As the title character of Daredevil, Ben Affleck leaps, wriggles, and — mostly — strikes iconic poses, standing against the New York skyline in what’s meant to be a very cool superhero-of-the-night outfit. The suit is fashioned entirely out of blood-red leather, with a tony row of bootstraps and a mask topped by a jutting pair of demon horns. How sleek a figure is Daredevil? Let’s put it this way: He looks like Catwoman made over by Revlon.
During the day, Affleck is Matt Murdock, a blind attorney who takes on clients solely if they’re innocent. (Only in comic books would he not be a flat-broke attorney.) By night, he’s Daredevil, secret avenger of urban evil. The movie keeps insisting he’s a crime fighter whose soul is in torment — a festering cauldron of anguished vigilante id. Daredevil lost his sight in his geek youth, when he was doused by a spurt of bio-waste (his back is laced with scars). He has daddy issues and bully issues, and his four remaining senses are so reactively overdeveloped that he’s forced to sleep each night in a sensory deprivation tank. Did I mention that he also goes to confession, where he meditates on his sins of vengeance? All in all, one very dark man.
It would be hard to think of a movie star, however, who seethes with darkness less than Ben Affleck. He has proven that he can be a deft and winning actor, especially when he plays a selfish yuppie with a Palm Pilot mind (”Changing Lanes,” ”Bounce”). Yet Affleck, with his genial, smirking baby face and light throwaway voice, hardly seems as if he has the devil inside. He may date the hottest sex symbol of the corporate infotainment age, but he comes off as the last guy in America who would put on a leather jumpsuit in public. Maybe that’s why the funk-dominatrix getup seems to be wearing HIM.
Daredevil is the sort of half-assed, visually lackadaisical potboiler that makes you rue the day that comic-book franchises ever took over Hollywood. Most of the images are sludgy and labored, with New York looking more ordinary and, at the same time, more fake than the Gotham City of Tim Burton’s Batman. Superhero movies are, of course, fantasies of power, but when you see one that’s as lame and mechanical as this, it so dehumanizes the actors that it tends to come off as an allegory of emasculation. Affleck, unlike Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man, hasn’t been given a compelling daylight character to play, and so when Matt puts on his Daredevil costume and begins to leap around like a ninja, dodging razory pinwheels or throwing his stiletto walking stick like a deadly javelin, we’re left with the dispiriting sensation that special effects are accomplishing what the film’s hero — and, indeed, any live actor — could not.
As drawn from the Marvel Comics character created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett in 1964, Daredevil, in this movie at least, is little more than a hollow clone of Batman and Spider-Man, with far less idiosyncrasy than either. (Those ninja leaps might have come from the ”Spidey” cutting-room floor.) At least one of the special effects is nifty: Daredevil has such an acute sense of hearing that when it’s raining, he can ”see” what’s in front of him by listening to the drops. The rest of the time, Affleck isn’t done any favors by having to act blind; he’s an actor who needs all five of his senses. He’s at his best when he gets to flirt, as he does doing body-flip battle on a seesaw with Alias’ Jennifer Garner, who has the full curlicue lips of a dreamy Valkyrie. The story is so slipshod that I barely had any idea why Garner’s character, Elektra Natchios, turns out to be a martial-arts wizard. Is she a crime-fighting superhero too? Or is she just a nice girl who likes to kick butt? Michael Clarke Duncan, as a criminal kingpin named…uh, Kingpin, has little to do besides wave a cigar around and toss out the occasional velvet basso threat.
There’s nothing at stake in Daredevil, but the one actor who looks like he’s honestly having fun is Colin Farrell. He plays Bullseye the Irish assassin with a motorcycle thug’s shaved head and goatee, a yob’s growl, and coal eyes that dance with malevolence, as if he were the greaser-punk son of Bob Hoskins. Farrell doesn’t actually get any good lines; that would have required Mark Steven Johnson, who wrote and directed Daredevil, to craft some. But Farrell, a dreamboat who isn’t hung up on vanity, does what he can to give his scenes a mad-dog charge. Affleck tries to pump up a few of his lines with a neo-Eastwood growl, but it’s hard to dispose of a villain in style when you have to deliver a kiss-off like ”That light? At the end of the tunnel? That’s not heaven. That’s the C train!” For anyone who goes to see Daredevil, the light at the end of the tunnel may be the hope that franchise fever finally fades — at least, if the food is all this junky.