“Trust me Matthew, spend thirty years inside a confessional and there’s nothing I haven’t heard.”
“Well let’s keep it that way.”
I have hated 20th Century Fox for the longest time and my colleagues here at TMT, Peter and Jamie, have often been puzzled as to why. It started right here with their feature film adaptation of ‘Daredevil’. After finally being able to compare the theatrical version of the movie to the intended director’s cut (a film for once deserving of that moniker), combined with decisions the studio later made with the ‘X-Men’ and ‘Fantastic Four’ franchises, I came to the conclusion that Fox was purposely ignorant of why these comic properties work and why they have endured. So focused are they on making 90 minute action films for teenagers with short attention spans that two of Marvel Comics’ greatest sagas, ‘The Dark Phoenix Saga’ and ‘The Elektra Saga’ have crumbled to dust before our eyes.
But my attitude has mellowed over the years and, rest assured, this is not going to be one long rant against Fox and how THEY ruined ‘Daredevil’. The fact remains that if they put up the money, they are entitled to do whatever they wish. The fact remains that ‘Daredevil’ was more a victim of the success of Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-man’ the previous year than anything else and any studio in Fox’s place would probably want to mould this very dark piece into something more commercial. The fact remains that Fox has not locked the original version of the film away in a vault and looking upon that version we can see that ‘Daredevil’ is still a flawed film.
You can argue (and I am certainly on this side of the fence) that the first act of the film is practically pitch perfect. The opening reveal of Daredevil, hanging for dear life and bleeding to death on the roof of a church after some brutal battle we can only guess at this point, perfectly dispels any notion that this is another ‘Spider-man’. In bold and brilliant strokes, we are gradually enticed into the world of Matt Murdock; his accident, his powers, and how he survived and thrived on the streets and rooftops of New York. In the space of a few minutes we get the downfall and redemption of Matt’s father who sacrifices himself, just to be an example to the boy he loves so much, to keep fighting and never fall down because they tell you to. We get to see inadequacy of the justice system to protect the underdogs and why Daredevil exists to hand out otherwise undelivered justice. And we get to see the private hell that Matt’s life really is, a life where fighting crime leaves physical scars, where his solid food diet seems to consist mainly of painkillers to keep him going and where he is forced to sleep in an isolation tank to block out the sounds of the city and its never ending wave of violence that he otherwise hears every moment of every day.
Where things start to unravel is in the film’s treatment of the Matt Murdock/Elektra Natchios relationship and the repercussion it has on the actual plot of the film (or lack thereof) and especially the third act. In the film, this beautiful, amazing woman is presented as the ray of light Murdock so desperately needs in his otherwise miserable existence and, in that respect, it works very well. After her father, a powerful shipping magnate with ties to the Kingpin of crime, is assassinated for trying to leave his organization by the deadly hit-man Bullseye, Elektra abandons Matt and a life of happiness to walk the lonely path of vengeance and retribution, leaving Daredevil no choice but to keep walking his own. This set up leads into the clunker of a third act where Elektra is hunting Daredevil, Daredevil is hunting Bullseye and Bullseye is hunting both of them and, despite who knows how many rooftops there are in New York, they all manage to converge on the same one. Any tragedy to be mined from this sequence is quickly rushed through so we can watch Daredevil and Bullseye fight each other on the world’s tallest, and least structurally sound, church organ.
The reasons for this not working are two fold. Firstly, Elektra has not been down the path of revenge long enough for her actions or her death to have the impact it should. In the comics, she and Matt meet each other as university students and fell in love before being torn apart by the death of her father. The whole point of the character is that she arrives back into Matt Murdock’s life years later an almost completely changed person, a ninja assassin irrevocably damaged by years of violence. Matt does everything he can to bring her back to the light over the course of their various encounters but is unable to save her. By the time Bullseye finally kills her, the reader is actually conflicted as to whether she got what she deserved as she herself has ended so many lives by this point without hesitation.
Secondly, there is literally no reason why Elektra needs to be a target of Bullseye in the film, save for some tacked on excuse that the Kingpin kills not just his intended victim but their whole family. In the comics, Elektra is an established force to be reckoned with so far down the path of no return that she takes the mantle as the Kingpin’s top assassin with immediately brings her into the sights of Bullseye, desperate to take that position back and eliminate the competition.
In fact it is the villains which really suffer as a result of the changes to the source material. Kingpin, despite being the main villain, is barely in the film. We get no real demonstration of the power he wields, how large his organization is or how dangerous and feared he has become. When Daredevil faces off against Kingpin at the end of the film, there is no electricity to it because he hasn’t been set up properly as someone to be reckoned with. You get the feeling the filmmakers realized this as well and threw in the painfully arbitrary “you killed my father” plot device.
The character is regarded as much of an urban myth in the city as Daredevil and yet the film makes it look like exposing his identity and bringing him down was quite easy. The irony is you can do a far better job of conveying that mythic status as well as the threat of the Kingpin if you don’t even reveal him in the first film. Just like Mandarin is the definitive foe of Tony Stark and the ‘Iron Man’ movies are eventually building up to that character’s appearance, Kingpin is at the top of the villain food chain for Daredevil and there is nowhere to go after that. Kingpin is not just another foe to be conquered either. Defeating him represents the accomplishment of Daredevil’s mission to bring true justice to the city and that is a struggle which is too epic to be accomplished on one film.
From what Mark Steven Johnson says, the reasoning behind including the showdown with Kingpin was, apart from wanting to cram everything he could as a fan into one film, that the film was about the underdog being able to topple the biggest fish in the city. Unfortunately, trying to cram that theme into the same film that charges itself with telling the Elektra saga is folly. There was more than enough story to tell by focusing exclusively on a torturous tale of two soul mates that seem made for one another but force each other apart, dooming themselves to a life of vengeance and violence they feel obligated to because of their fathers.
Imagine a film which takes us straight from Matt Murdock cradling his dead father’s body in Hell’s Kitchen to the brief tranquility of Columbia University where he meets both future law partner Foggy Nelson and the love of his life. Imagine that the film’s romance scenes such as Matt being able to see Elektra in the pouring rain took place at this juncture. Imagine that Elektra’s father is assassinated and framed as the mythical Kingpin of crime there and then leading to a parting of the ways, forever forsaking Matt’s chance to live a normal happy life and putting him on the path of Daredevil. Imagine the real Kingpin off screen pulling the strings of everything that is about to unfold. Imagine Elektra coming out of nowhere in the middle of one of Daredevil’s standard busts as something he barely recognizes (which goes double for her) and turning his life upside down. Imagine Murdock and Nelson on their own against the odds trying to crack the real identity of the Kingpin, with Matt feeling that clearing Elektra’s father is the last thing he can do for her. Imagine Kingpin hiring Elektra to take out these underdog lawyers for that very reason. Imagine Bullseye being the only visible villain, an obsessive psychopath who turns up at every turn, destroying everything that matters to Murdock and pushing both of them into a grand final battle. Imagine an epic.
I know it sounds like I’m being a comic book purist in the worse sense but the irony is that it was the Daredevil film that made it happen. Because of Mark Steven Johnson’s passion project and because of the good things I found in the movie, I started reading Daredevil comics and found a character with a mythology so rich and brought to print by so many talented artists and writers, that he quickly became my favorite Marvel character.
When it comes right down to it that is the highest compliment I can pay him. When it comes right down to it, ‘Daredevil’ is a film made with love.
As opposed to his next film ‘Ghost Rider’ which was made with something else.