Ben Affleck’s Daredevil Could Teach the MCU a Few Things

Ben Affleck’s Daredevil may not be a classic, but it’s time to give the devil his due.

Ben Affleck in Daredevil
Photo: 20th Century Studios

The original (and to date only) big screen Daredevil movie turned 20 years old last week. There wasn’t exactly a deluge of fanfare over this fact. For obvious reasons. Released during the boom years for glossy, hyper-edited action movies that had one eye on MTV tie-ins and another on the post-theatrical DVD double-dip market, director Mark Steven Johnson and star Ben Affleck’s Daredevil arrived into cinemas on Valentine’s Day weekend 2003 as a chopped-to-the-bone, 103-minute collection of studio priorities under 20th Century Fox’s then-chairman, Tom Rothman.

To give you an idea of how different a time this was for the industry, not until the 11th hour of pre-production was Johnson, a lifelong fan of Daredevil comics (specifically Frank Miller’s run in the 1980s), even allowed to give Matt Murdock a red-horned costume. Prior to the release of Sam Raimi and Sony Pictures’ Spider-Man (2002), Fox wasn’t convinced audiences would show up to see a superhero movie where the guy wore tights. It was a different, simpler moment for superhero cinema; an era where the biggest headlines associated with the movie were about Ben Affleck’s relationship with Jennifer Lopez (remember when they were together?), and not which superhero mask he’d don next. It is likely for that reason the director’s cut of Daredevil was R-rated and 133 minutes, yet the version that made it into theaters was PG-13 and barely over 90 minutes if you don’t include the credits.

Even then, the director’s cut is a troubled hodgepodge of influences and compromises, from the infusion of wire-fu martial arts after the success of The Matrix (1999) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which didn’t match a faux-gritty “streets of New York” aesthetic of the rest of the film, to the picture trying to be both a legal thriller and a revenge fantasy where Jennifer Garner’s Elektra Natchios reveals she’s a trained ninja (with early-2000s appropriate midriff too, of course).

So, yes, it’s easy to harp on this bygone relic in superhero movie history. And yet… and yet, dear reader, there are things in this misfire that are actually admirable. Some of these qualities have been forgotten, and some look strangely pleasant given the glut of Marvel movies that followed. So instead of coming to bury Affleck’s Daredevil movie one more time, let us instead praise it for a few things. Five or so.

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Colin Farrell’s Performance

Anyone who’s seen Daredevil (2003) knows that the movie’s back half is trying to do too much: the death of Elektra from the comics, Matt Murdock’s war with the Kingpin (the late, great Michael Clarke Duncan), and just the generally bad idea to have two major villains in your superhero movie. But when one of them is played by a talent as versatile as Colin Farrell, it can’t be all bad. In fact, some of it is downright great!

A full two decades before Farrell was stealing scenes as a supporting villain in Matt Reeves’ The Batman, the Irish actor was doing the same shtick in Daredevil. And like Farrell’s Penguin, the Bullseye supervillain of 2003 left very little scenery un-chewed. Back then, however, it seemed strange to have the guy celebrity gossip rags pegged as the next Brad Pitt appear in only a handful of scenes in a superhero movie. But Farrell’s inner-character actor was already peaking through his movie-star good looks when he volunteered to shave his head and play a comic book hitman as bald as a newborn babe.

Daredevil is tonally all over the place, but Farrell knows exactly what type of movie this is. He’s introduced chugging a pint of Guinness with one hand while making five bullseyes in a row on a dart board with the other. This is occurring in a supposedly seedy Irish pub, by the by, and Farrell never lifts his eyes from his bitters to glance at the dartboard once. It’s to Johnson’s credit, too, that instead of conforming his actors to comic book lore, he let them bring their own flavors to it. In the case of Bullseye, this meant letting him be the first character in a Hollywood film where Farrell uses his actual Irish lilt.

Only it’s less a lilt and more a growl here, with Farrell hissing over lines like “He made me miss… I never miss.” Elsewhere, Farrell improvises the following when asked if he needs anything from his employer the Kingpin: “Yeah, I want a fookin’ costume.”

Farrell didn’t get the costume in this one, although the choice to make Bullseye’s famous insignia a branding scar on the actor’s forehead was a pretty nifty idea by Johnson. No matter what, though, shots of the performer crossing himself while threatening a “padre” in a Catholic church, or then using that same institution’s candles to light himself as if he were Boris Karloff, makes for a supremely entertaining energy that steals the movie right out from under Affleck. You can quibble over whether all that ham is technically “good,” but it’s great watching it be served up!

True Street Level Stakes

Something that’s also refreshing about revisiting Daredevil in the 2020s is how small it feels. This is in-keeping with the fact that it was a mid-budget action movie, reportedly price-tagged at $78 million, back when studios made those. However, it also was par for the course of who Matt Murdock is in the comics. The Web-Head might be your “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” but Daredevil was always Hell’s Kitchen’s champion. And before gentrification changed the real-life Kitchen to dream real estate, that wasn’t meant to be a romantic image.

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This is a character who is beaten, broken, and often loses as many fights as he wins. He should rarely, if ever, pal around with the Avengers. And at a time when even the aforementioned friendly neighborhood Spider-Man was briefly positioned as the new Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s downright refreshing to see that in an early scene in Daredevil, Affleck’s Murdock returns to his apartment, bruised, suffering, and so desperate for some painkillers and sleep that he tunes out the sound of police sirens—and some stranger’s murder many blocks away in the director’s cut.

While not all superhero movies need to be as dark as that sequence, it’s rare to see them have such day-in-the-life concerns. Of course the far superior Netflix series about Daredevil addressed these elements better than the 2003 Affleck movie, however that Netflix series was canceled by Marvel Studios proper, and it remains to be seen if Cox’s Daredevil will be used in a similar fashion on Disney+. On the big screen, meanwhile, Spider-Man is constantly saving the universe from Thanos, a multiverse tear, or simply Quentin Beck assuming godlike control of an army of drones that do whatever the script requires. And that’s the more “toned down” side of MCU flicks.

Daredevil (2003), conversely, is about a guy who in the director’s cut is trying to prove a client’s innocence while also romancing a rich uptown girl named Elektra. After her father dies, things take a bleak turn, but they never rise further than dealing with a crime lord trying to beat a rap. The execution of these ideas leaves a lot to be desired, but their presentation also creates a desire for a greater variety of stories from the superhero genre. Not just today’s exhausting detours into multiverse theory meant to exploit our collective childhood nostalgia for versions of these characters from 20, 30, even 40 years ago. But, hey, maybe that means Affleck could turn up in Avengers: Secret Wars

Doesn’t (Always) Feel Like a Comedy

Also in matters of tone and aesthetics, another quality of Daredevil (2003) is how seriously it takes itself—even when it perhaps shouldn’t. The cognitive dissonance is strong in a movie that features a sequence where a woman has a gravity-defying martial arts fight in a playground with a blind man (although it would look great in a Wuxia film!) and then later has her brutally murdered by Farrell’s Bullseye. Meanwhile Jon Favreau is on hand in his pre-Iron Man, and even pre-Elf, days to improvise some gags about Sanford & Son, yet which themselves feel like a bit from a ‘70s sitcom, albeit with more four-letter words.

Nonetheless, when Johnson wants to treat this material without an ounce of snark or self-aware irony, Daredevil will just go for it with a gee-golly earnestness. Elektra’s death leaves a lot to be desired, including how it’s a relic of the trend of “fridging the girlfriend” (i.e. killing her off) to make the male heroes seem deeper or more dynamic. It became a lazy trend in 1980s comics, as well as late 20th century/early 21st century action movies.

However, Daredevil at least has the good grace to let Affleck and Garner play the scenes with sincerity and despair. Perhaps hinting at their actual off-screen chemistry, the pair’s romantic moments work. Johnson’s script isn’t anything remarkable, but after more than a decade of pop culture references and self-deprecating humor that apologizes for even attempting to take this sexless material seriously, seeing two actors who are visibly smitten with each other simply flirt like adults… is nice.

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It Actually Looks Like a Movie

Daredevil was released in what turned out to be the final years of 35mm celluloid as the gold standard for Hollywood production. Already the likes of George Lucas and Robert Rodriguez were championing digital photography, and by the end of that decade it would become the dominant form used in Hollywood production. It shows.

While beautiful cinematography can be achieved digitally, the art and craft of visual storytelling has been in decline over the last decade, particularly in superhero movies that increasingly appear to be just a collection of medium shots of two or three actors standing in front of blue screens with gray-washed color correction sprinkled on top. Combined with the high-key lighting we used to associate with network television shows, superhero movies often look flatter than almost any series produced right now by HBO.

Daredevil, conversely, looks like an actual movie with shadow, shading, and style. Lensed by cinematographer Ericson Core, the DP on the original The Fast and Furious and several other slick early-aughts action movies, Daredevil has a glossy sheen that wouldn’t look out of place in a grunge music video (or an emo one as the movie also introduced mass audiences to the rock band Evanescence). While it’s not quite as authentic as its grimy setting is meant to evoke, it looks good in the way the most stylish Super Bowl commercial does.

When Elektra and Matt Murdock meet in a coffee shop, the film is bathed in warm, golden hues while mimicking the close-up techniques of 2000s romantic comedies. But after they’re on the outs following her father’s murder, Elektra is shrouded in shadows and often kept in wide shots while training in her dojo—emphasizing her loneliness in an empty space. Johnson and Core even recreate one of the most famous images of Daredevil comics during the film’s opening credits, by posing Affleck’s superhero as a demon clinging with great lamentation to an NYC church’s granite rooftop crucifix.

It’s filmmaking 101, but sometimes it’s good to remember these lessons.

The Music

Lastly, it wouldn’t be right to offer a wake to Daredevil’s memory and not eulogize the score by Graeme Revell. Primarily known for his television work today, even in the 2000s Revell wouldn’t have been the obvious choice for a superhero movie. In the same year as the Man Without Fear movie, Revell wrote the music to horror films Open Water (a genuine minor classic of the genre) and Freddy vs. Jason (um… some kind of classic).

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He brings a similarly foreboding menace to the sound of Daredevil, the character. As much of the movie grapples (if even only superficially) with its protagonist’s morality, and whether he is in fact a hero or vigilante, a good Catholic boy or a man damned on the road to perdition, the music is heroic… and yet aloof. There is something vaguely sinister about how a lone horn broods whenever Murdock first puts on the costume.

Similarly, the piano theme simply titled “Blind Justice” embraces a melancholic bittersweetness that is anathema to modern Marvel films, but then so are generally distinguishable musical leitmotifs and themes. The score of Daredevil is legitimately good and better than the film it serves.

Also, tacky and dated though it must be, as someone who was a teenager with a heart in 2003, I cannot deny that Evanescence’s Fallen album slaps. Bring me to life!