Good Role Hunting

Ben Affleck finds a risk worth taking in 'Daredevil'

Ben Affleck isn't a tool; he just plays one in the movies. Delivering his big "You're sittin' on a winning lottery ticket--and you're too much of a pussy to cash it in!" speech to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, Affleck lacked the necessary emotional weight, but nevertheless conveyed something real about a schlub's relationship to a more talented friend. Humility is what gives the actor's blasé cockiness its warmth, and it's what makes masses of people care about his bad choices in movies and in love. (Incidentally: Couldn't he settle down with Mango, the Chris Kattan cross-dresser on Saturday Night Live?)

From Poor Harbor to The Smell of All Fears, Affleck has bluffed his way through the blockbuster genre, negating his taste (and his left-wing politics) in the bargain. Nothing about his persona makes you think he could pull off playing a blind, tortured superhero in Daredevil: The guy is too affable, even gamely fielding questions about a certain famous fiancée during a recent press junket for the movie. "I take a lot of comfort in the fact that there's only so much you can say about that stuff," he says in a conference room at the Ritz Carlton in Pasadena. "And then you say, 'Colin Farrell is dating Britney Spears,' and you're off the hook."

Still, it's worth remembering something about the original Marvel Comics Daredevil: He's a square. Transforming the cane he uses as a blind man into the billy club he wields as a costumed crime fighter, Matt Murdock lives a conspicuously clean double life. Justice is his 9 to 5--he's a New York lawyer--and the Hell's Kitchen upbringing of his childhood is washed out of his speech. As a boy, Murdock closely obeys his prizefighting dad (portrayed with blunt feeling by David Keith in the movie). Grown up, he defends the legal system with every breath. Only his handicap and his maniacal workaholism keep him from being a redheaded stepchild of Clark Kent. (The accident that robbed him of sight also enhanced his other senses to Caped Crusader levels.)

Daredevil stays true to most of this myth, with one glaring exception. As imagined by writer Stan Lee and artist Bill Everett in 1964, the character was unwaveringly moral. Now the movie introduces him to us as a vengeful and disillusioned sociopath who has yet to find his moral footing. This Daredevil owes an obvious debt to writer-artist Frank Miller, who turned the comic into a kung fu soap opera in 1982, and whose noir reinvention has long been regarded as the best superhero comic series in history. Miller's Will Eisner-like panels introduced a generation of American kids to Japanese-style visual storytelling (and combat), much as Tarantino later brought Hong Kong to Hollywood. I distinctly remember hoping that Martin Scorsese would direct the movie, complete with throwing stars to the throat and an R rating.

Daredevil comes close in its kinetic and entirely plausible violence (which was edited to earn a PG-13). But the movie has been handed off to a different sort of brat. Like all of the recent Marvel movies (Blade, Blade II, X-Men, and Spider-Man), this latest CG bonanza is proudly and profoundly shaped by the passions of comic-book geeks. Director Mark Steven Johnson (Simon Birch) admits to having no more qualification than pure, abiding fandom: He spent years lobbying Marvel honcho Avi Arad, who produced all of the above movies. And together, the filmmakers were exceedingly deferential to the vision of Frank Miller.

"I had Frank come visit when I was in New York," says Johnson in Pasadena, "and I showed him some scenes from the movie. And he looks at me and he goes, 'You're getting away with it! It's so dark!' I'm like, Wow--Frank Miller says it's dark!"

Daredevil quotes wholesale from Miller's comics and assembles his primary cast of villains: Elektra, Murdock's one true love and most formidable opponent (played by Alias star Jennifer Garner, who brings emotion to every muscle); the hulking crime boss Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan, who pulled a Raging Bull-style weight gain for the picture); and Kingpin's assassin Bullseye (Colin Farrell--who, when asked about his character's movie poster during the junket, says, "I wouldn't masturbate to anything else.").

All these characters are vivid and funny, with dialogue that seems acquainted with real life. The same goes for Murdock's hapless, hilarious legal sidekick, "fun-loving" Foggy Nelson (Jon Favreau in top form)--who, if he hadn't been dreamed up by Stan Lee, might stand as a sort of fictionalized Ben Affleck to Daredevil's Matt Damon.

Speaking of whom: What does Damon think of his buddy being a superhero? "He feels threatened," Affleck deadpans. "A little jealous. He likes the tights." Affleck says he has always loved his character, and, like Johnson, might seem to have no other qualifications for the job. But, as with the director, love turned out to be enough: The schlub seizes the role, mustering the first performance of his career that transcends the merely likable. Perhaps he has found his calling: Playing a crazed acrobat forces him to rely more on movement than charm. (He and Garner trained for months with wire-fu expert Yuen Cheung-Yan.) When Murdock meets Elektra for the first time, it's as if she's unimpressed with Affleck himself, who has to woo the girl in battle at a tiny public park as nearby children shout, "Fight! Fight!"

Affleck was introduced to Johnson by director Kevin Smith (Dogma)--a connection that also lends Daredevil its only nagging flaw. Smith has been writing his own Daredevil stories for Marvel since the late 1990s, delving more deeply into the character's Catholicism, a subject that hadn't come up until the mid-'70s. The idea of Daredevil going to confession was ingenious: It also broke a long-standing taboo against religion in comics. (Since then, the Thing has recited the Shema.) But Johnson goes so far as to set the climactic fight in a cathedral--though, thankfully, Smith's more recent (and racist) portrayals of odiferous Al Qaeda operatives didn't make it to the screen.

To be sure, I have my biases and Daredevil has his. (I'm the atheist son of a former priest, and, as only hyperextended geeks know, Murdock was the son of a nun.) But surely a movie this packed with sound, fury, and backstory could have jettisoned the God subtext altogether. Maybe the geeks need a devil's advocate.

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