(A warning, just in case, that there are SPOILERS in this review!)

A Review For Fans
by Mental Image
(exclusive to manwithoutfear.com)

Daredevil is a beloved character, for whom generations of comic writers and artists have made a place in the cannon of modern mythology. Into his Daredevil, writer/director Mark Steven Johnson has distilled the essential elements from forty years and hundreds of issues of Daredevil comics. This distillation to a single narrative required MSJ to make choices, some of which may be more painful than others for long-time fans to accept.

He takes risks in telling the story the way he does, in changing and choosing between different versions of a story arc that is a fan favorite. In the end, each will have to determine whether s/he can accept the decisions that were made. I came to believe and respect that MSJ made his choices in the service of the story and was even pleased with several additions that I found to be improvements.

  To those members of the continuity police who will go to the film hunting for violations, let me say this: certainly, respect for Daredevil's history is necessary – and present in MSJ's film, if you are open to seeing it – I would remind you that each of us must engage in flexible thinking (I won't say suspension of disbelief) on a regular basis. This Matt Murdock/Daredevil we read about has, after all, remained thirty-something for almost forty years.

  Comparisons to other superhero films seem inevitable and should not be avoided as they help to illustrate the complexity of MSJ's work. Earlier films, though often satisfying, seem to be variations on, or combinations of, a couple of themes: the 'coming-of-age /stepping up to responsibility' story and the story of the 'well-intentioned good guy fights epic battle with bad guy (who revels in his/her own malevolence and wants to control or destroy the world, bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha).'

  In Daredevil, we meet a protagonist who has long since accepted the cross of responsibility that his history, abilities and sense of right and wrong have made for him. Good and evil exist here in constant opposition, as in other works of the genre, but the lines of the mortal struggle are drawn differently. Good is characterized by compassion, while evil is shown as indifference, as self-interest with no regard for human suffering.

  I believe that in presenting this worldview, MSJ gives a gift to the film and to the genre. The result is a story that is elevated to the realm of mythos, which resonates profoundly with modern sensibilities. Yes, the story is about heroes and villains – and those caught in the crossfire – and it offers insight into the character and humanity of those who act out these roles.

Let it be said that Daredevil contains spectacular fight scenes, which, for the most part, I will let other reviewers detail and discuss. What interests me is MSJ's choice, through the use of wirework and some CGI, to make the action stylized. Violence is made to serve the story, to contribute to the process of elevating the story out of the realm of typical action entertainment and into the realm of myth.

MSJ understands that epic stories are told about great characters and the powerful impulses and traits that drive their actions. The major characters in Daredevil share essential and related traits – extraordinary prowess and extreme separateness – though each manifests them in different ways, and the decisions that determine (or have determined) the course of all of their lives are based upon their relationship to violence, justice and vengeance.

Matt Murdock is a man who possesses extraordinary abilities and skills. Yet, because of the losses that he suffered – of both parents, of physical integrity – he does not feel whole. He has made a life for himself through force of will, but necessity and choice prevent him from attaining closeness with most other people. Matt must cover most of the top part of his face with a mask of dark glasses whenever he is in public because the sight of his disfigurement causes others discomfort. He must keep his preternatural abilities secret. Even the talents that help him compensate cause him to navigate the world differently than everyone else.

Though faced with the harshest realities, Matt manages, somehow, to maintain his belief that good can hold back the tides of darkness, so much so that he positions his own body as a shield. He has decided that if the world will not provide justice, then he must do so himself. Matt is a hero because he has learned compassion in the face of cruel circumstances, and because he channels his anger and uses his power to protect the weak, even though it means taking a secret identity and living a punishing and lonely double life.

Daredevil introduces Elektra Natchios as a warrior whose world is not a safe place. She is guarded in nearly every sense of the word. We see her hostility in her reaction to Matt, a strange man, when he first approaches her. We learn that her father is a billionaire (and an associate of the Kingpin of crime) who has had her trained in fighting skills from the time she was five years old, and that her mother was killed before her eyes. She has been kept separate from the world, though by now it feels like a choice to her.

The Kingpin is presented as the ruler of overlapping empires, legitimate and criminal. He has attained extraordinary success through genius and ruthlessness, but in pursuit of personal gain he has left behind much of his humanity. The story shows us the Kingpin who has no qualms about ordering the deaths of a man and his family. If his decision were based in anger or indeed any strong emotion, we might empathize on some level. Instead, his expediency is chilling.

The film's modernized Bullseye, the assassin with the punk aesthetic, is even farther from his humanity (and the rest of humanity) than the Kingpin. He is a cheerful sociopath with supernatural abilities, the very best at what he does. Bullseye provides a taste of old school evil, and shows by contrast that the truly terrifying figure is the Kingpin. While Bullseye's amorality is almost mindless, Kingpin's seems to be a conscious choice, and all the more menacing because of it.

The villains are fascinating, but MSJ gives us a hero who is more interesting than those villains, whose day-to-day life is at least as compelling as his life as a costumed vigilante, and in so doing remains true to what makes the Daredevil books great. His story rotates on the thematic axis of justice and revenge, but its central focus is a story of love between extraordinary people.

Matt and Elektra are stronger and more capable than nearly everyone else around them, yet they have both been marked and formed by grief, loss and loneliness. It is eros that brings them together, however, not pathos. When Matt first senses Elektra, he feels drawn to her. We know that Matt is verbally adept, but their first meeting leaves him tongue-tied. Not above using his blindness as a way in, he uses previously successful techniques – and fails even to obtain her name.

He feels compelled to go after her. The interaction that follows is a revelation to both. Elektra finds herself in the unlikely situation of sparring with a blind man on a playground, and Matt, a hardened street fighter, finds himself put through his paces by a delicate young woman. They are both exhilarated by the exchange, almost giddy. Matt feels the freedom to reveal abilities to Elektra that his best friend doesn't even know about. This woman is a challenge to him, perhaps in a way that no one has ever been before.

Elektra, who has relaxed her emotional guard (for the first time in how long?), makes an exit, though later she can't help but seek him out. The two might not understand why they are drawn to each other, but they find they can be open – to meet strength with strength and vulnerability with vulnerability.

Their kiss on the rooftop seems powerful and inevitable. This is before Matt's identity and abilities as Daredevil are revealed to her, but we watch Elektra come to understand how differently he experiences the world and to accept that difference as part of him. When Matt pulls away because he hears conversation about the Kingpin in the distance, Elektra asks him to stay. We sense that it is a first for her to ask such a thing of anyone and that it is a first for Matt to accept.

We know Matt has had other girlfriends (from the slightly heavy-handed vehicle of a break-up phone message spoken to his answering machine). We know that he never lets them into his life or his home, a veritable fortress. But he lets Elektra in. He accepts her as warrior and woman and she accepts the whole of him as well; she kisses his eyelids, traces the scars on his back with gentle fingers and is enveloped in his strength. Their lovemaking is a meeting of equals, of kindred spirits. Later, when they dance at the formal ball, energy courses between them. Elektra reaches up while they are dancing and removes Matt's dark glasses, asking if he minds. He doesn't, he says, it's just... it makes some people uncomfortable. "Not me," she says quietly but fiercely. It is apparent that they are in love.

Fans know this story, however. It is a tragedy – Elektra's name is no coincidence. Newly found love and acceptance cannot triumph over old patterns and painful presents. Elektra chooses revenge over love and in doing so, both wounds Matt/Daredevil and teaches him the most difficult lesson of his life.

Though acceptance and love do not erase pain, MSJ shows in this story how these forces can mitigate it. Though Matt lets down his guard with precious few people, his friend and law partner Franklin "Foggy" Nelson is one of those few. Matt is anchored by this relationship. Though no superhero, Foggy has the supreme ability to provide Matt perspective and humor and, with these, balance. The two share an easy camaraderie, alternating between banter and concern. Foggy will rib Matt mercilessly then unselfconsciously provide descriptions of things Matt, even with his enhanced abilities, is unable to perceive.

Foggy does not know the details of Matt's double life as Daredevil, though he, like Elektra, has an idea that there is something extraordinary about him (at one point, he even makes reference to Matt's truth sense). Foggy is a "glasses off" friend who accepts Matt and cares about him. It is Matt's loss that he is not able or willing to share more of himself with his friend.

The subtleties of interaction between all of these characters, and between character and story, could only have been conveyed by fine actors. And in their performances, God (or the 'Devil, if you prefer) is in the details.

Ben Affleck brings the appropriate build and stature to the role of Matt Murdock/Daredevil and carries off the acrobatics quite successfully. It is the nuances of his performance, however, that are spectacular. The role requires extreme physicality, but it also requires the ability to alternate between portrayals of powerlessness and menace, stoicism and sensuality.

The shifts back and forth between the Matt and Daredevil personae are striking and believable. What moved me most, however, were the subtleties within Affleck's physical performance of Matt: the postural shift (back to normalcy, to blindness) when removing his Daredevil mask upon returning home, the closed facial expression when is he alone or among strangers and the openness when he is at ease with Foggy or Elektra, the relaxation of tension in his stance when he is being guided by Foggy.

Though able to navigate the world more easily than his disability would indicate, Affleck's Matt carries himself differently than would a sighted man. His posture, the angles at which he carries and moves his head, present a character for whom sound and touch are the primary ways of gathering information about the world. Even when costumed as Daredevil, Affleck manages to show that he is performing sightedness (as, to a certain extent, he performs blindness in his daily life). There is a strangeness to his movements that opponents are unlikely to properly interpret, but which adds to his mystique as an avenging devil.

In the origin sequence MSJ shows that the particular way that Matt was blinded (and the surgery required to treat the insult) caused damage to the muscles and tissues of his eyes and face. Make-up artists give us the scars – pronounced on the face of the young actor, faded but still visible on the adult – and Affleck utilizes only the lower half of his face in his performance.

In contrast, much of Jennifer Garner's performance as Elektra takes place in her eyes, and through her amazingly fluid expressions. In each of her scenes we witness a transformation. Garner has relatively few lines, yet even when saying little, as during the scene when Elektra and Matt stand on the rooftop in the rain, her work is quietly staggering. We see the pain in Elektra's eyes and the armor she uses to shield herself. We watch transfixed as she sheds that armor. And we weep as we watch her reject comfort and gird again for battle.

Garner takes us all on Elektra's journey through hostility to love, through fury to desolation, creating an Elektra who is more human and more real to me than the character I remember meeting in the books. Like that of Daredevil, the role of Elektra demands tremendous strength and athleticism, which Garner clearly possesses. This role requires her to be both remarkably gentle and extremely dangerous, and Garner carries this off without the benefit of a costume and mask.

As much as Garner's Elektra is characterized by passion, Michael Clarke Duncan's portrayal of the Kingpin is distinguished by its chilling lack thereof. Though he exhibits the occasional passing joy in the suffering of others (who have gotten in his way), the Kingpin's defining moment is his revelation that none of the suffering he has caused Matt/Daredevil and those he loves has been personal. It is just "business." The detachment that Duncan evinces creates the dynamic by which Matt/Daredevil is finally able to choose between vengeance and justice.

Each of the supporting actors creates a moment that defines his character in relation to the larger story. This is a credit to both the writing and the acting of the film. In the origin sequence, we see Scott Terra, as young, blind Matt, give a thrashing to three larger boys who have been tormenting him. His fierce smile of triumph (over injustice) will be mirrored exactly on the face of Affleck's Daredevil. Though the character of the has-been boxer is so familiar, David Keith's performance is individual and believable. We see Keith, as Jack "the Devil" Murdock, decide not to throw the fight – though he knows it will mean disaster – to show his son that anything is possible if one is not afraid.

Jon Favreau's work as Foggy is often comical, but his explanation to Matt that he will always be the "plus one" on an invitation – always the sidekick, never the hero – is heartbreaking. Colin Farrell creates a Bullseye of questionable sanity, but he is terrifyingly lucid when he tells Elektra the truth about himself at the end of their fateful battle. You may be very good, he says, "but I'm magic," and therefore, unbeatable. Throughout the film, Joe Pantoliano infuses reporter Ben Urich with an air of moral ambiguity, yet in the end, Pantoliano is completely believable when he deletes the article that would expose Daredevil's identity and chooses sides in the battle between good and evil.

Through his directing and his writing, MSJ presents the characters in a manner that is faithful to the body of comics that gave them birth – even when adding details and making changes. In this version of the origin story, Matt's blinding is the result of a senseless accident. While I was resentful at first to find Matt's act of youthful heroism taken from him, the choice now makes sense to me. Consistent with the bleak worldview of the film, the destruction of Matt's vision is (seemingly) the result of fate, which is as indifferent to his suffering as is the evil with which he will later contend.

Although Matt/Daredevil's characteristic "hypersenses" are shown to give him amazing abilities, MSJ also shows how overwhelming they are for him, how hard he has to work to use those senses and how often he is vulnerable to loud noises and acoustically challenging environments. Portraying him this way, as far from invincible, might seem a betrayal, but to me it makes the character more impressive, rather than less, and a better representation of the "Man Without Fear."

As in the Daredevil books (particularly those of Kevin Smith's first story arc), Matt is shown to be a practicing Catholic. In contrast to the books, the film's Matt has revealed his secret life as Daredevil to his priest confessor. This is a decision of MSJ's that I applaud. Matt is a man of deep faith and a rigid moral code. Not to confess – to break with the tenets of his faith – would be inconsistent.

There is one choice that MSJ makes with which I initially took strong exception. He introduces a Daredevil who delivers death to at least one recipient of his vigilante justice (and does so rather cheerfully). My first reaction was alarm. When so much of the film is true to the spirit of the character, however, I felt it necessary to consider MSJ's choice in context of this specific story.

At the point we meet Matt/Daredevil, he is near death. Through flashback we learn that this Matt/Daredevil has been crossing lines, making mistakes, trying to convince himself that he is not the bad guy. He can relate to Elektra's overwhelming desire for revenge, because the undercurrent of violence in him has been threatening to carry him under. He must choose a different path or lose himself. What felt like a betrayal of the character, I realized, is appropriate to the specific story that MSJ has chosen to tell; a story in which the protagonists must learn that revenge only leads to more suffering.

This film tells a great story, one that will be both familiar and important to long-time fans and completely accessible to newcomers. In the final analysis, Daredevil is a success because its narrative is deeply moving and resonates with larger truths. I am grateful to Mark Steven Johnson for giving me the chance to more fully experience these characters, these extraordinary people whom I have followed for half my life. Although the film is complete in and of itself, I hope enough people see (and love) it so that MSJ gets the chance to tell more stories of this caliber.

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