Season Two of Netflix’s Daredevil is here and is introducing both Elektra and The Punisher to the television series. There has been a lot of buzz about the new Elektra, Elodie Yung. Before we see how Yung’s take on the character plays out alongside Charlie Cox’s Daredevil, we thought we’d take a look at the short and troubled history of Daredevil and Elektra on film.
In 1963 Marvel Comics introduced their first super teams with The Avengers and The X-Men both in the same month. Seven months later, Stan Lee and Bill Everett (with some input from Jack Kirby) release Daredevil #1, the first new character to debut in his own comic since the Hulk (May 1962) – Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, Wasp, and Doctor Strange all debuted in other titles before eventually getting their own series. Which sort of makes Daredevil Marvel’s first Phase Two comic after bringing the Avengers together.
The origin was simple. Matt Murdock was a blind lawyer, having lost his sight as a child after being hit in the face with radioactive material while saving an old man from being hit by a truck. The exposure to radiation gave him heightened senses beyond normal, including a sort of “radar sense.” His dad Jack Murdock was a boxer who, after refusing to throw a fight, was murdered by gangsters. So he fights crime in the courtroom by day, and by beating people up at night in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC.
The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989)
The same year that The Punisher was not being released in America, Marvel released its second backdoor pilot for a potential new TV series with The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (having previously released The Return of the Incredible Hulk which failed to launch a Thor series). This time, the filmmakers decided to focus on a character that was much more grounded and would lend himself to an ongoing series more in line with other shows on at the time – namely courtroom dramas: Daredevil, the Man Without Fear.
By 1989, Frank Miller had revitalized Daredevil, making it one of the most critically-acclaimed Marvel comics of the Eighties. His focus on DD’s street-level action, ninjas, and development of Wilson Fisk, The Kingpin, into Daredevil’s central nemesis have become ingrained into the character’s stories ever since, and the TV movie was no exception (although there are no ninjas, we do get a Daredevil costume that is definitely more ninja than red devil).
Daredevil is played by Rex Smith (Solid Gold, Street Hawk, The Pirates of Penzance) and is remarkably faithful to the comic version in all but his costume. His arch-enemy Wilson Fisk is played by John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sliders, The Lord of the Rings), and while he is technically the Kingpin of Crime, he’s essentially a new technologically-obsessed character. Even though The Incredible Hulk is in the title, and Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno reprise their iconic roles, there’s very little Hulk in this at all, making it the first real Daredevil film even if it was made for TV.
The world is fully-realized as the film begins and even has a distinctive directorial flair that sets it apart from previous Hulk TV appearances, with lots of heavy shadows, dramatic lighting, and futuristic technology. The fight sequences have a brutal (for 80s TV) feel that contrasts starkly with the traditional exaggerated (and usually slow-motion) combat of the Hulk (and Thor, for that matter). Hell, the Hulk doesn’t even appear in the final quarter of the film, making it a straight-up vehicle for Rex Smith to make or break the character of Daredevil.
But while it did better ratings-wise than Return of the Incredible Hulk, it also could not spin its guest-star into his own ongoing series. It would be 1997 before development would begin again on a Daredevil feature.
While development began in 1997, Marvel was facing bankruptcy in 1998 and the rights to Daredevil were up for grabs. New Regency ultimately attained the rights in 2000 and Mark Steven Johnson was hired to write and direct. The goal was to create a more “character-driven… darker… edgier” film than Marvel productions up to that point (Blade, X-Men, Blade II, and Spider-Man) and producer Kevin Feige (who would go on to oversee and orchestrate the success of Marvel Studios from Iron Man on) felt it was one of the strongest scripts Marvel had produced.
The film didn’t set out to adapt any specific Daredevil storyline, although visual elements of the Marvel Knights reboot art by Joe Quesada did help establish the look, particularly of the opening sequence. Instead Johnson’s script attempted to introduce Daredevil, Kingpin, Daredevil’s ninja-assassin girlfriend Elektra, and the maniacal villain Bullseye while incorporating moments from Frank Miller’s time on the book with the eventual murder of Elektra.
Elektra had first appeared in Daredevil #168 (January 1981) as Matt Murdock’s long-lost college girlfriend who turns up out of the blue as a ninja assassin. The character’s popularity exploded and she was quickly brought back and her on-again off-again love story with Daredevil became the central through line of much of the next year until she was murdered by Bullseye in Daredevil #181 (April 1982).
Elektra was the daughter of Greek ambassador to the United States who was trained in the martial arts from a young age after the assassination of her mother. While in college at Columbia University she met and began dating classmate Matt Murdock. She and her father were kidnapped a year later and a rescue attempt by Matt went wrong and her father was gunned down. At that point Elektra quit Columbia, traveled to China and was recruited by Stick to train in a coming conflict with the evil ninja organization The Hand. Due to the darkness in her soul, she eventually joined The Hand who trained her as a mystical assassin, which brings us to Daredevil #168.
During the course of her time in Daredevil she became the Kingpin’s top assassin and was finally murdered in single combat by Bullseye so he could prove he was the best.
The only things that Johnson’s script kept from any of this is that Jennifer Garner’s Elektra is Greek, her mother is dead, her father is killed and then Bullseye (Colin Farrell) kills her, too. There is no explanation about why she even knows how to fight, which fails to provide any real explanation for why she fights with sai, wears a sexy costume, or can almost fight both Daredevil and Bullseye to a standstill. What Garner’s interpretation does have, though is chemistry with her co-star, Ben Affleck who was cast as Matt Murdock/Daredevil.
That chemistry would lead to the two of them getting married in 2005 (although they recently filed for divorce) and having three kids.
With what they were given to work with, both actors do fine. The problem is with the script. Daredevil is easy. Even Rex Smith got Daredevil right. You just play a righteous lawyer by day and then get brutally physical doing acrobatic fights at night. We see that this life is wearing on Matt both psychologically and physically in some of the best moments of the film, but we’re also “treated” to things like the playground fight between Matt and Elektra while a gaggle of schoolkids watch. It’s silly and undercuts the tone of the rest of the film.
It also begs the question, what’s going on with Elektra and why can she do wire-fu?
Without any answers, the representation of the character falls short; and while it’s cool to see the iconic scene from Daredevil #181 brought to life, where Bullseye kills her, without the emotional groundwork being laid, it’s just a death scene. The romance between Matt and Elektra that should make this truly resonate just isn’t developed enough.
The film also relies way too much on CG character acrobatics, and the story jumps from plot point to plot point with no real explanation of what’s going on. When we finally get to Daredevil’s confrontation with Wilson Fisk (Michael Clarke Duncan) at the climax of the film, it’s anti-climactic and over way too quick. Most of these problems are actually fixed in the Director’s Cut of the film that was released on home video in 2004, but unfortunately it’s like sprinkling glitter on poop – it’s better, I guess, but it’s still not a very good movie.
That was the general critical consensus, too. The film is just middle-of-the-road and reviews were mixed-to-poor. Its production budget of $78 million meant that it didn’t have to deal with the financial problems that every single Punisher movie dealt with, but it also meant that its $102.5 million domestic take wasn’t great. Adding in the foreign market brought its final gross up to $179 million and its quick fall from the Top Ten at the box office scuttled sequel talk.
Despite indications that Johnson and Affleck both were interested in returning to Daredevil 2, the studio didn’t seem interested and instead attention became focused on fan-favorite Elektra. Rob Bowman (Star Trek: The Next Generation, The X-Files, Reign of Fire) was hired to direct a script by Zak Penn (Last Action Hero, Men in Black, X2), Stu Zicherman, and Raven Metzner.
Right out of the gate, Elektra is a better film than Daredevil. The script, while flawed, is stronger, and Bowman was an experienced director who brought a beautifully filmed ninja-assassin film in on-time and on-budget. The opening sequence was dark and set the stage for what could have been a much more accurate interpretation of the character than we saw in her previous appearance.
Set some years after her murder in Daredevil, Elektra was brought back to life by blind sensei Stick (Terence Stamp) and trained as an actual ninja (this time). However, the darkness inside her is too great and she is expelled, which leads her down the path to becoming a highly-paid assassin. There’s no real explanation for where Stick came from, or who he really is – and any back-story involving his training of young Matt Murdock is lost. Which means Stamp really is only allowed to stand around barking orders and attempting to provide gravitas; which he does in his best Terence Stamp voice.
The biggest weakness of the film is that the screenplay relies too strongly on traditional (some might say stereotypical) Assassin Film topos. Of course Elektra, played by a returning Jennifer Garner, is hired for a hit that she can’t follow through on thanks to an emerging morality, and becomes the target of the assassins hired to complete the job. On top of this, we get a layer of “Chosen One” mythology, which is again a little too on-point. The reliance on these time-worn plot elements means that the film lacks any real tension or suspense.
We know what’s going to happen as soon as characters walk on-screen.
And it’s a damn shame because Elektra had the talent involved to really make a dark and violent film with a character perfectly suited for it. The interpretation of Elektra here is much closer to what it should be than it was in Daredevil but still falls far short of what it should be, hamstrung as it is with a sentimental black-and-white morality. And while Garner gives the role everything she’s got, especially on the physical side, which capitalizes on her popularity as TV Super Spy Sydney Bristow in Alias, she never really captures the darkness of Elektra.
Maybe she’s just too All-American for that. The character in the comics has a coldness inside; a darkness that comes from both personal tragedy and an already-present psychopathic streak – a wildness that never comes through in Garner’s portrayal. She’s too quick to cry, and to kiss the leading man, to really become Elektra. Emphasizing the childhood trauma of losing her mother to a ninja assassin ultimately doesn’t add to the performance, and instead becomes another clichéd plot point, when she, of course, faces off against the man who killed her.
I have to say, though, that it was great to see The Hand appear on film for the first time. And when the first dead ninja went up in smoke it provoked a glimmer of hope that maybe the film was heading in the right direction. Even the CG-enhanced ninja assassin squad that Elektra faces off with were almost what we needed. However, as with the other elements of the film, the script pulls back and doesn’t allow them the grounding needed to really work.
Bowman’s Director’s Cut of the film helps with this a little bit, but with only three added minutes of footage and some small, but effective, tweaks to the violence and language, it’s too little, too late.
This second appearance of Elektra is easily a better film than Daredevil, and is a solid middle-of-the-road assassin film (although a sub-par ninja film), but it spends too much time on introspection without producing any real thematic or dramatic results. In the end, most viewers found it boring and while its production budget was around half of Daredevil‘s ($43 million) it ultimately barely made a profit, bringing in only $56.7 million worldwide – making it, at the time, the lowest grossing Marvel film since Howard the Duck.
And while Bullseye hadn’t proven capable of killing Elektra for good, a horrible box-office did the trick.
Now, after a decade, Marvel has decided to return Elektra to its live-action fold as she appears in Season 2 of Daredevil. Elodie Yung looks the part, for sure, capturing the exotic and dangerous feel that Frank Miller originally intended for the character; and introducing her in casual conversation in Season 1 as Matt’s college flame goes a long way already toward getting the character right. Now we just have to watch and see if Yung can bring the madness and violence that is at the heart of the character.