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Revenge of the Comic-Book Nerds

"Daredevil" delivers the first purely comics-driven movie. Is America ready to join hands with the Comic Book Guy? Plus, more Oscar malaise.

11:00 PM, Feb 13, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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JUST AS THERE ARE Elvis men and Beatles men, there are DC men and Marvel men. Perhaps "men" is too strong a word, but nonetheless, among comic aficionados, there are two distinct camps. It has been a rough decade for DC lovers. The company has fallen on hard times and its properties have met with a string of failures in Hollywood: The Superman franchise petered out and the Batman franchise devolved, after a promising start, into something worse than its '60s Adam West incarnation. DC has spent the last few years trying to get new installments of these flagship franchises--and even a Batman vs. Superman movie--made with Warner Bros., to no avail. Several other of DC's properties, including Wonder Woman, Catwoman, and Green Lantern, are currently stuck in development hell.

At the same time, Marvel has made a miraculous comeback. After being pushed into bankruptcy by billionaire-egomaniac Ron Perelman in the late 1980s (he bought Marvel shortly after acquiring Revlon), the company was saved by a pair of businessmen who ran the company Toy Biz (the fascinating corporate struggle is detailed in Dan Raviv's excellent Comic Wars). Today under the supervision of Avi Arad, Marvel has become the dominant comic-book publisher and its dominance has extended into film. After "X-Men" in 2000, Marvel followed up with "Spider-Man" in 2002; both films were successful enough to spawn sequels and look to be solid franchises for the foreseeable future. This summer "Hulk" is positioned to be one of the top grossers. Other Marvel properties, such as Iron Man, The Avengers, and The Fantastic Four, are currently in development. And then there's "Daredevil."

"DAREDEVIL" hits theaters today with little to recommend it. It boasts only middling starpower (Ben Affleck), but more to the point, its titular superhero isn't part of the national consciousness. Daredevil is well known to comic-book lovers, but not to the broader audience--certainly not the way Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, or the X-Men were before their movie successes.

Our hero is Matt Murdock, a legal-aid attorney who was blinded in a freak accident as a child. He lost his sight but had his other senses heightened and developed a kind of sonar-vision, which allows him to "see" sounds.

If the idea of a blind superhero strikes you as silly, well, no argument here. Daredevil was launched in 1964 as Marvel's answer to DC's hugely popular Batman. Both lack any remarkable superpowers and are, more than any other heroes, quite mortal. Like Batman, Daredevil is a dark character, obsessed not so much with rescuing innocents as seeking justice. He's the type of vigilante that led to the creation of Alan Moore's 1986 "Watchmen" series. Some of the Daredevil books were interesting--Frank Miller's "Visionaries" and "Born Again" sagas come to mind--but for the most part, Daredevil often felt like a low-rent version of Gotham's caped crusader.

The movie "Daredevil" takes a lot from Miller's work in tone, setting, and characters. The film's story is quite engaging: Matt Murdock meets and falls in love with the beautiful and rich Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner). Elektra's father is murdered by Bullseye (Colin Farrell), an assassin working for the criminal mastermind the Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan). Elektra mistakenly believes that Daredevil killed her father and, being something of a martial-arts expert herself, takes after him for revenge.

But while the plot is smart, the writing, in many instances, is stupid. Superhero movies are, by their very nature, fantastical, so it is a writer's duty to avoid unnecessary leaps. In "Daredevil," writer (and director) Mark Steven Johnson fails here. Some of his failures are small: Murdock works as a legal-aid attorney, yet in the beginning of the film he is prosecuting a criminal rape case. Some are larger, but merely annoying: At a formal ball, Murdock is standing outside in his tuxedo with Elektra and then, moments later, is running along the rooftops in his Daredevil costume, despite the fact that he has no way of carrying his bulky leather outfit with him. Other flaws are gaping and structural: Murdock, a 30-year-old orphan and lawyer for the indigent, keeps a vast hidden lair in New York City, equipped with secret entrances and all manner of custom-made high-tech gear--how does he pay for it?

If this seems like picking nits, it is, but that's because the audience is spending its allowance of disbelief-suspension on the idea of the superhero. A good script lets us run freely down the rails once we buy into the central conceit and doesn't ask us to continually make excuses for movie logic.