With season 2 of Daredevil just a few weeks away, there’s a lot to look forward to. The widely popular first season successfully kicked off Netflix’s road to The Defenders team-up mini-series, and that world is about to be blown wide open in the show’s second season. Between Punisher, Elektra, The Hand, and the many other things happening in Daredevil’s second season, it’s a great time to be a fan of the Scarlet Swashbuckler.
The future wasn’t always so bright for fans of the Guardian Devil, though. We may do our best to forget it, but Daredevil’s first modern live-action outing wasn’t met with nearly as much positivity. In fact, if 2003’s Daredevil is known for one thing, it’s known for being bad.
In the years since, there’s been a lot of finger pointing. Ben Affleck gets a lot of the blame, but truth be told, he actually portrayed a respectable Matt Murdock - at least the parts that were written respectably. There are many far more egregious sins committed by Daredevil outside of Affleck’s performance.
Every time there’s a discussion about just how badly Daredevil failed as a movie, people like to point to the R-rated director’s cut as a much improved version. It’s true that the director’s cut did make some improvements over the theatrical cut, but it wasn’t enough to rescue the movie. Some things are just beyond saving.
Without further ado, this is How The 2003 Daredevil Movie Screwed Up The Character.
R-rated comic book movies may seem like a fresh concept, but they’re really nothing new. It could even be argued that R-rated adaptations were the first comic book movie trend, and that trend was killed off by the PG-13 comic book blockbuster.
The late '90s and early 2000s saw a string of R-rated comic book movies that each benefited from a moderate box office return on low-to-mid level production budgets. The Crow, Blade, and Blade II each at least doubled their budget at the box office, and were well respected by fans. Daredevil was originally intended to follow this pattern. Then Spider-Man happened.
Spider-Man had a much higher budget than the other comic book movies happening at the time, but it also brought in over $820 million at the box office. Those numbers are enough to make any studio executive’s eyes pop.
Fox decided that Daredevil had to be the next Spider-Man. The movie - whose original pitch sounded a bit like Batman Begins before Batman Begins - had a new mandate: be more like Spider-Man. This means more romance, more hijinks, and more CGI rooftop hopping.
Who’s to say that the original pitch would have worked as intended, but it sounds a lot more like the widely popular Netflix Daredevil we have now than the middling and derided Daredevil we got in 2003.
The issue with the mandate to mimic Spider-Man is that Daredevil wasn’t written to be a copycat from conception. Spider-Man only lead Daredevil’s release by 9 months, so the decision to change the script - which Kevin Feige had previously described as “one of the strongest comic scripts we've ever had” - didn’t leave much time for proper rewrites. Because of this, the resulting film suffered from schizophrenic tonal issues.
They took a script for a gritty street level R-rated crime drama - something that caters to a specific audience - and attempted to focus group it into a blockbuster with mass appeal. For modern context, this would be like Warner Brothers telling George Miller to make Mad Max more like Transformers. That’s no bueno.
Some of the clearest examples of the tonal inconsistencies in Daredevil can be found in the characters. Specifically Colin Farrell’s Bullseye. While many of the characters were (mostly) more grounded and believable, Farrell clearly didn’t get that memo. Whether the characterization came from writer/director Mark Steven Johnson, or if it was Farrell’s own doing isn’t clear, but either way, the character doesn’t belong in this movie.
This version of Bullseye wears a leather trench coat, has a bullseye branded on his forehead, and apparently kills people in crowded public areas without repercussions. Bullseye’s presence presents issues far beyond a simple tonal mismatch. His portrayal in Daredevil is almost as if a villain from a Joel Schumacher Batman movie made appearance in one of the Nolan's Batman movies. He just doesn’t fit. Or maybe the rest of the movie doesn’t fit him. It’s hard to tell with this one.
Action movies experienced a revolution in the late '90s. The Matrix had hit it big, and wire-fu was the new hotness in Hollywood. It’s not clear if Daredevil’s creators always planned on making the movie mimic The Matrix, or if the the the CGI rooftop jumping wire-fu combat in Daredevil was also inspired from the mandate to be more like Spider-Man. Either way, this was the wrong decision.
To be fair, digitally assisted wire-fu was the epitome of action choreography at the time. The Oldboy hallway scene that inspired a generation of more “grounded” melee combat scenes (such at the Netflix Daredevil hallway scene) wasn’t even seen until later that year. Daredevil would have been a trailblazer if it had approached a remotely similar style at the time, which might have been a bit much to expect from sophomore director Mark Steven Johnson.
Even so, just because The Raid: Redemption was a decade away yet doesn’t mean Daredevil was lacking the necessary inspiration for more visceral action, or that it even bore any responsibility to make its mark on action choreography. Daredevil could have easily been far less ambitious with the fight scenes - like moments of Tim Burton’s Batman movies, or the darker, more grounded The Crow - and looked far better for it.
What else can be said here? Even if the visual aesthetic was already compromised, the auditory aspects of Daredevil didn’t do much to right the ship. The Daredevil soundtrack was choc full of the likes of Nickelback and Evanescence. Maybe they didn’t realize it yet at the time, but that choice instantly dated the movie, making it both look and feel old (albeit, Nickelback's Chad Kroeger and Saliva's Josey Scott also fronted the lead single for Spider-Man's soundtrack, so maybe that had something to do with it).
Nickelback may have been less polarizing in 2003, but the soundtrack was still far too polished, reflecting the same issues that undermined the rest of the movie. The playlist was cringe-worthy when the film hit theaters, but 13 years later it makes the movie almost too awkward to watch with a straight face.
Many fans might be surprised to learn that Daredevil attempted to become one of the most accurate superhero adaptations ever. It was filled to the brim with cameos, homages, and Easter eggs. Nearly every side character is named after a Daredevil writer, and the plot(s) were pulled from the books even more so than with most comic book movies.
The problem is, Daredevil became a slave to the source material, yet failed to properly honor it the story because of it. The relentless references are simultaneously confusing for casual audiences, who feel like they’re missing important references, and distracting for long time fans, who are thrown off by irrelevant characters bearing the names of their favorite Daredevil creators.
The rigid attempt at comic book accuracy also poses a problem, because the movie takes decades of Daredevil history and tries to cram the most popular plots into one hour and forty-three minutes. The thirty minute longer run-time for the director’s cut improves the pacing marginally, but still has a long way to go to be considered a good movie - instead, it merely benefits from just being less bad.
The largest sacrifice of Daredevil biting off more plot than it can chew is any sense of nuance. Matt Murdock has always been a character that walks a tightrope of morality. It’s a fine line between justice and corruption. Ben Affleck’s Matt Murdock, however, doesn’t follow the traditional paradigm. He stands clearly on the wrong side of that tightrope, not even attempting a balancing act.
Daredevil willingly causes the death of several criminals throughout the movie, occasionally giving lip service to the conflict, saying: “I’m not the bad guy,” when he clearly is. His morality is no different from The Punisher’s (who usually serves as a foil to Daredevil’s principles, as we’ll see in few weeks). This is the case up until the final moment, when he decides not to kill the Kingpin, repeating: “I’m not the bad guy,” as if this one moment of strength makes that statement magically true.
It just goes to show that attempts to be more accurate to source material don't always translate into actually honoring said material - and can sometimes undermine the very character that's being adapted. A little bit of creative freedom could have gone a long way to easing the many issues of Daredevil.
Yes, this deserves its own section. This scene does not belong in this movie. It is poorly written, acted, directed, choreographed, and conceived. It derails the story and is counter-productive to the characters involved. Yes, they even left it in the “vastly superior” director’s cut.
It starts with Matt Murdock being a creepy stalker. Elektra tries to walk away, but he grabs her arm (pro-tip: no means no). Then they proceed to fight on the playground equipment in front of a bunch of little kids.
Not only is Matt blowing his cover as a handicapped blind man, but there is no functional purpose to the fight. It was probably intended to establish sexual tension and mild animosity between Matt and Elektra, but it’s really just a misplaced waste of time.
Lawyer by day, vigilante by night. Matt Murdock has always been a duel threat crime-fighter. He defends the defenseless in court, then preys on the predators in the streets. The problem is, Ben Affleck’s Daredevil is completely useless as a lawyer. The director’s cut devotes more time to fleshing out the legal side of the plot, but still doesn’t provide any evidence that he’s more than mediocre at anything that doesn’t involve punching.
The problem is that Murdock’s lawyering in the movie is largely successful because of the unbilled overtime hours his alter-ego is putting in, which begs the question: “why be a lawyer at all?” Just committing to full time work as the Man Without Fear seems like it would yield far better results, making a good chunk of the movie feel more pointless than it already did.
Considering the original pitch was far more focused on legal drama, it’s not hard to imagine a version of the movie where Matt’s courtroom skills might appear to be of more value. Unfortunately, legal drama is probably one of the first things to be sacrificed when you want to be more like Spider-Man.
Elektra doesn’t belong in this movie. Not just because her entire plotline feels like an afterthought to an already bloated story, but because her story isn’t even her’s. The story where Fisk frames Daredevil for the death of a woman’s father (as happens in Daredevil) is taken from a comic arc belonging to a completely different character: Maya Lopez, a.k.a. Echo.
The shared history belonging to Matt and Elektra in the comics is gone, Elektra’s story is coopted from another female character, and the chemistry between Affleck and Garner is awkward at best. Their romance consists of about 10 minutes of Elektra pushing off Matt’s unwanted advances and a weird playground fight, then they’re kissing in the rain.
Despite the multiple issues with her character, the greatest offense is that she could have basically been cut from the movie entirely without affecting the larger plot. Yet, somehow, she got her own spinoff.
It may have been controversial casting at the time, but Michael Clarke Duncan’s portrayal of Wilson Fisk was one of the more impressive parts of the movie. Vincent D'Onofrio nailed the nuance of the character in the Netflix series, but it’s unlikely any actor could be nearly as physically imposing in the role as Duncan.
The biggest problem with Kingpin in 2003’s Daredevil is that his role is criminally reduced to accommodate the terrible romance subplot with Elektra. This is one of the better improvements in the director’s cut, but his presence is still minimized.
He’s also defeated by Daredevil in their first meeting. It might be a common trope for the villain to win the first bout, only for the hero to be victorious at the end, but Daredevil is clearly missing this first encounter, pushing Fisk into a role better suited for a videogame boss than New York’s criminal overlord.
It’s always easy to look back at an original pitch, or watch the director’s cut and assume there was supposed to be a much better movie there, but it just got away from them during production. We’ll never know how good Daredevil could have been had it been executed as conceived, but one thing’s for sure: the theatrical version was a complete dud, and the Director’s cut only provides marginal improvement.