Star's Snug Fit Sags in All Wrong Places

Ben Affleck is the most perplexing of movie stars: The parts he's been in haven't necessarily suited him or made him seem comfortable. Until now.

As the blind "Daredevil," overmatched defense attorney by day, fearless vigilante crusader for justice by night, Affleck is surprisingly at home with the humorlessness, the implacability, even the sullen obtuseness of a driven comic book superhero. Who knew?

Despite this casting coup, "Daredevil" is still more notable for its costumes than its drama. Affleck is a vision in maroon leather so snug and supple even the kindly neighborhood padre gulps and says, "I'm not too crazy about the outfit." Costar Jennifer Garner looks equally fetching in a stretchy vinyl ensemble made of something called pleather that features a bodice with built-in sword sheaths. Even "Olga's House of Shame" was never like this.

Arriving in the brief window after "Spider-Man" (2002) and before the arrival of next year's "X Men 2" and "The Hulk" (and you thought sophisticated adult drama was dead), "Daredevil" is trying to position itself, the press material insists, as "the most morally complex comic book movie ever made." One of the producers even considers it "an almost Shakespearean story," but, hey, that's Hollywood for you.

What morally complex translates to on screen is multiple beatings ("I've made sure he takes a lot of punishment," boasts writer-director Mark Steven Johnson) and big gulps of portentous dialogue. "Can one man make a difference?" Daredevil agonizes. "There are days when I believe and others when I have lost all faith." Most nights he pops some pain pills and takes a hot shower, allowing steaming water to massage his rippling muscles. Let Shakespeare try to match that.

Is it any wonder, then, that Daredevil isn't doing so well in the long-term-relationship department. We hear a certain Heather break up with him via message machine, complaining that their romance wasn't going to make it to the next level. But for a guy who sleeps in a coffin-like lidded water flotation tank, who can even guess what the next level might be?

Life wasn't always like this for Daredevil, who grew up in the Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan as Matt Murdock, a scrappy kid whose father was the even scrappier but morally suspect boxer Jack "The Devil" Murdock (David Keith).

Then came the unspeakable accident. It cost the young man his sight but had unforeseen compensations: Matt's remaining senses were pumped up to superhuman sharpness, allowing him to do Spider-Man-type maneuvers while playing without a web. Most impressive of all, Matt's sense of hearing features a kind of radar, enabling him, as illustrated via a nifty laser scanner-derived effects system called Shadow World, to move in ways that the sighted would envy.

This ability comes in especially handy when, after an hour of marking time with his comic-relief legal partner, Franklin "Foggy" Nelson (Jon Favreau, unsuccessfully trying not to look embarrassed), Daredevil finally meets The Girl.

That would be the fetching killing machine Elektra Natchios, played by Garner (of U.S. television's popular action-drama "Alias") and easily the film's most charismatic presence. She and Daredevil immediately square off in a charming getting-to-know-you martial arts pas de deux choreographed by Hong Kong and "Charlie's Angels" veteran Yuen Cheung-yan. Unfortunately, Garner doesn't have as much screen time as her prominence in the advertising would indicate: "Daredevil" has a hard time staying alive when she's not on the scene.

Because if "Daredevil" seemed serious for a comic book, it is uninterestingly cartoonish for a movie. Its villains, from Michael Clarke Duncan's plus-sized Kingpin through Colin Farrell's over-the-top Bullseye, have a shopworn air about them, and the script's dialogue and situations have generic written all over them.

That "Daredevil" should turn out to be neither daring nor devilish is somewhat of a surprise because filmmaker Johnson has been a washed-in-the blood fan since he was a child. Not the obvious choice because of the nature of his previous work (writing both 1993's "Grumpy" and 1995's "Grumpier Old Men," and writing and directing 1998's egregiously sentimental "Simon Birch"), he impressed the producers with his knowledge of and zeal for the material.

Maybe it's that zeal that turned out to be the problem. Maybe the comic book mythos is so firmly entrenched in Johnson's head that he doesn't see that his screen version is only sporadically involving and not really compelling to those without that previous interest. This is Daredevil's world, after all, where things do not have a habit of working out as planned.

"Daredevil" is now playing in English at the America and Dome Cinemas and in Russian at several local theaters. See the listings for showtimes.