It Is What It Is: Part Two – Characterisation in Daredevil
The comic book Kingpin is a fairly tragic character, a poor bullied child, a victim of life who overcompensates to the point of becoming one of the most vicious criminals ever. You don’t feel this in the film. The Kingpin, in the movie, at one point tells his assistant that he was brought up on the streets, but nothing leads you to believe there’s been any type of struggle in his childhood. You get the impression he burst out of the womb, bearhugged the doctor to death, and immediately began his life of crime. If you’ve seen Daredevil, do you know what The Kingpin wants? Do you know what his plan, motivation or end game is? He murders Daredevil’s father, then, nearing the end of the film, hires an assassin to kill Daredevil’s love interest (because obviously having only one loved one to avenge is so passé). The Kingpin has no character depth; there’s nothing to keep you interested. He only seems to exist so the director can say he was staying faithful to the source material, while completely ignoring the character’s individuality, and to give Ben Affleck someone huge to fight at the end. The most horrific part of it all is Michael Clarke Duncan could have absolutely nailed the character. His Oscar nomination for The Green Mile was still in recent memory, and out of the entire cast, Duncan was one of the genuinely stronger actors. But instead of using his acting ability and giving him something interesting to do, the makers of the film highlight nothing but his race in an urban marketing ploy, turning The Kingpin into a some kind of Suge Knight-esque stereotype with no substance or personality. It’s totally offensive.
So what about Daredevil? The first major departure from the comic comes in on the short origin segment at the beginning of the film, when he’s still a kid. After he witnesses his father committing a crime, Murdock blindly (before he’s blind) runs into a forklift carrying the toxic material and gets his power that way. Originally, his powers came from a moment of heroism, when Murdock saved the old man, but the film chooses to show it caused in a moment of panic. It sounds like a small change, but when the character grows up to be a superhero, it becomes quite a big distinction to make—Murdock doesn’t gain the power through an act of bravery, but carelessness. The changes in the Daredevil character seem to be because of the success of the first Spider-Man film a year earlier. Like in the late 70s when Daredevil narratives were given a more realistic and darker tone to avoid Spider-Man comparisons, Johnson found himself with the same problem. He said:
“What do you do after Spider-Man? When the bar has been raised so high, how are you going to make yourself unique? We had to say ‘what can we give people that’s different’?”
It’s totally understandable that Johnson wanted to make Daredevil stand out from Sam Raimi’s superhero. So in the film he shows Daredevil to be a much darker character: he’s an anti-hero, a killer, in many ways the polar opposite. However, Spider-Man and Daredevil, along with all other traditional superheroes, do share one bond that intrinsically links them and can’t really be ignored. CD Adkinson calls this the Hegemonic Paradox, in which “the protagonist almost universally operates outside legally recognized forces of social control yet risks his or her life regularly to uphold the legitimacy of formal criminal justice institutions.” Basically, superheroes break the law to uphold it. It’s an obvious and common trope in these types of stories, but it’s a fundamental basis for the characterization of Daredevil above all other superhero characters. In the comics, Murdock is a self-loathing and tortured character; he’s a lawyer who goes out every night and breaks the law. The hegemonic paradox is central to his internal conflict. The fact that he doesn’t kill shows he still has a respect for the legal process, but every time he puts the costume on, Matt Murdock wilfully becomes a vigilante and goes against his own professional and ethical principles. This makes The Kingpin the perfect antagonist; his wealth and power allow him to evade and escape legal prosecution, forcing Murdock to become Daredevil to stop him, and therefore continuing the self-loathing cycle. This is completely absent in the film. The Kingpin doesn’t do anything at all, and apparently Daredevil quite enjoys murdering people.
At the start of the film, Murdock loses a case in which an obviously guilty rapist is set free. Later that night, Murdock, now in the guise of Daredevil, chases the rapist to the subway, throws him on the tracks and smugly watches as he’s mowed over by the passing train. You’re told in the film that Daredevil has been around for the last two years, and by the fact that the execution seems to do nothing to deter him, I can only assume this wasn’t the first time his actions have led to the brutal killing of an assailant. On the DVD commentary Johnson says of the decision to make Daredevil a murderer: “Being the biggest comic book geek, the biggest Daredevil geek, Daredevil would have pulled him off those tracks, but for the purpose of telling a really interesting different film, we decided it was better to let him take it all the way… Daredevil’s idea of justice is ‘you rape, you die.’”
I get that you have to distance Daredevil from other similarly themed characters, as did Miller in the 70s, but “you rape, you die”? Seriously? Not only is it an immature, internalised concept for a character who lives and breathes the judicial system, but it’s also such a major departure from the source material that it completely changes the character. So why add it? Well, Daredevil chooses to go against the common structure of these type of films. The first film in most superhero franchises will be an origin story. If you think of films like Spider-Man, Batman Begins and The Fantastic Four, they basically have the same premise. In the first act, the main character will gain a power, knowledge or a set of skills, and they’ll then be relentlessly tested until, by the end they’ll understand their responsibilities, the necessary sacrifices, and what it is to be a hero. By the time the second film begins, they are completely formed characters. Daredevil instead has a very short introductory origin at the beginning of the film, then jumps forward into the second year of Daredevil’s career. I don’t think every superhero film needs to follow the rigid origin narrative—the first Hellboy film doesn’t and works really well—but it doesn’t work in Daredevil. Without the formulaic origin storyline to fall back on, the writers choose to bizarrely fabricate a brand new character arc. So Daredevil’s now a murderer, while throughout the film he protests that he’s “not the bad guy”; he repeats this mantra at the end when he chooses to spare The Kingpin’s life and his redemptive arc is complete. The anti-hero has stopped killing and seeking vengence and become a better person for it, but it’s a predictable cliché. The complex and interesting depth of character in the source material is changed into a generic “cooler” anti-hero arc. Murdock’s career as an attorney and vigilante are in such opposition that he exists in constant emotional flux; that’s the crux of the character. The film, however, attempts to put a lid on this and allow Murdock to be at peace with his duel identity, forgetting that this internalised conflict is what makes the character unique and worthy of an adaptation in the first place. The film has no identity. It’s completely forgettable because there’s nothing of interest in the characters, there’s no one to root for, there’s no feeling of growth or development in the protagonist’s arc, and there’s no honesty or depth in the characterisation.
I started this article by saying I saw this film on the Valentine’s Day weekend, and that’s a pretty weird time to release a dark superhero movie, isn’t it? It seems that the producers either re-edited the film, pushing the spotlight on the Daredevil/Elektra romance in hopes of trying to capitalise on a universally known poor month for audience attendance, or the film was always tailored for this release date. The film carpet-bombs every genre it can. Jon Favreau is the comic relief, there’s romance and attempts at mystery, and Michael Clarke Duncan is positioned to appeal to the urban market. Daredevil desperately tries to dip its toe into every conceivable genre and demographic while wrapping the film in a cool, mature and dark atmosphere. But why? Well, it seems like the makers of the film wanted to distance themselves from Spider-Man so much that instead of actually looking at why they were drawn to Daredevil, they focused on the fact the source material was darker in tone. The makers of the film then just threw in any subject matter they thought would be make it seem more edgy. The murdering anti-hero and rape are essentially used as buzzwords to make the film seem more distinct and mature. It’s a cringeworthy and juvenile way to deal with these topics and to sell a film. Johnson wanted to present Daredevil as Spider-Man’s gritty, cooler and hipper older brother, in a film that dealt with serious and mature issues, but it all comes across as poor taste. The film could have been far more interesting if they had actually examined the characters’ personalities and conflicts, before they made sure Evanescence was going to be on soundtrack.