At least one of you has already called me out for seeming to lavish all my attention on the masculine side of superhero film. Thank you, you’re right, and I mean no disrespect to all the super-powered ladies who’ve done so much to enhance my life, and the lives of most Good Nerds, throughout the years. The long, lonely years…Honestly, it’s just that their films suck. Off the top of my head, I can think of exactly one kinda-sorta-good superhero film that focused around a female protagonist. And trust me: you’ve never heard of it. If you can guess what I’m thinking of, I’ll mail you a cookie.
That can’t be it though, right? There’s got to be another one out there somewhere. And since March is National Women’s History Month in the United States, I’ve got all the excuse I need to get in touch with superherodom’s feminine side.
Now that we’ve got Catwoman out of the way it’s time to consider a film my correspondent mentioned by name, the first superhero film of 2005. Like it’s big brother Daredevil, Elektra‘s gained quite the reputation as a Bad Movie…which sounds inexplicable if you ignored the film in theaters and read descriptions of it in the course of doing research for a review. Mystical ninjas? That guy who played Shang Tsung in Mortal Kombat? A costume that, thanks to significant Adaption Decay, has actually become easier for sexy cosplayers to pull off? Why was this movie such a flop? What’s it done to engender such hatred?
Well, it starts off by insulting us with a pre-credit voiceover, so there’s that. It’s the kind studios order filmmakers to tack on when they feel the audience won’t be smart enough to figure out the plot. There’s this evil ninja clan called the Hand, see, and they’re after some sort of Treasure that’ll tip the scales in the Eternal Battle Between Good and Evil. The Treasure’s a person and, since her name’s the title and all, we begin secure in our belief Voiceover Man is talking about Elektra (Jennifer Garner).
Oh how everyone seems to hate Jennifer Garner, but I don’t think that’s the real issue. For me, the problem stems from Elektra being a Frank Miller protagonist. As such, by the time this film hit theaters she’d been a two-dimensional (at best) bad-ass assassin for nigh on twenty-five years. She didn’t even have Wolverine’s Mysterious Past to keep her company, just an origin story that’s so pat you could slot a half-dozen Gotham City vigilantes into it and get the same result. In other words: Zzzzzzzzzz….I can’t blame an actor for a boring performance if their character already bores me.
Two things conspired to bring Elektra to the screen: the much more successful (despite its reputation) Daredevil and the fifteen minutes of fame Jennifer Garner…um…garnered…from her TV series Alias. Had Batman Returns not inspired so many idiots to complain about its tone we would’ve seen a Catwoman movie sometime in the middle-90s. So Fox rushed in where the WB feared to tread. If nothing else, this movie’s better than Catwoman. That’s not saying much, but the makers of Elektra can quote me on that. So can you.
Because, unlike Catwoman, Elektra begins in medias res with Our Heroine returning form the dead, resurrected by the blind ninja master Stick (Terrance Stamp). It’s as if the film’s saying Hi, Daredevil fans! We know we fucked up by not putting Stick in the last movie. But here he is! Happy now? Then the film turns away and calls us capering bastards under its breath. It’s the same logic that led the makers of X-MO:W to put Gambit in their film, though Stick’s inclusion here has even more disastrous results, if you can believe that.
Turns out Elektra’s a little pissed about the whole “death” thing and Stick soon drums her out of his White Ninja Pajama Party for her anger (something that could’ve saved the Jedi Order a whole mess of grief if they’d done it to one of their angry prodigies). Like most fallen Ninjas, Elektra decides to break into the lucrative world of international assassination. We’re introduced to her in this role as she kills a whole mansion full of dudes (including Jason Isaacs). Sure, she kills most of them off screen, but she’s a ninja and this is her intro as such, so I really don’t mind. Her ninja powers are suitably creepy, if a bit too Slasher Movie Villain, but at least she’s killing dudes with sais. How often do you see that anymore? Wolverine had to wait ’til his second movie before he could kill people and…come to think of it, so did Elektra. Never mind.
Elektra’s assisted in her killing of dudes by her agent, McCabe (Colin Cunningham), who offers her a new job almost as soon as she gets home. Money = Good, so Elektra accepts. She even gets a swanky beachfront house out of the deal, next door the a Hallmark/Disney Channel family, ready made to accept her: a Tweenage Daughter and Manly Single Dad. Elektra catches the Tweenager, Abby (Kirsten Prout), snooping around the house. Abby takes an instant shine to Elektra for no other reason than to pimp out her dad, Mark (Goran Visnjic). He invites Elektra over to dinner and things go well enough…only to crap out when – aww snap – Elektra’s agent comes through with the news: Single Dad and Tweenage Daughter are her new targets. Bet you never would’ve guessed that one in a million years.
Yes, it’s another Replacement Killers rip-off, like we don’t have enough of those already. What’s that you say, film? This time, it’s with a superchick! Well, excuse me all to fucking hell but that doesn’t make it any less contrived. Like Chow Yun before her, seeing the bits of her own fucked-up family dynamic in Mark and Abby causes Elektra to freeze up at the moment of truth.
Like any good trauma victim, Elektra’s haunted by flashbacks. See, instead of just telling us Elektra’s backstory, the film elects to actually show it to us (revolutionary thought there, film; don’t strain yourself). Her mom’s untimely death via a shadowy, demonic figure is the One Flashback to Rule Them All, and we’re given to understand this is Elektra’s Defining Element of Tragedy. We see Elektra’s father pushing her to become “a warrior” or at least “not a victim” (yeah, that worked out well) both before and after Momma Natchios kicked the bucket. We’re led to believe Momma Natchios was a moderating influence on Papa’s hardcore training regimen or, at the very least, that’s what Elektra believes. Carrying her dead mom and motherless childhood on her sleeve, Elektra feels compelled to defend this motherless child and her Hunka-hunka-burning Dad.
Only thing is…I thought Elektra’s mother died in a drive-by. Wasn’t that what Michael Clarke Duncan said in the last movie? Or are we just ignoring that now? We seem to be ignoring Daredevil completely. Yes, Matt Murdock shows up for all of one scene, but it got left on the cutting room floor and you don’t get credit for something I have to hunt up on the deleted scene menu.
Which brings me to The Hand, who get the shortest straw in this movie’s space shuttle. There’s just no time for them to show off their place as the go-to Evil Ninja organization of their universe. We’ve got to re-introduce Elektra, establish Mark and Abby, and try to sell us the fucked-up family dynamic these three create out of their “Come with me if you want to live” situation. With all that, The Hand’s forces are reduced to one-dimensional roadblocks on Eleketra’s path to redemption.
This is another criminal waste of conceptual resources and one decent actor. Cary-Hiroyuki “Shang Tsung” Tagawa plays the Hand’s Master Roshi for all of two scenes, and he’s got so much screen presence I immediately sat up and asked the film, “Okay. How long before we find out he was the one who killed Elektra’s mom?” Ah, but the film tricked me by shunting Master Roshi off quickly and quietly. Instead, Roshi’s ambitious bastard of a son, Kirigi (Will Yun Lee), will be Our Villain for the remainder of the picture.
It’s another hour before we find out that, yes, Kirigi killed Elektra’s mom, and it’s both the best and worst hour in this mediocre film. So Elektra and the Millers bond over the bodies of several Standard Issue ninja minions the Hand sends to finish up Elektra’s job. (Ninja minions that helpfully self-destruct into a cloud of green smoke, just like the Borg used to back in their early days on Star Trek: The Next Generation.) So Kirigi shows up with a posse of super-powered assholes at his side…and here’s were the film breaks down.
Who are these super-powered assholes? Where to their powers come from? We’ve got the inevitable nigh-invulnerable dude (Bob Sapp), a guy who can make his tattoos come to life (Chris Ackerman), and a hot chick who seems like an inverse Poison Ivy, complete with killer kisses and the power of Bad Touch. We learn nothing about these characters, they’re given nothing to do but die, and we might as well have skipped to the final fight between Elektra and Kirigi. Even their names are uninspired: “Stone.” “Typhoid.” “Tattoo.” That last is the one I’m really sad about. I guess they couldn’t call him “the Illustrated Man,” even though that would be cooler…i.e. actually cool. “Tattoo” is just bland. And a girl in the comics, I might add. What’s up with that, movie? Did Typhoid fulfill your Girl Villain Quota?
It gets worse once Stick and the White Ninjas show up to rescue Elektra and the Millers. Not that they weren’t holding their own, but we have to pad out the film and kick off the Third Act with a Big Reveal. And now I know why critics dismissed this film so vehemently: its various Twists ensure the plot will make absolutely no sense whatsoever.
Turns out Stick hired Elektra to kill Mark and Abby, sure that Elektra’s “pure” heart and traumatic psychosis would stay her hand when the time came. He also knew, with the certainty of a Wise, Old, Blind Ninja Master, that Abby is the Treasure we heard about in his pre-credit voice over: a natural martial artist from birth, Abby’s destined to tip the balance in the Eternal Blah-de-blah and Elektra was the only warrior with enough ambient badass-itude to keep the Hand off Abby until Stick and his White Ninja Army could put their pants on.
Except this has got to be the dumbest explanation for a plot I have ever heard. Stick tells Elektra he “always knew your heart was pure.” Is that why she spent God knows how many years killing people? For a living? Where’s the “purity” in that, oh wise and great Blind Master? What if Elektra had loosed that arrow? There goes your precious Treasure for an entire generation. There goes all that time and effort you put into training her and Elektra both, to say nothing of all the man hours you put in tracking everyone down and hauling their asses back to White Ninja Home Base.
Come to think of it…if you knew where the Treasure was…why didn’t you and your White Ninjas just swoop in and cart the Millers off? Why hire Elektra at all? Because this was all some Life Lesson you constructed specifically for her, trying to ween her of her anger by using her as a pawn in your never-ending chess match with the Hand’s Black Ninja Brigade? That’d sure piss me off, and it pisses Elektra off too in her own, reserved, Jennifer Garner-ish way. Come to think of it, if you’ve identified the Treasure, why in the name of Vishnu would you let her out of your sight? What was she doing fucking around the lakefront with her dad anyway? What connection does he have to the White Ninjas, or the Black? Was that just their furlough? Did you give them a five-day pass and expose them to the Hand specifically so you could teach Elektra a lesson? Because that makes so much sense…
At this point I wondered who the hell would dare write a plot this retarded? Akiva Goldsman works for Warner, so he’s out. Desperate, I finally broke down and checked the IMDb. Whom to my wondering eyes should appear but Zak Penn, writer of X2 and The Last Stand. Before that, Penn penned (ha! I could write for MTV.com with lines like that) Matthew Broadrick’s Inspector Gadget movie. And so now I know why people hate Elektra: the script’s another throwback to 90s, which saw the death of the American Superhero Movie’s Golden Age because the problems that beset Elektra had, by the point, become endemic. This version of Elektra’s origin is about as faithful to the comics as David Goyer’s version of Blade’s, but since the villains are so flat, and Elektra’s arc is so stupid, the comparisons break down once all the idiotic exposition’s out of the way.
They could’ve set up one hell of a parallel here between Elektra and Kirigi. Both are super-powered, bad ass ninjas driven to please unpleaseable father figures. But no. There’s no sense of import to this plot. The real threat is far off on some future day when Abby’s set to do…whatever it is she’s destined to do. We never figure that out, anymore than we figure out where the Hand gets all its esoteric superpowers.
As to those I say, bring ’em on and don’t bother explaining a damn one of them. They’re ninjas, so I’ve got no problem with their Offscreen Teleportation, bullet time, adherence to the Law of Conservation of Ninjitsu (allowing Elektra to hold her own against an army of them) or the low-grade precognitive abilities others have labeled “Elektra’s Ninja-sense.” But I have to call “bullshit” on something and so: Ninja Telepathy, I choose you! Since when do ninjas even have telepathic powers anyway? Since they became Jedi? Well “bullshit” on that, too. Even Jedi have to phone home for orders. There’s at least an explanation for this in Elektra’s comics, where the Hand’s source of power has been well established for almost thirty years, but bringing it in might’ve monkeyed with the rest of this script’s contrivances.
Like the fact Elektra uses her Ninja Telepathy to challenge Kirigi to a winner-take-all Climactic Action sequence. Time to crush my last hope that this film might be worthwhile. Elektra wins, of course, but not before Typhoid blows Abby a kiss. It looks like all is lost until…Elektra brings the Treasure back to life, utilizing the same laying-on-of-hand-waving technique Stick used on her. Cuz she can do that now.
So not only does she have Ninja Sense, Offscreen Teleportation, and super kung fu skillz…she can bring the dead back to life, too. There’s no way around it now: Elektra’s gone from Wandering Warrior Woman through Flat Love Interest Land and come out the other end as Ninja Jesus.
I’m sorry, but screw you, movie. The Elektra I know (if only through osmosis) is an international bad ass assassin with her own goals, outlook, psychosis, and sense of what it is to “win” and “lose”. Bad enough you turned her into yet another in the long line of Action Movie hit-people who’ve gotten cold feet about their Last Jobs and decided to play hero. Bad enough you gave her a nuclear family to try and please the idiots you thought would make this film a hit. Bad enough you rushed the script and obviously didn’t bother to think through it’s many Unfortunate Implications at all. Bad enough our director, X-Files alum Rob Bowman, suffered from the same slo-mo addiction that plagued Hollywood directors in the wake of Peter Jackson’s Return of the King. Elektra does all this, holds out the hope of a traditional Happy Ending…and then chucks it over the side so Elektra can walk off unencumbered, ready to be shunted into the Inevitable Sequel. Because…um…well, Spider-Man did it. Twice in two films, no less.
If there’s one thing I hate, it’s movies that reward you for turning your brain off, so I’ll admit to harboring a low-grade hatred for Elektra. It’s pretty but insultingly-stupid, sure sign the filmmakers favored aesthetics over story . Exhaustively middle of the road, neither bad nor good enough to really recommend, Elektra just sits there staring at you, dull and empty-eyed. And like any bad date, it’s best to shower, shave, go to bed, and put the whole thing firmly out of your mind.