Dir: Mark Steven Johnson. US. 2003. 102mins.

Take that, Batman! Finally comes a comic book adaptation which really does dare to go where Tim Burton and co merely flirted - into the dark realm. Daredevil, as brought to the screen by writer - director Mark Steven Johnson, brings real violence and death into the comic book mix, and the result is a fascinating blend of the fantastic and the tragic which will be relished by teenage boys everywhere and frowned upon by shocked parents and girls.

Rated PG-13 in the US, although parents will surely object to the fact that it is not rated R, Daredevil limits its audience and family-friendly value by dint of its cynical tone and relentless carnage. Unlike superheroes of the bat or spider variety, the violence here is staged with a realism that is startling in the comic-book context. When weapons fly in Daredevil, they pierce the jugular and when daggers plunge into bellies, they kill. It is as dark and dirty as The Crow, but, unlike The Crow, which grossed some $50m, it stars a trio of Hollywood's hottest commodities - Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner and Colin Farrell, guaranteeing a very strong domestic opening this Presidents Day weekend. Courtesy of the star voltage and the action-hungry boys among and within us, its international performance will also be gung-ho. No Spider-Man 'event' then, but a major Hollywood hit.

As if as a reflection of the post 9/11 USA, Daredevil's world is one without happy resolutions, and, unlike the Green Goblin in last year's Spider-Man, the villains here - Michael Clarke Duncan (Wilson Fisk) and Farrell (Bullseye) - are genuinely bad guys. Perhaps most shocking of all is the death of one of the lead characters towards the finale. No Bond-esque stays of execution here. Just straightforward malevolent mayhem.

The hero - Matt Murdock aka Daredevil - is also an embodiment of America's wounded psyche. Blinded in an accident as a child, Murdock has honed his other senses to super-human levels and, having been orphaned after his father was murdered by the mysterious crimelord Kingpin, he dons the shiny red suit of Daredevil, avenging crime as a vigilante when his work as a lawyer by day has failed to penalise the guilty. Very George W Bush.

After a brief set-up of Murdock's childhood, his conversion to superhero and his present day raison d'etre, the audience meet the marvellously named Elektra Natchios (Garner), a high-kicking martial arts expert and object of Murdock's affection who also happens to be the daughter of a Greek tycoon (Avari) in the employ of the Kingpin - billionaire businessman Wilson Fisk.

When Natchios Sr attempts to leave Fisk's employ, Fisk calls in the crack assassin Bullseye - a killer with a perfect aim - to dispatch him, which he does quickly and, even better, makes Elektra think that he was killed by Daredevil. Elektra sets out to kill Daredevil, not realising that he is the blind lawyer with who she is in love, while Daredevil himself is out to get Fisk once and for all.

Johnson, whose only previous film was the turgid weepie Simon Birch, has attacked the genre with an attitude which is constantly surprising and sets the standard of renewal high for Ang Lee's The Hulk and Bryan Singer's X-Men 2, two further Marvel Comics adaptations scheduled for release in the summer. He - and choreographer Cheung Yan Yuen - have a mastery of the fast and furious action sequences and the effects are generally impressive, bar a couple of clunky CG moments when the flying Daredevil has clearly been animated.

Where Lee and Singer cannot help to beat him, however, is in the story department. While Johnson keeps the film short and sweet, there is scarcely any emotional resonance between the characters - principally Matt and Elektra - and the finale is flat, despite the delicious power-talk of Wilson Fisk, a sort of bone-crunching Rupert Murdoch-meets-Vito Corleone character with a bit of Enron corporate devilry thrown in.

Affleck does his best to be hard-bitten but he is consistently overshadowed by the lovely Garner (from TV's Alias) who kicks up a storm and shows mighty movie star potential and Farrell, in a smallish role, who savours his wicked Irish hitman character to his last breath.

Prod cos: New Regency, Horsehoe Bay, Marvel Enterprises
US dist:
20th Century Fox
Int'l dist:
20th Century Fox/Regency Enterprises
Exec prods:
Stan Lee, Bernie Williams
Arnon Milchan, Gary Foster, Avi Arad
Scr: Mark Steven Johnson
Ericson Core
Prod des:
Barry Chusid
Dennis Virkler, Armen Minasian
Graeme Revell
Main cast:
Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan, Colin Farrell, Jon Favreau, Scott Terra, Ellen Pompeo, Joe Pantoliano, Erick Avari, Derrick O'Connor