, for some reason, one guy balancing a coin on the tip of his finger as he walks. That one baffled me. It's impressive, I don't think that I could do it, but it doesn't sell the character as a dangerous ninja. All of this effort appears to be nothing more than an attempt to make the characters seem cool.
Elektra seeks out Stick for help but is initially denied, leading her to McCabe's farm to hide out. When Kirigi's team attacks, Elektra is shockingly ineffective. First, she faces a seemingly invulnerable ninja named Stone. Stone is defeated when he damages a tree, and it falls on him. Elektra is running on the tree, but otherwise uninvolved. Abby and Mark run for cover and are attacked. Abby kills this ninja while Elektra is felled by Typhoid. Then Stick arrives to save them all. It's a bold move for a film to present its lead character as an unstoppable ninja warrior, then make her so ineffective during a big battle scene.
At Stick's compound, Elektra deduces that everything has been part of Stick's plan. He wanted to teach Elektra a lesson about the purity of her heart, so he kicked her out of his school. Later, he hired her to kill Abby and Mark, knowing she would refuse and protect them instead. It's unclear whether Stick planned for Elektra to become an assassin in the meantime, killing more and more people with every assignment. Her cold-blooded demeanor and increasing body count seem to undercut Stick's claim about the purity of her heart. Elektra imagines Stick as a sage mastermind with endless wisdom, but his master plan is completely ludicrous and irresponsible. Meanwhile, Elektra says things like "you speak in riddles, old friend", after Stick has made a perfectly coherent statement. Like Elektra's redemption or the generic battle between good and evil, the mischievous teacher is another tired genre trope that Elektra quotes and wants to use, but never effectively engages with.
The film ends with a showdown at Elektra's family mansion, abandoned since her mother's death. Kirigi is revealed to be the man who killed Elektra's mother, a revelation that has no real function (Elektra wants to kill him even more than she already did?) and no impact on the film. Abby arrives to fight alongside Elektra but is beset by Kirigi's team and killed. Ultimately, in the slow, dull climactic battle, Elektra seems like she's defeated before suddenly, for no good reason, she has the power to defeat Kirigi. This occurs seemingly because the filmmakers believe that is how such fights play out: The hero seems beaten, then rallies and wins. No explanation needed. Elektra then summons the purity of her heart to resurrect Abby in the same place her mother was killed, thereby exorcising that traumatic event from Elektra's psyche.
None of this lands effectively for several reasons. First, the film didn't set up the Elektra character well enough for the audience to care about her redemption. Second, Garner never truly sells Elektra's early cold-bloodedness, making her gradual warming to Abby arc less credible. Third, the way the story plays out is so obvious from early on that the climax offers no surprises or excitement. Finally, Stick's claims about the purity of Elektra's heart ring hollow in its effort to elevate Elektra to a perpetually pure soul rather than a flawed but redeemable (and therefore more interesting) human being. Elektra sets up an unremarkable, overdone story of world-weary hero in a good-vs-evil battle. But the hero is not credible, the mythology is half-baked, and the film never does anything interesting or unexpected.
So, why does this film exist? I'm still not sure. It was a spin-off from an underperforming, underseen film. It was an adaptation of a little-known Marvel hero. It didn't have a compelling or, in any way original story to tell. It even lacks the conviction to honestly commit to the clichés and tropes to which it clings.
Elektra was not just failure as a piece of cinema, it also bombed at the box office. It made less than $25 million at the North American box office, the lowest grossing Marvel film up to that point by far. Had this occurred in isolation, Elektra would have been quickly forgotten and had zero impact. Unfortunately, it was Marvel's first female-led comic book film. Film studios tend to be very conservative, preferring tried-and-true approaches to ensure success. Like any other business, they look for evidence of success or failure when making decisions about new products. Male-led comic book films have long been a safe bet, but flops like Elektra offered evidence that female-led films in this genre will not be successful. Female-led superhero films face an uphill battle, with fewer characters to adapt and a sexist film industry. Elektra was not the only reason that female-led superhero films were not made for a long time in Hollywood, but it is certainly partly responsible for giving skittish studio executives a clear reason to avoid them. It would be over 12 years later that Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017) released, and it will be over 14 years until Captain Marvel (Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, 2019) is available. So maybe Elektra would have been better off not existing.
Stan Lee Cameo Corner: No cameo. That puts Stan at 5/11 cameos.
Christophe Beck would return to Marvel Films to score Ant-Man
Next Time: Marvel's First Family finally fetches a film. But are the Four faulty or fantastic?
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