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Daredevil

Directed and written by Mark Steven Johnson Starring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell Classification: AA Rating: **½

Forget about graphic novels, they'll always be comic books to you. And you read them eagerly back then, in the innocence of childhood, when their kiddie myths spoke directly to your kiddie hopes and kiddie fears. Then you got older and put away childish things, not reluctantly but in the excited throes of discovery -- there were more enlightening words to read, and they didn't come with balloons around them. For a brief decade or so, you made your cultural choices from a grownup menu, and childish things were what they should be -- the exclusive domain of the young, the rightful property of little children.

Then you grew older still, and perhaps a little regretful -- old enough and regretful enough to start idealizing your youth. And, somehow, the entire pop culture followed suit, getting nostalgic and infantalized, until your childish past became an ongoing present, and, like it or not, resist it or not, you were imprisoned in the kingdom of kiddiedom.

Many hold the keys to that kingdom, but none is larger than the one wielded by Hollywood. It makes expensive movies out of those old comic books, out of every pulp man with a preface before his name -- Super or Bat or Spider. Bombarded by ads, by billboards, by press, you are obliged to consider these movies, and to treat them with the lively seriousness that their lavish budgets command. Not to do so is to be unfashionably old in a culture that's forever young. Not to revel in a childish past is to seem past it -- an anachronism, a coot.

Daredevil was, and is, a comic book -- originated back in the sixties by that Marvel-man himself, the prolific Stan Lee. And now the comic has exercised its inalienable right to morph into a feature film. This particular hero suits up right along with the others -- the costume may be different, but the cloth is sure the same. Like them, he has a dual identity: Matt Murdock the storefront lawyer by day, Daredevil the crusading vigilante by night. Like them, he's an orphan whose emergent powers have a point of vulnerability: Due to a childhood accident, Daredevil is blind, much like the justice he metes out. And like them, he works the city: Big bad Gotham, where crime is rife, where tall buildings can be leapt from in a single bound, and where rooftops glimmer under the stolen light of the silver moon.

Like them too, he is conflicted, carrying within him the seeds of good and evil. So not all his blooms are benign. For example, he's in mid-dalliance with his love-interest Elektra when, much to his annoyance, crime-fighting duty calls, forcing him to choose between doing good and doing Elektra. What happens? Let's just say the crooks catch a break that night. This, and other slight falls from grace, are meant to make our Daredevil seem human and imperfect and thus, by comic-book standards, a figure of Dostoyevskian complexity. Since comic-book standards are, increasingly, the only yardstick in town, you're left to take your Crime and Punishment where you can find it.

In keeping with the tradition established by his predecessors, Daredevil must be played by a star of some wattage -- in this case, by Ben Affleck who, with the usual help from the special-effects wizards, has the task of convincing you that blindness is a trifling handicap, more than compensated for by a prodigious enhancement of the other senses. Yes, thanks to his extraordinary hearing, Daredevil can echo-locate like a Stealth bomber. Courtesy of his acute smell, he can nose out a foul deed a mile away. Apparently, about the only thing he can't do is comb his chronically dishevelled hair, yet that just makes Ben all the cuter.

But back to the foul deed-doers, without whom no hero could be super and no comic book complete. Principal among them is Bullseye (Colin Farrell), so nicknamed because of the target tattooed on his forehead and his unerring way with a hurled missile. Something sharp is his weapon of choice, but any pointed object will do in a pinch -- the guy's hell with a paper clip. And since Bullseye is not in the least conflicted, he makes for one formidable opponent.

So does the curvaceous Elektra (Jennifer Garner), who can really kick ass when she's not wiggling it. Not that it matters. The course of true love can never run smooth in kiddie-comic land. Crusading superheroes, like their boy-child admirers, are sexual adolescents doomed to live in those neighbouring states of permanent arousal and perpetual frustration -- yearning and even yearned for, but with ultimate bliss always a promise just out of reach. No wonder that Daredevil's only nocturnal companion is his sensory deprivation chamber -- the single place where his raging faculties can find some rest.

Anyway, you have seen and now you must judge. But your judgment cannot be adult and absolute, as in: It's a comic, for god's sake, how good can it be? No, your judgment must be sophomoric and relative, as in: How does this cinematic comic compare with those other screen editions? And several of them have looked quite impressive, because a culture gets infantalized by the generous investment not only of money but also of talent. Many gifted directors have taken up the kiddie reins; ironically, comic-book adaptations are really an auteur's medium -- they demand a deft visual hand with an imaginative touch.

So, on to the question at issue: Can Daredevil assume pride of place alongside the first Superman and the original Batman and the recent Spiderman? It could have, if Mark Steven Johnson were a gifted director. Instead, he's just competent, as is the flick -- not woeful, not wonderful, merely watchable.

That leaves you to reach into your satchel of stars and pick out **½ -- the going rate for competence. And then you append the mark -- the little stars, the readers' help-mate -- in the assigned place, much as your grade-school teacher did when you were a boy of 10, way back in the sad old days when childish things were the purview of children, long before a fun-loving culture had mastered the fine art of never growing up.