Happy end of year, everyone! As a present, here’s a glimpse into what 2016 will be bringing into the blog! 🙂 (This is especially dedicated to Kilgore Trout and Marta: Thanks for being hopeful! 🙂 The analysis of the last season of TM is coming very soon, do not despair! 😉 ) Warning: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. Also the show displays a fairly explicit amount of violence and sadism. Watch at your own risk.
Following the recent trend involving super heroes, ‘Marvel’s Daredevil’ is the adaptation of a comic book created in 1964.
As such, viewers can spot three layers of references that we’ll try to investigate here: firstly, there’s the logical progression of the show itself. As an independent story, parallels and character development, the consequences of decisions and events create a whole, rather coherent, insight into the protagonists’ minds. Also, as a comics adaptation, the retelling is enhanced by many and sometimes quite subtle nods to other characters and situations from earlier parts of the narrative. These cross-references give depth to the new setting, because they form a parallel with the original emotional background of the characters. Last but certainly not least, many throwbacks to the film noir and hard-boiled detective stories have thickened from the start. The particular atmosphere of the comic book and the show too follows this direction. It is particularly perceptible with the main characters, which basically mix different stereotypes of the film noir genre.
The characters: following the film noir codes
1) The protagonist: Matt Murdock/ the masked man eventually nicknamed Dardevil (Charlie Cox)
From the very beginning, viewers are aware that Matt is leading a double life: he’s struggling to balance his violent night job as a self- appointed vigilante with his budding career as a defense attorney. Yet those two very different sides have at least a few things in common, like loneliness, which is heavily implied when the battered crusader is woken up by a phone call from his best friend/associate Foggy. Both as a lawyer starting his firm and as a masked savior bursting from the shadows, under the excitement of getting some action, his morning afters are made of bruises that have him moaning in pain, instead of the sexy girl Foggy imagines in his bed. And secrecy can be added to the growing list as Matt is careful not to correct his friend’s assumption…
Of course, these traits are part of the chart of being an undercover super hero. One wouldn’t imagine hiding a super power without minimal discretion and protecting the people close to you by keeping them in the dark is common behavior in the secret identity business. Yet, his peculiar situation sets him apart even in the world of super heroes, just like his empowering disability doesn’t make him as coldly practical as his former mentor Stick. He’s not yet successful in his daytime career, which creates a contrast with well-off characters that have recently taken over our screens, like DC’s Batman and Arrow, or Marvel’s Iron Man. He’s not struggling either like Spiderman, even though the young hopping part-time photographer comes probably the closest to brooding Matty: like his red-and-blue colleague, until the finale, people tend to fear Matt and mistrust his goals and actions. He’s considered a criminal, a lack of public recognition in dire contrast with the popularity of a Captain America. Yet, Murdock’s masked alter ego is not as eagerly bad mouthed in the media as Spiderman, given that his mystery sparks the curiosity of helpful journalist Ben Urich… Murdock works nevertheless alone and is not at this point involved in any team (unlike the Green Lantern Corps, Fantastic Four, The Shield, Avengers, X-Men and so on), for even when his friends start investigating their shadier and shadier case, he’s mostly left out. His sense of justice is fueled by rage, but not incontrollable like Hulk, which makes him more deeply human than otherworldly Thor.
In fact, every aspect of Murdock’s life and personality is in conflict with another part of him: his hopefully bright future as an attorney is shadowed by his dangerous night job, whereas the violence and physical exertions involved in the latter contrast with the limitations usually associated with blindness. In spite of being unable to use his eyes, Matt sees the world more accurately and in darker colors than most people around him and, whereas this hidden despair makes him reach out and cling to the friendship of someone as frank and brightly cheerful as Foggy, it also makes him keep his pal at arm’s length… Matt is torn apart by these contracting pulls he experiences, as if his job as a lawyer described metaphorically his double life: every bit of him is battling against another instinct. One could almost sum up the important parts of his double career as legal cases, such as “Justice v. Law”, “Saving Victims v. Revelling in Violence”, “Good v. Bad”… until he’s forced to come to clean about his dirty secrets in the very aptly named 10th episode ‘Nelson v. Murdock’. The aggregation of bits of light and darkness that cling to him reminds of the brightened yet shadows-projecting shutters characteristic of the film noir atmosphere.
Indeed, lawyers are pretty frequent fellows in films noirs: in ‘Knock in Any Door’ (1949), iconic Humphrey Bogart roams the courtroom and saves a client who comes from the same impoverished background he managed to rise from, in a fashion a bit reminiscent to the vision of socially-oriented justice Matt and Foggy share. In ‘Illegal’, memorable film noir actor Edward G. Robinson plays a ruthless and conflicted former prosecuter who, after keeping himself from starting something with the woman he loved, ends up tangled in the activities of a crime boss. It finds a particular echo in episode 3, when Matt and Foggy were approached by Wesley to defend Fisk’s interest under the cover of staying “ethical, decent men, good lawyers”. Men of law also pop up in many other movies: ‘Hunt the Man Down’ (1951) or Hitchcock’s ‘The Paradine Case’ (1947) are examples. Given how film noirs focus on crime stories, defending or twisting the law after an arrest has been made is understandably an interesting aspect that questions both the deeper meaning of human justice concerning guilt and innocence, as well as the means to protect that justice. No surprise either that this kind of character and trial situations have been approached in murder mysteries, creating the courtroom mystery genre (among others, ‘Patrick Butler for the Defense’ by J. D. Carr in 1956 or an unusual example in ‘The Glass Village’ by Ellery Queen in 1954). Same on TV with the Perry Mason series, that started airing in 1957.
The legal implications of his suit-wearing persona has coined Daredevil’s plot since his comic books debuts: whereas he is introduced as a successful attorney for most episodes of his career on paper, the early volumes from the 60’s featured Foggy and Matt as young lawyers who just opened their law firm. In spite of liberties with other details, the show matches the source material in respect of progression and timeline. What is remarkable in Matt’s legal career here is that, even though it constitutes his daily life, his investment in his alternate identity tips the scale towards Daredevil. In many episodes, it looks like defense attorney Murdock is the mask, while the actually masked incarnation expresses Matt’s inner self. Behind the stated allegiance to law, his soul burns with a desire for justice that is really a thirst for revenge and emotional release. This ambivalence is based on a form of hypocrisy and a good dose of denial, as an angry Foggy points out when he discovers that his friend has been playing both fields, because Matt pretends to be the more prudent of them, when he’s actually hiding his violent streak and self-destructive pulsions.
The two faces he presents to the world are in conflict, but they are related to the same obsession, another film noir trait: both as a knight wearing a tie by day and as a pariah clad in black when the sun sets, he revels in fighting crime… Indeed, a quite evocative facet of the trial setting in film noir is the complex interaction with the crime world and especially with crime syndicates. In many films noirs, lawyers are more personally involved with murder (for instance ‘The Arnelo Affair’ and ‘Backlash’ in 1947), or even work directly for gangsters (‘Force of Evil’ in 1948). The ambiguity traditionally associated with appointed protectors of citizen rights enlightens how close secrets and violence might tempt Matt Murdock to dwelve in crime instead of simply fighting it…
The blurry line is suggested by the outfit Matt prepared for his nightly adventures: even though the scarf used as a mask may be a nod to the disguise he improvised in the Elektra arc in the comics (when her sheltered life started to unravel), the form fitting black top and pants look threatening. It reminds of the outfit that characterize many unknown attackers in popular culture (among many, maaaany others the neo noir movie ‘The Jagged Edge’, in 1985) and the one used for cat burglars in heist movies… this similarity insists again on Matt’s discretion and ambiguity. The ruthless, morally ambiguous vigilante.
To drive the point home, the first glimpse viewers get of Matt as an adult is when he’s confessing to a priest that he’s asking “forgiveness for what he’s about to do” before launching on an attack. He saves a group of girls from kidnappers affiliated with the Russian mafia, introducing the character of Turk (and maybe, fleetingly, his accomplice Grotto, the bigger man whom Matt sends flying in the water). Turk’s a small time criminal, whom comic book DD has many runs in with: Matt’s crouching stance before the moon, the silent yet swift and almost graceful attack, the stick he takes from the bad men and that he springs against a hard surface and his eerily ability to disappear from view reinforce the resemblance with many of Turk’s encounters with the hero on paper. But, behind the easy way he handles the situation, some details hint at his troubled psyche: while he comes across as a savior for the girls, he’s obviously more focused on beating the bad guys to a pulp than on comforting the victims, whom he almost threateningly sends off to the “first officer” they may see. He’s more looking for a justifiable reason to fight and to channel his pent up anger and sense of loss than acting out of a deep sense of justice.
The brutality is particularly noticeable when he crosses paths with Claire, a nurse who treats his injuries in episode 2. First, Matt shows an interestingly genuine part of himself to Claire, even more so than to Foggy. This honesty is paradoxally laced with refusal to let her in the official aspects of his life, which is why calls “Mike” for want of a real name: this detail reminds of the original storyline from the comics, when Matt posed as his more outgoing fake twin “Mike” in the 60’s and his then love interest Karen was attracted to this side of him. Back then too, the plot played with the idea that taking a fake identity expressed Matt’s true self more sincerely than his too polished attorney persona. This detail also matches the notion of the more or less evil double present in some movies from the noir era (Hitchock’s ‘The Wrong Man’ in 1956 or ‘Vertigo’ in 1958 for instance, or film noir ‘Among the Living’ in 1941)… Claire is a woman who knows his deepest secrets (his vigilantism, his face and his blindness), while conveniently being still in the dark regarding his identity, which is why he shows her his most troubled and cruel side. When facing the Russian mobster who has tracked them down, he plays with the man by telling him that he’s not just doing it for information about the boy he was trying to rescue, but because he enjoyed it. He then throws the man down the building onto a dumpster after getting what he wanted… Claire, who was shocked by how serious he was, attempted to reach out to him later by stating “I don’t believe you. What you said… I don’t believe you enjoy this.”
Therefore, even though DD is careful enough to try not to kill his adversaries, his relative lack of empathy when he’s immersed in the darkest part of his soul shows that he’s struggling not to cross the line. He comes across then as a spiritual successor of the violent vigilante type found in the neo-noir culture like ‘Death Wish’ in 1974 starring Charles Bronson or the portrayal of a cynical detective in ‘Dirty Harry’ in 1971 starring Clint Eastwood. Those depictions stem from the most morally ambiguous justice-seekers in films noirs, like the ruthless cop in ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’ (1950), yet Matt’s willingness to stay on the fringe of societe may make him closer to a violent hard-boiled detective like Mike Hammer, who doesn’t hesitate to take the law into his own hands, especially for revenge. Some Hammer novels, written by Mickey Spillane, were adapted for the screen, like ‘I, The Jury’ in 1953, or the darker ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ in 1955.
Like many films noirs that it emulates, the show starts with a confession to a priest. It alludes to many examples starting with a main character retelling the story of the events that led him to that point (‘Please Murder Me’, in 1956 or, to some extent ‘Dead Reckoning’ in 1947, where a Captain Murdock tells his life-story to a priest), and the way Matt narrates his past and, implicitly, what he’s still dealing with is a discreet nod to the classic monologue used by some P.I. in no less characteristic voice-overs. It also more obviously refers to the very important role of Catholic religion in many crime-related storyline. One major example is Hitchock’s ‘I Confess’(1952): like the murderer in that movie, Matt is seeking forgiveness for an act of violence, even though here he didn’t commit it yet, meaning implicitly that he wants someone to atone for his actions and, probably, to stop what he fears might become an enraged rampage.
Indeed, in his confession, Matt plays with a few interesting ideas: the reverence for his late father, that he perceives as a model, even in his most dangerous endeavors, and the notion that their common unadmitted thirst for blood equals the presence of the devil in them. Refering his violent streak as a different, evil, entity in him is a nod to demonic possession, yet Matt is not willing to part with that scary aspect of his personality: in direct opposition with the protagonist in ‘Angel Heart’ (1987), Matt is aware of the darkness in his core and revels in it to some extent… hence his spiritual and moral salvation depending on his willingness to reach for help, no matter how backhanded this attempt may be. Talking to a priest reminds about whom he is deep down. It works a bit like psychoanalysis for him for he’s trying to sort out who he wants to be.
Yet, Matt is still somewhat convinced that he’s under a kind of symbolic family curse: “my grandmother”, “the real Catholic, […] used to say ‘be careful of the Murdock boys, they got the devil in them”. He recalls how “ every now and then” “something indide of him would snap” and “his eyes would go dead and he’d start walking forward real slow, hands at his side, like he wasn’t afraid of anything”, cornering his frightened opponent in order to “let the devil out”. He concludes wistfully “what he was feeling deep inside, I didn’t understand it. Not back then.” Viewers get a glimpse of the metaphorical evil spirit possessing his mind when the priest tries to make him talk more precisely about the facts: as he prepares to leave, Matt puts the dark glasses on to indicate that he is blind (an echo to the flashback that explained his past in the very beginning of the episode). But the light casts a worrying red shade on them, giving the illusion that the glasses –and by extention the eyes behind- are glowing. The detail is taken from the comic book, but altogether the disquieting moment reminds a bit of the apparence given to Dracula in Coppola’s movie in 1991: under his young human form, the vampire protected his eyes (which would sometimes glow red) with blue glasses. Matt is therefore subtly linked to a demon, whose human looks only serves to distract and charms his victims… Same when he’s in courtroom in episode 3 when he listens to the heartbeat of one of the members of the jury: his specs cast a red shade over his eyes.
In the pilot, when he faces with Foggy their very first client, Karen Page, the insistence on his glasses is even more obvious: it emphasizes his blindness, but also the surnatural power he’s hiding, given that he’s able to hear the woman’s heart and to assess her sincerity. The suit and the sitting position, coupled with the calculating aura surrounding him when he interrogates her can be compared with the equally calm but slightly unsettling presence of Louis Cypher in ‘Angel Heart’ (even though Matt is cautious to put his stick against the wall every time he interrogates a suspect as a lawyer).
Other details hint at his demonic nature: in the opening credits, after a statue of Blind Justice and views of the city floating in a reddish darkness faintly lightened from above, there’s a weeping angel in front of a chuch, before Daredevil’s iconic outfit appears. Plus, the real estate agent stated that “blind people are “God’s mistake”… before meeting charming Matt and becoming more eager to please him. Both occurrences might indirectly refer to a character like Lucifer, the fallen angel. Later, as the characters are alluding to the terrible terrorist attacks against New York and how “this office was barely touched”, the expression used to describe the dramatic events is “death and destruction raining from the sky, nearly wiping Hell’s Kitchen off the map”… Although referring to Manhattan and the actual nearby place of the tragedy, the image brings to mind, in an very different context obviously, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by God (Genesis 19; New International Version): “the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah –from the Lord out of the heavens”. Again, the notion of destruction accompanies Murdock and sin in associated with the reconstruction of the city, shown in the story as being at the hands of criminal organisations.
This underlying red thread in his daily actions is why Matt’s interactions with Karen are meaningful. Before she accepted them as her lawyers, she scoffed “so what, you’re just a couple of good Samaritans?”, leading Murdock to suggest an agreement of sorts, which almost takes the appearance of a pact with the Devil: “you don’t have any money and we don’t have any clients… Maybe we can help each other”. The main difference with the dreadful bargain is that Matt genuinely wants to help her; he’s ready to defend her as an attorney and, later, to protect the proof she managed to retrieve in order to save her. The good intentions that guide his chosen path are perceptible in his apartment when he welcomes the frightened woman home. The first glimpse provided of his living quarters shows a yellow panelled window quite reminiscent of stained glasses in a church. Various playful allusions to Hell help them to get better acquainted, as Karen jokes about wanting to change her lent shirt, because she’s “a Hellion fan” and Matt explains that the almost blinding light coming from the huge advertising screen in front of his big living room windows allowed him to get “a hell of a discount” on the place… When she’s comfortable enough, he starts interrogating her again. She’s shocked almost speechless at how much he was able to guess, while he sits in front of her, unmoving and disquieting behind the reddened light playing on his glasses. The nearly hypnotic quality of their talk reminds again of Coppola’s Dracula, when he was charming Mina into trusting him and, later, when he managed to dine with her in order to make her remember events of her past life. Matt is similarly winning her trust and using it to force the truth out of her, but he’s not doing it for nefarious purposes: this part is left to the enigmatic Wesley, who’s also wearing glasses and a suit while threatening people. He resembles an evil businessman (again, like in ‘Angel Heart’), representing his mysterious “employer” and the contrast is made even more obvious by Matt’s wariness towards the “shark in a skin suit” when they meet in his office in episode 3.
Indeed, even though Matt perceives himself as tainted by evil, he’s reaching out for God and religion. He’s plagued by guilt (about his dad’s death, his instinct for violence and the actions he’s planning to take) and his whole ordeal through the season is a kind of quest for redemption, under the symbol of earning himself a new identity: after fighting the Kingpin and proving himself with a symbolical bloodied oath against crime, he’s christened with the nickname “Daredevil” by the medias, meaning that they’re saluting his fearlessness instead of the violence he used. There’s something Christic about Matt, which is hinted at by the fact that the Messiah’s name is used as a swearword by both Murdocks: like Jesus in the Bible, he’s a son left alone and who’s willing to save the world… only here, the notion de violence leads him to isolation, instead of companionship…
Interestingly, crime fighting and religion are present in many films noirs: ‘The Hoodlum Priest’ (1961) or ‘The Mightnight Story’ (1957) are examples where the two concepts are linked through the character of a Catholic priest. However, Father Lantom’s connection to the genre only serves to put emphasis on Matt’s real dad. Matt’s obsession for his late parent is latent through the pilot, because two other little boys were also impacted by crime: the man who was killed because of Karen’s suspicions “had a family, a little boy” and, at the end, the Russian mobsters kidnapped a boy in order to put pressure on his father, forcing DD to come to his rescue.
Fatherly figures: the boxer and the blind man
Moreover, the boxer is a proeminent figure in film noir imagery and viewers can recognozise echos of its depictions in Jack Murdock’s fate.
Boxers are often represented as dangerous, with a marked inclination for violence: as such, they embody the temptation of a corrupted society, luring film noir characters towards a life of brutality and rage, sometimes with the incentive of money from shady people. Movies like ‘Body and Soul’ (1947), ‘Iron Man’ (1951), ‘Champion (1949) or neo noir ‘Raging Bull’ (1980) exemplify the stereotype that matches Jack’s lack of control when fighting and, ultimately, how he chose winning his last ill-fated match in order to show Matt what is right, even though it led him ultimately to leave his disabled boy alone in a pretty dark world.
Indeed, boxers in movies are also victims of others’greed and of treacherous betting games. In ‘The Set-Up’ (1949), boxer Stocker is victim of a similar situation and is badly beaten up for making the same choice of refusing to cheat and to give up… ‘The Harder They Fall’ (1956) also insists on the corruption of the boxing world. Then, the precarity of the job and its seemingly inevitable links to the criminal world sometimes put boxers and former boxers at risk: ‘99 River Street’ (1953) and ‘Breakdown’ both present boxers who were framed for a crime they didn’t commit. They became collateral victims of other people’s wrong-doings, just like Jack Murdock, making them also tragic figures fighting for their life and freedom of conscience.
Another influence on Matt’s childhood is the mysterious Stick who helped him groom his fighting skills. He’s the mentor/coach who briefly took the orphaned boy under his wing before he realized Matty was getting emotionally attached to him. He left then, fueling even more Matt’s resentment and abandonment issues. Stick claims a lack of affection for his former protégé, but he kept the paper bracelet that Matt offered him: in that aspect, Matt is blinded to the truth hidden behind the knot of emotions that ties him to the old man.
Indeed, both Murdock and Stick (probably nicknamed in reference to the stick blind people usually carry) share more than an inability to be upfront with their deepest feelings. Both were eerily empowered by their physical disability and Matty could probably relate to his mentor in a way that he couldn’t with his dad, who was kept in the dark about the consequences the accident really had on his son. Both Stick and Matt illustrate the contrast between the powerlessness generally associated with blind people and the actual accute control and awareness it gave them over their body. It stems from a very old idea: it was a well-known topos in Antiquity that some blind people were gifted in another, more powerful way and were able to metaphorically “see” what others could not. In Norse mythology, god Odin had to sacrifice one of his eyes at Mimir’s well to drink from its water and adquire supernatural wisdom and knowledge. In Greek mythology, prophet Tiresias and poet Homer ( in his traditional depiction), even though or maybe because they were blinded to the human world, could get a glimpse of matters related to the gods and serve as intermediaries between them and mere mortals. It seems logic then that Matt admits to Karen that even though trauma recovery taught him to “value the differences” and “make no apologies” for what he lacks, he’d still “give anything to see the sky one more time”… Ironically, what myths sometimes considered as a gift to open a mind’s eye brought Matt closer to asserting the very thin moral line between light and dark in a very religious perspective.
At the same time, blindness also creates another tie with classic films noirs, as many plots involve blind characters such as a temporary blind Marlowe in ‘Murder, My Sweet’ (1944). Blindness or other kind of disabilities often appear in films noirs or thrillers, sometimes involving secondary characters (in ‘Walk Softly, Stranger’ in 1950, a small time criminal is reformed by the love of a paralyzed young woman; in ‘Sudden Danger’ in 1955, a blind man is accused of murder; in ‘Split Second’ in 1953, the protagonist has to fight a mute man; in ‘Cause For Alarm!’ in 1951, a woman takes dare of her bedridden husband until he dies suddenly leaving her in a very uncomfortable situation). Physical disability (very much like amnesia in other occurrences) frequently embodies the loneliness and helpless that characters face when struggling against the rest of the world, generally perceived as threatening in the noir atmosphere, which is why some thrillers use blindness to show how vulnerable their protagonists can be against a threat, like neo-noir thriller ‘Blink’ in 1994 or ‘Wait Until Dark’ starring Audrey Hepburn in 1967. Sometimes too, the main investigator is the one who is -generally temporarily- disabled and unable to move freely: for instance in Hitchock’s ‘Rear Window’ (1954) or in classic murder mysteries such as Ellery Queen’s ‘The Fourth Side of the Triangle’ or Josephine Tey’s ‘The Daughter of Time’ (1951). Generally speaking, getting characters (especially victims or protagonists) restricted by strongly felt physical limitations adds an edge to the danger which is why the device is so abundantly used in the realm of murder mystery story-telling… yet, in Matt’s case, it only illustrates how other people see him. The contrast between this preconception of him as needing help navigating an unfamiliar room or needing a dog and the reality behind his swift fighting prowesses is jarring and adds a measure of secrecy and manipulation to his character.
However, this aspect too benefits from a movie genre cliché featuring blind fighters. Western spaghetti ‘Blindman’ (1971) introduces a blind but skilled gunman for instance. But the closer occurrences involve blind martial artists: ‘Bind Fury’ in 1989 or its well-known Japanese model Zatoichi, a blind masseur and blademaster (in a long series of movies launched since 1962). Zatoichi undoubtly served as the archetype for Stick, even though the latter is far more disturbing, especially in his introductory scene in episode 7 when he talks Japanese before coldly beheading a man with a katana.
Japan also provides the explanation for the difference in how Matt and Stick interpret their relationship: Matt wanted an educator who served as a replacement for his dad, while Stick acted like his sensei, a master whom Matt was supposed to learn from and follow, but which also allowed Stick to escape any emotional involvement if he wanted to. In that perspective, the scenes where the old man teaches his pupil to change his vision of the world and to move remind of the iconic ‘Karate Kid’ series (started in 1984), although the relationship between sensei and kōhai lacks the warmth and moral standarts showed in the movies.
2) The associate: ‘Foggy’ Nelson (Elden Henson), best friend and moral counterpart
A classic plot device to ground up a volatile protagonist and make him more relatable to the audience is to pair him up with a calmer man whose influence would counterbalance the man’s edginess. After all, friendship is an important ingredient of tragedies when the hero is on the verge of madness: Pylades’ presence allowed Orestes not to face the consequences of his crime alone and Shakespeare made sure Hamlet could open a bit of his clouded psyche to viewers when talking to Horatio, whose concerned rationality couldn’t prevent his friend from losing his mind… And coincidentally, both occurrences deal with tragic characters resorting to violence in consequence of losing their father, just like Matt.
Friendships that balance two different kinds of characters are of course often used in the crime story-telling area. Mismatched partners abound: skilled loners paired with more normal and outgoing men (Conan Doyle’s Holmes and Watson), loose cannons latched on by-the-rule cops (buddy cop movie ‘Lethal Weapon’ in 1987) or family men obligated to cope with cynics (film noir ‘Between Mightnight and Dawn’ in 1950, or more recently the first season of TV show ‘True Detective’).
Interestingly, even though Matt’s subtle assurance and skills tend to attract the spotlight in their partnership and though Foggy referred to himself as his “wingman” when they became friends, Foggy’s qualities serve to remind viewers of Matt’s shortcomings. Nelson is frank to the point of humorous bluntness sometimes and honest in his friendship, which enlightens Murdock’s web of lies. He’s dedicated to their firm, while it feels like Matt is more often than not using it as a façade. While being supposedly less successful with the ladies, he’s able to try and pursue romantic relationships, even though he failed to take the step with Karen and fled into the comforting arms of his ex-girlfriend, whereas Matt has a problem with beautiful but dangerous women and is ultimately unable to commit to love. Last, not least, Foggy is able to bring himself to forgive, while Matt is stuck obsessing over the past for years.
Indeed, one important difference with this well-known partnership situation is that Foggy is not aware of the true nature of their friendship. Although he’s Matt’s sidekick in the courtroom, he doesn’t take any share in the real action, which he’s blissfully ignorant of. Yet, more than Murdock, he’s prone to taking charge of the legwork in the actual investigation concerning their client Elena Cardenas, which makes him much more involved with their case. Matt warns him off, for fear he would put himself in danger, as he doesn’t fully realize how deep the connection with Fisk runs.
When coming across an injured masked Matt, Foggy is livid at Murdock’s hypocritical carefulness regarding his safety, while he keeps taking suicidal risks himself. There’s a shift in Foggy’s trust afterwards, as he asks his former roommate: “what the hell do I know about Matt Murdock?”He starts doubting everything Matt ever told him, snarking that Claire, the nurse friend who just stitched him up, was hot “but I guess you already knew that, huh?” and bluntly asking “are you even really blind?”
Predicably, Matt’s blindness had indeed been the very first step that brought them to feel some camaraderie, because Foggy was very relaxed and accepting towards Matt’s difference. He openly commented on it and didn’t treat Matt differently, with uncomfortable embarrassement or as if he were “made of glass” like most people tend to do, which was illustrated in Matt’s first appearance as a blind man with the real state agent alternately calling him “God’s mistake” and fussing over him… On the contrary, Foggy insisted on the similarities between them –that they both came from Hell’s Kitchen- and valued other qualities, first calling Matt a hero for saving a man in the accident that cost him his eyes and then praising his looks, telling him that as he’ll be his wingman because“you’re gonna open up a whole caliber of women I’ve only dreamed of”. He immediately tried to set Matt at ease by valorizing his qualities and looking up to him: in a few words, Matt’s difference has become a mark of bravery and a subtle hooking up tactic, “the whole wounded, handsome duck thing”, making Matt’s success with the fairer sex a running joke through their years of friendship. And the better part is that Foggy offered his friendship as if it did not require any other thought, even implying that he would be the one beneficying from it…
What characterizes Foggy is his lack of jealousy towards the handsomer and more brilliant Murdock: he bows to him when Matt wants to take a case he got wary of (episode 3) and generally listens to him and lets him take the final decisions regarding their moral policy. He’s the one reaching out to Matt and trying to build his self-esteem, offering him delicately the comfort Matt needed after being left by the parental figures in his life (his mother, his father and his mentor). Foggy is an emotional pilar in his loneliness, the closest thing he has to a family, someone who’s been here for him through the years, from college to a lucrative but morally questionable internship and to building their own firm out of thin air. Foggy is even the more attached to their association, which is emphasized by his insistence at getting them a proper sign with their names on their door.
The truth is that Foggy probably knows Matt well enough to sense that there’s more than meet the eye in him: even though he doesn’t know about his abilities for most of their friendship, he knows there’s something “spooky” about how Matt is able to guess things. He also coincidentally compares them to the duo featured in 1986 movie ‘Top Gun’: “me and you, Maverick and Goose. No secrets”. Even though he doesn’t listen when Matt amends “Goose died and he was married”, Foggy has hit pretty close to home: Maverick was dangerously reckless due to his father’s death, just like Matt…
Foggy’s ideal of a companionship without secrets makes Matt’s lack of trust sting even more, to the point that Foggy starts questioning everything he knows about the other guy, even his involvement in criminal activities. He’s miffed at having been left out of the loop more than anything which is why he balks at seeing that Claire knows both sides of Matt’s life, when he does not; he’s not even calmed by Matt’s scoffing about confiding in him when they first met nor by his admittance that he didn’t even tell his dad after the accident. There’s something in Nelson’s insistence in bringing up Matt’s weakness for beautiful women that hints that he’s aware that his friend doesn’t give the same importance to their bond as he does (telling him in the pilot that “if there’s a stunning woman with questionable character in the room, Matt Murdock’s gonna find her and Foggy Nelson is gonna suffer” or asking him to “climb off whoever you’re on” and join him and Karen for a drink in episode 2). Still, his reluctant loyalty and devotion show as he doesn’t shut Matt out of his life or doesn’t even storm out. He keeps telling him rather harshly what he thinks about the whole mess but wants to hear the truth because he tries to understand. He ultimately covers up for him by keeping the charade when Karen calls. He did to her just what he hates Matt has been doing to him: “I just lied to someone that I care about”. And after vacillating in terminating the whole thing with Matt by symbolically putting their sign in the garbage, he decides to just stay by his side.
All in all, Foggy is often the one trying to help for unselfish reasons, unlike Matt who tries to starve off his violent instincts. In spite of his posture of claimed practicality and pretended greediness, he represents the moral ideal that Matt is looking for. Even though Matt seems to lead their relation, Foggy actually holds the cracking foundations of Matt’s life together. He’s the light to Matt’s brooding darkness, creating between the two of them a poignant but surprisingly hopeful chiaroscuro.
3) Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll): secretary, woman in distress and potential femme fatale
While Foggy’s character is pretty straightforward, Karen’s complex situation involves a mixing of different female figures in film noirs.
Firstly, her introduction in the pilot refers to a well-known theme: in those movies, many people are framed for murder after waking up near a corpse, often after a more or less mild case of amnesia. In ‘Whirlpool’ (1949), for instance, the protagonist cannot remember if she committed the crime; similarly, in ‘The Blue Gardenia’ (1953), a woman is not sure if she killed the man she was on a date with and who tried to make unwanted advances towards her. Same kind of situation in ‘Dark City’, a neo noir science fiction movie from 1998 and in the comics book series (and movie) ‘Sin City’ by Frank Miller –who worked superbly on the Daredevil comics- in ‘The Hard Goodbye’, Marv awakens to find the murdered body of Goldie, the woman he had spent the night with, and as a consequence the police suspects him of killing her. More generally, black-outs are often used in films noirs to cage characters in difficult situations and intensify the threatening atmosphere and the moral ambiguity on people who even doubt themselves.
Moreover, the disturbing setting at Karen’s apartment enlightens how dangerous she may be. It reverses the situation in ‘Decoy’ (1946) where the movie opens with a very treacherous femme fatale dying at her own apartment and confessing the reasons why she was killed to a doctor. Indeed, there’s something very suspicious about Karen when Matt and Foggy first meet her at the police precinct. It follows the lead of ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1931, then remade in 1941 with Humphrey Bogart): Sam Spade and his partner Archer meet a female client whose intentions are definitely not what she claims them to be; same with ‘Accomplice’ in 1946: it features another dangerous femme fatale as the client of a private investigator. Foggy is completely aware of that aspect of Karen’s case, since he calls her “a stunning woman with questionable character”.
However, Matt knows better: given that he can detect her lies by listening to her heartbeat, he wants to protect her. Karen is actually a key witness in a white-collar crime involving her employer. She’s the classic pulp fiction-like woman in distress of the story, as well as the character wrongly accused, two types usually found in crime movies. Karen therefore impersonates in her introduction two opposite facets of the noir female character: for Foggy, she represents danger, while Matt only sees her as a victim. She’s good and bad, a lead to a potentially mortal case and the helpful, moral person who’s trying to put a stop to it.
To do so, she accepts to work for Foggy and Matt out of gratitude, changing once again her category. She becomes “the secretary”, a usual fixture in movies which often involve private eyes and attorney’s offices… But that kind of character can be ambiguous too, depending on their actions. One type describes secretaries spying on their employer (‘Criminal Court’ in 1946), or who have disturbing private agendas (Philip Marlowe meets one in the novel ‘The High Window’, written in 1942 and in its corresponding movie ‘The Brasher Doubloon’, in 1947). Characters can also embody the supportive female secretary, typically in love with her boss in a clichéd way: that’s the case with Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and his assistant Velda.
As such, Karen’s tendency to investigate on her own follows this softer side of the stereotype: her talents for finding connections and her determination reminds of the protagonist in ‘Phantom Lady’ (1942, based on a novel by William Irish/Cornell Woolrich). Even though her primary motivation here is not to save the man she loves, Karen too starts becoming emotionally involved with one of her bosses …
Allied with Matt and Foggy, she represents the third aspect of hard boiled detectives’ work. Murdock uses violence and conducts ruthless interrogations among shady informants in the dead of the night –making him the brutal private eye-, Nelson reunites clues and conclusions like a detective performing an investigation, while Karen is still playing a secret double game by hiding some facts to her friends: she’s the one truly acting outside of the law. Following the model of many films noirs, she’s a loner, as her talk with Foggy at the bar hinted at: she is not at home in Hell’s Kitchen and she’s been trying to keep what she knows to herself… Indeed, at the climax of the series, she is confronted with the same moral choice that’s been plaguing Matt for the entire season. When Wesley kidnapped her and threatened to kill her loved ones if she doesn’t accept to work for Fisk and to do some damage control, she chooses to remedy the situation by shooting him. She commits murder, whereas Matt manages to rein his thirst for blood in… At the end, they both find themselves hiding a dangerous secret involving violence, but the difference if that Matt has gained a form of moral validation by being recognized by the police and the media, as well as being forgiven by Foggy. Karen on the other hand is left alone after choosing the same method that Wesley was willing to use. Even though she’s come closer to Matt and might one day reach a better understanding of the darkness surrounding him, she’s also distanced herself from the ideal of right and wrong that Matt has been pondering since his father’s sacrifice. Wesley was Karen’s personal adversary, who wanted her dead and insulted her at their first meeting in the office of Nelson and Murdock; yet, she’s chosen to get rid of him to make herself and everyone safe. It contrasts with how Matt chose to have his own archenemy arrested: he chose to focus on whom he was fighting, on righting some wrongs and protecting the city, instead of concentrating on fighting to relieve his overwhelming emotions. The moment with Wesley is made even more pivotal when compared to her fateful encounter with hitman Bullseye in the comic: both men were willing to let walk away alive, but they also threatened someone she cared for… and, when held at gunpoint, both told her that the weapon they discarded and that she grabbed was empty. The two occurrences ended in death, yet in a very different way: in the comics, Karen was hurt, while here, she emblematically loses the innocence that had her accept help from Nelson and Murdock in the first place. She’s guilty of the very same kind of crime she was first wrongly accused of.
From a moral standpoint, her role is therefore complementary to Claire’s influence on Matt. Claire Temple –whose name suggests light and whose surname alludes to religion- represents another cliché in the noir era. She’s the sweet woman who tries to save the endangered, ambiguous protagonist. Her job as a nurse completes the picture, as it finds an echo in movies like ‘Where Danger Lives’ (1950) –the story of a man who falls for a femme fatale, before getting back with his nicer nurse girlfriend-, ‘Backfire’ (1950) or ‘Kiss the Blood off My Hands’ (1948).
Yet, even though Claire’s presence might have bent Matt’s determination to fall into his darkest fantasies, she’s also aware that her influence is not enough and that she’s only getting emotionally involved with a man who closed his feelings off, especially after episode 4. The angel of mercy leaves to pop up in another Netflix show, ‘Jessica Jones’, realizing that she never really belonged with Murdock in the first place… In fact, in Marvel comic books, Claire Temple plays savior to an injured Luke Cage, who becomes her love interest, and, more generally, she comes across as a loose adaptation of the comic ‘Night Nurse’, who actually interacted with Daredevil at some point (for instance in ‘The King of Hell’s Kitchen’, vol 58).
Her character thus complements Karen and contrasts with her: both their romantic overtures –respectively with Matt and with Foggy- ended up not going anywhere, but Claire choose to leave to protect herself, while a tainted Karen stayed by Daredevil’s side.
4) The reporter: Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall)
Karen’s involvement brings to mind her accomplice in her secret investigation: like her, Ben Urich follows a number of well-known noir clichés.
Firstly, he’s a journalist teaming up with a woman, a notion used in ‘Abandoned’ (1949). Even though his job would make him an ambivalent character in some movies, like lawyers or secretaries (‘The Underworld Story’, 1950; ‘Sweet Smell of Success’, 1957; ‘The Glass Alibi’, 1946), Ben is devoted to his job and does it out of moral duty instead of hoping for personal gain. He’s not the voice-over/narrator of the story, as he often tends to do in DD comics, but he’s seen from the beginning as an observer of the criminal world. He knows informants and he’s aware that times have changed: Fisk’s presence in the underworld has brought new “rules”, as it is stated in his first and telling appearance in episode 3. The mention of said rules is part of a game metaphor –along with the playing cards he uses to identify the “players” in the scene in episode 9-, which defines his view of the job: he does not get involved, only sees and reports from the outside, like he symbolically watches the city from the river bank the first time viewers see him… It is further hinted at when his informant compares his criminal career to a play: they were “kings of the castle”, even with “bodies in the trunk”, which makes them similar to Macbeth… crime is a dangerous spectacle and, for the longest time, Ben is meant to be only a spectator and a critic of corruption and greed for power.
Yet, he’s also a kind man, willing to excuse from any blame the “kids” of the man whom he incriminates in his article, like the informant remembers. Ulrich is thus immediately linked to the idea of family and wanting to protect it; as the other man tells him, it “used to be if you killed a man, you sent his wife flowers… Now they just send his wife with him”… This explains the foreboding warning that Ulrich receives at the end of the secret meeting: “take a pass on this one, Benny, some fights will just get you bloody”… Ben’s fate is therefore announced in this first introduction -the rough patch he’s going through with his ill wife and his difficulties helping her by struggling with the hospital and insurances, and his ultimate death at the hands of the man he’s been investigating…
Ben Ulrich is an old-school journalist, who uses old fashioned vocabulary with his boss (like “girlie mag”) and who still believes that newspapers are meant to bring news to people, to keep them informed instead of just diverting them as his boss wants, by reusing endlessly the same articles without in-deep research, like a “fluff piece” about a possible subway line with a poll about the preferred color, “like M&M’s”… Ulrich is the only one who wants to do “a real story” and “to connect the dots”, to keep playing the game… even though “it doesn’t sell papers” anymore.
All in all, Ben comes closer to a reporter to the 50’s, eager to keep writing “the hell out of the news” and, as it is customary in films noirs, who’s going through a professional and personal crisis. His career as a hot shot reporter is behind him and he refuses for the biggest part of the season to change his ways. Plus, his wife being at the hospital with a straining illness that affects her memory shakes even deeper his world… Ben is teetering on the edge of losing everything (like the reporter in the movie ‘Appointment with a Shadow’, 1957) , but, unlike the typical film noir loser who turns to alcohol, he holds his head high and keeps going as far as he can. He then throws himself in investigating whatever clue he can find on what is happening in the criminal world, much like the protagonist in ‘The First Deadly Sin’ (1980) does to cope with his wife’s illness and the threat of retirement…
His dedication links him to the figure of the crusading reporter, a man who uses the power of words and publication to fight crime, like in ‘Big Town after Dark’ (1947), ‘High Tide’ (1947), ‘The Sellout’ (1952), ‘Deadline – U.S.A.’ (1952), ‘Jigsaw’ (1949). What makes his fate more tragic is that his flair and work are not taken as seriously as they ought to, which means that he’s forced to work in the shadows with Karen’s help in order to uncover the truth.
That secrecy establishes an interesting similarity with Matt’s activity. He’s also connected to him by the threat of losing his closest loved one, like Matt lost his father, and he spends time in the hospital where Claire’s working. He too displays integrity in his line of work: it’s about justice, not money. Alluding to deep friendship and openness between the super hero and the reporter in the comics, Ben is intrigued by Matt in his masked man persona. He’s one of the few who doubts his guilt and, when he finally meets Murdock the lawyer, he seizes him up in a telling manner… Unfortunately, Ben’s demise doesn’t allow them to become long-time friends and confidents. However, given that his –sudden and disheartening- death becomes a turning point in the investigation, his character gets to define part of the story, a characteristic for someone who, in true noir fashion, has often played narrator for DD’s adventures on paper.
Last, not least, Ben’s incorruptibility echoes his counterpart in the comics –especially when things started getting very ugly for Matt, he had no part in it and snapped out of the paralyzing intimidation brought upon him after he witnessed a corrupted cop being tortured for wanting to talk. In that respect, his attitude contrasts with the hords of cops on Fisk’s payroll, which is a usual occurrence in classic crime films as well (‘The Case Against Brooklyn’, 1958; ‘The Racket’, 1928).
5) The gangster/ villain: Wilson Fisk, aka “the Kingpin” (Vincent d’Onofrio)
Gangsters are usual features in classic movies: indeed, many films noir depict the violent rise and fall of mob bosses, like for instance ‘Baby Face Nelson’ (1957), ‘New York Confidential’ (1955) or even earlier examples such as ‘Little Caesar’ (1931), ‘The Public Enemy’ (1931) or ‘Scarface’ (1932) and its better known version by Brian de Palma in 1983.
Nonetheless, many things set Fisk apart. His obsessive morning routine, which helps him regain an appearance of calm after recurring nightmares, is inspired by the beginning of ‘American Psycho’ (2000) –which served also as reference for the opening credits of TV show Dexter… Yet, while these occurrences put emphasis on the dangerousness of both killers –with cold detachment in the movie and playfully suggested sadism in the show-, the routine in DD hints more at Wilson’s torment than at his impassiveness. It indicates that he’s a ruthless killer, who can behead a man with no hint of remorse, or who did murder and dismember his own father, but he’s not a cold-blooded psychopath. His barely repressed brutality and anger stems from a childhood traumatism and the taboo of murdering his violent dad: like the repeated dismemberment he’s committing, his soul is falling apart.
That is why he seeks validation by creating deep relations laced with abiding affection. Wesley for instance both is a very devoted second in command who sullies his own hands in order to protect his employer and is privy to far more personal matters: he knows Fisk’s mother and is to some extent aware of the danger she may present when he discovers that Karen and Ben had been visiting her. He also plays the part of a trustworthy confident when Fisk is struggling between the demands of his business associates and his blooming love for Vanessa … Of course, even though Fisk cares for Wesley –to the point of committing a dreadful murder to avenge him-Vanessa is the defining presence in his life: whereas in the comics, in the happier years of their love story, she cared for him in spite of his criminal activities and wanted him to retire, in the show, she’s supportive because she shares his vision for the sake of loving him. She’s probably acting like the real femme fatale of the storyline.
Interestingly, Vanessa learns to know him through art, because they meet in her art gallery in front of a white monochrome painting (episode 3). When she asks him how the painting makes him feel, joking about it representing “a rabbit in a snowstorm”, he simply answers “it makes me feel alone”… Later Fisk has purchased the painting and has hanged it in his bedroom to watch it after his nightmares. The textured monochrome reminds him of the wall his dad forced him to stare at while he started beating his mom up: it was the last empty vision of an awful and helpless normalcy he knew before snapping and committing parricide. It makes him feel alone because it symbolizes the moment he crossed the line into accepting violence. As such, the white painting serves to reveal Fisk’s darkest secret, but also the deep trauma that lead him to become a ruthless criminal; like in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, it shows what really lies inside his soul behind the zen-like powerful appearance he tries to keep up.
Wilson therefore shares Matt’s obsessions: he is haunted by his father’s ghost, even though his is more a counter-model than the man he looks up too; he strives not to be like him, failing to see how his violent tendencies create a similarity between himself and the man he consider as evil. On the contrary, Matt wants to be worth the sacrifice his father made and perceive his fighting as something that links him to the devil people used to see in him when he was boxing. Like Matt, Wilson’s conflicted inner self has been shaped by the childhood trauma of losing that role model, yet, Matt’s legacy was one of care and self-sacrifice (which is why Matt has become blind in the first place). Fisk’s dad only taught him to use people and hurt them. Wilson’s birthright is one of destruction, one that he refuses to acknowledge, which is why he takes refuge in the notion of saving the city.
Like Matt, again, he’s obsessed by making the city a symbol of what he wants for himself: it represents power and control for him, covered by the claims of wanting to protect it. Matt too tethers on the edge between saving and destroying what he cares for and has chosen brutality as release, because fighting others also represents fighting his self-destructive tendencies an the guilt he’s running away from. Fisk’s release is giving death to people, hitting and hurting them until something snaps in their body and they die, like it did when he killed his father. Violence takes a very different aspect for them: Matt only breaks bones and avoids killing (such a scene opens and closes the pilot), while Fisks’ rage knows no bound once unlashed and he goes as far as cutting a head off with a car door by forceful blows.
More than Fisk’s web of crime à la Moriarty, it’s probably that parallel between the hero who wants to believe he knows no pity and the villain who clutches to the claim that he’s doing the right thing in the end that makes him the foe who defines Matt’s mission. Like in a Hitchock movie, both men are bound by a telling duality: they are lonely men who feel guilty and who try to make sense of their childhood by redeeming themselves through violence and through a city that comes to represent both their shadowed psyche and the family they’ve been deprived of. Fisk embodies what Matt could have become and a part of himself he’s afraid of, a man manipulating everything from the shadows and tempted to get rid of those who stand in his way…
The parallel is particularly expressed through two essential notions: choice and religion.
Making decisions is a favorite concept of Fisk, but every person in the storyline is confronted with the difficulty of wanting doing the right thing or not. In the pilot, there are minor occurrences that set the theme: the very first scene in the modern timeline shows Turk explaining to his prisoners that they’ll get a bucket if they behave or be hurt if they don’t; later, Foggy explains teasingly to their reluctant cop friend that their divergences cannot be explained by “career choices”, but because they never got along.
In fact, almost every important subplot is symbolized by a moral crossroad: Jack Murdock made a choice by fighting fairly his last match instead of accepting money to lose. This idea was heavily underlined when the deal was offered to him (“he don’t want to do it, he don’t do it”, “man makes his choice and we make ours” in ep 2).
Many times, characters tend to feel overwhelmed by circumstances and they justify decisions they fear or regret by telling that they didn’t have a choice. The feeling of being robbed from the ability to choose a path instead of being ushered into one can be found in many scenes: in episode 8, when Karen and Matt decide to start fighting legally to protect the firm and their ideal of justice, she asks him “do we have a choice?” He simply answers “not so much”… It gets even more obvious in episode 10 when the flashback showing how Matt and Foggy left the prestigious firm they were working for is merged with the modern storyline, as Matt is attempting to justify that he “didn’t think [he] had a choice” when he started his double life or when he told Claire about it instead of confiding in his best friend… Also a distressed Ben starts to realize in the same episode when facing the reality of his wife’s lucidity slowly slipping away from him, “there’s nothing worse feeling choices are made for us”…
But others try to shake that feeling and push the people they care for into making decisions instead of going with the flow. In episode 7, Stick tells Matty that “smart is making the right decision at the right time”, and that he needs to let go of his guilt about his dad’s fate because “we all pay for our choices, kid… Maybe your old man fought for you, maybe he did it for himself. The only thing you know for sure is that he’s gone now”, so it’s “time to stop taking a beating and start giving one”.
In that perspective, the fate of the Russian thug that Matt tried to save from Fisk is telling. At first, he and his brother follow Fisk’s instructions, even though Wesley silkily lures them into thinking that “the choice of how we proceed is yours” (ep 4). But later, when he finds himself at a dead end, Matt tells him to “choose a side”. When the man answers “I choose my own”, Matt retorts “not an option, Fisk made sure of that”, which leads the criminal to do the right thing and help Matt get out of the situation alive.
Wilson follows the same path. He struggles to make a decision regarding his life when Vanessa’s love started changing his priorities. Madame Gao then warns him to “choose and choose wisely. Or others shall choose for you”. Others only represent fate and its crushing power to some extent: Wilson sums up her advice to Wesley with these words “it was something Gao said to me: I had to choose a path or fate would choose for me”. Decision making is at the forefront of his thoughts, for he reflects in episode 8 that “being informed knowing facts as they are not how we wish to perceive them can tip the balance between life and death”. And it’s his choice to step into the light, to abandon his “foolish” decision of dreaming of changing the city from the shadow, because he “can no longer do it alone” that forces the others to opt for a line of action too: “ I cannot keep living in the shadows afraid of the light, none of us can. None of us should be forced to: we must resist those who would have us live in fear”…
In the end, thus, Karen too was asked to take action. Wesley commented “you made a choice and that choice has brought you here on this night, at this particular moment in time. Perhaps that’s the way it was always gonna be. Perhaps we’re destined to follow a path none of us can see, only vaguely sense, as it takes our hand, guiding us towards the inevitable… ”
The mystical/philosophical willfulness only adds to the impression that they’re all trapped in a Greek tragedy, given that each of them tries to struggle against crushing circumstances, though their efforts only serve to force others to make decisions that would later impact them. In a way, they all finally realize that there’s only one solution in the overpowering age-old dilemma of human nature: to not let themselves be robbed of their ability to choose and to deal with the consequences. This is why the tone changes in the final episodes: in ep 12, Karen advices Matt to try to mend things with Foggy; when he tells her that they’re no longer speaking to each other and that “it’s his choice”, she retorts “only if you let it be”. Same with Vanessa when she at first refuses to let her protective dangerous lover get her out of the country: she insists “I know being with you would be complicated. I made that choice… One I still make”. Later too, Urich refused to cower from Fisk when he comes to his home to say “I promise I’ll be honest with you, Mr. Urich… whether you choose to believe, that’s up to you”. His last decision was to start publishing the truth on the internet and he didn’t hesitate to tell it to his enemy’s face, even though it cost him his life. In the finale, Matt and Karen sum the whole conclusion up: “a lot of decisions I’d give anything to go back and change… but I can’t. None of us can. It’s like I told Foggy, all we can do is move forward together”.
Of course, Wilson Fisk and Matt Murdock appear as the two faces of the same coin in regard to choices. The notion of blindness corroborates both the ambiguity of their respective positions and that feeling of helplessness that they both resent. There are many other blind characters in the story and many of them work indirectly for Fisk: their blindness is an act of faith in the dream he claims to promote. In the same manner, Fisk is not blind, but his vision is stuck to the representation of a wall he’s still staring at. This is why Matt’s crucial speech in court works for both his character and for Fisk, as well as for the others who accompany their struggle. He talks about “questions of morality, of right and wrong, good and evil. Sometimes, the delineation between the two is a sharp line. Sometimes it’s a blur and often it’s like pornography: you just know when you see it.” By posing the question of his client’s guilt not as a moral problem, but as a legal one, with witnesses and conclusions, he too forces the jury to make a decision regarding the case and his own moral involvement in what he plans to do later: “beyond these walls, he may well face a judgment of his own making. But here, in this courtroom, the judgment is yours and yours alone”. Of course, the moral line gets even blurrier when that “hell of a speech” buys the hitman a jail free card, which will only lead him to commit gory suicide for fear of consequences after telling Matt Fisk’s name…
Somehow, the moral questioning finds a solution in the larger picture. Firstly, codes in films noirs demand that the successful criminal mastermind finds his demise: therefore Fisk’s spectacular downfall follows the classic “crime doesn’t pay” logic, as he progressively loses his reputation, his chance at happiness and his freedom. The moral quality also finds a resonating echo in the religious aspect of Wilson’s character.
Indeed, like Matt is attracted to evilness, Wilson lures himself into thinking that he is a benefactor on a mission. When watching him state that he’s no longer “afraid of the light”, Karen and her friends see him as a “psycho Jesus” and with Matt she hopes that “if there is a God and if he cares at all about any of us, Fisk will get what he deserves”. Later, when Fisk decides to kill Urich, the latter denies that the world around them is too preoccupied with futilities to care about the truth: he says “guess I have more faith in humanity”, which Wilson comments with the line “so did Christ, if I recall”. Wilson Fisk embodies an interesting version of the Antechrist, who deceives himself and others into believing in him, before the real messianic hero defeats him. He’s a fallen angel too, a man who wanted to be good, but who was soiled by his greed for power and his addiction for violence: like Lucifer, his pride in his dream kept him from facing the blackness of his soul…
Actually, Fisk only realizes that he’s not pure at heart and that means do not justify the end when he is first arrested. When he’s taken away, he starts telling his guards about the story of the Good Samaritan –the same Karen alluded to when she accepted to take Matt and Foggy as her lawyers. During years, Fisk lured himself into thinking he was the Samaritan who helped the injured traveler whom everyone ignored: lamenting that “how even the best of men can be deceived by their true nature”, he comes to accept that he was all along “the ill intent who set upon the traveler on a road that he should not have been on”. He illustrates this statement by having some of the guards killed off by the ones he corrupted, once again symbolically hurting innocent “travelers”. The power that his seated position conveys and his assurance contrast with the relieved but small scale celebration held by Karen, Matt and Foggy. When he rises from the dark police van illuminated by spots of red, he looks evil, walking among dead bodies and destruction, his black coat floating behind him … His new assumed confidence is in opposition with the new outfit that Matt dones: the hero is seen from inside the box he’s staring into and which reminds of the one where he’s been keeping his father’s old boxing outfit.
The progression of Wilson’s new persona was foreshadowed by a talk Matt had with Father Lantom. When Matt asked the priest if he believed the Devil existed in this world, the man explained that when he was young, he believed he was just a “minor figure in the grand scheme”, because “in the scripture, the Hebrew word “Satan” actually means “adversary”. It’s applied to any antagonist: angels and humans, serpents and kings… Medieval theologians reinterpreted those passages to be about a single monstrous enemy”. Yet, years later, during the very murderous conflict in Rwanda, he met such a monster in the person of a militia commander who took pleasure in talking for hours to a respected village elder, “a holy man”, before “he dragged him out in front of his village and hacked him to pieces along with his entire family”: in that cold-blooded monster, he “saw the Devil”, “he walks among us taking many forms”… Interestingly, the pattern of conversing with an intended victim and proclaiming his respect before killing him in a shocking manner is exactly what made Ben’s murder chilling.
Yet, Lantom’s first comprehension of the concept of Devil expresses a fascinating connection with the storytelling that characterizes comics. Indeed, in other kind of stories, the characters have the ability to move on (like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ or more recently, Jane in the TV show ‘The Mentalist’): here, the concept is different, because others are the ones defining the characters’ role in the story. Hero and villain are not that different, they’re both lonely men who express their suffering, grief and feeling of inadequacy through violence. But each of them gets his part because of the other: the Messianic criminal and the unfeeling devil who saves people in back-alleys find their path by meeting and comparing their life goals. This way of telling a story with roles more than personalities reminds of the beginning of the comic book era, back in the 60’s, where villains were only defined with stereotypes and by comparison with the good guys: actions were more telling than character development. Back then, villains simply acted like bad guys because they were villains, basically: the part defined their personality, they often had no more pressing motives, because the plot was more important than any subtleties of character development, which explains the relative status quo… later, particularly since the Golden Age, inner conflicts started to be the key of many heroes’ dealing with the complexity of life, making them more relatable (like Spiderman or Daredevil especially after the Elektra arc for instance). Hence Fisk discovering his villainy after society assigned him the part of the bad guy when he was arrested: he’s following the rules of the comics genre regarding villains, leading to a reflection on this kind of storytelling somehow reminiscent of the bad guy’s motives in the movie ‘Unbreakable’ (2000).
A lack of colors inspired by films noirs: a city of night and a world of blood and fire
In addition to modeling the main characters on film noir figures, many other details add to the reference: the lighting, especially, or unusual and quite graphic camera angles (for instance in the pilot in the scene where Matt wakes up or when the focus is on his glasses during Karen’s interrogation).
One of the most interesting setting and source of visual effects is the localization: the dark city that takes a mysterious and busy life at night is the classic scenery of crime movies since the 30’s. Among many others, titles like ‘Whispering City’ (1947),, ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’, ‘Panic in the Streets’ (1950)’City That Never Sleeps’ (1952), ‘Crime in the Streets’ (1956) or ‘City of Fear’ (1959) link the darkness of night and crime to the mysterious wonders of urban modernity. It conveys an impression of betrayal and vague despair largely used in pulp fiction and that fits easily in the noir atmosphere.
The show uses the background of Hell’s Kitchen by offering a variety of settings: back streets, docks, construction sites, dumpsters match the mood or the situation of the characters, from observing from a distance, to domineering the city or getting beaten up in a corner. The presence of the city is also hinted at from inside the buildings: the light from the street, white or often yellow, comes from outside, while the inside of the rooms is left in shadows as a symbol of the inner darkness the characters are living in.
As it is, the city almost becomes another character of the storyline. It gets a traumatic background it’s recovering from, like Matt, Fisk and Karen; the timeline the destruction of part of New York also adds a modern, realistic and dramatic atmosphere to the rebuilding that’s taking place. Karen sees it as a threat after being attacked too and tells Foggy “I don’t see the city anymore. All I see are its dark corners… I look around this room and all I see are threats”. On the contrary, hopeful Foggy sees the faces of the people he’s grown to know and care for and whom he names before offering his secretary to “stay out all night” to alleviate her fears, “here, in the lights of Hell’s Kitchen”. He adds wistfully “this city will protect us! This city’s beautiful” (ep 2). The familiarity of his district also created a connection when he first met Murdock: as neighbors, he already knew about him and was eager to make a friend of him.
On the contrary, Fisk’s love makes the city a project that crystallizes what he wants for himself, a form of violent redemption ripped from others. Wesley tries to explain it to Karen: whereas he does not like “the crush of the unwashed garbage stacked on the sidewalk, the air that seems to adhere to your skin, the layer of filth you can never completely wash away”, he tells her that his employer “loves this city, in a way you and I never could”, “almost, I suspect as he loves his mother”. And, like he does for her, he’s willing to commit atrocities in order to protect it. Yet, when Fisk comes to terms with the fact that he’s not a benefactor, but an enemy of Hell’s Kitchen, he admits he’s not the Samaritan when helped a traveler simply because the man “was his neighbor” and “he loved his city and all the people in it”. When he fights Daredevil, he yells at him “this city doesn’t deserve a better tomorrow, it deserves to drown in its filth! It deserves people like my father! People like you!” And Matt only retorts “this is my city, my family”. The city becomes then an object of affection, a surrogate family that needs protecting and that allows his inhabitants to find their true self. It becomes the setting of an age old battle between literal and metaphorical light and dark.
Another effect used in the show is the relative lack of colors: yet, while films noirs used black and white to create a graphic ambiance, here the show tends to focus on shades of red.
The color red is heavily present in many scenes. In the opening credits, the figures of statues or buildings appear as they’ve being covered in a thick dark red substance which hints at how blind Matt perceives the world around him. It also conveys the impression that the whole city is covered in blood or painting, with symbolical representations, like the blind Justice holding the weighting scale and the sword (a reference to both his job as a lawyer and as vigilante, who’s tempted to fancy himself judge and executioner at the very beginning of the story). Then, various buildings used as settings in the comics –a water tower, skyscrapers, Brooklyn bridge, buildings, a church and its weeping angel – before ending on DD, whose head first takes shape slowly. All those things seem to emerge from a reddish darkness.
Following an aesthetics à la Frank Miller, blood takes an almost mystical connotation, in many scenes where it is used with an artistic intention. Matt’s and the Kingpin’s addiction to violence expressed itself through repeated hits and sometimes, drops of blood reinforce the connection with cruelty, for instance when Karen is introduced, holding a knife in her bloodied hands; when Matt as a kid is asked to stitch up his dad’s swollen face; when a drop of blood falls from Matt’s lip into the rain water in the pilot or when blood is seeping from the dumpster in episode 2.
Red is the color of aggression and it characterizes the devil Matt sees in himself, behind his crimson glasses. It catalyses the anger and rage primarily directed towards death and the feeling of helplessness. This is why Karen’s hair is tainted red when she’s standing in Matt’s flat, which lightening is curiously and telling inversed, since the room is dark and the light coming from outside is blinding white.
Nevertheless, another meaning is mixed in with the violence: blood also represents Jack Murdock’s deepest life lesson to his son: that he needs to keep fighting and not give up. It becomes apparent in the fighting scene Matt gets at the end of the pilot, as his father tells him in a flashback “get up, Matty! Let’s go, finish up!” As the older man explains later (in episode 2) when he shows his new suit to his son, “good thing about red, they can’t tell how much you’re bleeding”. It’s that courageous legacy that Daredevil, ‘The Man Without Fear’, chooses to allude to when he gets a new suit: fearless red replaces the black clothes of his insecurity. Red is what Matt gets for prize of his suffering: his relation to his late dad takes as much the form of unforgettable blood ties as of a debt of blood.
The second important color of the story is also a shade of red: it is fire. It refers to the religious theme that binds Matt to his past (devil, Hell’s Kitchen and his searching soul). Fire too is associated to violence, but more importantly it represents Matt’s ambiguity. Indeed, he “sees” the world through shapes made of flames… It hints at his obsession given that he’s somehow characteristically blind to other, more pacific shades. The idea is further developed by the number of blind men through the episodes, from the Chinese workers purposely blinded to Karen scratching the eye of the guard who was trying to strangle her.
Emphasis is put on blindness too by the other colors characters briefly refer to and that reflect a state of mind: Wesley wonders about college girl’s taste for “Monet T-shirts”, asking whether they like the “open composition and the spontaneity reflecting this transformative time in their life” or if “maybe they just like the color blue”… Same art connection in Fisk’s fixation for a white painting embodying the wall from his nightmares, in contrast to the one Vanessa presents to Matt. This crimson monochrome is “a sea of tonal reds. The color of anger, of rage, but also the color of the heart, of love, hope”. Both men are trapped in one single color that represents their partial and cruel vision of the world.
Interestingly, the show manages to recreate the atmosphere of the comics while retelling its major points in a different arrangement. Characters that rendered Murdock’s world familiar to readers, especially in the Miller era, are introduced in the background: immoral and blundering Turk is the first thug DD beats up; the bar where Foggy takes Karen is Rosie’s, the watering hole where criminals used to meet. The original Night Nurse meets briefly Urich in ‘The King of Hell’s Kitchen, 58’, drawn by Alek Maleev. Melvin Potter used to be the Gladiator on paper: his affection for Miss Betsy was also redeeming there, because Melvin stopped being a super villain to reform and become a costume-designer. Moreover, in the books, he was forced to work for Fisk when he threatened his daughter. The protective outfit he designs for DD in the show is a combination between the iconic skin-tight red costume and the armored black one the hero wore for a period.
Other moments allude to scenes from the comics. When two corrupted cops killed a witness in an interrogation room, one might venture to recognize the idea as inspired from the cold blooded murder of a nurse in front of Ben Urich and Glori (Matt’s girlfriend at the time), when DD’s life started to really fall apart because the Kingpin published his secret identity. Same with the Blind Justice statue in the credits: it bears some resemblance with the one drawn by John Quesada in the first page of ‘Parts of the Hole, 1’. In episode ‘Guardian Devil, 8’ in the comics version, DD leaves a priest in the middle of a confession to get into battle mode, like he does in the show: there are also flashes of red too coming from his costume underneath his clothes.
Some characters’ storylines are summarized and a changed: for instance, Ulrich’s career at DD’s side is far longer in the comics and Foggy needs decades to figure out the double life of his associate. As for the Kingpin’s side of the story, it was his henchman Linch who tried to murder Vanessa (and caused a spell of amnesia): after retiring in Japan, Wilson decided under her influence to give the names of his former accomplices. His second-in-command got the idea to shake him into resuming his activities (‘The Kingpin Must Die, DD#170); Wesley was too loyal to plan such a thing, so the dubious honor was offered to Leland, who thus never got an opportunity to become a super villain under the name of “The Owl”… A few other details were taken from this same pivotal moment in DD’s career on paper: he stopped a car by launching his leg through the windshield –slightly reminiscent of his last battle with Wilson on the show- and he ended up in a dumpster truck after fighting hitman Bullseye. When Daredevil was beaten by the Kingpin in the comics, Fisk asked Turk and his friend to dump him in the water too, more or less like he does earlier in the show.
The romance between Karen and Matt is also subtly hinted at in the show. The Mike nickname is a nod to this part of his life in the comic book, as well probably as Karen’s outfit when she starts working as a secretary for them in episode 3, since her blouse and the floating large skirt with a big belt reminds a bit of her style from the 60’s. Here, Karen starts flirting with Foggy and Matt is not presented as a potential rival yet, but she thinks him handsomer (which is implicit when she starts confiding in Elena Cardenas and mistakes which handsome lawyer the sweet older woman is referring to). Her violent streak, tenacity and secrecy creates a bond between them: she trusts him to and doesn’t hesitate to get half naked in front of him in his apartment, believing that he can’t see her (viewers can conclude later that she was mistaken after the whole “world in fire” confession to Claire)… At the end of the pilot too, like Matt, she makes a reference to her grandmother: she cooks for the two lawyers and tells them “it is my grandmother’s recipe, and she made me promise only to serve it to my future husband”… talk about teasing viewers!
Other fleeting moments foreshadow directions that the show may take later: one allusion to Matt’s missing mother in episode 7 when Matty is orphaned (“what’s about the mother, is she dead? –No, she’s… well, that’s another story”) hints at further emotional turmoil for Murdock. But the biggest allusion is directed at Matt’s attraction to some “stunning woman of questionable character”. The ghost of Elektra, his first love, is still present in the background. Other details put discreet emphasis on the suggestion: Matt’s black scarf that serves as a mask may refer to the one he tied on his upper face when his dream girl started having problems. Plus, Nobu fighting as a ninja is a nod from the red ninjas working for the Hand, the same organization that trained Elektra: Matt fighting and killing him more particularly remind of Kirigi, the immortal ninja that she tried to prevent from assassinating her former lover.
Last, not least, there are other nods to the Marvel universe, for instance when Karen tells that she’s a “Hellion fan” in the pilot. Several groups in Marvel Comics have been named Hellions indeed. But the more visible indirect allusions are to Miller’s other works: beheading/dismembering bodies, as done by men like Fisk or Stick, is a recurring pattern in ‘Sin City’ -for instance when it involves the frightening and mysterious Kevin. In the volume ‘The Big Fat Kill’, particularly, assassin Miho slices off a low-life’s head while jumping from the top of his car: this startlingly daring drawing is probably a kind of model to Fisk’s violent beheading with a car door, which shows a gratifying attention to detail and atmosphere.
Daredevil returns April, 2016. Look forward to more writing on this series!
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