Dare to be surprised

BY KEN WALCZAK

Moviegoers spent 43 million bucks to see Daredevil this weekend. People plunked down all of this hard-earned cash despite an apparent flurry of attempts to dissuade them. For example, a click on Daredevil at www.moviefone.com reveals the following: The New York Times found the movie “tacky and disposable;” Entertainment Weekly said “visually lackadaisical,” and E! Online moaned that it “doesn’t take any risks.”

Yes, E!, the network whose programming consists almost entirely of Girls Gone Wild ads and carefully contrived knockoffs of Girls Gone Wild, complained that Daredevil “doesn’t take any risks.”

I went to see it anyway.

In fact, I went to see it with a kind of gladness in my heart. High expectations can be a real burden, and losing them really frees up the mind for enjoyment of harmless comic-book flicks.

Sure enough, I emerged from Daredevil grinning. It’s a pretty good movie — exciting and fun to watch. It takes its subject matter seriously, and rarely opts for the low blow or the easy way out. And though I’m no expert, Daredevil even seems to be a genuinely fine (i.e. faithful, non-embarrassing) adaptation of its comic book source.

Some of the genuinely likeable things about this movie:

1. Ben Affleck is good in Daredevil. Honestly, he is. I have met many people who swear that they hate Ben Affleck — they bear some intense, irrational, generalized grudge against him — and a few people (of each gender) who are infatuated with him. But I have met almost no one who genuinely likes his acting. “Did you see that movie?” “No, but I heard Affleck was great in it.” This is not a conversation I have ever overheard, and I can’t figure out why.

But Cambridge’s favorite (movie star) son delivers a memorable performance as the angst-ridden savior of Hell’s Kitchen. He’s equally believable as a debonair lawyer by day and a techno-club-wielding vigilante by night. Affleck’s even half credible as a blind man. Plus — as a distinguished online journal put it — it’s “fun to watch Affleck suck face with Jennifer Garner.” What more could you ask for in a leading man?

2. There isn’t an original nanosecond in the movie, but it borrows from all the right places. Daredevil’s plot sagely follows the Spider-Man formula: Choose a classic thread from the comic-book continuity, one that doesn’t have a million characters or span 30 years, and let it play out largely unaltered on screen. This sates the geeks, while preserving the film’s appeal for the swing-voter normals (whose grudging or temporary recognition lent the thread its “classic” status in the first place).

In this case, the formula yields a four-way showdown between Affleck’s Daredevil, stunning Greek assassin Elektra (Garner), sinister physics whiz Bullseye (Colin Farrell), and corpulent crime boss The Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan). Hearts get broken; legs get broken. Right on!

More importantly, Daredevil eschews the wishy-washy aesthetic of Spiderman and that stupid X-pic in favor of the serious dirt and grime of Burton’s Batman. The directing may be terrible, the script (by the director — is this guy good at anything?) may be terrible, but stealing Burton’s shtick guarantees the whole thing a pleasingly morose atmosphere. Which brings me to my favorite three-word criticism from moviefone.com: “Charm- and humor-free.” (Variety).

To this I say: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! In a movie of this sort, humor is the enemy. Humor is Jar Jar Binks. Humor is Legolas “skateboarding” down a staircase. Humor will destroy your little comic-book flick.

I laughed at precisely one line in Daredevil. Any more than that would have been too many.

Getting back to the geek/non-geek dichotomy, Daredevil deftly balances its concessions to each crowd. For real Daredevil comic aficionados, there are cameos by Stan Lee and Kevin Smith (the Clerks guy, who wrote eight compelling issues of the comic back in 1999), and a thousand tiny nods to the character’s creators. Bit players in the film carry the names “Romita,” “Miller,” “Mack” and “Quesada,” after the writers and artists that have worked hardest to give Daredevil life. Again, I am not an expert on this stuff — the in-jokes I caught must constitute a small fraction of those tossed in. Impressive.

On the other side of the continuum, Daredevil offers special effects, Jennifer Garner in painted-on costumes and Michael Clarke Duncan taking evil puffs on enormous cigars. Not to mention constant attention to its satisfying themes: justice and vengeance, fear and hope.

Unfortunately, Daredevil also offers a fair amount of mainstream rock music. And this is the one major area about which I feel compelled to complain. Because, damn it, rock music sucks nowadays. For every quality single put out by the Strokes, there are 36 despicable aggro-rock hits by bands called PiszPuddel, or some such. When I score a touchdown in the latest version of John Madden Football, the game’s hip, market-savvy A.I. rewards me with a rendition of “Suk It Up,” by hitmakers Hed(pe). Hed(pe)! Not good.

I guess it’s hard to blame Fox Studios for resorting to aggro — that sort of drivel sells these days, and a hit soundtrack can help to recoup losses from a big-budget flop. My question: Why couldn’t the clever thieves in charge of Daredevil pick the right pocket on this one, too? Burton got Prince for his movie, and “Batdance” was a terrific song. For The Crow, another moody comic-book meditation on vengeance, Buena Vista enlisted the services of Violent Femmes, Nine Inch Nails and The Cure.

Why, after having done so many other things right, did the studio suits get lazy about the music, picking ten clones of that jerk who sang the Spiderman song, and cramming them into Daredevil?

More to the point: Is this any way to treat a hero with super-sensitive ears?

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