It Is What It Is: Part Two – Characterisation in Daredevil
I didn’t get off on the best foot with Daredevil. I went to see it over the Valentine’s Day weekend of 2003. I thought two things: firstly that it would be good film, and secondly, that it would be seen as a suitable romantic gesture. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’m going to use the theatrical release as the basis for this article, as it’s the version most people will have seen. There’s a lot of comment that the director’s cut is far superior, but since I’m going to focus on characterisation I think most points will be applicable to both anyway. Daredevil has a pretty big cast and suffers like a lot of other superhero comic adaptations that overpopulate the narrative so that the producers can say they stayed faithful to the source material. Because of this, I’m going to just focus on the hero Daredevil, and the main villain, The Kingpin, because really in these types of films they’re the only characters that are completely integral—especially the villain. Take Die Hard. Imagine if Hans Gruber didn’t attempt to take over Nakatomi towers, and think how shit that film would be, as just John McClane making awkward small talk with his wife’s co-workers for an hour and a half. In these kind of films, the villain rules the roost; it’s their actions that bring the narrative and the film to life. But before I move onto The Kingpin, I’m going to give a brief overview of the comic in general.
Daredevil was first published in 1964. The story follows Matt Murdock, who as a child is blinded in a freak radioactive chemical spill while rescuing an elderly man. The accident takes Murdock’s sight, but the radiation ramps up his other four senses to a superhuman degree. After local gangsters murder his dad, Murdock chooses to become an attorney who also fights crime in his spare time under the moniker Daredevil—The Man Without Fear. The character suffered for being a cheap version of the far more successful Spider-Man. The characters were really similar: they were both based in New York, and they were mostly light fantastical stories were the heroes didn’t kill people and used crazy acrobatics to foil crime. But everything about Daredevil was poorer in comparison. His stories were worse, his banter was worse, and he had a terrible rogues gallery, including Stilt-Man—the man with the power to walk on stilts. Basically, Daredevil was cheap, derivative and pretty rubbish. In the late 70s, Frank Miller, who had previously drawn the comic, took over the writing duties and pushed the character in a new direction. Knowing that competing with Spider-Man was a pointless venture, Miller changed the nature of the comic, toning down the fantastical premises and pushing Daredevil towards darker and more intimate street-level based crimes. Muggers and the mob were favoured over supervillains, and Murdock was presented as a tortured character because of his conflicted position as both lawyer and vigilante, with a ton of Catholic guilt thrown in for good measure. Miller took second-string Spider-Man villain Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. The Kingpin, and made him the main antagonist in Daredevil. The Kingpin was presented as a smart and ruthless mob boss, a shadowy Machiavellian figure who attempted to control all of the criminals in New York. (He didn’t, however, possess any stilt-walking-based power, which was a shame.)
The Kingpin has a fairly simple origin story; he was raised by a poor family and was heavily bullied at school due to being overweight. Unlike most people in this situation, who grow up to criticise superhero movies on the Internet, The Kingpin instead decides to not take this lying down. So he hits the gym hard, then proceeds to kick the shit out of everyone until he transcends to being the king of the bullies. The character’s foundation is in overcompensation. He doesn’t want to run a criminal gang, he wants to run them all; he rebels against his underprivileged childhood by surrounding himself in extravagant trappings of wealth and sophistication; he’s both physically imposing but also a genius strategist and manipulator. The Kingpin, in every shape and form, is the personification of excess. When the film was in pre-production, one of the biggest talking points was that Michael Clarke Duncan, an African American actor, was in line to play The Kingpin. In 99% of Hollywood casting, race shouldn’t really play a huge significance, as the characters usually aren’t defined by it and there’s very rarely a subtextual agenda or commentary on the topic. The only thing that really should matter is that they’re the best actor to bring the character to life; Daredevil director Mark Steven Johnson said on the casting of Duncan that:
“I just thought: if you just look at him, he’s got the shaved head, he’s got the incredible physique, he’s got the imposing presence, he’s got the great voice Kingpin should have, he’s got the muscle. He’s literally got everything Kingpin should have except he’s the wrong color. Then you just say, ‘The hell with it. What are you thinking?’ You’re so much more true to the spirit of the comic if you cast this guy, then you would some other guy just because he’s white but doesn’t have any of those other attributes.”
Fair enough. It is quite telling that Johnson only views the character from a completely physical perspective, though. What about the actual character? What about his motivations and perspective? As I said before, The Kingpin in the comics functions on excess; he’s desperately attempting to distance himself from his deprived childhood by surrounding himself in wealth, power and sophistication. He wears a white suit and a sky blue cravat without a hint of irony. So how would you introduce this character in the movie adaptation? What music would you use? A predictable classical piece would make sense, something that screams of contrived sophistication, Mozart, Beethoven maybe…
Right…do you think if they cast a white guy they’d use “Lapdance” by N.E.R.D to establish him? Johnson isn’t too subtle with his choice of music while introducing a character—when the IRISH villain Bullseye is first shown, played by the IRISH actor Colin Farrell, the IRISH American band House of Pain is used for his introductory theme. So why was a hip hop song used to introduce a character who would never ever listen to it? It’s cynical, but I’d say the makers of Daredevil got a high profile African American actor for the part, which was a massive coup, so they thought they could channel some ‘urban market’ cash from it. The urban demographic is essentially a politically correct marketing term that refers to African Americans and their interest, and, more importantly, their willingness to pay to see certain movies. Comics are mostly written by dorky white guys, read by dorky white guys and star the most awesome white guys ever. So the casting of Michael Clarke Duncan, a successful black actor in a predominantly white genre, was exploited in an attempt to cash in on a statistically less prominent and represented demographic. This might be a sound marketing strategy, but it does nothing to flesh out the character that was being adapted in the first place.