Super Fly! Where Daredevil Went Wrong

dd-2011I’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?

How to Know You’re Dealing with a Comic Hero

Comics are mythological, and they follow certain very old patterns.  Here are some ways to know you are dealing with a comic archetype.

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 iconic 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 If there is some other symbol or logo on their costume that can give them iconic significance, the mask itself can be superseded or minimized, as in the case of Superman or Green Lantern.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 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. You’ll notice that 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 aspect 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 and Alex Maleev’s, as well as 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  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 but 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 creative executions.

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 an 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 die in the comics,  whereas in the Netflix 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 Netflix 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 possible 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.

 

The Hero We Deserve

Recently this piece in The Guardian caught my attention. In it, Alan Moore, notable author of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and all-around high priest of counterculture and geekdom, is attributed the following incendiary quote on the state of the comic-movie supercomplex:

“To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence,” he wrote to Ó Méalóid. “It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.”

While I find Moore’s premise to border on melodramatic, there’s no denying he’s on to something.  To any faithful observers of the genre, we need to know that we are approaching Peak Superhero, and fatigue should set in, perhaps sometime before this summer.

As of this writing, we have the following movies currently playing or approaching this summer:

  • Deadpool (Marvel)
  • Batman Vs. Superman (DC)
  • Captain America: Civil War (Marvel)
  • X-Men Apocalypse (Marvel)
  • Suicide Squad (DC)

While audiences will continue to fill seats, odds are some of these are just going to fail.  Audiences loved Deadpool.  It had fresh elements: it broke the fourth wall, showed irreverence to the studio properties, with loads of sly winks, Easter eggs, sex, violence and SFX and relentless action.  It was notably given an R rating for this reason, and the director of Guardians of the Galaxy quickly followed up with a plea that the studio not try to copy its success, for predictable reasons:

“Over the next few months, if you pay attention to the trades, you’ll see Hollywood misunderstanding the lesson they should be learning with Deadpool,” Gunn wrote. “They’ll be green lighting films ‘like Deadpool’ — but, by that, they won’t mean ‘good and original’ but ‘a raunchy superhero film’ or ‘it breaks the fourth wall.’ They’ll treat you like you’re stupid, which is the one thing Deadpool didn’t do.”

Deadpool.
Deadpool.

Great.  That said, let’s not pretend that Deadpool presented us with a anything resembling an answer to Moore’s challenge.  Deadpool was light, it was fun.  It was witty.  No, it didn’t tell us anything about the Way We Live Now, like Watchmen or V For Vendetta, Moore’s best-known properties, did.  Moore’s accusation stands. (UPDATE: All  of these movies have now arrrived, with Suicide Squad opening this weekend.  Its reviews are in, and surprise, it sucks.)

I loved comics well into my teens, and lapsed sometime around college.  I rediscovered what was happening in the Marvel Universe on my iPad, and spend hundreds of dollars amassing collections to back-fill the gap.  I’m what Marvel’s marketing plan calls a ‘lapsed reader,’ which is to say an adult, gainfully employed, who can be hooked via the Tablet experience with some preview titles, and pushed via clever marketing to re-enter the brick-and-mortar comic stores and make the purchases that keep the delicate symbiosis of the industry moving.

While many comics fulfill Moore’s label of being ‘adolescent entertainment,’ at least as many do aspire beyond.  Image comics’ The Walking Dead was the last great comic series I’ve seen, mainly because it isn’t a comic series in the traditional sense, and fastidiously broke every rule those genres have to offer, killing each of its darlings in turn, and presenting us with the bleakest possible view of the present alongside the most hopeful possible backdrop.  What could be worse than seeing your family killed by being eaten alive on one hand, or beaten to death on the other? What could be more hopeful than the task of rebuilding civilization?

The Walking Dead.
The Walking Dead.

This kind of recklessness-in-service of a message is what audiences reward in these peaceful times, and I submit that it is no coincidence that the other great success of this book-to-TV era is Game of Thrones, a series that follows, and breaks, the same rulebook.  Credibility is gained in these pieces by a willingness to be so honest with the audience that anyone can die at any time.  This is simultaneously exhilarating and contrived.

In the big-comics world,  multi-issue storylines that cross titles are called ‘story arcs.’  The last great stroy arc I read to come out of Marvel was Civil War, a story arc that seemed to be a direct response to 9-11.  It’s absolutely worth mentioning that Civil War went completely differently in the comics than in the films.  In the comics, a detonation by a super-villain causes a mega-death event in Stamford, Connecticut,  provoking a Superhuman Registration Act that uncannily follows the Patriot Act of the early 2000’s.

Civil War is now about 10 years old.  They’ve done a lot of okay work since then, but that was one that seemed to really take a hard look inward, most especially on Thunderbolts, which took a dark turn unlike anything seen in the superhero comics since Watchmen, and likewise making a statement of intent by killing or maiming old heroes like Jack Flag.  The Thunderbolts’ job is to enforce the Superhuman Registration Act, and they are all villains turned government agents, essentially Marvel’s answer to Suicide Squad.  The hook  is, of course, that they hunt heroes, some of whom they kill.  It was a high watermark of invention and storytelling at Marvel, but I’m sorry to say I haven’t  seen its like since it was written.

Marvel's Thunderbolts
Ellis & Deodato’s Thunderbolts.

The point I’m making here is the cultural elitist in me wants to agree with Moore’s prediction, and I feel the palpable sense of exhaustion that the genre is starting to bleed  from it’s pores.  Can we really watch Batman’s parents be killed one more time, in one more way, the way we were treated to at the beginning of Batman vs. Superman?  Is Avengers; Infinity War going to have something really new to show us?  Spoiler Alert: No.

And yet, the genre has proven incredibly resilient.  Part of this, in my estimation, is that they let the comics lead.  Comics are published monthly, they are cheap, and the decisions made in them are remarkably impermanent.  Superman has been killed, only to return as all heroes do, with new costumes and new powers.  Batman has been maimed.  There are something like six different Spider-Men running around.  The comics can take extraordinary risks that, if they don’t pay off,  have lower commercial consequences than a failed summer movie.  Moore himself once observed that he had never learned to write rough drafts,  the punishing pace of the industry simply didn’t leave time for it.

The comics have  a barometer for the risks the studios are willing to take,  and are now written with that expressly in mind: the costs to get on the board publishing a comic are well worth it, when you can tell a studio acquisitions head that you have an audience of 50,000 loyal subscribers who have already validated “Squirrel Girl” in the marketplace.  A Squirrel Girl movie is under discussion, by the way.  Squirrel Girl.

The newest Invincible Iron Man.
The newest Invincible Iron Man.

These gambles pay off, and,  alongside the fact that comic writers are some of the most liberal-minded people in America,  they have been notably present at the forefront of society’s hard conversations, tackling issues that are right on time.  It was Green Lantern and Green Arrow that were first in the industry to talk about the shame of heroin addiction, X-Men tackled Civil Rights head-on, presenting us with the Martin figure  in Professor X and the Malcolm X, in Magneto.  Alpha Flight had the first out Gay character, the X-Men had the first gay wedding.  And now they are dead-center in the culture wars again.  Lady Ghostbusters?  Nonsense, here’s Lady Thor.  The role of Ms. Marvel is  now held by a Muslim teenager, Kemala Khan.  Iron Man is passing the reins to a female, black MIT student.  These changes are obvious, they are appropriate,  and they reflect the changes of Marvel’s diversifying audience.  But let’s not kid ourselves that they aren’t risky.  Every one of these moves easily deserved its own tense editorial staff meeting, and every one has generated its own tweetstorm of recrimination from the not-so-remote corners of the internet.   And every one of them could be course-corrected in a month, if they didn’t work out.  The risk is simply lessened.  Yes, the comics are the creative engine, but they are also now an incubator for film, TV, and toys.  The business has reshaped itself completely to be cinema’s farm team, the NCAA to 3-D Digital  Surround IMAX’s NBA.  Some would say that’s where the most vital games are, have always been, played.

As a consequence we have seen spacemen, raccoons, squirrels, talking trees, diverse representation, an embrace of digital, a globalist perspective and an ongoing grapple with ascendant militarism, paranoia, and post-911 anxiety.

Is this not “a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times?”