Daredevil was historically a Marvel Comics second-stringer, but in hindsight, it makes sense that writer and artist Frank Miller made him the starting point for the superhero renaissance of the 1980s, which looked deep into the psyches of the people beneath the tights, found heroes with scars and demons, and set the tone for comics and their film adaptations ever since. Who, after all, had a rougher time of it than Matt Murdock, a poor kid blinded, orphaned, and thrown to the tender mercies of New York's Hell's Kitchen? His powers come from a sense of loss (his four remaining senses are heightened by his blindness), and even his choice of profession spoke to the great divide within him. A lawyer by day, he acts as a one-man star chamber at night. Drawn from a grab-bag of characters and incidents taken mostly from Miller's run on the comics series, writer-director Mark Steven Johnson's version of Daredevil seems aware of the murky waters it sets out to explore. That makes its tendency to hug the shore all the more frustrating, even though Johnson starts off by making his hero even darker than expected. Ben Affleck steps into the cowl and fetish suit, and for his first adventure, Johnson has him cold-bloodedly murder a rapist who cheated justice. It's almost as if the writer-director had accidentally made a film about occasional Daredevil nemesis The Punisher instead of the Man Without Fear; the fact that the movie treats this as no big deal suggests that it comes from a more disturbing place than anyone in the Marvel universe could imagine. True, Daredevil at least partly deals with Affleck's decision to stop killing, but it's given all the gravity of a decision to stop smoking or eating fatty snacks. The film seems to want all the trappings of the Daredevil comic–the dripping rooftops, the suggestive brooding, the Catholic iconography, and the ever-present potential for damnation–without the attendant baggage. Suggesting a cross between Ving Rhames and Ed Wood stock-player Tor Johnson, Michael Clarke Duncan plays Daredevil's arch-foe The Kingpin, the pitiless source of most of New York's crime, and the man whose decision to assassinate the father of Affleck's new lover Elektra (Jennifer Garner) lends the film its late-in-arriving central conflict. Casting Affleck would have paid off had the conflicted, acerbic star of Boiler Room, Changing Lanes, or even Bounce shown up. Instead we're left with the cardboard hero of Armageddon and The Sum Of All Fears, a caretaker leading man wholly dependent on the quality of the movie around him. Sadly, there's not much of that. Johnson's reliance on optical effects and secondhand fight choreography strains Daredevil's personality through a Matrix filter, and it rarely succeeds on those derivative terms. (Anyone annoyed by shortcomings in Spider-Man's special effects can start working out the wording of their angry Internet posts now.) Thanks to Jon Favreau's turn as Affleck's schlubby partner, a funny cameo by Kevin Smith, and especially Colin Farrell's gleefully psychopathic interpretation of the villain Bullseye, at least there's good stuff in the margins. But on the heels of such successful comic-book adaptations as X-Men and Spider-Man, Johnson's film makes Daredevil look like the second-rate hero he never really was.
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