Before Ben Affleck took the mantle of Batman’s cowl and Bruce Wayne throughout the DC iteration of the Snyderverse, he was The Man Without Fear, blind lawyer by day Matt Murdock in 2003’s Daredevil. It was a time when the character rights for Marvel characters were scattered amongst a lot of studios. Initially, Home Alone, Ms. Doubtfire (and yes, Pixels) director Chris Columbus was supposed to be at the helm behind the camera. As the project went into limbo through the hands of different studios, Mark Steven Johnson was set to write and direct the film when things settled, and the result, well, was a peak 2000s superhero film.
The film’s soundtrack was drenched in popular alt-rock from acts such as Fuel, Finger Eleven, Seether, and two songs from Evanescene’s first album Fallen (which also turns 20 this year). One of the main criticisms of the theatrical cut is that it does not allow for much character development. We see Daredevil, perhaps a few scenes with Matt and his best friend and legal partner Foggy Nelson (Jon Favreau), where some jokes are cracked about alligators living in the sewers. We can’t forget about establishing the mysterious love interest in Elektra (Jennifer Garner) and then giving us villains like Bullseye (Colin Ferrell) and Kingpin (the late Michael Clarke Duncan), where the secondary villain gets to establish his moveset more than the primary one.
There are even sequences following one another that doesn’t fit narratively – It’s apparent that many things got lost in translation (or the editing bay). Daredevil’s director's cut at least gives some cushion to the story it’s trying to tell. Each character gains more direction, and their motivations are far more coherent. Some of the cheesiness is still there, mainly because each actor is committed to playing a highly turned-up version of their comic counterparts. But as the focus turns more into a darker character study of the many facets of Matt Murdock – the film is better for it.
For starters, Kingpin’s imposing nature gets a bigger boost in the added 30-minute runtime. Instead of just standing by windows looking out into the city, Duncan is able to show why he’s so physically dangerous – in addition to his systematic takeover of Hell’s Kitchen. He already has ties to Matt in killing his dad, but the audience also needed to see how his evil touched the other significant characters in play. Colin Farrell’s portrayal of Bullseye is sometimes downright comical – indulging in over-exaggeration at every turn.
The character of Matt Murdock gets a bit more to chew on, exploring the many dark crevices of his psyche - mainly wondering if his penchant for justice merges into villainy. He’s a lawyer by day, where the bad guys usually prevail in the courtroom. Matt’s moral compass will not allow him to take on clients he deems guilty (much to the dismay of Foggy). At night, he's the heavy hand of retribution that is not afraid to kill a mobster or two. That comes to a head in an extra scene where a kid cowers in fear while he’s Daredevil.
At that point, Matt questions if he’s the bad guy. This added context validates the final fight between him and Kingpin and why Matt doesn’t choose to kill him. In the theatrical version, it’s an outlier that doesn't make that much sense. Matt often struggles with isolation because his enhanced senses keep him in tune with danger. This ties into his religious struggles and warped sense of what mercy means.
There’s a connection subplot featuring the late great Coolio as a murder suspect, Dante Jackson, that has a connection as to why police take Kingpin down. This gives Foggy more to do instead of being the constant source of comic relief. It also serves for the betterment of investigative journalist Ben Urich (Joe Pantoliano) because he’s less on a “find out Daredevil’s identity” watch and looks deeper into the rot of the city. The romance angle between Matt and Elektra gets cut down a bit to the essentials – keeping the story of two people searching for happiness while expecting anything.
Daredevil’s sonar vision still seems like a pretty cool trick, and the added R-rated grittiness gives a Frank Miller vibe to things. The suit itself – ok, well, it’s still not the greatest. Even with much-added context, Daredevil is still far from a perfect film. Provided many fans can agree there’s a better representation of the character with the recent Netflix show (and hopefully the Disney + one). That said, looking back at Johnson’s full vision may make fans of the character see the film in a different light.
You can watch the director’s cut of Daredevil over on HBO Max.