Super Fly! Where Daredevil Went Wrong

dd-2011

I’m a longtime Daredevil fan. I liked the comic: “Daredevil: The Man Without Fear” in the 80’s and 90’s. It had ninja action, the ‘blind radar’ shtick, acrobatics, a dark, urban severity. I wanted to love Netflix’s version of it. In the end, I just liked it. Tepidly. As in, “Yeah, pretty much, I guess.”

Where did they go wrong? Major spoilers ahead.

How to Know You’re Dealing with a Comic Hero

Comics are mythological, and they follow certain very old patterns. These aren’t rules, but there are some best-practices, as history has borne out.

Costume

Daredevil's red costume.
Daredevil’s red costume.

Any good hero has a costume that protects his identity. The mask, a necessary staple, allows the hero to be more than the individual, and helps to cement their particular brand language. If there is some other symbol or logo on their costume that can give them iconic significance, the mask itself can be superseded or minimized, as in the case of Superman or Green Lantern. Color also does a lot of work here, and in the case of Daredevil, while the interlocking DD of his logo is red-on-red, the entire costume is (in the comics) a very full red color. From a brand standpoint, Daredevil ‘owns’ the color red in the Marvel universe, the way Facebook ‘owns’ blue on a web page. Single-color costumes are rare, and the DD costume is the rare exception.

Another detail that almost always fails the transition to from comics to cinema is the comic convention of white eyes. Masked superheroes are typically drawn with no visible pupils or irises, whereas in their cinematic versions, eyes are shown as, well, eyes, with the actors possibly face-painted beneath the mask to soften the gap between mask and face. In DD’s case, they used red glass. The Daredevil of the comics series had another interesting detail here, as the mask was a single piece of fabric that covered his eyes, because he is blind. It was never well-explained why his enemies never seemed to catch on.

Daredevil's 'ninja' costume.
Daredevil’s ‘ninja’ costume.

In the Netflix series, Daredevil wore a black ninja-like costume for most of season 1. Officially, he had no costume until the very last episode. Clearly, the writers wanted to hook the audience by making the process of acquiring it a plot-point, and part of me believes they felt they needed to lay the trap and get the audience committed before showing them a costume that a less invested audience might find stupid-looking or silly, knowing poor costume choices have sunk plenty of franchises.

As a plot-point, it works. The costume looks great, and it answers a question that the series in constantly asking itself, i.e. “how can this guy take another beating?” The answer: lightweight body-armor. But that also means they spend 90% of the first season not establishing the foundations of the iconography and visual palette that a superhero series needs.

Weapon

This is critical. The way the hero fights tells us everything about his personal style. Does he fight hand-to-hand? With a sword? A gun? A boomerang? A shield?

In Daredevil’s case, his weapon is his billy club. Concealed as a blind man’s cane, the billy club is a multipurpose weapon. Its foundation is a multi-part staff: two, sometimes three separate staves. It also doubles as nunchuks, can be rejoined as a single piece to make a staff, it’s wired to a climbing grapnel, and seems to have retractable cording of varying length. It’s strong enough to be used as a climbing tool and block bullets, but light enough to be thrown, ricochet off of walls, spin, bounce and block. A versatile weapon that is also instrumental in getting around town. So far so good.

Once again, the creators of Marvel’s Daredevil apparently thought this could be withheld until the last episodes of the second season. I get what they are trying to do, but I’m shocked they as TV people thought they had that kind of time. Aaron Sorkin has observed that a play is the hardest entertainment to abandon, and a TV show is the easiest. And yet this seems like a decision that could only ever be made on a show the creators were certain people would binge-watch. What are you saving the ammunition for?

Instead, we’re left with punch after punch after punch. Had Daredevil had this weapon to start, not only would we have been able to use the fighting style he’s known for, we would have been able to avoid a lot of the ‘bloody beatdown syndrome’ the show seemed to suffer from, and seen more of the way he is supposed to travel in the bargain.

Travel

Heroes travel in style. James Bond has his Aston Martin. Batman has the Batmobile. Spider-Man and Iron Man hit a double here by having their means of travel also double as an offensive weapon. On the topic of Spider-Man or Iron Man, their means of travel is also something they needed to master, and as their mastery is earned, becomes something the audience is allowed to share in the exhilaration of.

Even Superman.

Daredevil’s means of travel is especially exhilarating, a mixture of aerialism and urban free running, in which he combines his cables and acrobatic maneuvers to make the cityscape into a personal obstacle course. He leaps from rooftops, vaults walls, flips from fire escapes, swings from water towers, and catches clotheslines and flagpoles. A typically dynamic Daredevil pose is one that puts him in an impossible, death-defying aerial maneuver, especially on the comic’s covers, which always raise the question, “how is he going to land that?”

Daredevil cover.
Daredevil cover.

Why was this not taken advantage of more frequently in the TV show? Obviously it is difficult to do, and some amount of special-effects will be needed. But this isn’t under-seasoned, it’s a total omission. With the exception of a car chase in which Matt Murdock follows a Triad car to a drug warehouse, there is essentially no acrobatics on the show whatsoever, except for the occasional Kung-Fu flip. This is a miss, and a huge part of what makes Daredevil, well, you know.

Any reason these guys couldn’t be put in a red suit for the occasional key stunt?

Flavor

Daredevil never had the same clear essence as a lot of other properties. He’s often called Marvel’s Batman, so consider. Batman has already been done and re-done. Each time Batman is re-imagined, a new aspect of flavor is drawn out. The original TV series was comedic, and had a rollicking, self-aware wink with a ludicrous ‘rogues gallery’ of villains. The Keaton movies were self-serious, but ballooned, gothic, almost stagelike in their dark melodrama. The Schumacher versions were neon, toy circuses. The cartoons are timeless, intertwining classic cars and 30’s clothing with the elements of modern life, such as cell phones and the internet. The video games are high-tech, showcasing the slick weaponry and vehicles. The Nolan films are the most human-scaled, a moody introspection on a very troubled man named Bruce, who has this weird, obsessive thing that he does. Each incarnation takes a different vantage point, each makes a specific evolution with its times, and yet all of them are recognizably the same character.

Daredevil has a comic, a movie, and now a TV show, and only the comic has ever really managed to scrape the essence of something distinct and original, whereas the other media offer a photo carousel of snapshots we’ve seen before and better in other places.

For my money, the peak Daredevil era was the 70's-80's. Frank Miller gets a lot of credit for The Man Without Fear, but this was a rehash. I also have to absolutely point out the work done here by Brian Michael Bendis, Alex Maleev and Ed Brubaker. If anything made him cinematic, ready for TV primetime, their work was it.

What is the flavor?

The Street. This is one area where he really has it down. Daredevil is Hell’s Kitchen the way Batman is Gotham. Hell’s Kitchen is fully realized, with its own history and backstory, supporting characters, bystanders. Ironically, it suffers perhaps from being too fully realized: since it corresponds to a real place, and that real place has essentially gentrified into history, the cables needed to suspend disbelief here show signs of creative strain.

Here’s a version that never was: Director Joe Carnahan’s pitch which places the story in 1973. Carnahan gave us a sizzle reel that encapsulates everything about the era that Daredevil was born into, and the flavor that he absorbed.

Seeing this really drives the point home that it’s possible that the character, at his best, symbolized a bygone New York that it’s just impossible to sell in a modern context, when Hell’s Kitchen is now called “Clinton” and the Manhattan of The Warriors, Super Fly and Death Wish is long, long gone.

The senses. Yes, Daredevil is blind. More importantly, however, all of his other senses are superior, and he has radar finely-grained enough to block arrows and bullets with his club. That means whenever we encounter a scene from his perspective, it should have a sound profile, a scent palette. It should be tactile and raise the skin. Is should happen, not bounded by peripheral vision and the direction of his head, but in a 360-degree, sonar-like totality, with no upside-down or right-side-up. He does not see the world in the way that we do, and this should present a director with constant opportunity for new and creative visuals.

This was, frankly, almost totally overlooked on the show. Aside from the occasions where the protagonist can hear off-camera antagonists, there’s a disappointing thinness to the sense-palette, which seems like a chance for any interested director to have a lot of fun. Whoops.

Ninjas. by ninjas I mean less oriental mysticism, which is really Iron Fist’s and Shiang-Chi’s territory, and more just what we can call ‘antagonists of phenomenal prowess.’ One of the most magical elements of Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen is that yes, there are secret Ninja societies like the Hand, but there are also vagrants with baseball bats who perform at a supernatural level (Wildboys), S&M Swordswomen (Typhoid Mary), Mafia assassins galore (Bullseye), government super-mercenaries (Bullet, Shotgun, Bushwhacker). These are the kind of fights that happen at hand-to-hand scale and are interdependent with his aerial skills. The crimes Daredevil solves are street crimes, not megavillains.

Typhoid Mary
Typhoid Mary and Daredevil lay down their arms.

Sex. The Daredevil brand has always been more adult, compared to the infinitely-adolescent Spider-Man. The action on the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen often gets hot, with love triangles and forbidden encounters and a near-infinite supply of Femme Fatales. Elektra, Black Widow, Typhoid Mary, Karen Page, Black Cat have all graced the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen. Somehow, things never work out.

Sacrifice. Characters in Daredevil die. Sometimes they are broken before they die. Karen Page’s character in the comics undergoes one of the most Requiem for a Dream-like descents of any modern comics character, as the Kingpin has her strung out on drugs and performing in porn for drug money before she contracts AIDS and ultimately dies from an overdose. Matt Murdock suffers, and the people around him suffer, too. This was something the TV show didn’t shy away from, although they wisely kept Karen Page’s character in-play, as one of the lighter elements in an otherwise heavy show. Curiously, the Ben Urich character does not dies in the comics, whereas in the MTU show, he does.

Righteousness. Daredevil isn’t one of those heroes who suffers from too much introspection or crises-of-clarity. He sees a problem, he punches it. He will always do what he sees as “the right thing” even when it isn’t the heroic thing. He once pointed what he thought was a loaded gun at the Punisher and pulled the trigger. He became the King of the Hell’s Kitchen underworld in a misconceived attempt to reduce crime. He has a very, very well-developed sense of right and wrong, especially so long as what he intends to do is what he thinks is ‘right.’ So far as I know, Daredevil is the only hero who has had other heroes stage an intervention to tell him “you’re out of control, chill the hell out,” to which be basically told them to screw themselves. This isn’t a guy you want getting his hands on Sauron’s ring. He will (and has) turn NYC into Hell on Earth if he thinks it will reduce muggings. It is not a coincidence that Daredevil is loaded with Catholic iconography, and that the character Matt Murdock is himself Catholic. Self-doubt isn’t the issue, here.

As to these characteristics, With the exception of the sense palette, I tip my hat. The series actually really nailed the rest of the elements. However, they are out of balance. The resulting product is too dark.

The magic of Daredevil relies on the interplay between excitement and dread. Exhilaration — as expressed by weightlessness, aerialism, daring, unbounded physical restraint — against dread: the bureaucratic confinement of the legal system, the will of the powerful, the terrorizing, the Kingpins. That victory against all odds — even for the poorest, the underdogs from the wrong side of the tracks, the handicapped and underestimated — victory is possibly if you have the heart, the will, and the fearlessness. The show delivers on its fair share of dread, but unfortunately, where the counterbalance of exhilaration is called for, they deliver mere violence instead. The result is, disappointingly, more weight. One of these ingredients is overpowering, and the other, the other seems to have been almost totally forgotten.

There’s plenty to thrill here, and accolades the fight scenes have received are well-deserved. But as to whether anyone has yet quite captured the essence of what this character was at his best, unfortunately that note still hasn’t been struck. There’s still season 3. I guess.


Originally published at Rampant Strangeness.