I had been looking forward to Daredevil for a long time; as a fan of the comic-book hero, as a movie buff, and as someone who works with visually impaired people every day. A major-studio release in which the main character is blind is a rare event indeed. Unfortunately, Daredevil wasn’t worth the wait. The Marvel comic crimefighter, who originated in the early 1960s, has never been as well-known as his fellow superheroes Spider-Man or the X-Men. Alas, this seriously flawed movie isn=t going to win the Man Without Fear any new admirers.
Daredevil is the story of Matt Murdock. As a boy, he lives in the Hell=s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City with his father, Jack the Devil Murdock, a has-been boxer. A freak accident on a loading dock hurls toxic waste chemicals into young Matt’s face. He loses his sight, but gains radar senses super-enhanced hearing, touch, smell and taste which help him compensate for his blindness. (These super-senses are depicted in the film by imaginatively created visual and sound effects.) Jack Murdock becomes determined to revitalize his career for his son’s sake. But after a triumphant comeback, Matt=s father is murdered by gangsters.
The movie jumps forward to the present. The adult Matt (played by Ben Affleck) is still in Hell’s Kitchen, but now he’s an attorney in a struggling practice with his law partner and best friend Foggy Nelson. He’s haunted by his father’s death and overwhelmed by the injustices of the legal system. So at night, Murdock assumes the identity of Daredevil: a vigilante-like superhero in red leather and horns who metes out his own punishment to criminals who have evaded the law. His radar senses enable him to leap across buildings and battle a whole barroom full of bad guys. But Matt is a lover as well as a fighter: he falls for Elektra Natchios, a beautiful heiress (and fellow martial-arts practitioner.)
Along the way Daredevil locks horns, so to speak, with Kingpin Fisk, a corrupt businessman/crime boss, and Kingpin‘s hired assassin, Bullseye. The rest of the film combines brutal fight scenes, a stormy romance and the threat of exposure by a tabloid journalist with Catholic religious imagery added in for good measure. Daredevil ends with a thud: a wishy-washy finale that leaves numerous loose ends and fairly cries out, Yes, there will be a sequel!
The failure of Daredevil as a movie lies in what it is and in what it might have been. I think of ADaredevil@ as a comic book for grown-ups, for readers who value character development and moral complexity over mad scientists and intergalactic mayhem. The raw material was there for a dark, spectacular, grand opera-style tale of love, guilt, revenge and redemption. Hastings-born director, Steven Mark Johnson, unwisely put the darkness on screen insteadCin scene after scene of frustratingly murky action sequences where the lighting is so dim it’s hard to tell one character from another. And the film’s problems don’t end there. The pace feels rushed, as though there=s way too much material crammed into 103 minutes.
Moreover, Daredevil has almost as many plot holes as bullet holes. A film can be based on a comic book and still have its own code of logic; for example, last year’s vastly superior Spider-Man, the gold standard for superhero movies so far. By comparison, Daredevil is nickel-plated zinc. Its lapses of logic are numerous: Murdock’s radar senses seem to come and go at random; all New Yorkers evidently know each other and run into each other so often they might as well live in Little Falls; and where on earth did Daredevil get his closetful of identical red leather costumes?
Perhaps most deadly of all for a movie set in a larger-than-life comic-book universe, Daredevil suffers from a lackluster performance by the miscast Ben Affleck. Affleck is physically heroic, all right: he=s tall, handsome, well-built and actually resembles the “real” Murdock. But the similarity ends there. Affleck comes across like a grinning fraternity boy, not the witty, complicated, charismatic protagonist of the comic book. His monotone, expressionless Daredevil is little more than a life-size action figure. Moreover, there=s virtually no chemistry between Affleck and Jennifer Garner, who plays Elektra; the film begins to sag as soon as Matt and Elektra meet cute [in a contrived manner] in a coffee shop. Their ludicrous martial-arts flirtation on a playground full of children is probably the weakest scene in the whole movie.
The Portrayal of Blindness
So as an entertaining action film, Daredevil is a major disappointment. However, it does paint a refreshingly positive picture in the generally dismal gallery of blind movie characters. For a change, Murdock is a professional man; he’s also good-looking, well-dressed and self-confident. He’s free of the usual blind-movie-character traits; he=s neither scowlingly bitter about his blindness nor full of saintly forbearance. Daredevil is highly unusual, too, in depicting a blind person being both romantic and sexually active. Despite the other weaknesses in Affleck’s performance, I found him quite convincing as a blind person. (He consulted with actor Tom Sullivan to prepare for the role.) To Affleck’s credit, he avoids the cliched groping, stumbling and blank stares. With the help of contact lenses, his eyes have a realistically clouded look, and his body language changes depending on the familiarity of his surroundings.
I can=t comment on how well the film portrays Murdock=s super-enhanced hearing, touch and so on, since no blind person of my acquaintance has radar senses. But how accurately does ADaredevil@ depict the non-heroic details of his daily life? It’s a mixed bag. Early in the film, there’s a scene of him getting ready for work in the morning. We see Murdock using Braille clothing tags to identify his suits. Then he picks some bills out of individual Braille-labeled containers and actually folds them correctly before placing them in his wallet! Hooray!
Murdock’s mobility skills are more problematic, though. He=s always shown holding his white cane too far down the handle in an awkward grip, and it appears to be much too short for a big, strapping guy. Moreover, he never uses by-the-book sighted guide techniques. When walking the streets of New York with Elektra, one expects that Matt would want to take the arm of the lovely young woman he=s attracted to. But no, he just keeps trucking along with his cane. The only time we do see Matt go sighted guide is with Foggy in a couple of scenes, and then it=s the hand-on-the-shoulder routine.
Assistive technology, a major factor in the lives of many blind people, gets very short shrift in ADaredevil.@ In one brief scene at the Murdock and Nelson law firm, Matt prints out a legal document on a Braille embosser. That=s fine, but why couldn=t ADaredevil@ give its audience a quick glimpse of adaptive computers? I assume that any self-respecting blind attorney would be doing most of his work on a computer equipped with (at least) speech software and a scanner. However, in the movie, the only computer we see belongs to Foggy. Once again, Daredevil disappointed me.
No, despite my hopes, Daredevil never lives up to its cinematic potential. But it represents a promising step forward in the way blindness is depicted in the movies. Maybe the producers will get both elements right next time. I guess now I=ll have to wait for the sequel.
Edie Fischer works in the blindness field and is a dedicated movie buff.