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Moriarty Manges To See DAREDEVIL!

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

There are a number of clips from this film online now (SUPERHEROHYPE.COM has done a great job of assembling them all for you right here), but I’ve been trying to wait and be patient. I knew this was right around the corner, and so often, clips are cut differently than the footage in the actual film. Context is key, especially for character moments, and so I did my best to hold off. And tonight, my patience was rewarded.

I’ll do a short, non-spoiler version of this first, then a more detailed reaction, so it’s up to you which one you read. I loved the film. I thought it was smart, well-written, well-directed, and struck just the right tone for the material. Ben Affleck manages to make you believe in Matt Murdock, Jennifer Garner is quite affecting as Elektra, and both Colin Farrell and Michael Clarke Duncan do solid supporting work as the villains of the piece.

What makes DAREDEVIL stand out for me is the way the film focuses on the lead character and pushes almost everything else to the background. So often, these films are spectacle, giant scaled stories that feature colorful characters clashing against giant backdrops. I think that X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN both did a nice job at giving us character touches that humanized the people in them, but they are still essentially large canvass movies. DAREDEVIL is intimate, and for the first time, this movie seems to be about what it would feel like to be that person who goes out at night and faces death with little or no thought for your own safety. This is a film that plays largely from Matt Murdock’s point of view, so to speak, and as a result, it feels more personal. Another thing that distinguishes the film is how special effects are used. There are no real show-stoppers here. We see how he gets around the city, but only in a few scenes, and it always cuts back to Ben as quickly as possible. Everything is in service of the story or the characters or creating a persuasive reality. After a while, you don’t really think about effects, and that’s a good thing. Instead, you’re pulled into a story about people. And that’s a great thing.

Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson deserves much fanboy love and mainstream crossover success for what he’s accomplished here. Ericsson Core, his cinematographer, helps him create a look and feel that is essentially comic book, yet grounded in a real world we recognize. Most of this film takes place on rooftops or in back alleys, in a sort of shadow world just above or beside or behind the one where most people live. Special credit must also be given to the designers of Daredevil’s enhanced sonar vision, which is both logically functional and incredibly beautiful. We never just cut to Daredevil vision because it’s “cool,” either. It’s always meant to draw us into Matt’s world, to make us experience things the way he does. There is some bold sound design in an early fight scene at Josie’s Bar, where certain sounds rush up at us and others recede to near-silence, that gives you an idea of how Murdock might be able to handle himself amidst such complete chaos.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the relationship between Matt and Elektra. It is the heart of the film, literally. For the first time, a love story isn’t marginalized in one of these films. It’s not the excuse to shoehorn in some hottie of the moment. Instead, it is central to the idea that Matt is finding his place in the world. When he meets Elektra, it’s as if he finally finds something besides revenge to make his life worth living, and both Garner and Affleck make this work. There is genuine chemistry between them. Releasing this on Valentine’s Day is smarter than you’d think, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see an ad campaign directed entirely at the date audience, playing up these two and the heat they generate.

Overall, DAREDEVIL is one of those litmus tests for fandom. We all say we want character-oriented superhero films, movies that manage to bend and break formula and that take the material seriously, and we claim that it’s not about empty spectacle, that we want good stories first and foremost and that we would reward those films. Here’s your chance to put up or shut up. If it’s giant scale destruction and mayhem you want, HULK and X-MEN 2 are both looking like sure things for later in the year. If it’s non-stop action and physics-bending reality, then hold out for the MATRIX.

But if it’s a human hero you want, one we recognize in ourselves, one who bleeds and who hurts and who loves and who dares to face a dark world without fear, then DAREDEVIL delivers, and it promises a different kind of franchise, one I would welcome with open arms.

So... having said that... I have a few other things I’d like to say, and I’ll let you non-spoiler types take off before I do so.

Just dipping a toe into our chat room post screening, I was innundated with questions about the film, about specific characters, and about the way the film works overall, and I want to assuage some of your fears, confirm that there are things Johnson hasn’t included at all, and give you some idea of why I think the adaptation works and pays great respect to the source material.

First of all, there’s no Stick in the film. On the other hand, there’s nothing in the film that says explicitly that Matt Murdock didn’t take some time to learn from him. It just isn’t mentioned at all in this particular story. The first part of the film deals with young Matt and his relationship with his father, and then the movie jumps forward to Matt today, working as a lawyer and crusading at night as Daredevil. There’s a lot of years that aren’t covered at all, so before you go on a rant about how Johnson’s gutted the character or dropped something you loved, take a moment to consider that there’s always room in another film for him to fill in some of this detail, and he hasn’t closed any doors on that possibility.

The way the origin is handled in this film is particularly graceful. Matt’s relationship with his dad, Jack “The Devil” Murdock (played with lumpen, craggy charm by David Keith) is etched in a few scenes, but they’re precise and they show that Matt’s moral sense was the first one he honed in life. His disappointment at learning that his father is hired muscle for a mobster is what leads to his accident that blinds him, and it forces his father to step back and re-examine his own choices. His father’s eventual end isn’t played as the random act of violence that transformed Bruce Wayne into Batman. Instead, it’s the inevitable, if tragic, cost of stepping into a corrupt world.

When Matt wakes up in the hospital, blind, and has his first encounter with his new sense that’s replaced the one he lost, it’s overwhelming and disturbing, like being underwater and being surrounded at the same time. It takes Matt some time to get his bearings again and figure out how to interact with the world, and even as an adult, we see how hard it is sometimes to shut the world out. Like I said, this film puts you in Murdock’s place as much as possible, and when we see how he has to sleep in order to find some respite, it drives home how alone he really is. He doesn’t keep people at arm’s length because he wants to... he literally couldn’t bring anyone to his home because of how it’s set up. There is no secret identity or dual personality here. By day, Matt tries to put scumbags away in the courts, and when that fails, he does what he has to.

What that is, exactly, is the question that Matt has to face in this film. Early on, he allows a rapist to die in a particularly grisly manner, and there’s even a hint that he enjoys it. He claims the death as his own by leaving his “signature” at the scene (yeah, it’s a nod to THE CROW, but it’s also an effective warning and a sign that he knows the value of creating a legend around Daredevil, something street crooks might fear), so he’s not afraid to push as hard as he has to. In another scene, he beats a man mercilessly, pausing only when he realizes that the man’s son is there, witnessing it. The boy is terrified, afraid Daredevil is going to attack him, and it rocks Matt. He is forced to question his tactics and his purpose, and it makes sense that while he’s off-balance like this, he meets Elektra.

There’s a real sense of play in their introduction to each other, a scuffle that’s more about testing each other than it is about actually hurting one another. It’s one of the few moments where Affleck actually smiles and some of his trademark self-assuredness comes through, but it doesn’t come across as cocky or arrogant here. Instead, Matt comes across as someone who can handle himself in any situation, and it gives him poise. Elektra is intrigued in spite of herself, and if there’s a single classic image in the film, it doesn’t come from any of the fight scenes or any of the superhero bravado. It happens on a rooftop, Matt’s favorite “view” of New York, where he takes Elektra for a private moment on their second encounter. He tells her it’s about to rain. She laughs at first and says he’s wrong, but he explains. He smells it in the air. He feels the change in temperature. He tells her that when it rains, the sound of the water hitting things gives him a “picture” of the world... almost like he can see again. He asks her to wait with him for the rain so he can see her face. And when the rain comes and Matt “looks” at her, we see what he sees, her face defined by sonic refraction, and it’s like she’s made of diamonds. It’s achingly lovely. And when the inevitable happens and he hears someone in trouble on the streets below, he starts to leave, and she takes his hand. “Stay,” she says. “Stay with me.”

To my complete surprise, he does. Time and time again, people behave like real people in this film. Anytime anyone has a chance to get that mask off Matt, they take the opportunity. Over and over, we see Matt make personal choices. He isn’t some selfless automaton, programmed for vengeance and nothing else. Maybe on some level, he’d like to be, but he is human, and he has wants and needs, and when this chance at happiness presents itself, he takes it. It makes me like him that much more. Remember how irritated so many people were by Peter Parker’s decision at the end of SPIDER-MAN to just walk away from Mary Jane, even after she says she loves him? Well, Matt wouldn’t do that. Matt would reach out and take his chance at life. And I think it’s that human side that makes the other characters in this film respond to him and like him so much.

But enough about Matt. After all, we’ve got two bad guys in this film, and I’m sure you’d like to know a little bit about them, right?

Surprisingly, this is a superhero movie that refuses to relinquish the lead role to a villain. The first Tim Burton BATMAN could just as easily have been called THE JOKER. After all, the thing that most people walked away from that film talking about was Jack Nicholson’s shamelessly hammy performance. It’s understandable, too. When your hero is a brooding blank, then you end up drawn to the larger personality. Here, Johnson has wisely given us worth opponents for Daredevil, but he never lets them take over the film. Colin Farrell is deliriously over the top as Bullseye, and you can’t help but get the feeling that this guy is genuinely deranged. Not in a “wow, that’s so cool” sort of way, but more in a “sweet Jesus, can’t they lock that freak up?” sort of way. He’s hired muscle, brought in to do a job, and he ends up taking things personally. Kingpin, on the other hand, is all business. Michael Clarke Duncan is the very model of restraint with his performance. He is imposing, but he doesn’t play it up. He seems perfectly happy to stand in the shadows and let his plans play out, just like Wilson Fiske would be. After all, he doesn’t want people to know he’s the Kingpin, so it would make sense to be quiet about his activities. When the time comes for him to face Daredevil one-on-one, it’s a brutal fight, and it pushes the limits of the PG-13 in some ways. Johnson had to resubmit his film three times to get the rating he wanted, and there were minor cuts made here and there to tone some of the fights down, a process that SPIDER-MAN also had to go through. There’s more impact to the fights in this film, though, and there’s no feeling that punches are being pulled. If Fox lets Johnson do an alternate cut of the film for the DVD release in June, it might serve as a valuable lesson in how thin that line between the ratings really is.

There’s a lot more I could say about this film, and that is the mark of a movie I really enjoyed. I find myself eager to see it again the weekend it’s released, and I am confident that my girlfriend, who has never read a single issue of the comic, will enjoy it as much as I did. It’s the kind of film that doesn’t depend on your fandom to enjoy it, but if you get the references to a Romita or a Quesada, or if you recognize Frank Miller or Kevin Smith in their brief appearances, then you’ll enjoy it on a different level. The only people who stand to be disappointed are those who carry too much baggage in. Hatred of Affleck, near-religious devotion to the details of the comic... these things might mar it for you. If I have any complaint personally, it's about the reliance on songs instead of a score, but I understand it as one of those things that helps sell a film. I just wish the film was allowed to be a little more timeless instead of having such a definitive 2003 date stamped on it by a few musical choices. Still... that's a minor gripe.

Right now, all I can say is that more and more, that Marvel Films logo at the start of a movie is an indicator that what we’re going to get is going to be a film crafted with a respect for the characters we’re watching, a film that stands as an example of how to adapt this sort of material in a way that pleases both newcomers and fans alike. Warner Bros... DC... are you guys taking notes yet? Because you should be. Good god, you should be.

"Moriarty" out.

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