'Daredevil' at 20: When Ben Affleck met Jennifer Garner on the set of the 2003 comic book blockbuster
The 'Daredevil' director shares behind the scenes stories on the film's 20th anniversary
When is a superhero movie also a Valentine's Day-appropriate love story? When that superhero movie is Mark Steven Johnson's Daredevil, which premiered in theaters 20 years ago on Feb. 14, 2003 — a day generally reserved for more traditional cinematic romances. But the writer-director tells Yahoo Entertainment that the tragic romance between Marvel Comics's blind hero Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, and Hand-trained ninja Elektra — played by Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, respectively — deliberately served as the beating heart of Daredevil's theatrical cut, which topped the Valentine's weekend box office and went on to gross over $100 million during its theatrical run. "The love story became the primary story," Johnson says.
Offscreen, of course, Daredevil inspired a real-life love story. Affleck and Garner were both in high-profile relationships when they played the doomed superhero couple — the Good Will Hunting Oscar winner was dating Jennifer Lopez, while the Alias star was married to Scott Foley — but started dating a year after the film's release and walked down the aisle in July 2005. They separated a decade later in 2015 and share three children; in 2021, Affleck reconnected with Lopez and they were married last summer.
Johnson declines to comment on his stars' real-world love lives, but says he has nothing but fond memories of filming their cinematic romance. "It was a wonderful shoot," he recalls. "We were on the rooftops of downtown L.A. or in New York City late at night, and it was just fun. It was its own world that you create around it. Even though there was a lot of pressure on me [as the director], there was an incredible on-set vibe."
Johnson based much of Daredevil's love story on a classic Marvel Comics storyline penned by celebrated writer and artist, Frank Miller. And just like the comics, their romance ends in Elektra's (temporary) death at the hands of ace assassin, Bullseye, played by Colin Farrell in one of the Irish actor's looniest performances. "That's a scene I'm particularly proud of," Johnson says now. "It's really panel-for-panel out of Frank Miller's comic: Bullseye saying, 'You're good, but I'm magic,' and slashing Elektra's throat with a playing card, followed by her crawling on her hands and knees with blood coming out."
In fact, there was a little too much blood for 20th Century Fox, the studio that released Daredevil and held onto the rights until 2013 when they reverted back to Marvel Studios. "They were like, 'It's pretty gruesome!' Johnson says, laughing. "I do remember getting some blowback on that, because her death was quite graphic." Some of the bloodier moments from Elektra's death scene were restored for Johnson's director's cut, which was released on home video in 2004 and remains his preferred version.
"It's definitely a more complete version," he says of that cut, which includes an entire storyline that was dropped from the theatrical version featuring the late rapper Coolio. "Looking back on it, one of the mistakes I made with the film was wanting to put everything in! I wanted to do Daredevil's origin story, and I wanted to do the Elektra Saga and I wanted to introduce Bullseye and Foggy. I wanted everything to be in there, but the film could only support so much. And then when you're told to cut a half-hour out and and make it more of a love story, things star to feel rushed and not quite right. It's a fan thing: when you love something so much, you want to tell it all."
In a spirited interview, Johnson — who went on to oversee the inaugural big-screen appearance of another offbeat Marvel hero Ghost Rider — reveals some of the other actors he considered for the role of Daredevil and the fan "blowback" he received for changing the race of a major Marvel villain.
You had been wanting to make a Daredevil since the late ’90s, when comic book movies were essentially dead after failures like Batman & Robin and Spawn.
Yeah, it was such a different world then. It's funny, we were developing Daredevil before the first Spider-Man came out and I remember people saying to me: "I don't think that movie's gonna work." I was like, "Why? Spider-Man is one of the greatest characters." And they said: "Well, you can't see his face!" [Laughs] I remember telling people I was going to do Daredevil and they would say to me: "You mean Evel Knievel?" I'd explain, "No, he's a blind lawyer who has superpowers and heightened senses and he puts on a devil costume to fight crime." And they'd be like: "Oh, so it's a comedy?" Nobody knew who the character was then! The Marvel catalogue was so deep. And now everybody knows all the characters. It's pretty amazing how much has changed in 20 years.
I have to imagine that the success of early Marvel movies like Blade and X-Men helped change things for you.
Yeah, X-Men was the first one where people went, "Wow you can take these movies seriously and do something interesting." That was the one that changed everything, it really was. For Daredevil, I was using inspiration from The Crow and Blade, and movies like that which I loved so much.
The look of Daredevil is very stylized — you use a lot of Dutch angles and some intense colors. Did you feel more freedom as a director in terms of what you could get away with?
There was so much pressure on me because I was still a new director, but as far as the actual content went, it was kind of the Wild West. Now, Marvel is so successful and so huge; it's their universe and rightfully so. They control everything about their movies so successfully. But back then, no one quite knew what any of this was, and I would have my stack of comic books trying to show them. They would be like: "He's not gonna actually have horns, right? He's called Daredevil because he does Daredevil things, but he's not going to dress up like a devil — that's ridiculous." You were fighting for everything!
But you also got the chance, like we did, to show something different. Today people either love the movie or they hate it, but the one thing I think we did successfully was show the real life of a superhero. What would it be like if you had heightened senses and could hear people crying for help? Would would it feel like if you're not Superman, so every night when you go to bed, you've got a ton of aches and pains and you're popping pain pills. All of that stuff was interesting to me.
How involved was Marvel behind the scenes?
Certainly, Avi Arad — who was the head of Marvel back then — was all over the movie. And [current Marvel Studios head] Kevin Feige was a vice president then, and we spoke the same language. We were the nerds who grew up with the comics: the True Believers. Kevin was always brilliant, and you could tell that he was going to be someone you could trust and go to with questions. He was great back then, and he's great now. I also met with [former Marvel Comics boss] Joe Quesada because his Daredevil run with Kevin Smith influenced my take. The first scene of the movie where he's draped over the cross beaten and bloodied was from their comics.
I met with Frank Miller as well, and Frank's in the movie! He's the guy with the pen in his head. Side note: I'll never forget when we were shooting that scene, there was a huge snowstorm in New York and we had a long set-up. So Frank said, "Let's get outta here," and we went around the corner to the White Horse Tavern and and he still had the pen in his head with fake blood coming down! There I am, having a drink with Frank Miller in a bar, and because this was New York, people just looked at us and went, "Yeah, whatever." [Laughs]
The characters tend to be the main attraction in contemporary comic book movies. When you made Daredevil, did the studio still expect you to cast movie star in the lead role?
Yes, they definitely wanted a star because the character was so unknown and they felt it needed the help of a star. The budget was around $75 million, which was a good-sized budget back then, thought by today's standards it's more like an independent film! So there was a lot of pressure, and they wanted a name.
Guy Pearce has said that he turned down the role, and Matt Damon also passed on it as well. Did you meet with either of them?
It was definitely one of those roles where everyone was being mentioned. There were a lot of people in the mix. I don't remember if I met with Guy, but I did meet with Edward Norton. I also remember Seth Rogen coming in to read for Foggy Nelson. [Future Iron Man director, Jon Favreau, portrays the role of Matt's best friend and fellow lawyer in the film.] He was so funny, and we loved him, but I was also like: "Dude, how old are you?" He was probably 21 or 22 at the time — way too young to be a lawyer! I met with a couple of other actors, too, but Ben was a fan of Daredevil because of Kevin Smith, so it ended up being him. And then he became Batman!
It's funny that both of the superheroes that he's played are known for getting bruised and battered. Is there something about him as an actor that's drawn to those kinds of darker heroes?
It's an interesting question, because he also played Superman in that George Reeves movie, Hollywoodland. I think he's attracted to the darker characters for sure, and he certainly has the physicality for it. Ben's a big dude! People forget that he's big and strong, and he's got that chin, too. He feels like a superhero, you know?
Speaking of X-Men, this was still the leather costume era for superhero movies. Did you feel backed into that look for Daredevil?
We went all over the place on the costume. It's a really hard one because you get the fans who are upset that it's not spandex. And I thought it should be spandex, too! But then you try spandex and it looks ridiculous. We also tried armor, because there was that era of Daredevil where he wore an armor-type suit in the comics. We ultimately settled on leather because it was the most practical. Like if you're riding a motorcycle and you go down, leather is going to protect you the most. But it was also easy for it to come off looking like S&M! And the horns didn't help. [Laughs]
We scuffed the leather up a lot, so it looked battle-worn. Daredevil also only comes out at night, so it's a dark movie. You don't see him swinging around New York City in the daytime — that would have been awful! But with the shadows and the [darker] cinematography, you can make it look pretty cool. As long as it wasn't too bright, we could get away with it. I think the new Daredevil costume [worn by Charlie Cox in the Marvel Cinematic Universe] is a nice combination. It feels kind of like armor, but there's still leather elements. They did a really nice job with that suit.
Jennifer Garner was on Alias at the time, so very much in the pop culture zeitgeist from that show. Did you audition any Greek actresses since Elektra is Greek in the comics?
That was another big casting call, and we met with a lot of people. But once we met Jen, we were like, "That's it." Even though she wasn't Greek, she's such a fantastic actress and so good at the physical stuff, we knew she'd do a terrific job.
Did you pitch the movie to the studio as a love story?
Completely. But one of the bittersweet things is that my director's cut had more of everything, and all of that got kind of condensed. At least a quarter of the movie was cut out, and there was a lot more character development [that was lost]. It's just a more complete movie. Some people love the movie, and some people hate the movie, but almost everybody likes the director's cut. It's funny, because it was advertised as "A daring new vision." And I was like, "No, that was the original vision!"
The director's cut includes a major storyline featuring Coolio as an accused murderer that Matt and Foggy defend in court. Was he disappointed when all of his scenes were dropped from the theatrical cut?
I don't think he minded: I think he was okay with it! [Laughs] I can't remember who suggested him for that role, but he was fantastic and I loved working with him. He was so funny. But none of us were excited about the cut that came out, you know what I mean? When you put a lot of work into something and then you see a quarter of it get cut out, it's always disheartening. The director's cut is a much better version.
Colin Farrell's performance as Bullseye is pretty wild — it's clear he's having a blast playing the villain.
What Colin always does is commit 100%, and this was a chance for him to have some fun. Bullseye also had a tricky costume in that it looks great in the comics, but when you see it in real life with the spandex and the bullseye it's a little dicey. Also, putting a white bullseye on your head is a little much if you don't want to die as a villain! So we went a different way and tried to give him a little more of a reptilian vibe.
I remember doing that scene with Colin at the King's Head bar here in L.A. where Bullseye is playing darts while drinking a pint. He was just going to practice, so he threw a dart and hit the bullseye. Then he threw another dart and got another bullseye. He threw one more and hit the bullseye again — that was three bullseyes in a row. And he didn't even play darts! It was just one of those crazy channeling things.
You cast the late Michael Clarke Duncan as the movie's other villain, the Kingpin, who has traditionally been depicted as white in the comics. That kind of color blind casting is more common now, but ahead of the curve then. Did you get any blowback from comic fans?
Oh yeah, I got a lot of blowback. It's the strangest Catch-22, because you want to have opportunities for everybody. You say, "I'm not going to pay attention to race: I'm just going to cast the right person for the role." But then you get killed for that [from some fans] who say: "The Kingpin should be white" or "He's not my Kingpin" and all that kind of stuff. So I definitely got heat on that, but I don't regret the decision at all. Michael was fantastic. It's hard to find a guy who is that big and also that formidable, and Michael was definitely that guy. God bless him.
Were you sorry that casting tradition didn't continue with Netflix's Daredevil series that's now coming to Disney+?
Not at all. I think Vincent D'Onofrio is wonderful as the Kingpin. It's all about finding the right actor for the character, you know? Vincent is a great Kingpin and Michael was a great Kingpin. And the show is terrific. It's fun, because everybody gets to have their imprint on it: You don't own the character, you just get to be the steward for a short time and then pass it on for someone else to do something with it. That's why it was so fun to see all the different Spider-Men come together in the last Spider-Man movie. Seeing all those different versions from different decades and different filmmakers coming together was such an exciting moment.
I have to ask about two of the movie's most memorable cameos: Stan Lee and Robert Iler, aka A.J. Soprano.
Directing Stan Lee was an out-of-body experience. And I think that's one of his great cameos! He came down to the King's Head where we were shooting the darts scene and hung out telling stories about the glory days and creating Daredevil for Marvel. What can be better than that? With Robert, that was just luck. We shot that scene in New York and I think we were there for two weeks, so he had time in his schedule. You're reminding me of so many things! I gotta go back and watch the movie. [Laughs]
Garner eventually starred in an Elektra spin-off, but was there ever a serious chance at a Daredevil sequel?
I think the plan was that they would make an Elektra movie and then in success do another Daredevil. I didn't work on the Elektra movie at all, but that one didn't work out and then everything kind of went away, unfortunately.
Did you remember what story you wanted to tell if you had made a sequel?
I know I wanted to do more of Matt's romance with Karen Page, played by Ellen Pompeo. She went onto a giant television career! That was Jon Favreau's first Marvel movie, too, and look what he went on to do. It's so cool to see how everyone moved on from the film. I had a great time making it, and it's fun being this curious footnote in Marvel history.
Time for a quick lightning round: the Daredevil soundtrack is filled with early-aughts bangers. What's your favorite track off of the album?
Oh, definitely the Evanescence songs, "Bring Me to Life" and "My Immortal." We broke that band! They became huge.
Kevin Smith has a cameo as a morgue attendant named Jack Kirby after the famous Marvel artist. If you had gotten to make more films, would he have become Daredevil's nemesis Jester? That seems like the right villain for him.
[Laughs] I'd put Kevin in anything. He's a lovely man. Kevin put me in his movie once, too. In Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, there's a scene where he and Jason Mewes are running through a studio backlot, and there's a Daredevil movie being made. If you look for a second, I'm the director of that Daredevil movie! So we traded parts.
Finally, do you consider this frankly amazing line of dialogue to be your crowning achievement as a writer: "That light at the end of the tunnel? That's not heaven — that's the C train!"
I sure hope so! [Laughs]
Daredevil is currently streaming on HBO Max.