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Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck test the tensile strength of leather.

© 2003, Fox
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Everyone in the free world seems to have some sense of who Spider-Man is, but with the release of "Daredevil" (IMDb listing), the real test begins. Can a decent comic-book movie come out of a character who holds power and recognizability only through his core readers? In "Daredevil's" case, the answer is a reverberating yes.

As a 12 year-old, Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck) was blinded by a horrible accident involving hazardous liquids. Endowed with super-powers that help him "super-sense" upcoming danger with his remaining faculties, and fueled by vengeance after witnessing his father's murder, Murdock has grown up to become the horned avenger, Daredevil. Moonlighting by day as an attorney who helps the innocent, and at night as a crusader who will stop at nothing to serve out the justice he can't get in the courts, Daredevil's days appear to be numbered when a crime figure named The Kingpin (Michael Clark Duncan) comes to power, along with his deadly hit-man, Bullseye (Colin Farrell, bizarrely over the top). Complicating Murdock's life even further is Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner), another protector of the night, who is smitten with the masked avenger, but has her own designs for payback on Kingpin and Bullseye.

In terms of ambiance and anger management, "Daredevil" is closer to Tim Burton's "Batman" films than the recent blockbuster success of "Spider-Man." This is dark stuff on display here, made all the more so in comparison to "Spider-Man's" cheery free-ticket-to-the-amusement-park atmosphere. I'm not knocking old Spidey's appeal. It was an insanely enjoyable and gratifying picture. But "Daredevil" is a hungrier film, eschewing audience delight for a thick fog of vengeance and character suffering. It's far from perfect, but as a comic book-inspired film goes, it has remarkable integrity and a willingness to explore violence in a genre that tends to be sanitized.

The film was written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, the man behind the flavorless and often cringingly saccharine 1998 film, "Simon Birch." Johnson, a sworn "Daredevil" fan, is like a kid in a candy store here, meticulously setting up the mood for his characters. He sticks close to authenticity, retaining Daredevil's more vigilante side, as he tries to be a man of the people, but finds that his own distaste for injustice sometimes overshadows his leniency. I never thought a film like this was in Johnson, and it impresses me that he sticks so close to his guns with this picture. He bends the PG-13 rating to its breaking point, with scenes of stabbings, throat-slittings, and old-lady killings that Spider-Man or the X-Men would shy away from. Johnson also keeps Murdock's human after-effects as the hero true to form, with the lawyer pulling post-battle loose teeth in the shower, or crunching Percocet like they were tic-tacs. Johnson doesn't blink when it comes to Daredevil's less than amiable qualities. There is little sunshine in this shadowy story, and it suits the picture just fine.

In selling Daredevil's world, Johnson does get carried away with his special effects. Every shot seems to feature some character flying, or a camera swooping all over the map. The effects are reasonably well done, but there isn't a need to keep piling them on. What I did enjoy is the "radar vision" Murdock uses to get his bearings. Assisted by the sounds that reverberate all around him, Murdock can "see" his environment, thus allowing for neat special effects, and a simple way of side-stepping the nagging issue of how a blind man can fight crime. The complex sound design alone is Oscar-worthy, and placed in the greater scheme with the visuals and the performances, clearly shows that great care was taken to make sure the audience understands how Daredevil goes about his business.

More unexpected is how easily Johnson pulls off the Elektra and Murdock love story, which lies at the core of the film. Even with all the leaping and battling going on in "Daredevil," there is time to construct an engaging, gentle and ultimately forceful love story between these two characters. Though not a lead in the film, the sweeter moments of courtship allow Jennifer Garner a chance to shine amongst all the darkness. She shares real chemistry with Affleck, and the two do a lot with the little screen time their romance is allowed in the final cut. Word around the campfire is that the Elektra character, given too little screen time here, is being groomed for "Daredevil" sequels and her own spin-off. I welcome that idea with two Sais up.

Working against his own recent publicity, Ben Affleck is a perfect choice for the brutal "man without fear." I haven't always enjoyed Affleck in the past, but he's grown so much as an actor, and as a personality, that pulling off an unusually complicated hero role like this is no surprise. Affleck, like Johnson, seems game to explore Murdock's darker, haunted temperament, and they go to great pains to keep the cute out of the performance. Though he's sorely lacking a hero's theme (composer Graeme Revell utterly fails the film with his tuneless score), Affleck's Daredevil is the type of person you would realistically expect to protect the night from crime. Even clad in his red leather bodysuit, there is little to chortle about with this character, and Affleck is first rate in the role.

I would never goes as far to say that "Daredevil" is thrilling entertainment. It just isn't that easy of a film to lose yourself in. What it does represent is another bold step forward in this surge of comic-book adaptations, and a trip to the dark side of justice that isn't bogged down in depressive theatrics. "Daredevil" is rock solid filmmaking, and hopefully will open the doors for other, even more obscure heroes to be explored.

Filmfodder Grade: A-

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