Ben takes the dare

Jennifer Garner and director Mark Steven Johnson talked with USA Today about how the Daredevil film remains faithful to the comics:
By Scott Bowles, USA TODAY

PASADENA, Calif. — Ben and Jennifer are taking a break from the media horde and their hectic schedules for a quick lunch together when she notices something about her tablemate's head.

Ben is quick with his retort: "Yeah, but look at your forehead. It takes up half your face."

No, this isn't the first public spat between Hollywood's hottest fiancée Ben Affleck is with his other Jennifer, Jennifer Garner, who co-stars with him in the first major movie of the year. Having spent months swapping fisticuffs in the film, now they're gently sparring over a meal.

Affleck and Garner have good reason for their good humor. After months of grueling workout regimens and a hectic shooting pace, they can relax and reflect on Hollywood's first comic book foray since a certain web-slinger turned the movie industry on its ear.

For Garner, 30, who also stars in the ABC hit Alias, Daredevil marks her first starring turn on the big screen and could be a barometer of her strength as a leading lady.

For Affleck, the buzz around the superhero finally may mean a respite from the tabloid attention to his not-so-secret identity. Since his engagement to singer-actress-perfume diva Jennifer Lopez, Affleck has garnered the kind of attention that could make the Hulk blush.

Affleck, 30, concedes that the attention to virtually every detail of his life — from his romance to his alcohol rehab — has taken its toll.

"I understand they wanted me for the movie because they thought I'd do a good job in the role," Affleck says, chewing hard on his always-present Nicorette gum. "But they also knew I'd bring a certain amount of publicity to the movie that goes beyond what's on screen. That's not always easy."

Indeed, Daredevil is more a test of Affleck's drawing power than that of the Marvel comic book icon. More people know about the actor's rumored Valentine's Day wedding date and struggles with alcohol than they know about Matt Murdock, the blind lawyer who is a crimefighter by night.

Affleck fidgets in his seat when asked about his personal side. He takes a Game Boy Daredevil game — bearing his likeness and due on shelves in time for the film — and picks at the cellophane when he talks about courting Lopez.

"I've been in public relationships before with Gwyneth" Paltrow, Affleck says of a previous love interest that also made him tabloid bait. "But this isn't the same thing. I didn't expect this much attention. I was kind of shocked."

A few weeks ago, Affleck says, he and Lopez decided to stop at a Los Angeles shopping mall so he could have a link taken out of his watch.

"By the time they got the link out, there were 700 people outside the door," he says. "They had to lock the doors of the store. Then they had to shut down the mall. I just don't get it. And it can make you rethink even the simplest things you want to do."

Including set a wedding date? Affleck says he will not waver in his plan to marry Lopez but quickly adds that the Feb. 14 wedding date is a myth. Beyond that, he says, planning anything in the romance department can be perilous.

"I'll think, 'This would be nice to do, or a good place to go or a good day to do it,' " he says. "Then I'll realize that it will probably be a media event. The danger is in letting that change your priorities about what's important in your life. I struggle not to let that happen."

It was that internal strife that made Affleck right for the role, says Daredevil director Mark Steven Johnson. Though distributor Twentieth Century Fox had considered Edward Norton and Guy Pearce for the title role, Johnson says Affleck's personal demons matched those of his character.

"Matt Murdock is a vulnerable man who is human, gets knocked around and makes mistakes," says Johnson, 38, who also directed Simon Birch. "And so is Ben. He's always been public about his life, even when it pains him. He was the only guy I wanted to play Daredevil."

It didn't hurt that both Affleck and Johnson are certified comic book geeks who spent much of their childhoods thumbing through the illustrated adventures of Daredevil, which was created in 1964 by writer Stan Lee and artist Bill Everett.

The two pressured Fox into boosting the budget from $60 million to $80 million, even though Daredevil's comic book popularity ranks well below Batman, Superman and Spider-Man.

"Everyone thought we were nuts trying to make this into a major movie," Daredevil producer Gary Foster says. "Daredevil is pretty obscure. But when Spider-Man did so well (it grossed $403.8 million in the USA), I got tons of calls from people who said they wished they had done the same."

Spider-Man has raised both hopes and expectations for this year's comic-heavy Hollywood fare. After Daredevil, X Men 2 arrives on screens May 2, followed by The Hulk June 20.

But audiences expecting a Spidey-like experience at Daredevil are in for a start. Though the hero also wears a red, skin-tight costume, this is no Peter Parker. After his first fight scene, which Johnson calls his favorite of the film, Murdock adjusts loose teeth in his mouth, pops pain pills and bathes to soothe the scars and welts on his back. The film twice received an R rating before Johnson made enough cuts to earn a PG-13.

Daredevil's darkness stems from its source material. No comic book film has ever been so faithful to its origins. The names of the comic's writers and illustrators are sprinkled throughout the movie. Kevin Smith, director of Affleck and Lopez's upcoming movie Jersey Girl, who has written more than a dozen installments, has a cameo role. For some scenes, Johnson ripped out pages from the comic book for dialogue and set design.

"He blew up some panels and put them on the set so we'd know exactly how we were supposed to look," says Garner, who had not read a comic book before signing on for the movie. "They wanted everything in the movie to look like the comic book — including us."

Which meant some intense body sculpting for its stars. Johnson brought in martial arts master Cheung Yan Yuen, who choreographed much of the stunt work for this year's two Matrix installments, to whip the actors into shape.

"Jen and I did a lot of bonding on the set," says Affleck, who was paid a reported $12.5 million for the role. "That's what happens when you are the only two English-speaking people around. Everyone else was Chinese."

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