Exploiting our Archives: Control Nathan Rabin: Elektra with bonus Daredevil Director's Cut!
The latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin, the feature where I have donors to this site’s Patreon page choose which of two terrible-looking movies I must see and then write about, forced me to confront a painful truth about myself. Giving readers a choice between the reviled Ben Affleck Daredevil movie from 2003, a film made before people realized that superhero movies could, and actually should be good, and not just garbage for small children, or that movie’s even less-loved spin-off, 2005's Elektra made me realize that I have an insatiable fascination with the Ben Affleck Daredevil that transcends mere professional obligation.
Because while readers/patrons chose Elektra by a fairly wide margin, I nevertheless decided to see both Elektra and Daredevil. I didn’t just choose to see Daredevil, I opted for the R-rated Director’s Cut, which runs a half hour longer at what I can assure you is not the tightest one hundred and thirty-three minutes in the biz.
It feels weirdly like cheating to see and write about the loser in a Control Nathan Rabin contest but people generally cheat in order to do less work, not twice as much work. And as long as I suffered through the punishment y’all doled out for me, then why shouldn’t I see as many terrible movies unnecessarily as possible?
Besides, would I really be able to appreciate the tragic dimensions of Elektra if I didn’t first delve fearlessly into the uncompromising vision of Jack Frost, Simon Birch and Daredevil auteur Mark Steven Johnson?
When Daredevil was received less as a movie than an enduring humiliation for all involved, people snickered derisively at Ben Affleck for starring in a blind superhero lawyer movie not too long after winning an Academy Award for co-writing Good Will Hunting.
Fifteen years later Affleck has made an impressive evolution from widely mocked Jerky McSmug Face to acclaimed auteur and thespian. Comic books, including Daredevil, have attained so much cultural cachet, prestige and attention that from our perspective the movie’s real crime is that it did not handle the mythology of a blind lawyer superhero habitually outfitted in skin-tight red leather gear and naughty demon horns with sufficient seriousness and gravity.
Before watching Daredevil, I wondered if the film really merited its dire critical reputation or if it was just cursed to hit theaters at a time when the American moviegoing public was simply tired to fucking death of looking at Affleck’s smug, handsome, smugly handsome face after it became ubiquitous in tabloids and glossy gossip rags thanks to romances with Jennifer Lopez and Jennifer Garner and also figured very prominently in movies like Pear Harbor, Gigli and of course Daredevil.
In light of Affleck’s comeback and critical rehabilitation, it’s worth asking whether he was ever as bad an actor, or as insufferable a movie star and celebrity, as history angrily insists. Did Affleck get a bad shake because he was too handsome, too ubiquitous and too successful too young? Possibly, but having just watched Daredevil I would argue that his performance here was widely panned on account of it being fucking terrible. On a similar note, I suspect that Daredevil got scathing reviews because it was in a critically unfashionable genre but also because it’s a fucking abomination.
In 2003, Affleck didn’t have the gravitas to pull off playing even a second string superhero like Daredevil. Everything about the film’s conception of the character feels wrong and off-base, beginning with a costume for the star that, like Halle Berry’s Catwoman costume in the motion picture of the same name, or the nipple-enhanced suits of Batman and Robin, somehow manages to feel needlessly, even perversely over-sexualized but also somehow perversely unsexy.
The horns are an even bigger mistake. If any aspect of Daredevil’s suit should have been modernized or streamlined out of existence it’s cheeky little devil horns that make Daredevil look less like a superhero than an enthusiastic participant in a heaven and hell themed leather orgy out of Cruising.
As lawyer Matt Murdock, Affleck comes off as a glib, overly confident jerk. As Daredevil, Affleck is nothing more than a second-rate Batman wannabe who chooses to show out off his fighting skills in almost impressively lackluster fight scenes filmed in such low light that it’s difficult to even make out who’s fighting, let alone care about the outcome.
Life needed to kick Affleck in that pretty mug of his an awful lot for him to emerge as someone with character, with presence, with a face that betrays the scars and damage of a sometimes hard life, instead of silently but powerfully inviting punches. When Affleck signed on to star as Daredevil he was still a callow pretty boy, a one-dimensional second rate hero for a second-rate, one-dimensional movie every bit as embarrassing as its reputation suggests.
In Daredevil, Affleck plays the aforementioned Murdock, a blind lawyer by day who uses his incredible hearing, strength and reflexes to fight crime as Daredevil, “The man without fear”, by night. Jon Favreau costars as Murdock’s law partner and light comic sidekick Franklin “Foggy” Nelson, a buffoon whose groan-inducing banter drags the movie perversely but unmistakably in the direction of a very bad sitcom from the 1980s whenever he’s onscreen.
Favreau would go on to do great things for the Marvel cinematic universe as the director of Iron Man and an important supporting player, but he’s so terrible here that it almost feels like he’s forever doing penance for the crimes against movies and comic books he commits in Daredevil. Daredevil is primarily a bad, oddly generic superhero melodrama but it turns into a bad, broad comedy during Favreau’s scenes, and a strange, unpalatable and muddled cross between romantic comedy, romantic tragedy and romantic action whenever Affleck’s Daredevil is squaring off against love interest Elektra, a highly skilled warrior on the hunt for revenge after her father is killed.
Daredevil is really four sub-par movies in one. The movie’s attempts at grit and depth and psychodrama are laughable. Early in the movie we see a battle-weary Murdock taking tons of painkillers but don’t worry, this potentially interesting conceit is instantly abandoned. The movie furthermore establishes that Daredevil is worried that he may have crossed a line separating good from bad by having him repeatedly stand awkwardly in his ridiculous fetish costume and insist out loud that he’s not the bad guy. Glad we got that covered.
Superhero movies often live and die by their villains and Daredevil has got a real snoozer in Kingpin, a brilliant underworld boss Michael Clarke Duncan plays as very big and very strong and very boring. Colin Farrell is much better as Bullseye, a demented assassin who never misses when he hurls his instruments of death until he begins to tangle with Daredevil.
Superhero movies like Daredevil and Elektra are great because they immerse us in a fantastical, almost inconceivably imaginative, far-fetched world of people who are good at throwing things.
Matt Murdock/Daredevil’s incredible hearings render him super-human, a man seemingly as fast as bullets and ferociously strong. Bullseye’s big super-villainous skill set consists of being good at throwing things fast. That’s a pretty underwhelming “talent.” Hell, it’s a talent so underwhelming that it barely qualifies as a talent but Farrell sells the character through boozy charisma, with his scumbag degenerate serpentine swagger.
Farrell clearly does not give a mad-ass fuck. Cast as the secondary bad guy in a shitty comic book movie, he luxuriates in a character actor’s freedom to go as big and crazy and over-the-top as possible when they find themselves in a movie beyond redemption. Farrell can’t control anything other than the crazy, go-for-broke energy of his campy villain turn, and that is consequently the only aspect of the film that is any fun at all.
Watching Daredevil didn’t get me pumped to watch its spin-off so much as it filled me with trepidation and fear, correctly so.
Daredevil and Elektra were supposed to benefit from good old fashioned superhero synergy, the kind currently making Marvel one of the dominant forces in our culture. Instead the movies each performed each other a terrible disservice. Elektra’s clumsy, thoroughly disappointing and panned introduction in Daredevil ensured that interest in a spin-off film for this supporting character from a widely reviled movie would be minimal at best. As a product launch, Elektra’s introduction in Daredevil ranked right up there with New Coke and the XFL. Elektra’s arctic critical and commercial reception, meanwhile, ensured that Affleck would not strap on the red fetish gear as Daredevil again despite the film’s decent box-office gross.
So when an underworld figure early in Elektra begins describing Jennifer Garner’s assassin in appropriately mythical terms, less as a mere woman than the very spirit of vengeance, a peerless killer singularly skilled in the dark arts of murder for hire it’s hard not to scoff after having just spent 133 minutes being incredibly underwhelmed by her as Elektra in the Director’s Cut of Daredevil. Elektra needs to continually keep telling us how badass Elektra is because it sure isn’t showing us.
In Elektra, Jennifer Garner’s super-skilled, super-conflicted assassin Elektra is offered a lucrative contract to kill a pair of mystery targets but accidentally becomes emotionally involved in the lives of her would-be victims, a handsome widower played by Goran Višnjic and his troubled thirteen year old daughter. This pair melts Elektra’s heart and got her feeling romantic and maternal, respectively.
Elektra toys ever so briefly with the idea that Elektra is such a brutal, unfeeling killer that she’ll kill this little girl and her nice dad passionlessly despite catching feelings, as the young people almost assuredly no longer say. She’s got handsome dad and his motherless daughter in her sights before deciding that, nah, she’s definitely not the kind of person who would murder a child in cold blood just for money and to fulfill a contract. She then spends the rest of the film protecting her makeshift family, instead of murdering them for money.
The Frank Miller-created comic book anti-heroine may have been gritty and intense, violent and obsessive on the comic book page, particularly in the early years, but she comes off as weirdly bland here. She’s less a super-assassin and inveterate badass than an awkward but fundamentally loving and supportive stepmom figure to a dad and daughter who need her emotionally. Elektra sometimes resembles the earnest pilot for a short-lived Lifetime series entitled My Stepmom the Super-Assassin.
The hardened hit person (I’m not going to be one of those sexist monsters who assigns a gender to the job of killing people for money, as ladies and fellas can both do it equally well) who gets too close to their target is such a ubiquitous premise that in show-business circles it’s actually known as “Plot B.” If there’s any life left in this hoary old trope, Elektra sure does not find it.
Why is this little girl so important that it falls upon Elektra to either kill or protect her? Well, in a twist easy to see coming, this ordinary little girl is no ordinary little girl at all. No, like Elektra herself, she is a chosen one, a martial-arts adept, seemingly superhuman warrior with skills far beyond her years.
This is a distressingly common archetype in comic books and in comic book movies. Even when the trope is done extraordinarily well, as in Logan, the idea of silent or nearly silent tweens or girls or teenagers who are super good at murdering tons of people in super-graphic ways being irresistible red meat to overwhelmingly male comic book and comic book movie fans makes me uncomfortable.
It’s a testament to how boring the little girl character is that not even the revelation that she’s a fierce warrior with an important role to play in maintaining the balance of good and evil in the universe can make her remotely interesting. Nope, like Elektra, she remains oddly boring despite her incredible ability to, um, fight well and beat up the bad guys. Those are important traits for superheroes and super-villains alike to possess.
To protect her surrogate daughter, Elektra finds herself battling the Hand, a group of mystical evil warriors that includes a fellow named Tattoo whose tattoos, of creatures like wolves and snakes, totally come to life and attack people. Tattoo briefly threatens to make things interesting, in an “Airbrushed van tableau from the 1970s comes to life” sort of way, but the cheesy excitement is invariably fleeting.
Like The Amazing Spider-Man and its even more preposterous sequel, Daredevil and Elektra constitute what is either a pocket universe only big enough for two fascinatingly misguided comic book mistakes or a pair of dead ends that introduced characters and worlds in ways clearly designed to serve as tentpoles for sprawling mythologies but that instead were so dreadful that they presented no feasible way forward and made reboots not just possible but inevitable.
Sure enough, Daredevil and Elektra live anew as characters in the Netflix Marvel television universe. I haven’t seen Daredevil, or any of the Marvel TV shows, really, but I’m guessing one of the prime directives of the small-screen version of Daredevil is to look and feel as little like the big screen adaptations of Daredevil and Elektra as humanly possible. In their own misguided way, Daredevil and Elektra are models of the form, albeit of what not to do.
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