Even Ben Affleck’s superhuman superstar status can never save ‘Daredevil’ from its mediocrity

“Call me Donnie… Call me Joey.”

And with that Ben Affleck entered pop culture consciousness as the fashionable male employee/statutory rapist who likes to make New Kids on the Block references during sex in 1995’s Mallrats. Sure, Affleck made a solid impression in 1993’s Dazed and Confused as the super senior who gets humiliated by a bunch of freshmen, but in “Mallrats” he met his maker in director Kevin Smith. It took Smith to see the wit, wisdom and wonder that Affleck had to offer, later casting him in his first lead role in Chasing Amy. Smith even convinced Miramax executives to read Good Will Hunting, officially launching the careers of dynamic duo Matt Damon and Affleck. So, it’s fair to say that Affleck owes much of his big Hollywood career and big-bootied girlfriend to Smith’s faith in his promise. And, I guess we also have Smith to thank for Affleck as “Daredevil, the man without fear.”

Thanks, but no thanks. Like a hearty serving of bread and water, Daredevil is not good enough to be bad and not bad enough to be good. The film tries so hard to be a good movie, from its religious imagery to its dramatic questions of morality, but the best laid plans of mice and men only give us an inadvertent tribute to the star-system.

Writer-Director Mark Steven Johnson clearly has much love for the original Marvel comic. He paints a dark red and black portrait of the loneliness and isolation of fighting crime on the rooftops of New York City. Wasting no time with subtlety, the film states outright Daredevil’s moral dilemma; is he a good guy or a bad guy? Even the comic explores the subject in greater depth.

That’s one half of the movie. The other features a handsome, if not altogether mild-mannered, Affleck as Gotham’s famously blind lawyer, Matt Murdock. Set mostly in a coffee shop, with the soft warm lighting of a romantic comedy, these scenes add relief from the gloom and torture of watching Daredevil battle his troubled past, his not-so-debilitating handicap and his general ennui. We glimpse his softer side as well as his ability to engage law partner Jon Favreau in scenes that are so flat and predictable that Favreau may as well be wearing a “Comic Relief ’98” t-shirt. A tour-de-force performance from Affleck reminds us that, though he may be the Daredevil when justice calls, he’s still Benny from the block.

In fact, Daredevil never lets us forget Affleck. Following a long tradition of casting the lead actor’s off-screen persona as part of the film (heart-throb Jimmy Stewart as a wheelchair bound photographer in Rear Window, for example), we cannot escape Ben Affleck as Ben Affleck: J-Lo lover, more-of-a-heart-throb-than-Matt-Damon, broad-shouldered and rough-shaven every-man hero. If a cameo by Kevin Smith reminds us of the origins of Affleck’s career, then the movie itself reminds us where it’s going.

The meta-Entertainment Weekly quality of Daredevil makes it appear thrilling, but most of the action scenes are duds, derivatives of every other comic book action movie of the past few years. Johnson shows occasional flair with his portrayal of Daredevil’s blindness, but overall the film is marred by awkward lighting and arbitrarily comic-book-style angled shots. By the time we are given the requisite “unmasking of the superhero” scene half way through the movie, it’s hard to tell who the real super hero is. As Electra (Jennifer Garner) slowly slides off Daredevil’s red fetishistic face guard, she reveals the superstar hidden behind the superhero. Suddenly, with the mask off, we can’t tell who should be fighting the bad guy – the blind superhero or his square-jawed alter ego. Affleck’s jutting jaw-line practically renders the whole thing redundant.

Cookie-cutter action scenes and sound stage streets ensure that the unreality of this version of New York as city-cum-character never gets in the way of the reality behind the scenes. The names of different New York neighborhoods are frequently dropped. But, like they say: show, don’t tell. In a movie that wants to be about the relationship of a superhero to his urban space, the skyline and character of New York are presented as Hollywood artifice. Director Johnson establishes the bigness of the city through helicopter shots and second rate, second-unit photography, never delving beyond the urban façade to tap the vibrant lifeblood of New York’s streets.

Daredevil does have one ace up its sleeve: Bullseye. As played by Hollywood bad boy and superstar-in-the-making Colin Farrell, Bullseye is a character worthy of his own film. An assassin with deadly accurate aim, Farrell makes Bullseye funny, scary and deeply strange. Basically, a hell of a lot more fun than Daredevil. Then again, villains are always more fun than heroes. And there are many things more fun than Daredevil.