Considering the subject matter, this article is going to contain a whoooole lot of spoilers, so if you haven’t finished season 1 then you should probably stop reading right about… now. Now? How about now? Why are you still reading? Fine… you have been warned.
The character Daredevil was created by artist Bill Everett and, of course, Stan “the Manly Man” Lee for Marvel Comics in 1964. After a brief failure of a movie in 2003 (which we will never speak of again) the character was left out of the live action Marvel Cinematic Universe until a series was launched by Netflix with Drew Goddard as creator and Steven S. DeKnight as showrunner for the first season.
An immediately interesting fact is that the show appears to make some effort to distance itself from the rest of the MCU, showing connections in very small ways, and thus creating a very much self-contained plot with no reliance on the wider events of the world, unlike Agents of SHIELD.
Though the events depicted in the rest of the MCU are objectively serious in nature (a lot of people die, guys) they tend to have less of an impact due to the intrinsically fantastical nature of the Norse god of thunder running around with a supersoldier in blue spandex to punch robots and suchlike. Those sorts of shenanigans just serve to keep the audience from empathising too much with the characters; they are far too removed from our personal experiences.
Daredevil, however, takes a very much darker turn down the seedy alleyways of Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, with the audience ending up mugged and beaten (emotionally!) as they try to follow.
The emphasis on the show is less about the fantastical aspects such as Matt Murdock’s (played by Charlie Cox) powers (though they naturally play a large part) and more about the gritty humanity of the vibrant cast of characters. All of the villains are human, all of the allies are human, and the main man himself is very much human.
This darkness puts Daredevil as the Maltese Falcon of the MCU compared to the, well, Avengers vibe the rest of it gives off, and I do not use either that description or the title of this piece lightly at all. I have previously studied the genre of Film Noir in some depth and during my time watching the series I found a fair few parallels, minus the whole black and white thing.
“But what are they?” you may ask, if you haven’t given up already. Well, I say to you…
First of all, let’s take a look at the setting.
The bulk of Noir films are set in a big city, notable Chicago or New York, and the series hits it right on the money with the dilapidated inner-city area of the latter called Hell's Kitchen. As a rule, the bulk of Noir stories happen during the night, and we find that happens a lot with Murdock’s hero-ing.
This is captured very well by cinematographer Matt Lloyd, who utilises the deep shadows also found in the German expressionism of Film Noir to underpin the hidden corruption and violence in the city and to dcreate a very oppressive atmosphere that is almost a character in its own right. The darkness is tangible and suffocating, a reflection of the sickness that has eaten away the city right through to its rotten, putrescent core.
Typically, the protagonists of Film Noir aren’t much cheerier, often afflicted with alcoholism and a bleak look on life. In the series we have a hero with rather literal self-destructive tendencies.
There is no real reason for Matt Murdock to put on the mask beyond his own Catholic guilt and a desire to beat bad men into a pulp. He is constantly told to back down by his friends before he gets killed, frequently pushing himself into more and more dangerous situations where he gets seven shades of shtuff beaten out of him. His frequent adventures even start to push away those people close to him, something he bloody well knows is happening, but he doesn’t stop. See, self-destructive.
In the series we have investigative journalist Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall) filling the role of the washed-up PI archetype, well past his prime but still continuing on for the sake of the next story, playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse with nefarious gangsters who would kill him in an instant. He has a quintessentially Noir dishevelled appearance, and his tiny office looks very much the same, stacked high with books and papers.
What about ever-famous aspect of Film Noir: the Femme Fatale?
In Daredevil this role is filled by two women, Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) and Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer). Both are gorgeous dames with hidden pasts, always at the centre of the events portrayed in the story, whether it is at pursuing her own path to bring down in villain (in the case of Karen), or being on the arm of the villain himself (in the case of Vanessa). It is the role of the Femme Fatale to bring about the fall of many a man, be it directly or indirectly.
Karen Page is generally depicted as a sweet thing, but she still had it in her to put several bullets into Wilson Fisk’s (Vincent D'Onofrio) right hand man James Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore) when she really needed to. It was also her roping Ben Urich into her investigation that led to his death by strangulation literally at the hands of Fisk after they tracked down and interviewed his mother. In fact, the series opens with Karen framed for the murder of her co-worker Daniel Fisher, whom she dragged into uncovering a pension embezzlement scheme by her former employers Union Allied. That femme is well and truly fatal.
Though less death-y than Karen, Vanessa is still indirectly responsible for the downfall of the man in her life, as it is his involvement with her that leads his allies to believe he's going soft. It’s that kind of thing that causes his business relationships to break down, indirectly leading to his eventual incarceration. The aspect of the Femme Fatale that Vanessa embodies is that of the starlet, always fantastically and alluringly dressed.
Though continuous, gratuitous violence is not so much a staple of the Film Noir genre, it is defined by what it does feature being typically brutal and bloody. Daredevil takes on that aspect with Murdock being frequently cut, bruised, and otherwise battered, with the end result looking like he was in a bad automotive accident (an excuse he actually used at one point to his unknowing colleagues).
Brutal violence happens a lot of the time to a lot of people in Daredevil and is most definitely a departure to the generally family-friendly violence of the rest of the MCU. In Age of Ultron I was entertained for hours by superheroes systematically destroying an endless army of robots, and barely even winced when Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) gets his arm cut off, but when I will freely admit that when Wilson Fisk angrily and repeatedly smashed the head of a Russian mobster in a car door I had to look away.
Film Noir doesn't typically do happy endings, with the protagonist simply surviving being a decidedly positive outcome, and in part this is where Daredevil differs. The protagonists get the bad guy, their interpersonal relationships are very much restored, and the ending almost dares to take on a slightly optimistic tone. However a lot of people, good and bad, had to die to get to that point, including adorable little old Guatemalan lady, Elena Cardenas (Judith Delgado), whose only crime was not being strong-armed out of her home by Fisk.
In short, Daredevil is a brutal exploration of the Marvel Universe’s darker side where the little people are trodden into the dirt by thugs and criminals, prompting a good man to do violent things to free them from oppression and pick them back up. Very much worth a watch.
Wait, hold up! Since I first wrote the draft for this article, Netflix has released the entire first season of Marvel's Jessica Jones, and thus enabling binge-watchers like yours truly to get really stuck in.
This show is arguably even darker than Daredevil was, with some pretty harrowing subjects being touched on, and subsequently jumped into, and this is before we even get to the beatings.
On the surface, the titular Jessica Jones seems to tick all of the boxes for the archetypal Film Noir protagonist: she's a hard-talking, hard-drinking PI with an incredibly troubled past. The show even cracks open a big case of narrative voice-over which really got me going, tell you me, and seeing as the setting is the same location as Daredevil the show has that going for it, too.
However, though the show does almost make it Noir in those regards, and the seriously human issues it deals with, it still falls down with the fantastical elements. When she and Luke Cage (Mike Colter) get into physical altercations with people there is no tensity to it, not like when Matt Murdock frequently get's his arse almost handed to him, and that's thanks to Jess' super strength and Luke's invulnerability making it very one-sided. Noir is about people with very human flaws and very human vices.
Nevertheless that show is definitely another I would recommend, and is certainly one of the better series of this year. Considering the history of the characters, it's inevitable we'll see a DD/JJ crossover coming up in the near future, and when we do... we'll, we may need that extra double of bourbon after all.