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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.

Similarly, Johnson's direction is unsteady. Nearly every action sequence in Daredevil suffers from too many cuts and jumps. In The Conversations master film editor Walter Murch observes that most sustained action pieces have 14 cuts per minute. The fights in Daredevil surely double that pace.

As Murch observes, "After each cut it takes a few milliseconds for the audience to discover where they should be looking. If you don't carry their focus of interest across the cut points, if you make them search at every cut, they become disoriented and annoyed, without knowing why." The problems with the action sequences in Daredevil go beyond annoyance. It's difficult to follow what is happening to whom and how characters get from one place to another. If Johnson is trying to give the overall impression of chaotic violence, he has succeeded, but as a story-telling mechanism these scenes are incoherent.

On the plus side, the acting in Daredevil is more than adequate. Ben Affleck is blessedly innocuous. Colin Farrell does fine work with the 20 or so lines allotted to him. However the movie's real glue is Garner's Elektra. At once vulnerable and playful, Garner doesn't overdo the tough-chick schtick. She gives the movie sweetness and heart and while it's not clear why Elektra would fall for a guy like Murdock, she sells the hell out of it.

In a sense there's something in Daredevil for both Marvel and DC fans to cheer. If the movie finds broader acceptance in the general audience this weekend--and I suspect it will--then it will signal that the comic-book sensibility, not just the big-name franchises, is ready to be embraced by mainstream America.

A successful weekend for Daredevil will mean that we're all comic-book geeks now. Worse things have happened.

A FEW NOTES on the Oscar nominations: Some weeks ago I wrote about the coming Oscar snub of The Two Towers and on Tuesday the first act of this slow-motion travesty came to pass: The Academy Award nominations were released and The Two Towers was nominated for just six awards and, although it got a Best Picture nomination, it won't win.

The nominations themselves are a good barometer of where the voters are on a movie. The Two Towers was overlooked in some expected places (Best Director) but the Academy also ignored it in areas where it should have been a lock--Costume, Cinematography, and, most shockingly, Best Adapted Screenplay. If a movie that compresses a 400-page classic into a brisk, compelling 3 hours isn't a stunning achievement in adaptation, I don't know what is.

But to fixate on The Two Towers is to miss another minor injustice. In Hollywood the year 2002 will be remembered for many things, not least of which is Steven Spielberg's annus mirabilis.

The '90s were an uneven period for Spielberg and his productivity was lacking: He made only six films in ten years. But in 2002 he made two very, very good movies. The double of Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can is as good as any in recent memory--certainly more impressive than Steven Soderbergh's ballyhooed 2000 pair, Erin Brockovich and Traffic. It has been a long time since a director accomplished what Spielberg did in 2002, yet he has been ignored by the Academy again, garnering a paltry three nominations for his work.

By contrast, two Miramax movies, Chicago and The Hours, received a combined 22 nominations.

No one is going to cry for Steven Spielberg, of course. If he feels blue about the Oscars, he can always buy Rob Marshall and force him to dance naked in the Spielberg mansion money room.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.