In Match Cuts, we examine every available version of a film, and decide once and for all which is the one, definitive cut worth watching. This week, in honor of the new Marvel Comics superhero movie “Captain America: The First Avenger,” we’re looking at the Marvel Comics superhero movie “Daredevil.”
-Theatrical Cut (2003): 103 minutes
-Director’s Cut (2004): 133 minutes (listed at 124 minutes on the box for some reason)
Blinded as a boy in a construction site accident, Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck) prowls the streets of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, defending its people as the masked vigilante Daredevil. Matt can’t see, but his accident boosted his remaining four senses and gave him an extra sense to boot, a “radar sense” that allows him to map his environment by interpreting the movement of sound waves. By day, Matt is a lawyer; by night he seeks the justice he doesn’t find in the courtroom as Daredevil. It’s a sad, lonely life until he meets Elektra (Jennifer Garner), the karate expert daughter of a Greek billionaire (gotta love comics). With their shared love of tight leather and beating the shit out of people, they seem like kindred spirits. But New York’s crime Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan) is looking to get even with Daredevil and Elektra’s father, and he sends a deranged hitman named Bullseye (Colin Farrell) to break up the happy couple.
REASON FOR MULTIPLE VERSIONS:
All Hollywood movies are the product of collaboration between many different people. But from the sound of “Daredevil”‘s two audio commentaries — one for each cut — all the different people in charge of “Daredevil” had different ideas about what the film should be, and their collective vision for the project was about as clear as Matt Murdock’s. 20th Century Fox hired Mark Steven Johnson to make “Daredevil” on the basis of his screenplay and his take on the character, which was dark and bleak. Then they tested the film and discovered that audiences preferred the relationship between Affleck and Garner. In order to put the focus more squarely on the love story and to accelerate the film’s languid pace, they demanded major cuts. The studio’s shortened version opened in February of 2003 and did well enough at the box office to convince them to release (something close to) Johnson’s original cut on DVD.
KEY DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MULTIPLE VERSIONS (SPOILERS AHEAD):
The “Daredevil” Director’s Cut is not one of those cash-in b.s. jobs that’s basically the theatrical version with a couple extra shots of gore or nudity. It’s an extensively different movie. There are subtractions as well as additions, and the film isn’t simply longer, it also has a drastically different tone.
As we already covered, the dictum from up on high at Fox about the film was to focus on Matt and Elektra. Not surprisingly, the most interesting changes between the two cuts of the film occur during the characters’ romance (You can watch the scene I’m about to discuss on YouTube; it’s not embeddable). In the Theatrical Cut, Matt and Elektra meet on the street, and he takes her to his favorite spot in the city, a rooftop with a beautiful view of the New York skyline. It starts to rain, and Matt uses his radar sense to “see” Elektra’s face as the sound of the water drops hitting her skin. It’s a beautiful moment, but it’s almost immediately ruined by the call of duty: Matt’s hypersensitive ears overhear a crime in progress nearby and he tells Elektra he has to go. He’s about to dash off when Elektra asks him to stay with her. Our hero’s torn, but Jennifer Garner ultimately proves to hot to resist, and the film cuts to a tasteful PG-13 love scene. Matt awakens the next morning in his bed with a big smile on his face. He didn’t stop that crime, and people probably died, but hey — dude got laid. All’s well that ends well.
It turns out everything in that sequence after Elektra pleads with Matt to stay was a reshoot ordered by Fox to beef up the love story. In Johnson’s Director’s Cut, Matt leaves Elektra on the roof and throws one of the Kingpin’s thugs a hellacious beating (maybe his blue balls are hypersensitive too). Only after he kicks the crap out of the goon does Daredevil notice a kid cowering in the corner, freaking out that some dude dressed as a Leather Daddy Satan is using his father’s face as a punching bag. “I’m not the bad guy, kid,” Daredevil tells him.
In general, the Director’s Cut plays up that sense of moral confusion — is Daredevil a hero or just a screwed up guy with special powers? — that was present in the Theatrical Cut but sublimated to make room for more action and romance. One of the most effective and interesting shots in the entire movie is only available in the Director’s Cut. The only way Matt Murdock can fall sleep at night is by using a sensory deprivation tank to shut out the sounds of the world. After another evening as Daredevil, Matt is about to lay down and go to sleep when he hears the sound of a woman crying out for help. Matt’s too far away to rescue her in time, but to him it sounds like she’s laying on the floor of his apartment. He sits and listens to her murder and then shuts the sensory deprivation tank’s lid. This beat, missing from the Theatrical Cut, reinforces just how much being Daredevil sucks. His powers don’t free him from his disability, they only make him feel more helpless.
It turns out that the man (played by Coolio) wrongfully accused of that woman’s murder becomes a client of Matt’s law practice, and his systematic efforts to prove his innocence form an extensive subplot that’s completely missing from the Theatrical Cut. The best of these scenes see Matt and his partner Foggy Nelson (Jon Favreau) doing a kind of “CSI: Daredevil” routine in the victim’s house. Matt smells the ammonia used to clean the carpet and realizes the crime happened inside and not outside as the police believe. He touches a desk and feels the imprint left by a pen on paper, perhaps a clue to the murderer’s identity. The fact that the entire mystery subplot was removed from the film without anyone noticing tells you how unimportant these scenes are from a narrative perspective, but they do give us a fuller picture of Matt’s life and his powers.
Those are the big changes but there are lots of other little ones: more conversations between Matt and Foggy, several confessional scenes between Matt and a Catholic priest (in the Director’s Cut Matt doesn’t get laid, so I guess he doesn’t have as much to confess), a lengthier introduction for Bullseye involving an amusing run-in with an airport metal detector, and more graphic violence in the fight scenes. There’s also this scene, which more fully establishes just how powerful and dangerous the Kingpin really is:
IF YOU ONLY WATCH ONE VERSION OF “DAREDEVIL,” WATCH:
The Director’s Cut, though there’s a fundamental flaw with both versions of the film. “Daredevil” was designed by Johnson as a serious examination of the price of superpowers on a man’s soul. Matt Murdock makes bad choices, uses his gifts selfishly, and ultimately pays for it with the lives of people he loves. Unfortunately, the action sequences are the worst kind of “Matrix”-lite cartoonish wirework. Characters jump and flip without any sense of gravity or reality. So on the one hand, it’s a gritty look at what it might be like for a real person to grapple with godhood. On the other hand — “WEEEEE! We’re bouncing on see-saws!”
So, admittedly, neither version of “Daredevil” is all that great, but the Director’s Cut is clearly the better of the two. It minimizes the cartoony elements and beefs up the hero’s anguish and moral ambiguity. It expands Matt Murdock’s character and his world so that his whole story doesn’t just revolve around his crush on this girl and his need to avenge her death. Since Johnson’s intended arc for Daredevil was about him coming to grips with the fact that vengeance won’t bring him peace, that’s pretty important.
Both versions give us ample evidence of why superhero comics can be such a fruitful place for creativity and why superhero movies sometimes are not. The best “Daredevil” comics by artist Frank Miller (“Sin City”) were written at a time when the title was unpopular and in danger of cancellation. With nothing to lose, Marvel gave Miller creative carte blanche. No wonder, then, that his issues were so bold and risky. The “Daredevil” movie is a classic example of cinema by committee. Audiences liked Garner and Affleck, so they threw away the spine of the movie for more love scenes. “The Matrix” sequels were all the rage, so they patterned their fights after it, even though that made no logical sense for the kind of movie they were making. It doesn’t take a blind man to see those were mistakes.
The “Daredevil: Director’s Cut” is available on Blu-ray and DVD. The Theatrical Cut is only available on DVD. Which is your favorite cut of the film? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.