Welcome to part three of our four part CBR News/Comics2Film exclusive interview with “Daredevil” director Mark Steven Johnson, conducted recently at the Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention. In part two of our interview, Johnson talked about bring staging realistic action and an emotional story for the Man Without Fear’s big screen debut. In this installment he discusses the controversy surrounding the casting of Michael Clark Duncan as the Kingpin, a character that had always previously been depicted as white. Johnson said he empathizes with fans who questioned the decision.
“It’s a pretty big deal. As a fan, for me, too, I would have been shocked if somebody had cast a black Kingpin,” said Johnson. “I just want him to look like my comic book characters. I understand that. Michael was not, to be fair, my first choice. I looked at a lot of other people first. I couldn’t find anybody who had the spirit of the Kingpin. You needed a guy with incredible size, but not just a fat guy. You needed a guy who’s solid muscle.
“A lot of fans forget that and say, ‘what about Marlon Brando?’ Brando can’t get out of a chair, let alone fight!”
Having Ben Affleck as a leading man raised the bar even higher.
“Affleck in his boots, he’s six-foot three. He’s a huge guy. You know that is a big actor. You don’t find a lot of the so-called big men, they’re really five-eleven, six feet tall. Affleck’s bigger than Schwarzenegger. So when you’re looking for a guy who’s going to tower over Affleck, boy, you’re limited.”
In the final analysis, Duncan was clearly the best choice for the part.
“I just thought: if you just look at him, he’s got the shaved head, he’s got the incredible physique, he’s got the imposing presence, he’s got the great voice Kingpin should have, he’s got the muscle. He’s literally got everything Kingpin should have except he’s the wrong color. Then you just say, ‘The hell with it. What are you thinking?’ You’re so much more true to the spirit of the comic if you cast this guy, then you would some other guy just because he’s white but doesn’t have any of those other attributes.
“So to me it was a no-brainer. I really do think after seeing the movie people will go, ‘Yeah, he’s the Kingpin.’ They won’t be able to imagine anybody else in that role.”
Similarly, some fans questioned the casting of Jennifer Garner as Elektra, another character with a firmly established ethnicity in the comics. Johnson, however, couldn’t be happier with the actress.
“I think she’s genius. I absolutely think she’s perfect. Again, you start off saying, ‘I should get somebody Greek. Somebody very dark and olive-skinned,’ and whatnot, what-have-you,” said Johnson. “I just kept looking for the person that physically could inhabit the role but also had the emotion. Jennifer just was it for me.”
The “Alias” star mastered more than the emotional component.
“Physically unbelievable. Does all her own stuff in the movie. I mean really does. A lot of people will say that that they do their own stunts. They really don’t. Trust me. Jennifer really does and she’ll do anything,” Johnson said. “She’ll be up on a wire and I’ll say, ‘Jen, let’s jump off this building onto the next building,’ and it’s twelve stories down and she’s like, ‘Great!’ There’s no net or anything. She’s fantastic.”
Garner had the blessing of another important figure.
“I remember when I saw Frank Miller in New York. I finally got to meet him and had him come to the set. I was nervous because it’s literally like his daughter. He created her. Not knowing how he’d feel, knowing she doesn’t look exactly like the comics or she’s not the right color. He didn’t care about any of that,” Johnson said. “He just saw her and he was really moved by her. He was really and truly touched. He said, ‘Wow! That’s her. She’s unbelievable,’ and I said ‘Really? You think so?'”
Elektra’s creator demonstrated why Garner fit the role so well.
“He took his ‘Elektra Lives Again’ book, which he had brought as a gift and he put his hand over everything except the eyes and he said, ‘Elektra’s always got those wounded eyes, even when she’s trying to be tough. That’s what breaks your heart. Jennifer’s got it. She’s perfect.’
“He loved her. He really was taken by her and that made me feel so good. To have Frank’s blessing that way. It meant a lot to me.”
“For me, that was all about attitude. I think the best bad guys are always the ones that you like. You feel bad enjoying them so much because they’re so evil, but there’s something about them that’s so charismatic,” Johnson said. “That’s why I cast Collin, because Collin Farrell is incredibly charismatic. You can’t take your eyes off of him. You never know what he’s going to do next. That’s what Bullseye should be like.
“He’s just like the comic: everything he touches is a deadly weapon. He’ll use anything to kill somebody with. He’s so untouchable. Until he meets Daredevil, he’s never had anyone who could challenge him. He is super bad-ass! In fact, when you see him fight Elektra, just like in Frank Miller’s panels, you get the feeling he’s just playing with her, like a cat with a mouse. It’s heartbreaking because you realize she doesn’t have a chance against this guy. He’s just too damn good.”
With a superhero, a villain, two major supporting characters and a handful of secondary supporting characters fans might be concerned that “Daredevil” will turn into another “Batman and Robin,” too many characters and not enough depth in any of them.
“I see it, and it was one of my big challenges here too. It is a lot of characters when you have Bullseye, Elektra and Kingpin, and then you’ve also got Foggy and a little bit of Karen Page and all the people you want to see, his father and that whole thing. I think with the Batman movies what went wrong was that they were all so over the top. It wasn’t that there were too many characters. It was that each character is playing it to the roof. So after a while you just kind of get numb. It just feels like you’re being screamed at. If you’ve got Jim Carrey, he’s genius. But if you’ve got the Riddler and at the same time you’ve got Two Face and they’re both so big, after a while they wear their welcome out, for me as a fan.
“In our movie, it’s definitely more realistic than those. Kingpin, he’s a big presence in the movie, but he’s not all over the movie. And he’s a business man. He happens to be a ruthless business man. At the end we see how maniacal he can be but he’s not maniacal the entire movie and he’s not in the entire movie.
“Same thing with Bullseye. He doesn’t come in until forty minutes into the movie. Elektra, same thing. She’s a girl who becomes a love interest. At the end of it, that’s when she dons the outfit and becomes more the assassin. But they’re not coming in and playing it to the ceiling and there the entire time.”
Johnson also feels there will be more to distinguish his movie. “I always found that what I didn’t like about the Batman movies was that he was always the least interesting one in the whole movie. He got the least amount of screen time, too. God, I want to know about Batman. He’s the guy I care about. I don’t know who this guy is. He’s getting lost amongst all the colorful villains.”
Look for more from our conversation with Mark Steven Johnson late Monday as the director talks about the future of the franchise, influences, past Daredevil adaptations and the wonderful world of comic book movies.
Comics2Film correspondent Jason Lethert contributed to this story.