Pity poor Mark Steven Johnson. He directed Daredevil, exec produced Elektra and wrote Ghost Rider. Three superhero adaptations in a row, each released to a critical kicking.
Elektra was called “shockingly dull”, “a disjointed drag” and “a half-hearted effort”. Ghost Rider was labelled “cheesy and infantile”. In hindsight, Daredevil got off lightly, with a reasonable 44% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com).
But Daredevil wasn’t supposed to be a 44% movie. It was supposed to be a big, fat Ben Affleck starring Summer blockbusting rollercoaster of a beast; Spider-Man for grown-ups or Batman with a heart. Instead it was “disposable and forgettable”, “gaunt and joyless”. What happened?
Having picked up the director’s cut DVD recently, it all becomes clear; studio meddling ruined this movie. They trimmed out the darkness and filed down the edges; cutting out a whole sub-plot and ramping up the romance until the whole thing – in the words of Talking Heads – stopped making sense.
Daredevil, The Director’s Cut is no Batman Begins or Sin City – but it’s more spectacular than Spider-Man 3 and more fantastic than either of the Fantastic Four films.
Unlike some re-edited epics that simply bloat and slow down a perfectly serviceble storyline, Daredevil’s directors cut is a restoration and revelation. Running a full 30 minutes longer than the theatrical version, it gives the movie three things that were missing the first time around.
Firstly, this cut has a soul – and that soul is Matt Murdock. Daredevil’s legal eagle alter ego is a distinct and well drawn character, rounding out the hero’s motivations and morals. He’s not there just to mope around in the brief bits when Affleck hangs up the billy club.
Secondly, there’s some much needed grit. The first edit was all boner and no balls, lingering over the too quickly requited relationship between Matt and Elektra. This time round, the fights are longer, the aftermath is more painful and there’s no superhero shagging. Daredevil doesn’t get any lucky breaks at all – which is exactly as it should be.
Finally, and most crucially, there’s a story. A real, honest-to-goodness narrative with clear conflict, progression and resolution. An entirely new sub-plot – featuring Coolio as a gangbanger framed for murder – not only demonstrates what Matt Murdock does in his day job, but ties together a bunch of ends left ragged and loose in the original.
Now that the movie makes sense, you don’t feel guilty enjoying everything that was right about the original cut. The Hell’s Kitchen set steams and creaks, striking the right balance between grimy realism and Burton’s Batman. Brutal and balletic fight scenes, choreographed by chop socky veteran Cheung-Yan Yeung are thrilling enough to make you wish you could go back and watch this cut at the local multiplex, with every crack and smack coming at you in THX surround sound.
Of course, there are still flaws. Colin Farrell mugs through the movie like a bargain bin Hannibal Lector. The obligatory “woo-hoo, I’ve got super powers” montage, with a pre-pubescent DD leaping over rooftops, rings less true than it did in the old, butchered version.
It’s worth putting up with these minor irritations to get to the newly tooled and bone crunching culmination. When Daredevil confronts the Kingpin, it’s no longer a brief tussle with a badly drawn villain – an anti-climax after the pre-match warm-up with Farrell’s Bullseye – it’s now a clash of titans. The original cut of this scene, tailored for a PG audience, neutered it of both meaning and substance. Now, Daredevil is the battered heart of Hell’s Kitchen, Kingpin is corporate corruption personified – a literal and figurative behemoth who seems unbeatable. The scene that’s set is on a cinematic par with the climactic scrap between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed – and this time it pays off.
Director Johnson is currently rumoured to be developing an HBO pilot of Preacher; DC Comic’s dark tale of a holy man possessed by supernatural powers. Some might see this as demotion; from blockbuster helmer to TV hack in just three movies. We think that HBO, with its indie sensibility and cutting edge aspirations, could be the best home for him. The original’s British creator Garth Ennis is on board, so this should be one Mark Steven Johnson comic adaptation that the studio can’t mess up. Fingers crossed.