The excitement over this Friday’s release of Marvel’s Daredevil via Netflix, hailed in advance reviews as a crowning achievement, is not just for the series but for the opportunity this heralds for the next age in Marvel on-screen.
As a matter of full disclosure, I did not grow up as a Daredevil fan. My early childhood was spent enamored of the splashy, colorful, A-List superheroes. Sort of that casual gateway fashion that so many children are indoctrinated into the four-color world. Sticker books and color activity books of heavy-hitters like the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Superman, Batman, and Spidey. Colorforms and Shrinky Dinks. I was a huge fan of The Incredible Hulk TV series airing at the time, though recall quite vividly being afraid of the moment at the end of the title credits where the screen bisects the faces of Bill Bixby’s David Banner and Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk screaming in the throes of a violent thunderstorm. Superman, though, was very much my speed, and I am as captivated by Christopher Reeve’s screen icon and the traditional Big Blue Boy Scout today as I was 35+ years ago.
It was easy to be swept in by the colors and the powers and the never-ending knockdowns with fanciful villains bent on world domination. Subtlety and pathos had yet to mean much, and I was young enough to just miss the first-run spat of grittiness that had gripped the less-than-cosmic level powered heroes in comics in the early ’80s. It would be a scant few years later when I would catch up, starting with runs like Batman: Year One, Batman: Year Three, and Batman: A Death in the Family. (Yes, Bats would be my entrée into the gruff, unrelenting street-noir of comics, followed by heaps of The Punisher.) By the mid-’80s, I’d begun devouring books on my own and The Avengers was a distinct fave. The standout to character to me amidst this pantheon of costumed titans was a guy in purple and blue who had no superpowers. Hell, Hawkeye even had a broken leg in a huge cast at this time and used to ride around on a Sky-Cycle to be able to participate with the team.
What I really came to enjoy about the Avenging Archer, and why Clint is still one of my absolute faves today, is that he was but a man who had pushed himself to his peak and was able to stand side-by-side with the likes of Cap, Iron Man, Carol Danvers, and the Vision. The bow & arrows made him infinitely cooler on top of that. It was that humanity that really struck me, and it was around that time that I really became aware of the differences in the way these characters were presented and told. Nothing is ever clear-cut, black and white — Batman is certainly a character born of and rooted very deeply in tragedy and the darkest aspects of the human psyche — but my gravitation towards Marvel was because I was interested in the humanity of these heroes more and more and far less in the colorful, gaudy, and somewhat silly archetypes DC was trading in at the time.
This Friday, Marvel’s Defenders cadre, a subset of the Marvel Cinematic Universe focusing on street-level heroes in the seedier parts of New York City, makes its bow with the Horned One’s 13-episode first season. By all accounts, this is a decidedly different flavor for the MCU. If there’s one distinct criticism that seems to hang on Marvel’s wonderfully entertaining films, it’s that they have been fairly homogenous. To a degree, that was intentional as a means of world-building. In order for audiences to buy into the concept that an alien recognized on Earth as the Norse God of Thunder could populate the same space as a man encased in a military tech suit of armor, that an irradiated man who triples in size while turning green at the mere annoyance of a crowded subway full of rude people breathes the same air as a soldier fashioned from a freak experiment who awakes after being frozen for 70 years, the overall tone and feel of the films had to be similar. And while others chased pedigree in their comic-based movies, Marvel settled on heart and humor. The talent came, and while the accolades might not have been of the award variety, audiences ate it up and critics found they could enjoy the movies just as much.
Marvel has since tried to diversify its “formula.” With the Avengers team-up working to astounding levels, sequel films for individual characters began to explore darker themes. The studio began to take gambles on tone and feel, opting for a space opera that laid into the humor like none of the films before it and a film of an iota-sized hero with an ad-libbed, indie flair to it. A new mandate going forward is to skip the origin film concept and introduce characters already established and well into their careers. (The exception, perhaps, being the Spider-Man series that they’re co-developing with Sony.) They even branched out into television.
It goes without saying that Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was announced with a great deal of excitement, as well as some confusion. Fans of the films were baffled as to why, with a huge roster of heroes at their disposal, Marvel would choose to focus on some no-name spy flunkies. The excitement was engendered in including fan-favorite Phil Coulson, a character who’d actually died on film, in the show, but the honeymoon glow soon wore off. By the time the show had debuted, buzz was somewhat tepid. The premiere got fairly good ratings, but it wasn’t long before they started shedding audience. It’s fair to say that the first season of the show was pretty lackluster up until the Hydra reveal in Captain America: The Winter Soldier freed them to pursue stories we weren’t going to get to see in the movies.
S.H.I.E.L.D. is a far better series in its second season, and worth giving a shot if you gave up on it or dismissed it without a view. One glaring problem persists, though. As great as the concept of tying a TV series to the MCU is, it actually serves as a bit of a hindrance to the series. S.H.I.E.L.D. has found a path it can call its own but it still serves as a breeding ground for characters, events, and situations that will impact and/or appear in the films. This is something that has made the prospect of the Marvel Netflix initiative enticing from the moment it was announced.
Ironically, the overarching concept isn’t too dissimilar to the way Marvel approached its films leading up to The Avengers. Here, four series will introduce four main characters, their individual supporting casts, and paint in the world of New York City that exists in the MCU. Those four main characters will be pooled together against a common threat in an eight-part mini-series much like our film heroes were brought together to fight a common foe. With how close the characters of Jessica Jones (featured in the second series) and Luke Cage (featured in the third series) are, as well as how connected are Cage and Danny Rand, the Iron Fist (featured in the fourth series), it’s expected these characters will interact well before that big threat brings them together as The Defenders. Rightly so, Marvel is building its own unique environment with this four properties.
A common refrain from those who have previewed Daredevil is that the tone of the series is more mature and gritty than anything seen in the MCU so far. The other series are expected to follow suit, and it’s in this that the excitement lies. Not just the aesthetic difference but what that represents.
As fascinating as this world of Hell’s Kitchen will be, Netflix now offers a canvas for Marvel to expand and explore all manner of the MCU that they will likely never be able to by virtue of the nature of blockbuster filmmaking. It’s kind of funny just how limiting that vast scope and tremendous resource can be. Marvel has their next films planned out through 2020, with designs already in place for the decade following it. Yet, the cost and labor that goes into making these films allows for, at most, three of them a year. That might seem like a lot, but when you are having to service a number of existing characters and storylines, those slots fill up quick. What TV and, specifically, what a streaming service like Netflix can offer is more bandwidth, to trade on the parlance.
It’s not just limited to series. Marvel and Netflix specifically negotiated runs of 13 episodes each for these series. As they are viewed somewhat closer to segmented films rather than traditional television series, there’s nothing holding either to do everything in 13-episode installments. What if they were to produce a 4-episode mini or a 6-episode one? Netflix is now trying its hand at film production. What if we were to see two-hour film productions specifically made for the service with characters that would likely never get a shot at a big-budget silverscreen treatment? It doesn’t require the same investment as a 13-episode strip, either in time or money. Heck, if SyFy can churn its kitschy clunkers every year, surely this is something Marvel and Netflix can consider.
There is already talk of an animated series being developed that will be set in the MCU. Imagine if you had a narrative-focused video game of a property not touched anywhere else in the MCU but with clear ties to everything. Multimedia is certainly enticing, but it’s this approach with the Defenders characters that really plies this idea with some legitimacy and reality. It starts to feel like the freedom that the comics have allowed for decades in telling stories in all sorts of genres with all manner of characters.
The immediate concern becomes one of continuity. The advantage to Marvel’s approach to its filmic universe is that its relatively small size has made for an easier ability to keep everything flush. You don’t run into issues like the comics where a single character can appear on four teams and guest in 13 different books at the same time, all while starring in two to three solo titles of their own, directly contradicting story and plot. The risk that things can become unwieldy grows greater with each new character and property introduced. Yet, that’s another aspect to this Netflix endeavor that makes growth not only possible but provides a bit of a roadmap for it.
Daredevil doesn’t seek to segregate itself from the world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The former Stark Tower that becomes Avengers Tower in the new film Age of Ultron lives in the skyline of Matt Murdock’s New York City. A character tosses off a reference to both Iron Man and Thor, similar to such throwaway lines used on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. What it does, though, is accept that those things exist and carries on with its own story. That’s life. Someone working in Bangalore, India, or Abu Dhabi, or Riga, Latvia, adds as much to the collective human experience of the world as a whole as you or I do, but they could quite literally have zero effect on our day-to-day lives. We all can be informed by the news of the day but not necessarily directly impacted. As much as we hear about how small the world can be, it’s large enough for this kind of reality to exist, for our individual spheres of influence to not include any number of people and/or happenings. I can look out my office window at someone in another high-rise, and though we’re both breathing, both in Seattle, both have to deal with the traffic and the weather of the evening, we’re going off to do things that have not one single facet to do with one another.
That’s the fun and the advantage of the world, and it’s something that Daredevil and its companion series take to heart. This can easily be justified and welcomed with other properties. Continuity and consequence should be closely monitored. If one of the iconic bridges of New York should happen to fall victim to some nefarious plot in, say, Luke Cage, that could and should be seen in an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode that might feature New York, or in the coming Doctor strange movie. The why doesn’t necessarily have to be mentioned. It could even be something passing by in the background. If the president were assassinated in the Avengers movie, it stands to reason that news on AKA Jessica Jones would carry the devastating headline. Yet, the freedom that series and movies available in this new medium, this new canvas allows will preserve the integrity of the connected existence while be open to exploring other avenues not specifically tied to what already exists or has come before. It’s the blanket of continuity with the MCU without it being suffocatingly tied around them.
So, I anxiously await the arrival of Marvel’s Daredevil on Friday. I’ve become a fan of the character over the years, his plight, his contradictions, his very human physical and emotional struggle. After his first foray into television and his big screen outing left much to be desired, a definitive screen adaptation is more than welcome. Beyond the series, though, I am electrified by the world of possibility this opens up.
May it be approached without fear, because it truly is quite exciting.