A while ago I wrote about my first impressions of the at-the-time-new Daredevil series on Netflix. I thought it was brilliant, but still only managed to get halfway through the season before having to set it aside.
The “problem” was that it was too good at the mood it was trying to establish. The tension of the series relies on the feeling of a city that’s irreparably broken, where the corruption goes so deep that it taints even the people trying to fight against it. It remains a solid series throughout, but it’s not a carefree, fun romp.
Now, I’ve finally finished watching the first season, and my opinion of it’s changed. Before, I thought it was really good. Now, I think it’s kind of a master work. If it just existed in a vacuum as a one-hour drama/action television series, it’d be really well-done if not groundbreaking; the hyperbole comes in when you consider it as an adaptation. Not just of a long-running series, but of a franchise and a format.
Really, what’s most amazing to me is that it exists at all, when you consider all the different ways it could’ve gone wrong. It could’ve collapsed under the weight of its own cliches, being unabashedly an adaptation of a comic book. It could’ve been pulled apart in any number of directions — too enamored of its fight scenes to allow for long stretches with nothing but dialogue, or too enamored of its “important” dialogue to realize how much storytelling it can accomplish with choreographed fight scenes. It could’ve quickly revealed itself as too derivative, or tried to crib too much from the Christopher Nolan version of Batman, considering that it’s based on a character that was already derivative. It could’ve suffocated from having its head too far up its own ass, being based on what’s maybe the most self-consciously “adult” of mainstream comics characters, and gone the route of “grim and gritty” comics’ facile understanding of what’s “mature.” It could’ve had performances that were too Law & Order for the comic-book stuff to read, or too comic-book for the dramatic stuff. The character of Foggy could’ve been so self-aware as to be insufferable, or the character of Karen could’ve been nothing more than a damsel in distress or a dead weight. It could’ve all been completely torn apart once they let Vincent D’Onofrio loose.
But it all works. (Almost). It’s a self-contained arc and a hero’s journey story and a tragedy and a character study and a crime drama and a martial arts series and a morality play and a franchise builder. It’s never so high-minded that it forgets to be entertaining, but it does insist that entertainment doesn’t have to be stupid. Yes, it is going to show you Daredevil fighting a ninja, but you’re also going to watch a scene that’s entirely in Mandarin, so don’t complain about having to turn the subtitles on.
If, like me, you were unfamiliar with the character other than at the most basic level — blind lawyer with super-senses who fights criminals with a cane that turns into nunchucks — then take a second to read an overview of the character’s history. And be impressed not only at how much they managed to retain, but how many horrible pitfalls they avoided.
My least favorite episode of the season — by far, since it’s really the only sour note in the entire thing that I can think of — is titled “Stick.” I had never heard of the character, but of course it’s from the comics. And of course it’s from Frank Miller, because it’s just an eyepatch and laser gun short of being the culmination of everything a testosterone-addled 12-year-old in the 80s would think is “rad.” As someone who was a testosterone-addled 12-year-old in the 80s, I can acknowledge this was a part of my past, but it’s not anything to be cherished, celebrated, or re-imagined. (Everybody was obsessed with ninjas back then. This was a time when Marvel thought they needed to make their immortal Canadian anti-hero with a metal-laced skeleton and claws that come out of his hands “more interesting” by having him go to Japan).
So the character of Stick is straight-up bullshit. It’s a perfect Alien 3-style example of not being able to handle what you’re given and instead, tearing down everything that came before in order to write about something else. Except even worse, because it tears everything down to replace it with something that is itself derivative: a sensei with a mysterious past in the form of a wise, blind martial arts master. (Except it’s the 80s, so he’s “flawed.” Which means he’s even more rad). It undermines the main character of the story by saying, “Here’s a guy who can do everything your hero can, even better than your hero can, and without the benefit of super powers.”
The makers of the series did the best they could. First, they cast Scott Glenn to come in and Scott Glenn it up. Then, they spun it the best they could, figuring out how to take the elements of the story that would fit into their own story arc: the idea that loyalty and connection to other people is a weakness, and the idea that it’s the choices Matt Murdock makes that define him as a hero, and not his super powers. (And then towards the end of the series, they have Foggy make a reference to how cliched and dumb the whole notion of a blind sensei is, so all is forgiven).
Throughout, there’s a respect for the source material that’s more skill than reverence. They understand not only how to take elements from the original and fit them into the story they’re trying to tell, but how and why they worked in the original. A lot of adaptations, especially comic book adaptations that try to move the story into “the real world,” are so obsessed with the first part that they lose sight of the second. I’m realizing now that that’s a big part of why Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies don’t work for me: they treat the characters and their origin stories as these disconnected bits of mythology floating around in the ether, without much consideration for how they originally worked and why they became so iconic. Especially with the last movie, it seemed to be more about mashing up familiar references instead of meaning. (Take that to its extreme, and you get a version of The Joker who has a panel from an iconic comic book about The Joker tattooed on his own chest).
But the Daredevil series takes stuff that was used as fairly empty symbolism in the comics — a vigilante in a Devil suit standing on top of a building overlooking a church — and pumps enough depth into it to make it meaningful again.
There’ve been so many “adult” interpretations of Batman that the whole notion of a vigilante hero has pretty much lost any tension or dramatic weight. Daredevil makes it interesting again. Even though it’s an unapologetically bleak setup, there’s still never a question that Daredevil is eventually going to win the fight. The question is what he’s going to lose in the process.
That in itself isn’t uncharted story, and the series doesn’t attempt to explore the material by going all-in on realism. Instead, it takes all the familiar elements and symbols and fits them into a structure where they all support each other and build off of each other. We see every single character faced with temptation, and we see how each character responds to it. None of the stories are self-contained origin stories presented for their own sake; they all reflect on that idea of holding on to your soul despite any corrupting influences. Foggy isn’t just the comic relief character; he’s the constant reminder of the ideals they’re supposed to be fighting for. Karen isn’t a story of an innocent saved by a hero; she has actual agency, and she’s an example of how corruption can gradually and subtly chip away at the soul of a good person.
The villains are straight out of the Stock Gritty Urban Bad Guy warehouse, but as with the best comic book stories, they all reflect on some aspect of the hero and illustrate why the hero’s the star of the story. Some of the corrupt cops show what results when people try to appoint themselves as above the law. One of the cops’ stories shows how he succumbed to corruption out of a desire to keep his loved ones safe. The Russian mobsters are depicted as people who did whatever they had to in order to overcome a horrible upbringing. The character of Madame Gao seems to be about moral relativism, a rejection of the idea that there are good people who do bad things. The Chinese drug-smuggling ring is a rejection of the idea that corruption is passive; it seems to insist that people aren’t forced to do bad things but choose to, an idea that’s reinforced by Karen’s story. And the Yakuza aren’t used much for other than a bit of exotic intrigue and a ninja fight, but there’s still some sense of how a devotion to honor above all else is itself a kind of corruption.
Of course, the first season is as much Kingpin’s origin story as Daredevil’s, so his is the most interesting. And again, it takes what could be the often simplistic moralizing of “comic book stories” and pumps depth back into it. There’s a scene in which he’s dramatically reciting the story of The Good Samaritan that keeps threatening to go over the edge into self-important super-villain monologuing scene, where the writer is a little too eager to make sure you get the point of what he’s been trying to say. But when taken as the culmination of his story, it’s the climactic moment that marks his story as a tragedy. It’s fairly typical for writers and actors to say that the most interesting villains are the ones who see themselves as the heroes, so it’s fascinating to see this series try to take that a step further. They’ve spent the entire season letting us into Fisk’s head, building up empathy if not sympathy, showing us how he became what he is. Then they say, “Wouldn’t it be even more interesting to show him accepting and embracing the fact that he’s the villain?” And it is, because it suggests that his story is just getting started.
Even more interesting to me, in a 2015 adaptation of a comic book that originated in 1964, is how it shows Kingpin as a male character created and defined by women. (Maybe not that surprising, considering that the source material is as well known for its relatively short-lived bad-ass female ninja character as it is for its hero). Every defining moment of his character — from his childhood to the climax of his story — is in reaction to something done by a man, but driven by the decision of a woman. His mother covers for him and protects him. Madame Gao intimidates him and backs him into a corner, effectively forcing him to abandon his pretense of fighting for good. And Gao insisted that Vanessa was a distraction for him, when in fact she was helping define him: all of the aspects of his character that he was trying to keep hidden and keep her shielded from, were the very aspects of his character that most attracted her.
In fact, all of the female characters in Daredevil are defined by their agency, while almost all of the male characters (except Matt and possibly Foggy) are shown either as passive products of their environment or as character simply living out their true nature. Ben Urich’s wife encourages Urich to stay true to his ideals, while acknowledging that being a reporter is simply in his nature, and there’s little he can do about it. Wilson Fisk tries to put a positive spin on his motivations, but both Vanessa and Gao encourage him to acknowledge that he’s doing it for power, not for good. Clare chooses to help Matt Murdock, and it’s ultimately her who chooses how to define their relationship. There’s even an element of it with Foggy and Marci — he’s incorruptible by nature, while she has to actively choose to do the right thing.
When you step back and look at it as part of the overall Marvel franchise, it makes it seem even more that the freak-out over Black Widow was missing the point. The internet would have you believe that the issue comes down to the ratio of how many men she defeats vs how many times we’re shown her ass. The bigger issue (and I’m definitely not the first person to point it out!) is that the movies are so dominated by male characters that she has to represent All Women. And even in a comic book story, “strong female characters” aren’t about super powers or who’d win in a fight.
And still, the thing that impressed me the most in the first couple of episodes stayed true throughout: Daredevil is fantastic at maintaining its tone. Sure, dialogue-heavy scenes peacefully coexist with fight scenes, but it goes even deeper than that. Some of the dialogue-heavy scenes are entirely plot driven, while a fight scene is all about establishing character. Some of the scenes are about dramatic monologuing, while others are about more subtle implications and things left unsaid. There are several moments I would’ve expected to be spun out into multi-episode arcs, but are instead left lingering in the background: for instance, a particularly well-acted moment when Foggy realizes that Karen isn’t attracted to him in the same way she is to Matt. It’s fairly subtle and heartbreaking, and to the best of my memory, no character ever utters the despicable phrase “friend zone.”
Everybody knows Vincent D’Onofrio is great at playing a psychopath, but what I didn’t appreciate is that he’s so good at maintaining it. I would’ve thought that by spending so many episodes building up anticipation for his appearance, when he first explodes and kills a guy, they’d have used up all the value of that for the rest of the season. But he keeps it going for episode after episode, filled with rage and menace and perpetually just on the verge of boiling over. And Ayelet Zurer perfectly underplays Vanessa — never trying to compete with Fisk in bombastic scene-stealing but always conveying a sense of power and control. Once she starts making her motivations perfectly clear, it’s every bit as chilling as any of Fisk’s outbursts.
And there’s a scene where Foggy and Matt are fighting because of course there is; any story about a super-hero with a secret identity demands it. I was never particularly invested in their relationship, or unsure of how it would play out, so I thought the entire thing would be a rote case of doing what it needed to for the season arc and then moving on. But it’s so well-acted (and under-written) that it actually got to me. Matt sobs in the middle of a line, and it really feels like the entire weight of the season up to that point just came crashing down on top of him.
As always, it’s another case of understanding exactly how and why a scene works, instead of simply including it because it’s supposed to be there. I’m tempted to say this should be the template for every live-action adaptation of a comic book, but I honestly don’t know how much of it is reproducible. I am excited to see how it plays out in the second season and all the spin-off series. At this point, I’d even watch a show about Cable.