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    « Scriptapalooza Announces 13th Annual Screenwriting Competition | Main | The Comeback of Ben Affleck »

    First Draft - 'Daredevil: The Man Without Fear'

    You need something to take your mind of Superman news this week don't you? Hopefully I have just the thing.

    'Daredevil' is one of those comic book movies which still inspires debate over its merits and faults with no clear consensus as to its overall quality. As you can read in my piece from the 'Marveling at the Past' series, I think some sections the film are note perfect while others completely fail in every way. The result is a flawed film but one made with such passion for the character that it actually got me reading Daredevil comics for the first time and beginning my own love for the character. You may look at the film as a Daredevil fan yourself and wonder how they could have screwed up so much, that it would not be possible to make a worse film.

    Trust me, it was possible.

    Back in the mid 1990's, the first rumblings of Daredevil's long development process began when none other than Chris Columbus attached himself to the project (while hoping to helm 'The Fantastic Four' at the same time evidently). I never knew at the time why his take on Daredevil never got off the ground. Reading his first draft screenplay makes it practically self evident.

    The screenplay we are looking at today is the 128 page first draft written by Chris Columbus & Carlo Carlei dated September 18th 1996. It is quite an interesting read in that the basic structure of the finished film is laid here and you assume that Mark Steven Johnson used it as inspiration to craft the final shooting script. It also gives you, whether you like the film or not, a deeper appreciation for what ended up on screen as this draft exposes all of Columbus' weaknesses as a writer.

    On the positive side, Columbus in no way intends for 'Daredevil' to be a small scale piece. The action is well written and the set pieces are varied, broad and big. But Columbus also gives us a comic book movie which repeats cliche upon cliche, contains clunky dialogue, characters we don't care about, very little substance and what it does have to say is spelled out for the audience with a speech bubble and an exclamation mark in the true spirit of a cheesy 1960's Marvel comic.

    The story begins, not with the dramatic hook of the adult Matt Murdock bleeding to death after his battle with Elektra and Bullseye, but immediately taking us to his upbringing as a young boy in the grimy streets of Hell's Kitchen, Clinton, New York. Within the first few pages, we sense something is not right. The Matt Murdock we meet is a boy who steals a nightstick from a beat cop on a 'dare' (geddit?) from some bullies. That same evening Matt's father, down and out boxer Jack 'The Devil' Murdock returns home. Matt is hoping to keep his unlawful antics quiet from his father but Jack already knows and promptly smacks his son in the face. In the very next scene, this child beating asshole, whom we're supposed to care about in a little while when he dies, gives Matt a speech on integrity, truth and justice clearly being the personification of all those traits.

    Firstly, Jack's function in the Daredevil mythology is to act as the inspiration for everything Matt does later in life. Jack teaches his son the importance of never giving up, of faith, of sticking up for the little guy, and never lets him forget that he can really become someone important no matter his upbringing. His introductory scene in the finished film accomplished all of this in a grounded way. Jack encourages his son at every moment to be a better human being than his father is. In that sort of self loathing, we find something endearing about the character. We understand why Matt loves is father and we understand why Daredevil comes to exist. The Jack of this script serves no function save the cliche found in so many other comic book movies; to send his son into the world to fight evil for no reason. Though he is meant to be a bum from New York, Jack's pompous little sermon to his son smacks more of Jor-El or Uncle Ben Parker.

    Jack's other function in the script is to get brutally murdered in an alley to set his son on a course of vengeance but this is handled even worse. As I think I've made clear, we don't care about Jack and we don't care about Matt much either. You would think that Matt's fatal accident with radioactive waste which blinds him would create some sympathy but he adjusts so ridiculously well to it in this script, as though it is the best thing that ever happened to him. He even says as much at one point. You are reminded of that scene in 'The Mask' where Jim Carrey says "with these powers I could become....A SUPER HERO".

    As in the comics, the script has Jack allying himself with brutal mobster 'The Fixer' who promises to personally ensure the boxer's rise to the top but is actually controlling the fights, making sure the opponents take a fall and then demands the same of Jack. As it plays out in the comics and the finished film, Jack refuses to take the fall, knowing full well he will die for it but willing to do so to continue to be an example to his son and ensure he continues on the right path. Jack is murdered in a back alley by 'The Fixer' and his goons, most notably chief henchman Wilson Fisk, the man who will become the Kingpin of crime and Matt Murdock, a scared and helpless blind child is left completely alone in the world. As an audience, you can really admire Matt as a character for the simple reason that he pulled himself out of that nightmare, managed to survive and make his father proud.

    In this script, however, it doesn't quite work that way. When 'The Fixer' reveals how staged Jack's amazing comeback has been all along and that he must now throw his next fight, the character seems to reject it more as a matter of personal pride than duty to his son. Again, Jack's character is so badly written that we just do not care when he dies. Worse than that, his death does not take place until Matt is in college, having already met soon to be best friend Foggy Nelson. We are robbed of even the pathos of a little boy cradling his dead father, of that desperation, isolation and utter loneliness......because he isn't alone and he isn't a child.

    Nor are we afforded a moment of grim realism and mourning as Matt, having discovered his father's body, practically runs into the nearest phone booth and puts on the original yellow Daredevil costume for the first time to hunt down 'The Fixer'. The following sequence is almost identical to that in the finished film where the more established Daredevil hunts down rapist scum bag Jose Quesada and corners him on a subway platform. Though they both contain the exciting concept of portraying the character literally as a devil stalking his prey and knowing its every move, practically enjoying taunting it, only the finished film shows us that blurred line Daredevil walks as a ruthless vigilante not afraid to truly punish evil. Instead of a dramatic scenario where a young man looks his father's killer in the eye, having hunted him down by abusing the powers he has been given, and questions whether he can show the same ruthlessness as was shown to Jack, the script cops out and has 'The Fixer' die of a heart attack having been scared to death by the devil (the fact that Matt is wearing the yellow Daredevil costume only makes this more absurd).

    This scenario does, however, provide a good set-up for the Kingpin. The idea that he was the henchman that killed Matt's father was a poorly explained afterthought in the finished film. Here, Wilson Fisk's rise to power is given almost as much exposure as Daredevil's crime fighting career. In fact Fisk is probably the only character in the script that really works and honours the source material. Though it has no time to delve into the stories which really gave depth to him in the comics such as his relationship with his wife, the Kingpin of this script is exactly as he should be; ruthlessly efficient, smart, focused and five steps ahead of everyone else in his organization. To be fair, the Kingpin of the actual movie has barely any screen time so anything would be a step up from that.

    Don't be thinking that Kingpin is perfectly handled though. As you can tell, there is a running theme of botching things in this script. Kingpin's ascent to power is described in the script as a montage similar to 'Rocky III' intercut with Daredevil's continued war on crime as he dons the classic red suit. The only montage that came to my mind while reading it was the one in 'Dick Tracy' where Al Pacino's Big Boy Caprice takes control of the city and rolls around in money to a jazzy Stephen Sondheim ballad. Secondly, though he is meant to be both a legitimate businessman and the secret top crime boss of Manhattan, there is very little distinction made between Wilson Fisk and the Kingpin in the script and very little evidence to show that precautions are taken to protect him from the law. Finally, as a crime boss in the broadest sense, you name the cliche that would come with that and you get it here. Of course Kingpin loves dollar bills. Of course he smashes his desk in anger. Of course there is a scene where Kingpin assembles his mob lieutenants and one of them is an old school hood who disagrees with the way Fisk handles business for no reason at all save that we can see our man villain kill him right there and then.

    Bullseye, however, is a different matter. His character is so completely mishandled that you grow tired of him the second he appears in the script. He is both completely insane and yet totally dull at the same time as he has no actual personality and very little is made of his actual talent for killing with deadly accuracy. His function in the script is actually to provide its message and moral centre, what painfully little there is. Bullseye arrives in the second act, blows up a building and is promptly defeated, but not killed, by Daredevil. In an absurd scene following this, Bullseye is put on trial but found innocent due to purely circumstantial evidence (the fallibility of the justice system being rammed down our throat) and walks free only to kill again. This time his target is Elektra's father Nicholas Natchios and the pain and separation Matt and her endure after this leads to the question of whether Daredevil should have killed Bullseye to avoid it. It is an uninteresting question and no answer is provided regardless.

    You'll notice I haven't even really mentioned Elektra yet. That's because she feels like an afterthought in this script. She comes in about half way through and while Columbus appears to have read 'The Elektra Saga', he clearly has no idea why it resonated with readers. I've said it before but it bears repeating. Elektra's story is one of violence, vengeance and hatred corrupting the soul beyond repair. Matt and Elektra's love was built to last but torn apart by one devastating act of violence towards her father which drove them apart. When she comes back into his life it is at the exact moment he has managed to put her in the past and while he desperately wants to bring Elektra back to the light, Matt is now fighting someone beyond recognition. In the finished film, Elektra serves as a ray of light in Matt's life at the exact moment that he needs it, only making the moment when it is stripped away all the more painful. Both versions work very well.

    The way Matt and Elektra meet in this script, the way they interact and the way they hint at each other's double identities feels like a pale imitation of the Bruce Wayne/Selina Kyle relationship in 'Batman Returns' except that there is no hint of chemistry, sexual tension or even the slightest appeal between the two. If you don't have that, 'The Elektra Saga' is not going to work. The script's biggest misfire is saved for her character. The most vitally important thing about Elektra was always that she made her own choices. Even as she walked away from Murdock, chose violence and death over love and companionship, stayed on that course even as Matt tried to pull her back, and went so far down the path of no return that she agreed to be the Kingpin's top assassin and take out Foggy Nelson, they were her choices.

    In this script, we are first treated to a bizarre scene where the Kingpin proposes marriage to Elektra, during her father's funeral no less, and then drugs and kidnaps her. When Elektra storms into the third act as the master assassin we think we recognise, she is only fighting Daredevil because she has been drugged and brainwashed, both weakening her character and taking away the most interesting thing about watching the two former lovers fight - that they both know who they are fighting and why. Even before this stunning turn of events I had actually given up on the script. As it desperately tries to shoe-horn in a little of the storyline from probably the most highly regarded Daredevil comic storyline 'Born Again', in which the Kingpin finds out the secret identity of Matt Murdock and brings his life crashing cown on him piece by piece in the most beautifully orchestrated revenge plot, we are choked with exposition on the secret backgrounds of both Elektra and Wilson Fisk.

    More than being quite a mess of a screenplay, Columbus' take on Daredevil is mostly a long and dreary read with all sorts of bits and pieces stolen from the ten comic book movies he must have watched before writing it. Most of what makes the character interesting has been stripped away. Beloved comic book storylines are butchered in ways that make 'X-Men: The Last Stand's adaptation of 'The Dark Phoenix Saga' feel reverential in comparison. And it has nothing to say. It is a film about nothing. It is a 90's comic book movie in the worse way; the reason why the genre was so derided before films like 'Blade' and 'X-Men' made us believe again.

    You might just want to pop Mark Steven Johnson's film in your DVD player this weekend and thank heaven for small mercies.

    Reader Comments (2)

    Especially the Director's Cut which is quite good.

    10-7-2010 | Unregistered CommenterKryptonian

    Every script has an evolution, and Daredevil is no exception. From the look of the 128 page script, it was crammed full of too much stuff to make it work. That said, this *is* an early draft, where some ideas are off the cuff, some others big and bloated.
    That said, I understand what the idea was here. I don't know if it was Fox's idea, or Columbus' idea. That idea is what the X-Men films, especially the second film (released in the same year as Daredevil) was doing : taking at least two stories and melding them together. That works fine for a large ensemble cast. It does not work for the solo characte such as Daredevil.

    But, Phil, there's something I also have to take into account. You suggest "ou might just want to pop Mark Steven Johnson's film in your DVD player this weekend and thank heaven for small mercies.[sic]"

    Well, in both DC and studio cut, Johnson had some problems with the studio early on. Listen to the commentary. It is they who did understand the character. In some scenes the costume was black (and in one, with tassles) because Fox was concerned with the Red costume. I'll admit it is a point which when I first seen it in theatres I really didn't notice (they got away with it, because it almost looks like a "blood red"- and at least there was a shot where Murdock had seveal spare DD jackets and such) and while we can bitch at the Columbus draft for being 128 pages.... Johnson's director's cut was 133 minutes, and if we zap out the end credits, it's roughly about the same. (Going under the notion that pages are equal to screen time)

    When I read this post, I was really disappointed; it was one of your worst. Not every script is going to be perfect the first draft. It's an interesting read to see what chunk of stone they were working with. It's also interesting to see what they had to chisel away.


    10-10-2010 | Unregistered CommenterDarren J Seeley

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