Do not forsake me oh my darlin'
You made that promise when we wed
Although you're grievin'
I can't be leavin'
Until I've shot Frank Miller dead.
Matt Murdoch. He's blind. He's a lawyer, presumably because a superhero saga based on piano-tuning would have had limited appeal. All his other senses are super-human. He can hear a pin drop on the other side of the city but he can't tell whether or not his tie is straight. He sleeps in a sensory deprivation tank. He wears a red suit and fights crime. He calls himself 'Daredevil'. There's a crime boss called the Kingpin. He's fat and bald. In the comic, he's white, but in the movie, he's black. There's an assassin called Bullseye. He's Irish. He kills people. There's a girl called Electra. She's a martial arts expert. She kills people too. They have fights in various combinations. Daredevil wins.
I'm in no doubt that Daredevil is the best super-hero movie so far made. Director Mark Johnson has had the bright idea of re-imagining the comic as an urban martial arts flick. A distinct whiff of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon hovered around it: a love story embedded in a sequence of fights; the sense that we are watching exhibition bouts rather than people actually trying to kill each other; and the weird world where you just kinda accept that absolutely everyone is an invincible warrior. (Naturally, the one girl in the world who can hold her own against Daredevil in a fight would wander into the coffee bar where Matt Murdoch hangs out.) And why not? Martial arts movies and superhero comics always did have a great deal in common: fights as balletic metaphors for communication; gravity as a guideline rather than a law; 'justice' as a fig-leaf with which to justify extreme violence; plot as hook on which to hang a series of fight scenes.
The Spiderman movie made the fan boy in me grin with joy as familiar characters came to life on the screen ('Gee, they've really managed to give him a Jonah Jameson haircut!') but Daredevil stands on its own two feet as a movie in its own right. It has sensibly jettisoned a great deal of Marvel Comics baggage. Daredevil's costume had been substantially re-designed and Bullseye and Electra had dropped the spandex altogether. Where Spiderman and the X-Men felt rushed, trailers or tasters for movies they never quite got around to making, Daredevil is sanely paced. It lingers on individual characters for long enough that when you reach the tragic denouement you've actually had the opportunity to give a damn about them.
The movie is, of course, heavily under the influence of the seminal issues which Frank Miller drew in the early 80s. Miller is pretty much responsible for the whole style of modern 'dark' superheroes, a style which is faithfully reproduced in the movie. Several reviewers claimed that Daredevil was under the influence of Tim Burton's Batman; but of course, Burton's Batman had been ripped, hook, line and sinker out of Miller's Dark Knight Returns. It would be tempting to say that Daredevil is therefore more like Miller than Miller is.
In truth, very little of Frank Miller's storyline survives into the movie. Characters have the same names and personas as their comic book precursors; but not their detail or back-story. We keep Bullseye's coldness and his inventiveness as an assassin but not his costume or his long-standing grudge against DD. He becomes Oirish, for no particular reason. The only connection between movie-Electra and comic-Electra is her three-pronged daggers and red hair. She isn't, so far as we can tell a ninja and she doesn’t spend her time climbing mountains and coming back from the dead. She does end up in a fight with Bullseye and her daggers do that thing of piercing her enemies' bodies but not the backs of their shirts. The film has an awful lot of middle and I was on the point of losing patience during the long love scene on top of the building in the rain. Yes, I said, we know that Daredevil's radar sense is such that he can only see people when its raining, and I know you are jolly proud of the special effect, but when is Bullseye going to kill someone again?
What survives is Miller's imagery. There's hardly a scene which is not a direct or indirect reference to something which Frank actually drew. The opening credits mimic his trademark New York skyline effect (an abstract impression of the city made up only of skyscraper windows.) We get a rat reflected in a puddle and prolonged scenes of Daredevil silhouetted against a stained glass window. The fight with the gangsters in the pool hall could have come from any one of a dozen Miller Daredevil's. We see Ben Ulrich writing and deleting his expose of Daredevil and Bullseye using pens paper clips and darts as lethal weapons. We have vertiginous plunges down skyscrapers--as in the comic where Spiderman leaps, Daredevil plummets. New York manages to be a 3-D playground for the heroes and villains to inhabit while still remaining a broadly realistic urban environment. The Electra-Daredevil fight is pretty much a direct lift in style if not detail from the classic #181.
Miller doesn't get it all his own way, though: there are a few signs of the malign influence of Stanley Martin Leiber. The opening scenes go to some lengths to establish a Miller-esque urban-gothic style; but suddenly, the wounded DD goes into flashback mode ('they say you're life flashes before your eyes before you die')--and proceeds to narrate the plot of Daredevil Issue #1. The pretext is that we need to see his 'origin' although I can't see why we couldn't have just accepted Daredevil's radar sense as a fait accompli 'I'm blind but my other senses are super-powered so naturally I dressed up in skin tight leather and fight crime. Now on with the tale.' But no-- we have to be told that he got his powers because a canister of radioactive, er, stuff hit him in the face when he was a kid. Alongside all the dark, moody stuff, this comes across as dreadfully camp. One can almost hear Stan's voice at the script-approval meeting. 'Fearless Frank did a wonderful job developing my ideas, but the true heart of Daredevil is the pulse-pounding plot that I penned in 1964. Excelsior!'
(Stan Lee has a brief cameo appearance as an old man who Matt stops from being hit by a truck. Ben Ulrich's contact at the morgue is called 'Kirby', and Matt's father fights a bout against someone called John Romita. Frank Miller appears in the credits, but I missed him. All this is very cute. Not as cute as paying artists proper royalties, but cute nonetheless.)
The only real point of the flashback sequence in terms of the rest of the movie is that it establishes a healthy chunk of the Freudian-Daddy-Guilt that superhero movies require. Vengeance is the only kind of motivation we can imagine, and it justifies any kind of silly behaviour. Miller's sprawling political soap about crime-bosses standing for mayor and inter-fraternal struggles among ninja, in which Electra is hired first by one faction and then by another, is entirely absent from this story. Instead, we have a linear double-revenge plot. Electra wants to kill Daredevil because she believes he killed her father; actually Bullseye dunnit. Bullseye wants to kill Electra because her father betrayed the Kingpin. Daredevil goes after Kingpin because Bullseye killed Electra and it turns out that the Kingpin killed Daredevil's father. He doesn't say 'Hello. My name is Matt Murdoch. You killed my father; prepare to die,' which under the circumstances I thought was a bit remiss.
The revenge thing is rather interesting. In the comic, Daredevil's father is killed by a relatively anonymous gangster, which motivates him to pursue vigilante justice for the rest of his life. In the movie, the anonymous gangster turns out to have been the guy who grows up to become Kingpin of Crime, giving a personal twist to the final minutes of the movie. This is, of course, exactly what Tim Burton did to the Batman mythos, where the faceless assassin of Bruce Wayne's parents turns out to have been Jack Nicholson all along. In both cases, the comic book morality was 'I've been hurt by crime so its my duty to protect other people from it'; where the movie morality is more like 'A particular bad guy has killed one of my loved ones so it is my right and duty to kill that person in particular.'
There is a rather half-hearted
attempt to give the movie a psychological structure in which Daredevil achieves
a kind of salvation through finally rejecting this desire for vengeance. At the
beginning of the film, we see a rapist who Matt was prosecuting walk free from
the court. (If they have the audacity to return a not guilty verdict, you can
bet the forces of organised crime have paid off the jury.) So, Matt takes
justice into his own hands and kills the rapist himself. 'I hopes you find
justice before justice finds you', he explains. But in the final confrontation
with the Kingpin, Matt comes to himself and realizes that the best thing to do
is to hand him over to the police
so that he can reappear in the sequel
so that due process can take its course.
All of which begs the question. We have a blind lawyer who begins the movie embracing a Daily Mail view of justice as personal vengeance; and who regards it as his personal duty to inflict suffering on criminals regardless of the views of the court; but who, at the last moment, realises that it really is better to trust the judiciary.
Does David Blunkett have a radar sense, we ask ourselves?