Is there any reviewer that hasn’t commented on 2003’s disappointing superhero adaptation Daredevil? I’m pretty sure you can find restaurant critics who have trashed the film. My opinion: I don’t hate it but I can’t defend it either. Released by 20th Century Fox before it was bought by Disney and renamed 20th Century Studios, Daredevil comes from the Marvel comics that Disney also didn’t own at the time. Make of that what you will.

To celebrate the film’s anniversary Yahoo! Movies’ Ethan Alter sat down with the movie’s director, Mark Steven Johnson, to discuss what happened when making the movie and I thought it would be interesting to go over the interview and compare this with current Marvel productions as well as try to figure out why the film was as bad as it was. How much blame is Johnson taking and how much is he blaming on his bosses and/or the fans for the reception of this movie? We starting with comments by the interviewer in his intro.

When is a superhero movie also a Valentine’s Day-appropriate love story? When that superhero movie is Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil, which premiered in theaters 20 years ago on Feb. 14, 2003 — a day generally reserved for more traditional cinematic romances. But the writer-director tells Yahoo Entertainment that the tragic romance between Marvel Comics’s blind hero Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, and Hand-trained ninja Elektra — played by Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, respectively — deliberately served as the beating heart of Daredevil‘s theatrical cut, which topped the Valentine’s weekend box office and went on to gross over $100 million during its theatrical run. “The love story became the primary story,” Johnson says.

It’s my arch enemy…Movie Critic Man!

I should note that I am not an aficionado of all things Daredevil. I’ve read the origin comic, he’s appeared in a few comics I have, but I’m not really as familiar with him in the comics as I could be. The first live-action Daredevil was actually Rex Smith in the TV Movie The Trial Of The Incredible Hulk, which altered his costume to a simple black suit not at all reminiscent of his usual look. I don’t even think it had horns. My introduction to the character was actually Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends, though like Tony Stark it was just a brief cameo serving as Spider-Man’s lawyer (Matt, not Tony) and we never get to see his superhero alter ego in action. Stan Lee just mentions it in voiceover with a picture of Daredevil telling us that Murdock is Daredevil. Gee, at least Iron Man got to beat up some meteors.

Daredevil was a lot better featured in an storyline from the 1990s Spider-Man cartoon and I haven’t seen the Netflix series. I know enough to at least comment on how much the movie got wrong, though granted I don’t know if Bullseye had an accent. I know the target was drawn on his mask, not impressed into his forehead, that Elektra was one of Matt’s greatest love interests in the comics, and the key details of Daredevil, Foggy Nelson, and Wilson Fisk.

Offscreen, of course, Daredevil inspired a real-life love story. Affleck and Garner were both in high-profile relationships when they played the doomed superhero couple— the Good Will Hunting Oscar winner was dating Jennifer Lopez, while the Alias star was married to Scott Foley — but started dating a year after the film’s release and walked down the aisle in July 2005. They separated a decade later in 2015 and share three children; in 2021, Affleck reconnected with Lopez and they were married last summer.

There’s a good reason not to become an actor. Ask Jennifer Aniston what happens when your husband gets too steamy in a movie with another hottie. It’s questionable if it was more tragic with Affleck and Lopez, since they did eventually get together. Scott Foley losing Garner though…you have my sympathies unless she turned out going crazy like some of the celebs I had a crush on in my teen years.

Johnson based much of Daredevil‘s love story on a classic Marvel Comics storyline penned by celebrated writer and artist, Frank Miller. And just like the comics, their romance ends in Elektra’s (temporary) death at the hands of ace assassin, Bullseye, played by Colin Farrell in one of the Irish actor’s looniest performances. “That’s a scene I’m particularly proud of,” Johnson says now. “It’s really panel-for-panel out of Frank Miller’s comic: Bullseye saying, ‘You’re good, but I’m magic,’ and slashing Elektra’s throat with a playing card, followed by her crawling on her hands and knees with blood coming out.”

In fact, there was a little too much blood for 20th Century Fox, the studio that released Daredevil and held onto the rights until 2013 when they reverted back to Marvel Studios. “They were like, ‘It’s pretty gruesome!’ Johnson says, laughing. “I do remember getting some blowback on that, because her death was quite graphic.” Some of the bloodier moments from Elektra’s death scene were restored for Johnson’s director’s cut, which was released on home video in 2004 and remains his preferred version.

That’s admittedly an issue. The Dark Age was already taking hold in comics at that point but having Daredevil kill when I don’t remember a history of him being the murdering kind of vigilante doesn’t quite fit unless something happened during Frank Miller’s run…and given that it’s Frank Miller I would totally believe that. Even in his first comic appearance the Fixer dies from a heart attack and the guy who actually killed Matt’s dad is arrested. What would make this guy so special?

“It’s definitely a more complete version,” he says of that cut, which includes an entire storyline that was dropped from the theatrical version featuring the late rapper Coolio. “Looking back on it, one of the mistakes I made with the film was wanting to put everything in! I wanted to do Daredevil’s origin story, and I wanted to do the Elektra Saga and I wanted to introduce Bullseye and Foggy. I wanted everything to be in there, but the film could only support so much. And then when you’re told to cut a half-hour out and and make it more of a love story, things star to feel rushed and not quite right. It’s a fan thing: when you love something so much, you want to tell it all.”

That’s a problem with too many superhero stories, the urge to introduce too many characters at once. Blame Tim Burton, Sam Rami, and Joel Schumacher for increasing the number of introduced characters with each movie in their respective supervillain rosters. It might have been better to do Daredevil’s origin in the first movie and Elektra in the second. And apparently the studio didn’t help by forcing the romance center stage. This isn’t Meet Misty, guys. Not that the studios knew what they had.

Yeah, it was such a different world then. It’s funny, we were developing Daredevil before the first Spider-Man came out and I remember people saying to me: “I don’t think that movie’s gonna work.” I was like, “Why? Spider-Man is one of the greatest characters.” And they said: “Well, you can’t see his face!” [Laughs] I remember telling people I was going to do Daredevil and they would say to me: “You mean Evel Knievel?” I’d explain, “No, he’s a blind lawyer who has superpowers and heightened senses and he puts on a devil costume to fight crime.” And they’d be like: “Oh, so it’s a comedy?” Nobody knew who the character was then! The Marvel catalogue was so deep. And now everybody knows all the characters. It’s pretty amazing how much has changed in 20 years.

Rex Smith as Daredevil from The Trial Of The Incredible Hulk. image source, Man Without

This nonsense that you have to see the characters’ face is getting on my nerves. Even Power Rangers had taken on this idea by using the Iron Man movies’ approach to in-helmet shots and helmets that fold away instead of having to be removed. I’m also not surprised nobody did any research into the character, especially those silly little comic things nobody reads and yet is popular enough that we think we can make a movie from it. The media snobbery continues.

The look of Daredevil is very stylized — you use a lot of Dutch angles and some intense colors. Did you feel more freedom as a director in terms of what you could get away with?

There was so much pressure on me because I was still a new director, but as far as the actual content went, it was kind of the Wild West. Now, Marvel is so successful and so huge; it’s their universe and rightfully so. They control everything about their movies so successfully. But back then, no one quite knew what any of this was, and I would have my stack of comic books trying to show them. They would be like: “He’s not gonna actually have horns, right? He’s called Daredevil because he does Daredevil things, but he’s not going to dress up like a devil — that’s ridiculous.” You were fighting for everything!

Not “everything” apparently. Later in the interview this comes up:

You cast the late Michael Clarke Duncan as the movie’s other villain, the Kingpin, who has traditionally been depicted as white in the comics. That kind of color blind casting is more common now, but ahead of the curve then. Did you get any blowback from comic fans?

Oh yeah, I got a lot of blowback. It’s the strangest Catch-22, because you want to have opportunities for everybody. You say, “I’m not going to pay attention to race: I’m just going to cast the right person for the role.” But then you get killed for that [from some fans] who say: “The Kingpin should be white” or “He’s not my Kingpin” and all that kind of stuff. So I definitely got heat on that, but I don’t regret the decision at all. Michael was fantastic. It’s hard to find a guy who is that big and also that formidable, and Michael was definitely that guy. God bless him.

Considering we still don’t have a red head Jimmy Olsen, that the blonde Kirsten Dunst went red for Mary Jane and the redheaded Emma Stone went blonde to play Gwen Stacy, fans notice those details. Fisk’s body type is near impossible to replicate in the real world. In the Hulk TV movie John Rhys-Davies played him pretty close to the character, and credit where it’s due so did Duncan. He even played the role in Mainframe’s Spider-Man cartoon made for MTV. That (used to be) the advantage of voice acting, in which you could play virtually anyone since it’s up to the character modeler to get the comic design right. Live-action is a bit more limiting so getting the look right is important. It’s one of the reasons people who hated the Snyder version of Superman still wants Cavill back, because he resembles Clark so well. Netflix going with Vincent D’Onofrio, whom Johnson even admitted did a good job, was a better idea, though I haven’t seen his performance.

But you also got the chance, like we did, to show something different. Today people either love the movie or they hate it, but the one thing I think we did successfully was show the real life of a superhero. What would it be like if you had heightened senses and could hear people crying for help? Would would it feel like if you’re not Superman, so every night when you go to bed, you’ve got a ton of aches and pains and you’re popping pain pills. All of that stuff was interesting to me.

Nobody turns to superheroes for “real life”. Even calling Watchmen real life is up for serious debate. Superheroes like this for so many reasons are impossible. It’s why the real life superhero community are more local helpers than Phoenix Jones style vigilantes beating up criminals. Also, one of the dumbest things in the movie was having Murdock sleep in a water-filled sensory-deprivation tank. This is not something the comic character ever does as far as I know.

Certainly, Avi Arad — who was the head of Marvel back then — was all over the movie. And [current Marvel Studios head] Kevin Feige was a vice president then, and we spoke the same language. We were the nerds who grew up with the comics: the True Believers. Kevin was always brilliant, and you could tell that he was going to be someone you could trust and go to with questions. He was great back then, and he’s great now. I also met with [former Marvel Comics boss] Joe Quesada because his Daredevil run with Kevin Smith influenced my take. The first scene of the movie where he’s draped over the cross beaten and bloodied was from their comics.

I think losing Arad is where the MCU started going downhill. Arad was a huge Marvel fan, and even fought for accuracy in the cartoons. With him gone accuracy to the comics has disappeared from Marvel’s movies, TV and streaming shows, and even the kids shows.

Jennifer Garner was on Alias at the time, so very much in the pop culture zeitgeist from that show. Did you audition any Greek actresses since Elektra is Greek in the comics?

That was another big casting call, and we met with a lot of people. But once we met Jen, we were like, “That’s it.” Even though she wasn’t Greek, she’s such a fantastic actress and so good at the physical stuff, we knew she’d do a terrific job.

You can tell Matt is blind just from his costume designs.

I never even thought about that. Now it would be demanded. I didn’t even think about Gal Gadot not being Greek when she became Wonder Woman, or Dean Cain being part Japanese. They look close enough to the character they’re playing that it worked. Even Clarke did a really good job performing as Kingpin (and in the MTV show they also made him black, but not because Clarke was voicing him as far as I know) but we do notice if something looks wrong about the character down to the outfit. Yes, Cyclops, we the audience wanted the yellow spandex…though I actually prefer Wolverine’s brown outfit.

Speaking of X-Men, this was still the leather costume era for superhero movies. Did you feel backed into that look for Daredevil?

We went all over the place on the costume. It’s a really hard one because you get the fans who are upset that it’s not spandex. And I thought it should be spandex, too! But then you try spandex and it looks ridiculous. We also tried armor, because there was that era of Daredevil where he wore an armor-type suit in the comics. We ultimately settled on leather because it was the most practical. Like if you’re riding a motorcycle and you go down, leather is going to protect you the most. But it was also easy for it to come off looking like S&M! And the horns didn’t help. [Laughs]

Well, thank you for not using the 90s inspired armored look. That was worse than Daredevil’s original yellow outfit. Still, the TV movie made the spandex work. Spandex offers advantages, which is why so many athletes in martial arts and athletics wear them. Still, the leather works better than the over-padded basketball covering trying to pretend they’re showing off the pecs we have now. That’s a trend that needs to die!

Colin Farrell’s performance as Bullseye is pretty wild — it’s clear he’s having a blast playing the villain.

What Colin always does is commit 100%, and this was a chance for him to have some fun. Bullseye also had a tricky costume in that it looks great in the comics, but when you see it in real life with the spandex and the bullseye it’s a little dicey. Also, putting a white bullseye on your head is a little much if you don’t want to die as a villain! So we went a different way and tried to give him a little more of a reptilian vibe.

Admittedly Farrell does seem to be having so much fun as Bullseye but it’s not really the character from the comics. I do love the performance but maybe save it for a more fitting villain.

Did you remember what story you wanted to tell if you had made a sequel?

I know I wanted to do more of Matt’s romance with Karen Page, played by Ellen Pompeo. She went onto a giant television career! That was Jon Favreau’s first Marvel movie, too, and look what he went on to do. It’s so cool to see how everyone moved on from the film. I had a great time making it, and it’s fun being this curious footnote in Marvel history.

Kind of a shame what Frank Miller did to Karen Page in the comics, so if that was one of Johnson’s inspirations we’re probably better off.

Was the movie as bad as some critics made it out to be? Not really. There were some good moments and portrayals when the script allowed them, but moments do not a good movie make. The movie has serious flaws and it’s not one I’d recommend. It’s not a very good adaptation, it has a hero killing people, and it’s another superhero movie that was swimming in 1990s darkness. I went to see it in the theaters and I don’t feel like I wasted money but it’s not a movie I care to watch again.


About ShadowWing Tronix

A would be comic writer looking to organize his living space as well as his thoughts. So I have a blog for each goal. :)

3 responses »

  1. Crandew says:

    Great breakdown. I’ve been a Daredevil fan for a long time. Check out the Netflix Daredevil when you can, well worth it.


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