8/2/07

R019 Daredevil

(2003, Action-Superhero, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy

Being blind, physics no longer applied to me.

Rating: ****

In a nutshell:

A sightless attorney dons skintight vinyl to prowl the night as a vigilante.

Summary:

A grimmer version of your standard romantic comedy, right down to the wacky misunderstanding in the middle.“I grew up in Hell’s Kitchen,” says our movie’s protagonist in the gloomy, hoarse tone reserved for superheroes and hard-boiled private eyes. The neighborhood thus named is apparently a place of ill repute, where perfectly groomed youngsters of various races band together to rough up random children with skateboards. One such child is Matthew Murdock, the son of a former boxer/secret mob enforcer. Matt discovers this by accident one day, leading to an improbable sequence of events that ends with a shot of toxic waste to the eyes.

It is well known that injury by toxic waste leads to superpowers, and Matt is no exception. He wakes up to find that his eyes are burned beyond usability, but his hearing, smell, and touch have all increased to superhuman levels of sensitivity. In practice, this means he can “see” using echolocation.

(At this point I imagine Daredevil’s original creator pitching the idea to a room full of stone-faced Marvel brass. “It’s a new superhero,” he stammers, fumbling with his concept sketches. “He’s blind and, um...his superpower is that he can see.” Even the normally garrulous Stan Lee greets this declaration with a blank stare.)

Devastated by his son’s injury, the repentant mobster goes legit and gets back into boxing. (Yes, I know the previous sentence is a non sequitur.) The preternaturally gifted Matt drills on his father’s boxing equipment in secret, using his hyperacute senses to train himself in the martial arts. Later, he turns his deadly skills on the neighborhood bullies.

(The unfortunate cartoonist—sorry, graphic novelist—shivers under his idea’s chilly reception. “Ah...” he says, and nervously licks his lips. “Ah...and, um...er...” He gives a small cough. “He’s also a ninja.” The ice breaks instantly as the Marvel officials mutter approvingly to themselves and each other. “Well, that’s all right then,” they say.)

Matt’s dad fights his way back to the upper echelons of boxing, only to meet up with his former mob bosses in a pre-fight locker room. “Take a dive or die,” they tell him, and rather than do something sensible (e.g.: call the cops, flee the state, etc.) he elects to die. The physically and emotionally scarred Matt grows up to be Ben Affleck, a pro bono lawyer who prosecutes low-rent crooks by day, and dresses in a flamboyant devil costume to beat the living snot out of the ones he’s failed to convict by night.

One day, Matt’s lonely, painful existence is brightened by the arrival of the lovely and deliciously named Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner). Their courtship consists of the standard array of stilted romantic dialogue, as well as rooftop walks in the rain, glittery ballroom dance, and martial arts in the park.

(“And he’s got this girlfriend,” the graphic novelist goes on, shuffling another concept sketch to the front. “She’s Greek.” “And a ninja?” asks a hopeful-sounding gray-haired man near the head of the table. Daredevil’s creator is a fast learner; he hesitates only slightly before responding in the affirmative.)

This is my rooftop.  There are many like it, but this one is mine!But all is not well in the Natchios household. Elektra’s wealthy father has various ill-advised business dealings with a hulking crime lord named Wilson Fiske, a.k.a., the Kingpin (Michael Duncan Clarke). He does not realize exactly how ill-advised until he tries pull out of their partnership, inspiring Fiske to hire an assassin called Bullseye (Collin Farrell) to terminate their business dealings in a more final manner.

(“His nemesis is an Irish marksman,” Daredevil’s creator goes on. He pulls a pencil from behind his ear and starts to add roughly drawn throwing stars to his carefully prepared sketches, while the Marvel suits look on. “Who is also a ninja,” he adds.)

As Daredevil, Matt blunders across the assassination plot and, of course, tries to stop it, but an ill-timed explosion disrupts his echolocation. Bullseye steals Daredevil’s nunchucks/walking stick in the confusion and uses it to kill the elder Natchios while Elektra looks on. The peripherally blind Elektra assumes Daredevil killed him, and blows off Matt’s attempts at comfort to swear revenge. She hunts the red-costumed vigilante across the rooftops, stabs him through the shoulder and rips off his mask. Tearful apologies are offered all round, and then Bullseye shows up to impale her.

The movie’s penultimate fight between Bullseye and Daredevil takes place in an old cathedral, and involves dozens of cops, huge pipe organs, and flying shards of stained glass. Expository fight banter reveals the Kingpin’s true identity, so Daredevil drops his nemesis from the steeple and flies across the rooftops to confront Fiske.

(Daredevil’s creator is on a roll now. “The evil villain behind it all is a huge, barely mobile man who wears expensive suits and smokes cigars thicker than his own wrist,” he says. “He never does his own dirty work; mostly he sits behind a desk and orders the deaths of others.” The Marvel committee nods as one. No one mentions anything about this character being a ninja. By now, this is accepted as given.)

Matt and Fiske fight, and it becomes evident that the wounded Daredevil is outmatched. Suddenly, and for no discernable reason, he loses his echolocation ability. Standard villain gloating ensues. And did I mention that Fiske was the one who killed Matt’s father? Because apparently he did. This revelation is followed by (and feel free to raise an eyebrow at this one) the explosion of a water main in a light fixture. Somehow, this restores Matt’s echolocation ability. He breaks both of Fiske’s legs in a single blow. One standard “I’m not like you” speech later, he leaves the wounded gangster for the police.

Later, a Braille necklace implies Elektra’s survival, as well as the impending spin-off sequel.

Thoughts:

The Female Superhero Costume Code requires that all women's costumes meet minimum alluringness requirements.As a whole, this is not a bad movie, just a slightly below average one. “As a whole,” is the operative phrase here, since its constituent parts are wildly disparate in quality, with some ingenious elements (such as Daredevil’s water-filled, noise-cancelling coffin), cringe-worthy elements (such as the laughable CGI that performs Daredevil’s more elaborate stunts), and a lot of mediocre elements (which include the intrusive, over-the-top soundtrack and the forgettable script).

The way they handled the echolocation is fantastic. Showing the point of view of a blind man is always a challenge and rarely done right, but Daredevil’s filmmakers’ use of sound, rain, and wobbly computer graphics perfectly translate his super-hearing to a primarily visual medium. Bravo, sirs. Well done.

Also, the morality of vigilantism is dubious at best, and this movie raises that issue better than any other superhero film I’ve ever seen. In one particularly disturbing scene, Matt follows a petty criminal home and beats him half to death, only to find the thug’s ten-year-old son cowering nearby. Again, well done.

Unfortunately, it then “resolves” this moral issue by having Matt decide to not kill Fiske at the last minute. This is an awful cliché compounded with a pat little speech cribbed from every Saturday morning superhero cartoon that’s ever come before it, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that it completely evades the question. Matt didn’t kill Kingpin, sure, but he’s still wandering the night, beating people within an inch of their lives on flimsy evidence and with no legal authority. And what, did the movie just forget that, not five minutes earlier, it had its “righteous” hero mutilate his opponent and then drop him twenty stories through the windshield of the local reporter’s car?

Granted, this is a superhero movie, a genre that always says, “Revenge is not the answer,” and then pursues it anyway. “Vigilantes are great,” it says. “They get the criminals our legal system can’t touch.” And, as the movie-viewing public, we accept this. We’re intelligent people, for the most part, and can easily tell the difference between fantasy vigilantes, who never punch people who don’t richly deserve their beatings, and real life vigilantes, most of whom are violent racists that routinely persecute the innocent. The genre is so ingrained into our culture that we don’t give the matter any further thought... Except, this movie wants us to think about it. It actually comes out and asks us to think about it. And then it gets distracted by standard cartoonish violence for the most of the rest of its running time, snaps its fingers at the end and says, “Aw, crap!”, and hides behind a genre cliché masquerading as an answer. Sorry, Mr. Filmmakers, but if you didn’t want to talk about this, you shouldn’t have brought it up.

Accompanying Mike on the commentary track are his fellow Mystery Science Theater alumni Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, who have a great deal of fun with the material given to them. When young Matt starts in on his father’s punching bag, Kevin says, “He’s training for his big fight with Stevie Wonder.” When Elektra trains in preparation for her fight with Daredevil, Mike says, “Get fit and get even with revengercise!” When Matt pulls on his mask for his fight with Bullseye, Bill says, “My Satan beanie will protect me.” Also included are numerous quips about the nauseating aerial scene transitions and the hair-challenged state of the numerous peripheral characters. It’s a loud, pretentious movie in a genre that begs for mockery anyway, and the folks at Rifftrax do not disappoint.