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Stunned by the violent death of a parent, a young boy swears an oath to fight for justice. Training his body and mind to the utmost of their limits, by day he lives a very public life. By night he prowls the rooftops seeking vengeance on a faceless killer, one thug at a time.

Sure, it sounds familiar. And though Daredevil's writer/director Mark Steven Johnson owes a debt to Tim Burton's vision of a certain Dark Knight, he also cribs mightily from everything that ever made Daredevil viable as a character. As a result, this may be the single most faithful comics to film adaptation to date. But that doesn't always work in the movie's favor.

If you want a live-action version of the greatest moments of Daredevil's career, almost everything is here, right down to the Joe Quesada drawing of DD with a wildly chaotic billy club wire (cool on paper, belief-defying in live-action). As his focus, though, Johnson has chosen the classic Frank Miller Elektra storyline.

The film opens on a wounded and bleeding Daredevil (sexiest man alive Ben Affleck), seeking brief sanctuary in a sumptuous cathedral. His priest clearly knows his identity, and in voice-over, Matt Murdock flashes back on his origins.

Johnson handles this sequence pretty well, although Affleck's narration gets a little distracting. Playing the young Matt Murdock, Scott Terra acquits himself well, and both he and David Keith as Jack "The Devil" Murdock build a believable father-son relationship.

The only over-the-top moments come from the "miraculous" tolling of church bells that help Matt focus his radar sense and, for those in the know, the litany of comics creators who get mentioned as opponents for "The Devil" in the ring.

In the comics, Matt became Daredevil almost immediately after the murder of his father, but for a movie audience that doesn't provide much of a story arc. Also, since Batman, there's an unwritten law that still clearly states that he who killed your parents must end up being your greatest enemy. Take from that what plot spoiler you will.

Instead, the classic chase of a criminal into the subway takes place years later, when Matt has already established himself as a lawyer with his partner, Franklin "Foggy" Nelson (Jon Favreau). Perhaps someone with a greater legal background than I can explain how exactly it is that civil attorney Matt Murdock could be prosecuting a mobster for rape. Clearly, we just needed to set up that sometimes the guilty go free.

And that's where Daredevil comes in.

By now you've heard that the hero of Hell's Kitchen lets this criminal die. Yes, it's tantamount to murder. (In the comic book origin, "The Fixer" had a heart attack in the subway; here, "Jose" Quesada falls onto the train tracks while Daredevil smirks.)

But superheroes (except Superman) have been killing in movies all along. Johnson just makes us confront it, and by doing so also gives Matt somewhere to grow. Believing that he protects the weak, Daredevil has really begun his career driven by vengeance. To actually become a hero, he has to put that anger aside, to realize that he must do what he does for other people, not himself. Only then will he be able to prove he's "...not the bad guy."

I've made it sound deeper than it actually appears. Of course, Elektra (Jennifer Garner) enters the picture, and Matt learns about love. Looming over all of Hell's Kitchen, so we are told, is the mysterious Kingpin of Crime (Michael Clarke Duncan), who hires Bullseye (Colin Farrell) to kill Elektra's father, a former business partner. If this summary seems cursory, well, so do the events seem in the movie.

And this is where Johnson falters. So eager is the admitted fan to fit in as much cool stuff as possible, everything ends up getting touched upon too lightly. Is Elektra's father really a criminal? Why did he have her trained as a ninja? (Okay, look, I'm a fan, too, so I know - but if you take a non-fan, these questions will arise.)

Even the sense of The Kingpin as a villain comes more from reporter Ben Urich (Joe Pantoliano) saying he exists than any evidence in the movie. Similarly, Daredevil has a reputation as "The Man Without Fear." We hear Affleck call himself that; clearly, word got around.

Only Bullseye feels adequately developed, but then, he's also the most simplistic character: an amoral supervillain who doesn't need motivation. Farrell overplays in a role that will surely divide fans. But then, Johnson himself tends to go over the top.

The director tends to stage scenes for their individual coolness and not for flow. As a result, he gets more than a few unintentional laughs. While it does make some sense for Matt and Elektra to fight, showing off their skills, staging the scene in a crowded schoolyard may have been a mistake. (But then, Matt clearly isn't much concerned with keeping his identity secret from anybody but Foggy.)

Eventually, the first romantic encounter melts from a rain-swept tenement roof to … relief sculptures of angels writhing orgiastically. There has long been a strong sense of Catholicism to Daredevil (thanks to Frank Miller and Kevin Smith), but Johnson never quite manages to make it gel in any other way but random nods to the faith's imagery.

A shame, because he gets some things just right. Visualizing Daredevil's radar sense with a blue x-ray effect leads to some incredibly beautiful and dramatic moments, especially with Elektra in the rain. Foggy Nelson provides the right comic relief, not yet evolving into the whiny nag he tends to be in the comics.

And Johnson has clearly thought out the consequences of Daredevil's abilities, forcing Matt to sleep in a sensory deprivation tank as the only way to find peace. I quibble with his needing to cranking up the heavy metal tunes, as that seems more a function of soundtrack obligations than real character development. (Though come to think of it, Johnson has Affleck go through a lot of paces of a blind man's morning in private, when part of Daredevil's powers mean he doesn't need to do these things.)

Through most of the film, the sheer charisma of the actors carries us through. Affleck has the right physical presence, and surprising ease with the romantic elements of the film, which will bring in the date crowd. At times, he seems uncomfortable in the red leather, but it's just possible that so would Matt be.

Garner brings to the screen everything she has on Alias. Beautiful and tough, she can still play vulnerable moments. If Fox launches an Elektra spin-off film, she'll be welcome. And such a film seems necessary, as unfortunately, there's just not enough time for Elektra to do much here.

As The Kingpin, Duncan has little more to do than puff a cigar and laugh in that impossibly deep growl of his. It's effective, but the really memorable villain will be Farrell. Utterly insane and moving like a snake, Farrell knows the role has an element of silliness and so just runs with it.

Though Daredevil has a lot of flaws, it's enjoyable. And it comes at a time when comic book movies have finally become a solid genre unto themselves. An only okay film won't kill the chances for another comic book. (And of course, Fox has included a new trailer for X-Men 2, which looks incredible.)

And yet, the more distance I get from it, the more I think I want to see it again. Johnson has said he'd like to adapt Kevin Smith's "Guardian Devil" story for a second film, and even with his shortcomings, I want to see that, too. Let's face it; you're here, you're a fanboy. For good or ill, this is how we are.


Derek McCaw

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