At first glance, Mark Steven Johnson's Daredevil and Wim Wenders' Wings Of Desire appear to be polar opposites: one is a trashy comic book superhero adaptation with Ben Affleck in skin-tight leather, the other is a modern classic of art-house cinema that uses angels to illustrate the finer points of humanity. Take another look, however, and they both cover much of the same territory: each follows a character whose very existence is defined by some disability, something he wants to be able to do but for various reasons he can not; each character undergoes a great sacrifice in order to overcome this obstacle; in the end each character denies his true nature to slip into a persona that represents the very thing that, at heart, he is not; and in both films, the screen fades to black with the hero in possession of an opportunity to profit from lessons learned along the way. To what extent each of the films is successful in portraying the progression, the elements, and the consequences of this arc -- well, that's another matter altogether.
It was always going to be a gamble to bring someone like Daredevil to the screen. He isn't exactly one of the better-known comic book characters of the Marvel universe, but with so many superheroes making the transition to the cinema recently, it was bound to happen. Unlike DC Comics heroes such as Batman and Superman, the Marvel Comics heroes are renowned for their humanity. They have the same everyday problems as ordinary people: the X-Men are outcasts, Spider-Man is a romantic and social failure, and the Hulk is a psychological basket-case. Yet Daredevil is different even amongst his Marvel Comics peers in that he is truly human, he bleeds and he bruises, he is essentially devoid of super-powers -- and he's also disabled. Daredevil is blind.
In the film, Ben Affleck plays Matt Murdock, a New York City lawyer whose eyes were damaged when he was a boy, after he had an unfortunate run-in with toxic chemicals. However, the chemicals bestowed extrasensory powers upon Matt to compensate for his loss of sight. He can't see the world around him, but he has superhuman hearing capabilities as well as a sort of "radar sense" whereby any sound within earshot ricochets off solid objects to create a blueprint of his physical environment in his mind's eye -- the same abilities held by whales, dolphins and, yes, bats.
I mention bats specifically because the premise of Mark Steven Johnson's Daredevil is remarkably similar to that of Tim Burton's Batman. As the young Bruce Wayne witnessed the murder of his parents at the hands of the Joker, so too does the young Matt Murdock find evidence of his father's murder at the hands of the Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan). And, like Bruce Wayne, Murdock uses his intense thirst for vengeance to fuel a crusade against the man who took the life of someone he loved. Most of the time, Murdock works as a lawyer to dispense justice to deserving criminals from inside the system. But sometimes the system fails and criminals walk free. After training himself in the fine arts of acrobatics and hand-to-hand combat Murdock dons a mask and costume come nightfall. He becomes Daredevil, and he enforces his own twisted version of justice upon those criminals who slip through the cracks, all the while in hot pursuit of their boss, and their boss' boss, and so on -- Daredevil is intent on following the criminal chain all the way up to New York City's Kingpin of crime, the very man who killed his father. It's a simple revenge quest, alternately poetic and cheesy depending on which narrative elements and character moments are in play at the time this particular plot thread is picked up and discussed.
See, the thing about Daredevil is, it's kitchen-sink filmmaking. There's too much story, not enough of anything else. On top of the revenge arc, writer/director Johnson pillages Frank Miller's classic run on the comic book and throws just about all of Miller's narrative twists and turns into the tale. There's the pursuit of the vigilante Daredevil by the expert marksman/assassin Bullseye (Colin Farrell), who is under the employ of the Kingpin. There's a love interest for Matt Murdock, Elektra (Jennifer Garner) who is also an assassin, and who also pursues Daredevil when Bullseye kills her father and frames Daredevil for the crime. Not surprisingly, this makes things tricky for Murdock, who finds himself falling for a woman who would love to see his alter-ego six feet under. Add to this Daredevil's pursuit of the Kingpin and, after a pivotal battle between Bullseye and Elektra, the sudden necessity for Daredevil to pursue Bullseye in turn. And let's not forget the antics of a reporter, Ben Urich (Joe Pantoliano) who is intent on exposing Daredevil's true identity. Though Johnson's film closely mirrors the stories in Miller's comic books, it feels more rushed than the source material; after all, Miller had dozens of twenty-four-page issues to tell his story, while Johnson has less than two hours. In fact, I count half-a-dozen plots and sub-plots in a 100-minute film; that's less than twenty minutes of footage for each story, and while there's plenty of action to be had, these constraints obviously leave precious little room for characterization and emotional drama.
But, surprisingly, there are elements of both of the above crammed in amidst the fight scenes, and, not surprisingly, they are the parts that work best. It's haunting to see Matt Murdock, a superhero, forced to deal with the logistics of how to keep proper count of his money when he can't see the numbers on the notes. It brings him back down to earth. In the film's most touching scene between Matt and Elektra, he asks her to stand in the rain so he can "see" her when the sound of raindrops hitting her skin creates an image of her in his mind's eye. It's touching because the impossible takes place not as an act of heroism or vengeance, but as a simple emotional connection between two tortured individuals. Later, this scene recurs on a more chilling level when Elektra indicates her newfound dislike of Murdock by raising an umbrella above her head and rendering herself invisible to him. The connection is severed without so much as a word spoken.
Most impressive, however, is the film's sense of nobility and honor, even in the world of criminals. After running into the son of a man he has assaulted, Daredevil is shocked by the young boy's sudden hatred of the vigilante who attacked his father, and he sets out to prove to himself that "I'm not the bad guy." Yet he is not perfect, and during an intimate moment with Elektra, Matt hears anguished screams which would ordinarily prompt him to don the mask and enforce justice. But Elektra tells him not to go, to stay with her -- and he does. He makes the less noble choice, the one we know Clark Kent would not have made, but it's a more realistic decision. If a superhero is to be human, he has to act in his own self-interest at least some of the time. In the film's most impressive demonstration of nobility, the Kingpin refuses any assistance from his underlings in his climactic battle with Daredevil. "I'm from the Bronx," he tells his assistant. He adds: "You wouldn't understand." His sense of how a fight should be held in terms of honor and morality rather than advantageous weaponry is something we would expect of Tony Soprano or Don Corleone, not someone who always appeared to be more or less one-dimensional, calculating, cold-of-heart and clear-cut evil in the four-color pages of Daredevil: The Man Without Fear and The Amazing Spider-Man.
One-dimensional characterization, in this film, is reserved for Elektra and Bullseye, the girlfriend and the stock villain respectively. While both actors are fine -- Colin Farrell looks like he's having devilish fun and Jennifer Garner plays the safe hand with a variant on her Alias persona, minus the sophisticated intelligence -- neither of them is given a role that can dazzle us. Ben Affleck scowls and growls, and that might be a criticism if it wasn't so spot-on; for all his furrowed brows and raspy-voiced whispers, he really is Daredevil. He gets the character right. Any problems with the Daredevil of the film (such as the fact that he's not a terribly inspired or archetypal character) can be traced back to the comic book. Michael Clarke Duncan was a surprise choice for the Kingpin since the character in the comic books is a white man, but skin color doesn't mean a thing when an actor can so perfectly embody a role. Of all the comic book characters brought to the screen recently, Duncan is right up there with Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, and Hugh Jackman as an impressively accurate representation of the character from his source material.
Reading over these words, I realize I've continually been qualifying my statements -- "some elements are good, but sometimes..." or "this doesn't work, but on the other hand..." The reason for this is that it's so difficult to say anything absolutely positive or negative about Daredevil with any certainty because it's a film of such mixed blessings. Ultimately it doesn't work. It is slapdash at worst, and merely competent at best. Its impressive high points are balanced in equal measure by its despondent low points, and the result is a counter-balanced film that hints at a gift of greatness but continually snatches it away whenever it comes within reach. This may sound negative, but overall it's not, because I am drawn to Daredevil despite these faults. I'm drawn to it because the mistakes it makes are interesting to watch as they unfold. Daredevil isn't just excusable trash, easily dismissed and whisked away with a brush of the hand. It is fascinating to watch carefully-planned scenes unravel in an almost poetic fashion, and it's equally fascinating to watch gross errors in judgment come speeding along towards the camera like an impending twelve-car pile-up. An awfully mediocre gothic-pop-rock soundtrack is the film's worst crime, and instantly makes it feel dated. A close second to this mistake is the fact that elegant character moments are derailed by terrible pacing and by cutaways to scenes whose tone is inappropriate, incompatible and inconsistent with the narrative points we've just witnessed. And there's bad CGI. There's clumsy action. Repetitive action. Dumb action. Lackluster action. Occasionally bland characters. Elementary, undeveloped motivations. Goofy costumes. An overcrowded plot, which isn't the same thing as a convoluted one -- for all its overcrowded-ness, the story is still simplistic. But, on the other hand...
...on the other hand, the basic elements are there, and I had a good enough time to hope for a sequel. A better sequel, to be sure, but a sequel nonetheless. Daredevil feels like a first draft of something interesting but not yet captivating; it feels like the black-and-white charcoal sketch of a great portrait, even though I kept waiting for someone to come along and paint in the colors. Oh, well. Maybe next time they'll get it right.
Wim Wenders' Wings Of Desire has the exact opposite effect. It is a black-and-white film that oozes a universe of sights and smells and tastes and senses simply because, like Daredevil, it lacks them. But where Matt Murdock suffered from his loss of sight as a disability, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), the angel in Wings Of Desire, uses his inability to taste and touch and smell and see color to spur himself on in a quest to shed his wings, and to become human, all for that most noble and tragic of causes -- love. Though it is a monochrome film (and there's nothing wrong with that at all) the composition of Wings Of Desire is so aesthetically precise and the content is so emotionally true that you can't help painting in the colors by yourself. You are absorbed into this story, this fable, this world, and it's a beautiful world to lose yourself in, to be a part of and to paint its surfaces however you see fit, and it is truly a privilege to be given the opportunity to visit it.
Wings Of Desire is a near-flawless example of German art-house cinema at its finest. If you are unfamiliar with it, you may be more familiar with its basic plot via Brad Silberling's Hollywood re-make City Of Angels, with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan. City Of Angels isn't a wretched re-make; it gets the fundamentals of the story right and it keeps them intact, but it doesn't elaborate upon them the way Wings Of Desire does. Most disappointingly, it lacks the passion to explore the questions raised by its premise as deeply as they deserve, and as deeply as Wings plunges into them. There is something profoundly beautiful about an immortal angel who remembers a time when the Earth was covered in water, and who cannot interfere in human affairs but can only watch them unfold from a distance. There's something entrancing about the way he is able to fly but chooses instead to walk amongst humans, and about the way he falls in love with a trapeze artist, who walks amongst humans but longs desperately to fly. There's something sad about the way he can see her but not touch her, and about the way she has touched him but cannot see him. And there's something haunting about the fact that this physical division between humans and angels takes place in Berlin just after the collapse of the wall. The city is free, but it too still feels divided.
The joy of Wings Of Desire lies in the way it takes elements that shouldn't work, that should not be able to magically come together for good effect -- and it makes them captivating. Consider Peter Falk, from TV's Columbo, playing himself. He is in Berlin working on a film shoot. He asks the director how his performance was. Fine, says the director, it was great. Falk wanders around the set looking confident but secretly he wonders to himself if the director is lying. Is he only being told what he wants to hear? "Am I a better actor now than I was when I started?" Consider the reveal that comes near the film's end: Falk himself was once an angel who gave up his immortality to become human. It sounds gimmicky, it sounds as ridiculous as a blind man dressing up in a red leather motorcycle outfit to fight crime. But it is sublime, and it's beautiful. The former angel Falk revels in the simple delights of life, and in doing so he possesses a certain infant-like magnetism, powerful enough to leave us spellbound. "Smoke, and drink coffee," he tells Damiel when he relates his experiences as a human, "and if you do it together, it's fantastic. And when your hands are cold and you rub them together..." He rubs his hands together in the icy Berlin air, and he smiles, and Damiel smiles. Once, neither of these characters could experience the simple joys that you and I take for granted as part of human life. But now that both of them are able to feel, it is entrancing to watch two grown men -- each one older than eons -- as they discover life's little gifts for the very first time, like children.
In another scene filmed in color, after Damiel has taken the plunge to become human, he wakes up in a ditch and notices a brightly-painted mural. Then he stops a passer-by and asks him to shout out the names of the different colors, all the while laughing to himself in astonishment that such things as colors can even exist. The key difference between Wings Of Desire and City of Angels is that the latter is so maudlin and sentimental, while the former possesses a sense of awe and amazement at the natural world. The reason for this difference lies in a distinction between two worlds of cinema. If the Hollywood re-make had included the scene outlined above, with Damiel laughing at the colors, it would have been filmed for comedic effect because it is too irreverent and, in a sense, too light-hearted and immature to fit the tone of City of Angels. Indeed, it would be too "goofy" to fit the tone of Hollywood dramas in general. But its irreverent immaturity ultimately makes it charming, and charm is what City of Angels unfortunately dispenses with in favor of sentimentality. Wings Of Desire doesn't make that mistake. While the two films do share narrative elements, their respective treatment of those particular elements is quite diverse.
There are other parts of Wings that shouldn't work, but do. Consider a conversation between Falk and the trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) with whom Damiel falls in love. The latter actor is obviously not a professional in her field and can barely deliver her dialogue in the way we would expect. It works because she gushes in Falk's presence, half-lighthearted and half-pathetically, and it rings so true. Consider an eight-minute musical sequence -- a song performed in its entirety by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds -- in which the invisible angels stand on stage amidst a crowd of goth rockers. It's almost laughable to have them walk so passively through such an energetic scene, but when Damiel's fellow angel Cassiel (Otto Sander) leans against a wall and closes his eyes, and thinks of his friend who sacrificed immortality to pursue human endeavors, his shadow is spliced into three parts by flashing strobe lights, and there is undeniable heartbreak in that image.
I admire Wings Of Desire in so many ways. I admire its opening half-hour, which discards narrative altogether and is nothing but a collection of thoughts overheard by the angels as they pass through Berlin streets, listening to the everyday worries of humans as if they were scanning the various frequencies on a radio. I admire a scene in which one of the angels tries to reassure a man who is contemplating suicide, but the man cannot sense the angel and he kills himself anyway; life doesn't always work out perfectly, even if angels are there to tell us it's all okay. I admire the way that the narrative doesn't even begin until almost an hour into the film. I admire the fact that Damiel is essentially homeless after he becomes human, and he's okay with that, because even a human who has nothing and can experience everything is better than an angel who has everything but can experience nothing. I admire the end, in which Damiel ultimately loses everything that made him what he used to be; I admire the way he even discovers a beauty in this loss, for loss is a part of life, it's not something these angels can know about unless they become human, and so only through loss can Damiel truly claim to be one of us. It is not the ability to see in color that necessarily makes us human. It's our capacity to feel hope and despair that Damiel must hold in his heart before he can "take the plunge." He must experience those things he could once only watch impassively.
Yet, what good is it to feel such distinct and sometimes tragic emotions if they cannot persuade us to change ourselves for the better? On an emotional level, things are much the same for Matt Murdock and Daredevil as they are for Damiel. It is as difficult to dispense clear-cut justice to wrongdoers when you are a wrongdoer yourself as it is to feel human emotions when you are not a human, and, like Damiel's loss, only Daredevil's emotional loss while in the course of action can encourage a change within him for the better. At the end of Mark Steven Johnson's film, Matt Murdock calls himself "a guardian devil," and in doing so he sinks deeper into his superhuman persona, away from his human self. At the end of Wim Wenders' film, the human Damiel writes, "I know now what no angel knows," and he drifts away from his old superhuman self, closer to his newfound human persona. Wings Of Desire affirms what Daredevil avoids -- the essence of humanity -- and for that reason it is a more stirring and profound work of art, captivating in the same sense as beautiful literature or a fine piece of music. Flaws in films can be interesting to watch, as Daredevil demonstrates, but a truly flawless film like Wings is arguably more captivating than even the most interesting mistakes. Its narrative and thematic counterpart in Daredevil is of a quality more or less equal to Frank Miller's comic book pages from which it springs. But if Wings Of Desire could be translated into paint and color, it would be far more resonant than a black-and-white charcoal sketch of a portrait, and would instead soar to the heights of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.