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by Kathi Maio

Thuggish Behavior, In the Relentless Pursuit of a Sequel

IT IS questionable whether any movie deserves to make over $800 million. But in the case of 2002's Spider-Man, at least that level of success was understandable. A well-known and endearing comic hero swung into action, in a film with plenty of soaring flash, and even a little bit of heart. Directed by a man, Sam Raimi, who exults in the cheesy exuberance of American schlock film (see Army of Darkness, 1993), but who is also capable of gravitas and grace (see 1998's A Simple Plan), Spider-Man was a bright-colored, high-energy popcorn flick that, while not exactly deep, was less shallow than expected.

The casting of Tobey Maguire, a young man with more acting talent than hunky marquee value, was a key factor. Maguire brought great sweetness and vulnerability to the nerdy, lovelorn loser who comes of age as a superhero. His Peter Parker was a young man anyone could root for. Capable of missteps and bad judgment, Spider-Man's alter ego was nonetheless a good soul trying to do good in the world. He brought this same quality to his superhuman adventures.

Daredevil, another Marvel comic franchise, went into movie production about the same time Spider-Man was cleaning up at the box office. Spidey's success is said to have bolstered DD's FX and martial arts budget, but clearly did nothing to increase the likability of the new film's hero or the clarity of his storyline.

Daredevil's number one failing is that relative newcomer, writer/director Mark Steven Johnson, is no Sam Raimi. Unable to develop the tragic nature of his very human hero coherently, Mr. Johnson merely lowered the lighting and pumped up the rock soundtrack and the violence of his ludicrous plot. Problem number two is casting. Unlike Sam Raimi, Mark Steven Johnson did opt for hunky marquee value when hiring an actor for his film's titular role. In fact, he cast People's current "Sexiest Man Alive" and J-Lo boy-toy, Ben Affleck, as the dual protagonist.

I like Ben Affleck. (No, really I do.) A local lad who made good, Mr. Affleck is intelligent, personable, and very willing to poke fun at his brouhaha of a matinee idol life. Unfortunately, he is not an actor of immense range. Although very good at playing cocky yuppie types, his forte is not exactly brooding intensity with tragic undercurrents. Yet this is exactly the kind of quality that could make viewers care for a blind attorney named Matt Murdock who is consumed by his vigilante nighttime gig as Daredevil, Man Without Fear.

Since his Marvel debut in the Spring of 1964, the Daredevil character has undergone many transformations as he has been handed from one writer-artist team to the next. His costume and hairstyle has changed, and pieces of his backstory have been altered over the years as well. He has had the occasional breezy, almost light-hearted adventure. But, for the most part, Matt Murdock/Daredevil has been a solitary and melancholy figure, unlucky in love, and—like most comic book heroes—too prone to solve his problems with the Splatt! Thok! Krakoww! of physical violence.

Still, in my memory of the comic book hero, I had no doubt that he was a good guy. The film version changes this. In his own verbal defense, the best the movie Daredevil can say of himself is, "I am not the bad guy here." I can't say that I agree. In the pursuit of what they have called "gritty" and "realistic" storytelling (oh, puleeze!), the filmmakers behind Daredevil have made it difficult to tell the difference between the heroes and the villains.

Yes, I know all about the moral ambiguity of modern life, all of us living in that gray zone between the white and black of good and evil. But too many recent cultural "heroes" have made an uncomfortable shift straight out of the gray and into something much darker.

These days, in this country especially, there seems to be some sort of need to celebrate the thug as a hero. Perhaps, like President Bush, we all wish to annihilate our perceived enemies, without pausing for the rule of law (or even a resolution from the UN). But you can't put the popularity of shows like the Latino drug-lord drama, Kingpin, down to September 11th. Tony Soprano was snuffing out goombahs right and left long before the Twin Towers were hit.

I'm not sure where this pop cult ethical realignment is coming from. I only know that it doesn't suit a comic book superhero.

Conflicted is fine. Peter Parker is conflicted. This film's Daredevil is something else again. Mr. Johnson seems to have gone out of his way to expunge the most heroic aspects of Matt Murdock's character, starting with the reason for his blindness. In the comic, a young boy bravely, impulsively tries to keep a sightless man from being run down by a truck. He is blinded by the radioactive waste that spills from the back of the vehicle. In the movie, it is still radioactive waste that takes his sight and heightens his other senses to superhuman levels. But here, young Matt is simply running away from his father—a careless, passive victim.

In the present-day story, Murdock's altruism appears to have been altogether abandoned in favor of a heightened taste for brutality. Early in the movie, a rapist named (inside joke) Quesada is acquitted in court. Daredevil isn't content to mete out his own justice by beating up the creep in an alleyway. He feels the need to hunt the guy down in a crowded barroom where he takes the time to pulverize every single human in the club, set the place on fire, and then hunt down the "bad guy" in the nearby subway where he takes great sardonic relish in knocking him down on the tracks and executing him with a C train.

Perhaps it would be easier to accept such behavior from Daredevil if he seemed more torn up about it. But while Matt Murdock does visit his local Hell's Kitchen priest from time to time, he doesn't really seem troubled by his own behavior at all. I can't say whether this is another indicator of the general deficiency of Mr. Affleck's acting. I can only observe that I have never seen a superhero so lacking in energy and charisma.

The film's arch-villains are actually much more likable, in their own sick way, than its morose lead. Michael Clarke Duncan makes quite a dapper Kingpin (even if his character seems to be an amalgam of The Fixer, The Kingpin, The Rose, and a few other Marvel baddies). The twinkle never leaves his eyes during his few scenes. Better yet is Colin Farrell as Bullseye. Although much different from the blue and white spandex be-tighted villain I remember from the comic art, the black leather outfit Farrell sports lends him a bit more street cred for modern New York. And even if it didn't, it wouldn't have mattered. Farrell is the one actor who seems to be having a high old time making this movie. He is as buoyant and charming as Affleck is lethargic and dreary.

And then there is Elektra, Matt Murdock's first and truest love, who was originally portrayed as a rich Columbia co-ed who becomes a ninja assassin-for-hire. (Hey, I'm sure it happens every day!) The Elektra of the comic is the ultimate bad girl and Daredevil nemesis. But one of the oddest aspects of the big-screen adaptation of Daredevil is the coy way in which Mr. Johnson tries to portray Elektra Natchios as a sweet young thing who just happens to enjoy slinging sais (swords) and donning a dominatrix outfit.

And he almost pulls off this self-contradictory ingénue role because of a fortuitous bit of casting. Jennifer Garner, of Alias fame, really knows how to kick up her heels and kick butt. She also imbues all her roles with a girl-next-door amiability that is very attractive. Unfortunately, since she exists in this movie merely as love interest and avengeable victim, her couple of athletic scenes of martial arts gymnastics seem more like a sideshow than an explication of her character or a true element of the story.

Then again, nothing about this story makes a heck of a lot of sense here. As is the danger with most adaptations of comic book canons, when you compress almost forty years of storytelling into a single movie, you need a writer of considerable talent to winnow a massive amount of material into an entertaining and intelligible film. Mark Steven Johnson does not apparently possess that level of writing skill.

All is not lost, however. The writer/director of Daredevil possesses a highly developed business sense.

As Bill Clinton might have said if he worked for a major studio: "It's about the franchise, stupid!" Daredevil, the movie, doesn't hold together as a narrative specifically because Mr. Johnson, executives at Fox and Marvel, and whatever other suits conferred on the matter wanted the option of bringing everyone back for a sequel.

Two of the leads dead at the end of the movie? Say it ain't so!

A villain charms the audience? Well then, let him crash through a stained glass church window and fall five stories into the windshield of a car, but bring him back alive for the rolling of the credits. Another key character murdered? Hold on, there's talk of a spin-off movie, better hint that they are alive and well and designing jewelry somewhere. Great idea: Let's have the hero hunt down the man responsible for killing the two people he most loves on this Earth. Very dramatic! On the other hand, we can't have him kill the guy!

No way.

It's one thing to have Daredevil kill an anonymous rapist, but the dude who killed his loved ones is a primo character. That guy might be needed for the second installment. Or a third. Better just have DD rough him up a bit.

We knew it was coming to this. All and everything in service of the sequel, even if it's to the detriment of the movie you're making at the moment. Still, to see such a blatant and cold-blooded undermining of a feature movie in the relentless pursuit of a sequel—it depresses me.

This is the kind of corporate arrogance and greed that all the accountant watchdogs in the world couldn't make right. Maybe it calls for a new brand of superhero. Or at least a more discriminating moviegoer.

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