An accident blinds young Matt Murdock but heightens his remaining senses. As an adult, he fights for justice as a lawyer by day and superhero by night - until a romance with Elektra, martial artist daughter of a tycoon, brings him up against New York crime boss Kingpin and assassin-for-hire Bullseye.
The fourth major Marvel Comics franchise to make it to the screen - following Blade, X-Men and Spider-Man - Daredevil works hard to establish an identity separate from those series, limiting the fantastical elements by endowing its leather-clad players with preternatural rather than the supernatural abilities. It pitches straight in with a wounded, suited-up Daredevil (Affleck) clinging like a gargoyle to a church steeple, then zooms into his blind eye to kick off a complicated set of flashbacks that cover even more comics history than was crammed into the slightly roomier Spider-Man script.
As is typical with superheroes, the cool powers - demonstrated by snappy, imaginative visuals that show how the blind man 'sees' through soundwaves - are balanced by more than his fair share of traumas and harsh life lessons. Oddly, the childhood section of the film puts less emphasis on quasi-science fiction stuff about the poor kid from Hells' Kitchen blinded by a spray of radioactive goop and gifted with reflexes beyond the normal than it does on a rerun of 1940s noir boxing melodramas (Body And Soul, The Set-Up). Matt's dad, Jack 'The Devil' Murdock (David Keith), refuses to take a dive in the ring and is murdered outside the arena by a rose-throwing shadowman who, as in Burton's Batman film, will clearly wind up as our hero's arch-nemesis.
Sensibly, we skip some years to avoid crossover with the Batman and Spider-Man on-the-job superhero training scenes. When we pick it up, Matt's night-time alter ego is established as an urban legend, with newshound Ben Urich (Joe Pantoliano) - who sadly no longer works alongside Peter Parker at the Daily Bugle, because the franchises are with different studios - determined to unmask the vigilante. Affleck does well in a charming/unnerving meeting with Garner's asskickette heroine, first pulling fake disabled pick-up moves on her in a coffee shop then getting down to serious foreplay in an impromptu punch-up in a playground.
Things fray when the villains are introduced. Michael Clarke Duncan's cigar-smoking megalomaniac Kingpin and Colin Farrell's venomous Irish hitman Bullseye are fun characters with neat gimmicks (Bullseye can kill anyone with anything, including paperclips and peanuts). Even the enmities that swirl between the characters are serviceable (after a first encounter with Daredevil, Bullseye is incensed - "You made me miss!"). What isn't seamless is the way the villains are yoked into the Matt-Elektra story and, after a couple of Hong Kong-style one-on-one wire-strung battles, there's little room to develop, prompting a drop-off after the movie comes out of flashback mode. A supposed final confrontation between the hero and his father's killer fizzles because the film can't bring itself to commit to any of the possible outcomes.
Writer-director Mark Steven Johnson over-relies on an album's worth of songs to underscore emotion and excitement, when he ought to trust his mostly fine writing and effective casting. Affleck, the good guy equivalent of his legal shark in Changing Lanes, is a more convincing hero than in his earlier leading man outings, and everyone else is on form. But the initial good impression dissipates by the fade-out.
Long-time DD fans and newcomers will like the characters more than the film, but there are enough strong moments to guarantee a good night out. An inevitable sequel might well shore up the weak spots.
Reviewed by Kim Newman