Daredevil: Grimdark comes to TV

The first Netflix Marvel superhero series brings a different kind of superhero story: one that wants to feel more like a real crime drama, though it really isn’t.

Superhero comics were kind of a blind spot of mine until a couple of years ago, when something clicked. (So I guess there’s always hope that I’ll understand science fiction someday.) But even when I didn’t read superhero comics, I was aware that certain titles were considered particularly dark and prestigious, the comic book equivalent of a high quality cable drama. And one of those titles was Daredevil. Well, from the 1980s onward, anyway. Things were a little different before.

Mike Murdock

Daredevil, the first of five interconnected Netflix series from the omnipotent hand of Marvel Studios, is deliberately taking a different approach from the previous Marvel movies and shows. They all fit roughly into a superhero style that became popular in the ’00s, and has more or less remained the pervading comic book style since then: basically traditional in its approach to the heroes and their characterizations, but with an emphasis on the idea of the superhero as part of a paramilitary force (which is why S.H.I.E.L.D. ties everything together), and a correspondingly cynical attitude toward uses and abuses of power. Combine this with a sleek, slick, look, and you have the modern style: traditional superheroes with the cheesy stuff played down.

As Marvel’s first “street-level” show (about a character who fights organized crime rather than world-dominating supervillains) and its first attempt to break into the edgy cable-style TV market, Daredevil establishes what might become the house style for their street-level work. The style is sometimes referred to as “grim n’ gritty,” but I prefer “grimdark,” a term that — I believe — originated as an Internet meme in the ’00s to describe a certain type of self-consciously dark storytelling.

Movies like the Christopher Nolan Batman series have had their share of nods to this style, but the PG-13 rating and enormous budget got in the way. Here, the style is much purer. In Daredevil, as in grimdark superhero comics, the lighting is often dark even when it logically shouldn’t be, and when it isn’t dark, it’s hard and cold and flinty. Fights are messy and exhausting, to contrast with the usual fun-filled fighting. When the hero emerges from a fight, he’s in pain and needs medical care. And violence is bloody and brutal, involving heads being bashed in or impaled, not the traditional laser gun and piranha kind of death. The idea, at all times, is to suggest that this is really a crime drama that just happens to revolve around a man with superpowers — not a super hero story. It’s not as cynical as a real crime drama tends to be — the main character is usually a hero, after all, not an anti-hero, so there’s usually a clearer dividing line between good and evil, innocent and guilty, than in an HBO show. Daredevil is about a good man, son of another good man, who wears a mask and uses his power to help people; a grimdark superhero story is still a superhero story. It just looks and acts like it isn’t one.

It’s appropriate that it should be Daredevil that brings this approach to TV, because he’s the guy most responsible for bringing it to comics. The grimdark era really started in the 1980s when Marvel assigned Frank Miller, a young artist, to draw the struggling Daredevil comic, and later allowed him to take over the writing as well. Miller’s true interest was in crime and other genres; he found superheroes, with their inherently censor-friendly antics (no one’s in real danger and no one really dies) childish, which of course is exactly what they were intended to be. Miller gradually injected Daredevil with elements of crime drama and martial arts drama, and in doing so, he made it a popular title and himself one of the most important comic creators of his generation. His greatest achievement on the title, which dozens of writers have “borrowed” from since then, was writing a seven-issue storyline in 1986 known as “Born Again,” where the evil Kingpin learns Daredevil’s secret identity and systematically sets out to destroy his life, piece by piece; Daredevil doesn’t even appear in costume a lot, yet it’s one of the definitive superhero storylines of all time.

Born Again

The Netflix series obviously takes a lot of cues from Miller, as well as the early ’00s run by Brian Michael Bendis, who brought the style and spirit of his independent crime comics to Marvel. The style isn’t depressing, exactly (though Bendis’s obsession with making Matt’s life as bad as possible, all the time, eventually made his run almost unintentionally funny). But it offers a world that lives on the edge of the so-called Marvel Universe, of crime that the big heroes don’t usually bother with but can ruin as many lives as the world dominators. The show emphasizes this by finding a brilliant solution to an inherent problem with doing Daredevil — namely, that its crime-ridden Hell’s Kitchen is an anachronism. Here it’s suggested that New York City has reverted to its ’80s ways because of all the damage that was done during the climactic battle in The Avengers. In other words, Matt Murdock has to become a superhero to clean up the mess that Captain America, Iron Man, and the other big boys made and then ignored.

This style is sometimes referred to as “realistic,” which of course it isn’t, and isn’t intended to be. It’s not realistic, first of all, because like a lot of the movies that influenced grimdark (Scorsese’s, for example), the violence is much more operatic and over-the-top than it would be in a realistic crime story; like the traditional superhero story, everything is larger than life, it’s just that different things are being enlarged. And second, it’s still a comic book story, based on a hastily assembled mishmash of 1960s comic book ideas that have survived a lot longer than their creators ever thought they would. Monthly comic books, created by multiple hands, are not built for subtlety and nuance, and neither are their adaptations.

So in Daredevil, characters are simple, and capable of explaining their own motivations in dialogue. Themes are emphasized with simple visual images, like the Kingpin looking in the mirror and seeing the boy he used to be. Any flashback to a character’s childhood will instantly explain how he grew up to be what he is now. Characters seem to be from different eras, sometimes because they literally are; a familiar character from the comics, Ben Urich, is an old-fashioned journalist operating on an even more old-fashioned idea of how journalists go about getting stories. Lines like “you can’t give into the fear, or men like him win” abound. None of this is meant as criticism; this is all part of the comic book style, and subtlety would be a mistake. I’m just trying to clarify how this style is different from what a non-superheroic Netflix crime drama would be like.

Perhaps because Drew Goddard wrote the first two episodes and then was replaced as showrunner before the series began shooting, the early episodes have a bit of disconnect between the writing — which is sometimes light and quippy, and even has a tiny shout-out to the infamous story where Daredevil pretended to be his own imaginary twin brother — and the gloomy, shaky shooting style. This clears up as the series goes along and the show gets its own style, but it’s sometimes hard to escape the feeling that Matt’s law officemates Foggy and Karen (both holdovers from the early issues of the comic) don’t quite belong here.

Also, as I usually seem to, I have issues with the way the individual episodes are built. Steve DeKnight, a very talented showrunner responsible for Starz’s Spartacus, tries to give every episode its own story and focus (also part of the comic book tradition, where the hero might fight different villains or team up with different guest stars every month, but a larger story is strung through every issue), preventing them from all blurring together into one 13-hour movie. But because no one in Hollywood today seems to remember how to write self-contained episodic structure, the episodes tend to feel like a bunch of scenes around a particular theme, which go on for 50 minutes and then stop. This style, some people have argued, is built for binge-watching, since the episodes are actually supposed to blur together a bit and not make you feel satisfied. But I think weekly TV episodes tend to be the same way these days; it’s just a weak spot in today’s writing and production system.

While Daredevil was the obvious choice to kick off a grimdark Netflix cycle — as the property that established that style, and Marvel’s best-known street-level hero after Spider-Man — I don’t think this particular approach is very near to my heart when it comes to the character of Matt Murdock. My favourite Daredevil run, and indeed my choice for the best superhero comic of the decade so far, is Mark Waid’s run, which began in 2011 and is finishing up soon (probably to make way for a darker take); he pushed the character back to the swashbuckling hero of the 1960s, while still retaining and respecting his painful personal history. Combined with a stylized approach to art and colour, it’s a reconstruction of the traditional superhero for the modern era, and I’d love to see someone do the same for other heroes who have gotten too associated with grimdark, particularly Batman.

I’m not blaming the Netflix series for not going for that style; for one thing, it only really makes sense as a reaction against years of grimdark. I’m just saying that, personally, this fantasy/crime hybrid style doesn’t grab me the way the optimistic, aspirational super hero does.

But Miller’s Daredevil has become the definitive version (to the point where any run is partly a commentary on Miller’s run, much like any modern X-Men comic is about how the writer feels about Chris Claremont’s stories), and it’s a style that is very well-suited to a series of medium-budget Marvel shows that don’t require elaborate special effects. The upcoming shows in the cycle will be based on Luke Cage, Marvel’s blaxploitation hero, Iron Fist, their attempted cash-in on the ’70s kung fu craze, and Jessica Jones, star of Bendis’s best comic, Alias (about a failed superhero working as a private detective). All of these characters will fit in very well with the house style established in Daredevil, with the Jessica Jones show — an examination of how it would feel like to operate right on the fringes of a superhero universe, and of a great strong female character who is anything but a Strong Female Character — being probably the most promising in theory.

All of this will be helped by the generally excellent fan reception to Daredevil; if grimdark Matt is your guy, and he is for most people who read him for three decades, then this does very much what the Marvel movies have done: it takes the character and his world and translates it for a new medium in a way that seems pleasantly familiar to fans, even though it’s not aimed at comics fans as such. So it continues the balancing act that has made Marvel so successful, of reaching the audience that may not know the character, while not making the character’s fans feel they’re being disrespected. Keep that up, and the Netflix Marvel Universe may last for quite some time.

Finally, I’ve mentioned some Daredevil comic runs of note, and here are some recommendations if you’re interested: “Born Again” is, as I said, probably the definitive story and certainly the best to read as a self-contained (I hate this term for collections of monthly comics) “graphic novel.” Waid’s run is essential, not necessarily to tell you about the history of Daredevil, but just because it has been everything a modern superhero comic ought to be, and I wish it was having more influence on modern superhero work in general; I was kind of hoping it represented a turnaround from the militaristic style to a better mix of modern and classic, but until we get that, we can be glad we’ve got this.

The original Silver Age run, mostly by writer Stan Lee and artist Gene Colan, is worth it for Colan’s exceptional, shadow-filled art, like nothing else at Marvel at the time; Lee’s plots and villains are famously absurd in this run (he’s the guy who came up with “Matt has to pretend he has a twin brother who is really Daredevil, and Karen falls in love with the twin, who is just Matt pretending not to be blind”), and none the worse for that. Finally, though it’s hard to find now, the late ’80s/early ’90s run by writer Ann Nocenti and artist John Romita Jr. developed a “dark” Daredevil style completely different from Miller’s and infused with a non-pedantic sense of left-wing social consciousness (“SJW,” if you will) before it was cool. Nocenti’s Daredevil is also, to this date, the only flagship Marvel hero ever written by a woman for any length of time, something to keep in mind next time you read stories about how cool and progressive Marvel is today. There’s a lot of good material in this character’s history, some grimdark, some light, some in-between. But there’s one thing we should all keep in mind about Daredevil, whatever Netflix has in store for the character and the whole street-level comic book world:

Mike Murdock... it's a long story

Mike Murdock… it’s a long story

That’s right, Spider-Man’s life is always worse. You said it, Matt’s fake twin brother Mike Murdock. You said it.

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