On January 7th, Marvel and Netflix announced the release date for the latest live-action adaptation of the Daredevil franchise. Marvel’s Daredevil will make its entire 13-episode season available to stream on April 10th, much to the delight of compulsive bingers everywhere.
Fans of the visually impaired vigilante are looking forward to a series that is 12 years clear from the blast radius caused by the much maligned big screen adaptation. The internet’s hate-boner for Ben Affleck still rages on to this day because of the fictional events that transpired back in March of 2003. Still, if you were to weigh that collective nerd rage against the more measured response of film critics you’d objectively conclude that most people didn’t like Ben Affleck in Daredevil. Not an unfair statement, considering that even Ben Affleck didn’t like Ben Affleck in Daredevil.
Affleck animosity aside, the movie as a whole is considered a resounding flop. Yet all the components of a classic superhero movie seemed to be there; a hero born of tragedy, a menacing and well-rounded villain, plus a romantic subplot for whoever the hell cares about romantic subplots. What was it then, that made this movie so unlikeable? Here’s a hint: the exact same things that made this movie so fantastic. Daredevil may just be the greatest superhero movie that nobody liked. Here’s why:
The Tone is Dark, But Not Too Dark
Matt Murdock, for all his efforts advancing the rights of persons with disabilities, still doesn’t stack up against Marvel heavyweights like Spider-Man and the X-Men, both of whom happened to be successfully captivating moviegoers back in 2003. An acrobatic blind man, nimble as he may be, just doesn’t out-cool a dude with a metal-laced skeleton and knives for hands. So rather than punch above its weight class against established blockbuster franchises, Daredevil bobs and weaves in a different direction; it diverges from the flamboyance of contemporary superhero movies by ultimately choosing gritty over grandiose.
The tone is dark, but not hopelessly so. The film paints a grim picture of a New York that it is overrun with murderers and rapists in order to validate Daredevil’s hard-line, surgery-by-subway approach to crime fighting. However, the gloom is tempered with just the right amount of gaiety so the movie doesn’t spiral into what can only be described as “Dark Knight territory.” Here, our protagonist is not so heartless that he’ll pass up an opportunity to engage in a good old fashioned game of full-contact flirting (or kung fu courting, I can’t decide which bad line I like better) with token love interest Elektra. It is perhaps because this movie walks a tightrope between cynicism and optimism without committing fully to either, that the audience was sold on neither.
Daredevil Isn’t Your Friendly Neighborhood Vigilante
So you’ve decided to become a vigilante? Great! Congratulations on taking in the law into your own hands. Wait, what’s that? You say you’re not actually going to execute those rapists and murderers? Oh, you’re going to just rough them up a little then pass them on to law enforcement? In that case, well done, you’ve entirely missed the point of becoming a vigilante. You can go ahead and return that costume. Maybe you can still get back your deposit.
As an aspiring vigilante, you really only have two choices: you either take matters into your own self-righteous hands, or you stay out of the way while the legal system does what it has been put in place to do. There’s no middle ground. A true vigilante believes the legal system doesn’t work, which is why they’ve appointed themselves to bring the lost causes of civilized society to justice.
Matt Murdock understands the dichotomy that exists between being a vigilante and being a law abiding citizen, and he is able to craft his alter-ego accordingly. By day he attempts to bring the legal system of New York back up to respectable standards, and by nightfall he hunts down the criminals who slip through the cracks. Reintroducing criminals back into a failed and/or corrupt system is baffling decision that a lot of comic book vigilantes make. Daredevil isn’t as forgiving at the Batmen and Spider-Men of the world, which might have cost him some popularity points with fans.
Daredevil Doesn’t Waste Time on the Learning Curve
Unlike the majority of cinematic superheroes, Daredevil has his shit together before the end of the first act. We see a few minutes of young Matt bumbling his way into toxic sonar vision, and from there we jump straight to an adult Matt who already has a strong grasp on the fundamentals of superheroing.
Being introduced to a superhero in his prime is a welcome change of pace from watching an emotionally troubled loner blundering through their early days of superherodom. Daredevil’s early days of crime fighting are glossed over, perhaps to the chagrin of the people who like a good old-fashioned origin story.
Kingpin is a More Grounded Villain
Wilson Fisk is a refreshing take on comic book villains, in that he isn’t inexplicably committed to mass genocide or establishing a trans-continental dictatorship. He is just a unethical businessman with simple ambitions: stay in business by influencing and/or murdering anyone who threatens the stability of his organization. In other words, he’s your typical oil company CEO, only with the physique of a steroid-riddled pro wrestler.
The Kingpin doesn’t pursue some otherworldly weapon that will grant him the power to destroy all who oppose him; his weapon is influence, and he is ruthless when yielding it. Though admittedly, an intangible quality is not as resplendent as, say, the Tesseract.
It Isn’t a Traditional Superhero Movie, Mostly
Daredevil is at its best when it doesn’t acquiesce to standard superhero movie tropes. For most of the movie, Daredevil’s take-no-prisoners approach to crime fighting is a welcome deviation from take-all-prisoners approach of most comic book heroes. The choice to kill off the main protagonist’s love interest is an undeniably ballsy move, and one that few superhero movies have tried.
When it does succumb to genre cliches, however, Daredevil falls flat. The kiss in the rain is clearly borrowing (if not blatantly stealing) Spider-Man’s iconic kiss from the previous year. Furthermore, when Daredevil spares the life of Kingpin, it feels like a copout and a thinly veined sequel setup.
Daredevil may have been a critical failure, but it needs to be stated that the movie introduced some relatively innovative ideas to the genre that are now becoming popular in superhero franchises. Perhaps the world of 2003 was simply ill-prepared for the awesomeness that Daredevil unleashed upon it.