The Tone Without Fear

daredevilsaveskid
What a strange time to be alive! The coolest superheroes are Iron Man, Black Widow, and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Some of the best TV series are skipping the broadcast networks and being produced by streaming services! One of the most fun and entertaining translations of comics to television is a woman-focused period piece miniseries spinoff of Captain America! A movie featuring Batman and Superman together is finally coming out, and the trailer makes it look like a dire, boring, outdated and uninspired mess. And people are getting really excited about Star Wars again!

Every time Marvel comes out with another solid movie or TV show, I go through the same process of gee-whiz-that’s-a-surprise, even though they’ve been so consistently strong — with enough missteps to prove that they’re far from infallible — that it shouldn’t be surprising anymore. But to somebody who read comics in the 1990s, it still feels like DC and Marvel did a Freaky Friday-style switch in mindset: DC’s spent the past decade and a half trying to make itself dark and gritty and realistic, while Marvel’s been focused on storytelling, world-building, and characters.

For Mature Audiences

I was one of the few people defending Man of Steel when it came out, but any remaining good will I had towards that movie’s decision to play up the “Superman as alien” angle dried up as soon as I saw Guardians of the Galaxy and how it made the combination of superheroes + science fiction seem effortless. And actually managed to have fun doing it, instead of wallowing in self-important meditations on What It Means to be an American in cloying montages straight out of a commercial for Ford Trucks.

But still. Netflix’s Daredevil series is a tough sell to me. Make Iron Man a romantic comedy with fight scenes, and I’m sold. Play up the X-Men angle of non-conformity and prejudice, and I’ll even think Wolverine is interesting. Give Joe Johnston the budget to make Captain America as a romanticized The Rocketeer-style period piece, or Kenneth Branagh the chance to present Thor in much the same spirit as a modernized Shakespeare tragedy, and those characters actually feel relevant for once. Take a license I’d never heard of and make it a sci-fi comedy adventure, and I’m in the theater even before you’re even finished with your elevator pitch (showing Chris Pratt in the trailer with his shirt off is pretty much overkill at that point).

But Daredevil has always been the one Marvel character that doesn’t just not interest me, but actively repels me. (Okay, sure, Cable and the Sub-Mariner, too, but get back to me once they get their own movies). I like Batman, so I always assumed I’d like Marvel’s version of Batman. And one of my favorite comic books of all time was Batman: Year One, which I’d long heard was influenced heavily (if not entirely) by Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil. So I’ve tried reading what have always been recommended as the standout Daredevil stories, and they just don’t do it for me.

The reason is that they take the basic premise — Marvel’s version of Batman — entirely literally. It drains almost all of the fantasy out of the Batman universe, distilling it almost entirely to what I think is the least interesting part, the “lone vigilante against crime” angle. All the dark gothic history of Gotham City is subbed out with Hell’s Kitchen in 1970s New York. The larger-than-life supervillains are replaced with mafiosos. Interpretations of Batman have always had a hard time getting the balance right between camp and seriousness, but Daredevil always struck me as being so afraid of camp and so eager to be taken seriously that it’s perpetually stuck in the mindset of an adolescent boy in 1981. (In case that seems too harsh, keep in mind that the replacement for Catwoman is a Greek female ninja assassin with “low-level mind control and telepathic communication”). I’ve re-read Batman: Year One in recent years, and it doesn’t really appeal to me anymore, for much the same reason.

Martha Wayne’s Pearl Necklace

Which is all background for why I’m not in the target audience for a Daredevil TV series, and why it’s so surprising that I’m enjoying the hell out of it. Granted, I’m still only two episodes in so far, so it could all fall apart. But it would take something pretty catastrophic to unravel everything built up by those first two hours. (Apparently Drew Goddard stepped down as show runner after the second episode, so maybe I should watch more before I go on gushing about how great the series is).

The thing that sold me in the first episode was the cleverness of the premise and the confidence in which everything was established. It checks off all the boxes of a comic book adaptation — the origin scene, the scenes with his father, the gym and the boxing matches, the glasses, the confessional, and even a scene standing watch over Hell’s Kitchen on a rooftop at night — but seems to understand exactly how and why they’re important to the story. It’s too early (for me) to tell, but this might be the first real case of a live-action graphic novel: feature films are always trying to cram decades of continuity into an hour and a half, and weekly episodic series are always conscious of having to state and re-state their premise with each episode. Daredevil seems designed with Netflix and binge-watching in mind: the episodes are more like chapters instead of installments, and it’s developing its own rhythm of introduction, repetition, and reinforcement that seems to be telling the story at its own pace, without fear of losing the audience.

The confessional is a solid example. Every Daredevil story I’ve read is pretty ham-fisted with the religious allegory, as if we might forget the “devil” part of the name, or forget that we’re supposed to be conflicted about a hero using violence to do good. But the series takes what could be a stock scene and uses it for character exposition. The last line, where he asks “forgiveness for what I’m about to do,” actually works, and it doesn’t just feel like the kind of line a writer high-fives himself for squeezing into a scene.

The “origin story” is an even better example. Even though it’s been 15 years since X-Men made comic book movies cool again, and we’ve seen so many comic book adaptations that they’ve gone through at least two rounds of backlash, and the last person to do anything novel or interesting with an origin story was Tim Burton in Batman Returns, we still get the origin story every single time. Because everybody assumes that’s just what comic book adaptations do. And, I assume, everybody wants to be the one who makes the definitive version, to come up with the thing that becomes as indelible and iconic as Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace.

Daredevil splits the difference: it doesn’t act as if it’s showing us something we’ve never seen before, but neither does it assume we’re so familiar with the story that it can use shorthand like Grant Morrison did for Superman. We’ve all been around the block enough times to know that if you save somebody’s life but get blinded by hazardous chemicals in the process, you’re going to get super powers. Daredevil isn’t even all that subtle about it:
daredevilhazardouschemicals
but in terms of comic book adaptations, it’s a paragon (I was about to say marvel) of restraint.

I saw two tweets today with criticisms of the show that I completely disagree with. One complained that the cool thing about Daredevil is that he’s blind, but the show ignores that. Another complained that “there’s no clear taxonomy [of sound], helping the audience understand what he does“. I think these are both examples of the same thing: we’re so used to comic book adaptations behaving a certain way, that it’s surprising to see any attempt at deviating from that with any kind of subtlety.

daredevilopeningcreditsangel
When I saw the opening credit sequence, with all the iconography of Daredevil and New York City taking shape as it’s slowly covered with red wax, I thought I knew exactly what we were going to get: lots of fancy CGI sequences of outlines taking shape out of the darkness, to illustrate Matt Murdock’s echolocation. (My brain has mercifully blocked out all memory of the Ben Affleck movie, but if I remember correctly, they did exactly that). If the VFX team got ambitious, a crucial fight would take place in the rain, being the defining element that either saves the day or almost causes Daredevil to lose the fight, depending on however the writer decided rainfall would affect somebody with superhuman senses.

Instead, so far at least, there are frequent reminders that Murdock is actually blind, gradually more explicit indications that his other senses are becoming more sensitive (like young Matt reacting to a boxing ring bell or hearing a conversation on the other side of the room), Rosario Dawson’s character repeatedly asking how a blind man can smell someone through walls a couple of floors down or accurately drop a fire extinguisher several stories down a stairwell to hit someone at exactly the right moment, and generally, an implicit assumption that the audience can understand that super powers are happening without the aid of a visual effects crew.

Powers Beyond Those Of Mortal Men

And the reason I think it’s enough of a big deal to drag out is because the second episode, “Cut Man,” is just masterfully constructed. I’d say it’s as strong as Battlestar Galactica’s “33” in that both are seamlessly orchestrated self-contained episodes that also confidently and definitively establish the tone of the rest of the series.

Throughout the episode, what impresses me the most is the decision what to show and what to leave implicit. It’s the first episode where we really see the extent of Daredevil’s powers as something super-human, but it’s almost entirely conveyed via Claire Temple asking him how he’s doing all this. It took the setup from the end of the pilot — a child is kidnapped by a human trafficking ring — and immediately advance past his super-heroics to a shot of him lying in a dumpster near death. The bulk of the episode is his recovering from his near-fatal injuries while Claire recounts the standard “birth of a super hero” adventures that we’d normally get in a montage sequence.

And of course the final sequence really is a masterpiece; I’ll be very surprised if anything else in the series is able to top it. Again, it’s because of the restraint. The previous episode ended with a montage of all the horrible atrocities the bad guys were committing, to make it clear that Daredevil was hopelessly outnumbered against an insurmountable evil. The bulk of the second episode is spent making it clear that he’s broken and beaten, and that there’s a very real chance he won’t survive the night.

But then the final climactic battle is slow and almost quiet. It just trucks slowly — even self-consciously — up and down a long dark hallway, and we see the fight spill out from side rooms into the hall. We still get to see all the bad-ass highlights of a standard cinematic superhero fight, but the events of the fight itself aren’t presented as if they were part of the story. And neither is showing explicitly how he’s predicting his enemies’ movements or fending two or three of them off at a time. The story doesn’t deem it important to show how he fights crime; what’s important is simply to show that he does it.

That’s huge. In terms of just plain good storytelling, it’s what keeps the action from devolving into “movie musical number” territory that fight scenes and car chase scenes almost invariably end up being. It’s a super-hero story, so the ending is a foregone conclusion: he’s going to win. So there’s always a disconnect to see extended sequences of stunt people punching and kicking each other, presented as if it were advancing the story, when it’s actually just stopped the story to show you something cool.

The “story” here is that Daredevil is at one end of the hall, and he’s going to go to the other end of the hall and rescue this kid, or he’s going to die trying. The fight spills out into the hall not just so we can see some cool martial arts choreography, but to show that he’s beaten and he’s impossibly weary, but he’s not going to give up.

There’s no indication that he can’t see any of what’s going on, and no indication of how he’s hearing movements or heartbeats, because that would be worse than irrelevant. It would turn the story into one about a guy who fights crime because he has super powers, instead of a guy whose super powers make it possible for him to fight crime.

That’s a distinction that Superman and Batman stories have been wrestling with for decades. Superman’s only interesting when you play up the idea that he’d be a good guy even without his powers (which is why putting him against General Zod and other Kryptonians right off the bat was one of the few good decisions Man of Steel made). And most of the “serious” Batman stories put all the focus on how the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents drove him to make himself a hero. Everything in “Cut Man” — including what would seem like an unrelated “B-plot” about Foggy keeping Karen company through the night — establishes Matt Murdock as a hero driven to help people solely because it’s something that needs to be done.

Marvel Universe

My other favorite aspect of the series is something I’ve never seen mentioned in reviews or comments: the central conflict that sparks the series is all a result of crime bosses fighting to take over Hell’s Kitchen after the destruction caused by the climactic battle in The Avengers. It’s just an ingenious way to modernize it while still making it feel like a timeless premise, and a perfect way to tie it in with the rest of Marvel live-action continuity without a Special Guest Appearance or cross-over. I’ve been watching The Flash on CW and enjoying it a lot, but its frequent cross-overs with Arrow just bring to mind the most negative connotations of “comic book adaptation.”

But really, that’s just one part of what makes The Flash seem like perfectly enjoyable (seriously!) but by-the-numbers episodic television comic book adaptation. There’s something about the entire series that just feels safe. You get the impression that when the idea came to develop a Flash series, their two main questions were how to do the running VFX, and how to work some racial diversity into the main cast. The rest writes itself: season-long intrigue, monster-of-the-week format, opening and closing voice-over that put the events of the episode into “larger” perspective, etc.

Which goes back to my old shorthand of “DC = fantastic, larger-than-life, fun storytelling; Marvel = adolescent obsession with ‘realism’ and ‘maturity,'” which probably hasn’t been true in at least 20 years. And seems to fall apart as a valid metric anyway, considering that the reasons I’m enjoying Daredevil so much seem to go directly against all my assumptions: it’s a more mature, realistic, and understated take on a super-hero comic book setup.

I think it comes down to tone, and walking the tightrope between wallowing in grim self-importance and floating off into irrelevance. “For Mature Audiences” in comic books has traditionally meant anything but maturity: it’s been dominated by reactionary, adolescent, and defensive attempts to make comic books more than “kids stuff” by slathering everything in violence, sex, profanity, and “adult content.” And Daredevil‘s standout creators in comics have been some of the worst offenders. Sure, Sin City, for example, is a self-conscious attempt to build on lurid pulp comics and novels, but it’s also so enamored of the pulp that it stops making any kind of commentary on it. It becomes indistinguishable from the real thing.

I’m definitely not going to suggest that Daredevil the TV series is “light:” the first episode’s montage of all the evil going on in the city includes a sweatshop full of silent slave workers measuring out drugs for distribution, and they’ve all been visibly, violently blinded. Not to mention all the human trafficking, or the blood, or the pervasive paranoia, or the murders and murders made to look like suicides.

The Seduction of the Innocent

But still, there’s very much a sense of “comic book mentality” that carries throughout. Part of it is just the presentation: Murdock’s apartment and its intrusively bright LCD sign, the boxing gym where the bulk of the flashbacks take place, and the water tower on top of Claire’s apartment building, all have a very simple, iconic, and graphic feel to them. You watch a scene and can immediately imagine how the panels would be laid out on the page.

More significantly, it’s a comic book adaptation in that there is a very clear delineation of good guys and bad guys. There are crooked prison guards and corruptible or arrogant people, but there also exist characters who are Good and characters who are Evil. That’s the comic book aspect; the maturity comes from the way the first two episodes don’t attempt to milk any kind of artificial conflict out of the delineation. Claire advises Daredevil with little hesitation exactly how to jam a knife into a guy’s eye socket to inflict the most pain. And Daredevil uses should-be-lethal force so often that it makes Superman and Batman’s “no killing, no guns” philosophies seem almost as juvenile as Frank Castle’s.

That’s another way that the series benefits from being on Netflix instead of broadcast television, or even HBO. It doesn’t have to dance around questions of violence or profanity that make it seem even more artificial. A lot of “for mature audiences” material (see: True Blood, most FX series) seems as if it were written by people who found out they can use the f-word and then freak the fuck out. Daredevil has characters saying “shit” when a real adult in 2015 would say “shit.” And fight scenes that cause believable bodily harm with blood and broken bones.

Oddly enough, while watching the Daredevil series, the comic book that keeps coming to mind is Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer. (And I better not get started on what an enormous disappointed the Constantine TV series turned out to be, or I’ll go on for another 3000 words). There was a real sense that its first motivation was to be a good, compelling story, and everything else was a product of that. It showed an innate understanding of its medium: it wasn’t attempting to tell a story that begrudgingly used the comic book format, or make a masterpiece that would elevate comics to some “higher” level of relevance, but used all the strengths and weaknesses of the format to tell its story. It understood that “mature” often means subtlety, but it didn’t shy away from being graphic. It understood that “adult” meant weighty questions of ethics and morality that couldn’t be summed up with some clumsy allegory, but also that a huge part of what makes comic book storytelling so appealing is its simplicity and abstraction.

Ultimately, it feels like something made by people who love comics and love television (and love martial arts choreography), instead of being made with some preconceived notion of what people who love comics are supposed to like. However they did it, if they can take my least favorite Marvel character and turn it into such a compelling show, I can’t wait to see what they do with Gambit, Jubilee, or Dazzler.