Elektra (2005)

There’s a wall of ice around her.
— Jennifer Garner, “The Making of Elektra

In the wake of the movie version of Sin City, Elektra might now be understood as a brighter side of Frank Miller. Relatively speaking, her preference for scarlet outfits and outrageous martial arts moves, not to mention her much-asserted girlness, make for a less dour outing than that provided by the lumbering hulks and hunks in Robert Rodriguez’s film. And yet, the story of Elektra (Jennifer Garner) is very dark, even depressing. The girl is mad beyond words, using her talent for assassination as a means to avoid her own problems.

Of course, these sorts of psychologizing niceties don’t come up often in Miller’s work. His characters know they’re screwed up, and it only makes them madder. When Elektra’s sometime mentor Stick (Terrence Stamp) instructs her, “You understand violence and pain, but you do not know the way,” she reacts with still more fury, stomping off to train herself. This girl is perpetually enraged, 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. She’s mad at everyone and everything, a family-tortured soul to rival Batman and Hellboy. She’s mad she was dead (see her first cinematic outing, in the lamentable Daredevil) and now she’s mad she’s alive. She’s mad that her mother (Jana Mitsoula) was murdered, that her father was a control freak, that Stick rejected her. So now she kills people for money.

Now released to a stark DVD (the extras are minimal and borrowed from elsewhere: three deleted scenes, one including a brief glimpse of Ben Affleck; a standard making-of documentary; and Garner’s minute-and-half taped presentation for Comic-Con, all giddy before the film opened), Elektra opens with a bit of scene-setting voiceover by Stick: “The evil has taken many forms and used the darkest arts… The good follow the way of Kimaguri. Its Masters can see the future and perhaps even bring back the dead.” And so he has done for Elektra, so she can return here for her potential franchise.

Even as she might look toward a future, however, Elektra is all about the past. And much of her movie is flashbacking to various traumas that have brought her to this pretty pass (one particularly disturbing image has her child self lying across her mom’s corpse). 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 but really, she has OCD.

Despite her valiant front, Elektra can’t separate personal from professional problems. And because she’s a terrifically skilled 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 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, who notes, I the making-of featurette, “Abby really connects to Elektra, and she thinks that Elektra’s the coolest thing that’s ever happened”). Elektra sort-of-but-not-really falls for Mark, enough so they kiss but without time for anything more protracted

More interestingly, Elektra returns Abby’s affection, going so far as to identify with the girl. And so, for the first time, she has qualms about the job. Good for the development of her “heart,” bad for staying alive, and extra bad role modeling for children. In an effort to do right by Abby, she takes up a self-appointed, unpaid mission that 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. Stone (Bob Sapp) is solid and hard to shoot or pierce.

For his part, Tattoo (Chris Ackerman) is only slightly strange, a digital blip in the narrative, undeveloped. He sends forth his tattoos (a hawk, a lion) to rip up his adversaries). The creatures wrest their ways out of his torso or shoulder, zapping after Elektra like little points of light, not quite achieving a sense of menace, more like CGI gnats. 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 is its own focus on the Elektra-Abby relationship. 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 rush forward with their own emotional energies. Because they’re both carrying dead mom baggage, their connection is predictable but also complicated. The movie can’t possibly dig into this emotional morass and maintain its PG-13 rating, and so it skims the surface. In spite of and because of the fact that dead moms are the most common trope in comic books, this particular darkness would seem to warrant closer attention.