Real life origin stories have a way of being underwhelming when compared to the superhero universes of comic books—and real life origins remain relatively fixed although tellings and retellings always shade those realities differently.
My transition from childhood into adulthood is easy to pinpoint, and with the bite of a radioactive spider or an appropriate dousing in a transformative chemical, the summer between my 8th and 9th grades could have led to my wearing a different sort of lycra outfit, one donned to save the world (or at least the female of my affection).
Being diagnosed with scoliosis and having to wear a back brace from 9th through 12th grades, however, did not transform me into a superhero; it mostly hyper-exaggerated the already intense insecurities I felt as a scrawny young man wishing above all else to be a great athlete.
But the scoliosis diagnosis did lead to superheroes, specifically Marvel comics, as I began to collect and draw from the books I hoarded.
Fast forward four decades and the world has suddenly and shockingly joined me and countless nerds who didn’t need CGI and films to marvel at the alternate universes of masked superheroes. While the film explosion around comic book superheroes certainly was a significant turning point in the status of the graphic medium, I believe the rise of Marvel at Netflix is a far more compelling and promising adaptation.
Both the Daredevil and Jessica Jones series at Netflix have the time and space—serialization—to bring the most compelling aspects of comic books to viewers (something about TV series you find in HBO, Showtime, and other original programming that, I believe, is more powerful than Hollywood blockbuster film sequels).
So here is my nerd-confession about comic book superheroes: my favorite character has always been Daredevil (although I was profoundly shaped by the Spider-Man mythos as many who found themselves in the cult of Marvel experienced). As a result, for many years, my drawing of Daredevil hung in my parents’ living room:
Since I am still in advancing age struggling with the brave new world of series dumps and binge watching, I came to Daredevil (Netflix) a bit backwards after watching Jessica Jones.
Netflix’s Marvel Universe
Two 13-episode series may be an inadequate sample set, but I want first to note some patterns I have noticed watching Daredevil and Jessica Jones—sort of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
First, Netflix is offering a very muted superhero universe, not like the Stan Lee campiness but more as if Netflix is a bit embarrassed these shows are pulled from comic books. In Jessica Jones, that approach makes some sense, especially drawing as it does from Alias, but in Daredevil, the tiptoeing hurts a remarkable superhero narrative.
We wait, for example, all 13 episodes for Daredevil in his signature uniform and even the moniker “Daredevil” (and still no “Kingpin“). And the uniform? Falls short, I am afraid.
Next, just as the creative team behind a run on a comic book superhero significantly impacts the quality of the work, the Netflix series depend on the actors playing the roles as well as the writing and directing.
While the casting in Jessica Jones is stellar, I never felt drawn to the Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) or Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) actors, but I think the female roles are by far the best—Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page and Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple. Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk (Kingpin) proves far more compelling than the main leads of Murdock and Nelson, also.
And while part of my preference for Daredevil overlaps with a similar preference for Batman, I am increasingly disturbed by the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale influence on all superhero adaptations to small and large screens: the relentless darkness and, worst of all, the Batman voice. Murdock/Daredevil and Fisk (Kingpin) have fallen prey to the Batman voice, and thus, the series has a flatness of tone that deteriorates the overall effect of the real gravity of the themes of justice driving the Daredevil mythos.
And here is the real weakness of the Netflix version of the Marvel universe—the Matt/Foggy characterizations and friendship. The way they are portrayed suffers from arrested development; I simply don’t care about them the way I did in the comic book of my youth.
Matt and Foggy appear to be mostly connected by their sophomoric objectification of women: Gosh, Foggy states far too often, how does a blind guy always know when women are hot? And that is neither satiric nor appealing, notably since Jessica Jones has made some efforts to rise about the historical failures of comic books in terms of gender portrayal.
Viewers and Daredevil deserve better.
The very best part of the Netflx Daredevil is the series brings to a wider audience (and allows me to reconsider) the essential elements of what makes Daredevil an under-appreciated but powerful superhero narrative.
Matt Murdock’s origin story, his place (Hell’s Kitchen), Murdock’s profession as a lawyer, and the brilliant device of the blind superhero (justice is blind, right?)—these are what make Daredevil my favorite superhero. But in the end it is the possibility of Daredevil that compels me.
The Daredevil of my youth, and then later, included Black Widow and Elektra. Daredevil also experienced the complex touches of Frank Miller (both an important and a deeply problematic comic book creator) as well as writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Alex Maleev. Maleev’s artwork, for me, is a pinnacle of the Daredevil I want to see.
So I am willing to be patient because, as we have witnessed in the utter failure of bringing Daredevil to Hollywood, superheroes are allowed many reincarnations, even within an otherwise seamless existence.
Netflix need not reboot Daredevil, but would be wise to resurrect Daredevil from the best pages of the comic book itself.
As Season 1 ended, Matt and Karen hold hands, and the eerie image of Fisk in prison signal a perfect tension between light and dark, hope and certain doom.
Netflix must continue to mine that justice is blind but keep in mind the audience is neither deaf, dumb, nor blind.
For Further Reading
Daredevil: The Man without Fear (Critical Survey of Graphic Novels), P. L. Thomas
Elektra Lives Again (Critical Survey of Graphic Novel), P.L. Thomas
Review – ‘Daredevil’ Is One Of Marvels Greatest Achievements, Mark Hughes
12 Must-Read Daredevil Stories, Evan Narcisse
Comic Books and Graphic Novels: Challenging Genres, P.L. Thomas