Daredevil may be a superhero, but his powers are pedestrian

Feb 12, 2003 at 4:00 am
2000's X-Men spawned big profit and a big ol' forthcoming sequel. 2002's Spider-Man had the public and the critics returning to the defiled altar of director Sam "Evil Dead" Raimi. The latest Marvel comic book to make it onto film is Daredevil, a broad swipe at blockbuster with film actor of the moment Ben Affleck, TV actor of the moment Jennifer "Lips" Garner and promises of sex, violence and leather costumes.

The film opens with Daredevil (Affleck), an urban do-gooder in red leather jumpsuit and cowl with silly plastic bug eyes, falling through the roof of a church. Lying broken in the arms of a concerned priest, he flashes back on the long road that led him to this revoltin' development.

Let the clichés begin. As a boy, Matt Murdock sees his palooka father (crag-faced, underappreciated David Keith) pummeling someone in an alley for a loan repayment to crime boss the Kingpin. The traumatized Murdock runs from the scene and, in a freak accident, is blinded by a fountain of toxic waste. (As we learned in such flicks as Modern Problems and Fat Man and Little Boy, toxic waste makes a man do funny things.)

Awakening in the hospital, young Murdock is violently afflicted by his new superpowers -- though he's blind, his hearing is sharpened to the point that he can "see" through walls with a kind of sonar. His other senses are superhuman as well. (As an adult, he develops the ability to "smell" pretty women. Seriously.)

The younger and elder Murdock take a joint vow to go straight and to abandon any and all kinds of fear. (In the comics, Daredevil is "the Man Without Fear.") Dad refuses to throw a fight and is beaten to death by the Kingpin's goons. Young Murdock, à la Travis Bickle, vows to wipe clean the streets of Hell's Kitchen.

Amid a few nuggets of well-choreographed fighting and comedy of the disabled (all the gags are based on Murdock's blindness), we're taken for a pretty flat ride. You can guess what happens when the emotionally scarred Murdock and the emotionally scarred Elektra Natchios (Garner) find each other. You can guess that vengeance is the gas keeps this plot running, and you can guess what happens in the climactic fight between Daredevil and the Kingpin, played by hulking basso profundo Michael Clarke Duncan.

Because this is all based on a comic book, maybe we're optimistic to expect 3-D characters or dense plots. Still, it'd be nice if we could have more than a soap opera or a commercial for a rock soundtrack.

A big part of the problem is that as a superhero, Daredevil has powers that are awfully pedestrian. He's essentially a blind man whose superpower is ... sight. His superhuman hearing and smell may give him more, but the filmmakers are trying to cram in so much here (romance, comedy, Daredevil's background, an apoplectic Colin Farrell as psycho hitman Bullseye, etc.), that everything suffers. We're not amazed at Murdock's powers. Except for a fantastic fight scene involving Murdock, Elektra and a see-saw, the action is average. The characters live in the void between comic-book and honest realities -- they're forgettable.

We're not amazed by Affleck's performance, either. Just as Christopher Walken cannot abandon his lunacy for a single role, nor Keanu Reeves his idiocy, Affleck is defined by his sensitivity. His stabs at anger and threat just don't cut it -- you wouldn't ask David Schwimmer to go postal for the camera, and you shouldn't ask Affleck, either.

Daredevil does score points when Jon Favreau is stealing scenes. As Murdock's law partner Foggy Nelson, Favreau is Affleck's comic foil: he gets the funny lines and, in one scene, a swell spit-take. In the office, Foggy gets tired of missing shots with a miniature basketball and hoop. After yet another brick, he looks at his blind co-worker and says, "Swish!"

The movie's most telling moment, though, arrives when Murdock uses his mighty powers to steer Elektra away from an unseen dollop of dog shit on the sidewalk -- it's heroism of the smallest variety.