To celebrate the launch of Marvel’s Daredevil and the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, we are reviewing all thirteen episodes of the first season of Marvel and Netflix’s Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.
So, let’s talk about Frank Miller.
It is hard to talk about the character of Daredevil without talking about the work of Frank Miller. Miller is one of the defining comic book writers and artists of his generation. Even cinema-goers with little appreciation for superheroes will recognise Frank Miller as the man behind the graphic novels that inspired stylised action films like 300 or Sin City. In his own right, he oversaw a disastrous adaption of The Spirit – Will Eisner’s iconic (and massively influential) weekly comic strip.
Miller’s most famous superhero work is arguably on Batman. Miller effectively book-ended the character’s career, writing The Dark Knight Returns as a four-part story about a retired Batman who finds himself drawn back to the thrill of vigilante justice. Following the success of The Dark Knight Returns, Miller was drafted back in to write Batman’s new origin story following the loose continuity reset of Crisis on Infinite Earths. Batman: Year One became such an iconic origin that it went decades unchallenged, until Scott Snyder wrote Zero Year after the recent Flashpoint reboot.
However, Miller was also known for his work on the character of Daredevil. He joined the comic as an artist in May 1979, at the end of a three-issue arc. He quickly proved his worth. In January 1981, Miller took over as writer on Daredevil. He would remain on the title for just over two years. That run introduced all manner of iconic and influential aspects of the Daredevil mythos. The character of Elektra is the most obvious example, but Miller also created the character of Stick and the Japanese ninja death cult called the Hand. He established Wilson Fisk as Daredevil’s nemesis.
Miller shaped and defined the world of Daredevil, even beyond his two-year stint as writer on the title. He would return to the comic to write the hugely influential (and largely definitive) six-part story Born Again. It is a comic that has informed a lot of subsequent work on the character – most obviously reverberating through the runs of Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker and Mark Waid. However, Miller would also write various one-shots, miniseries and tie-ins like The Man Without Fear, Love and War and Elektra: Assassin.
Although Miller was hugely influential in changing the cultural perception of comic books (or “graphic novels”) in the eighties, he has become a polarising figure in the years since. Miller’s politics have become a lot more reactionary and conservative as he has grown older, particularly after 9/11. Miller’s later work is often derided as borderline xenophobic (300 and Holy Terror) or illogical to the point of incoherence (The Dark Knight Strikes Again or All-Star Batman and Robin). He is – understandably – a controversial figure.
It makes sense that Daredevil would owe a conscious debt to Frank Miller. Although the opening credits reference Stan Lee and Bill Everett, the show is very clearly influenced by Miller’s approach to the character – retroactively incorporating his innovations into the foundations of the character, much like Miller himself did with The Man Without Fear. After all, a lot of these elements fit so perfectly. that it’s almost impossible to imagine Daredevil without them. (Miller seemed aware of this, introducing Elektra as Matt’s long-lost college love in his first issue.)
Executive producer Stephen DeKnight has admitted that Miller’s work on Daredevil made quite an impression on his younger self, informing his interpretation of the character:
The image that always stuck in my mind was the Frank Miller Elektra run where he’s holding Bullseye over the street, and he lets Bullseye go because he doesn’t want Bullseye to ever kill anyone again. When I read that originally, when I was young, I’d never seen anything like that in comics. Superman scoops up the villain and puts them in jail. This time the hero didn’t do that. It was a morally grey ground that I found absolutely fascinating. There are two sides to this character. He’s literally one bad day away from becoming the The Punisher! Frank Castle went just a little bit further than he did. Daredevil has no qualms about beating the hell out of somebody. He’s not going to tie them up with his webs! He’ll come close to killing somebody.
Condemned arguably marks the point where these sorts of morality issues start coming to the fore. In Cut Man, Matt Murdock seemed fairly indifferent as to the fate of the mobster he hit with a fire extinguisher and threw off a roof. In Condemned, he emphasises his refusal to kill.
When Vladimir accuses Matt of murdering Anatoly, Matt denies it. “You got the wrong guy. I don’t kill people – even scumbags like you who deserve it.” Later, Vladimir warns Matt about Fisk, “There’s only one way to stop him. You know this.” In many ways, this sets up Matt’s arc over the rest of the season, as the vigilante confronts the possibility that it might not be possible to stop Fisk without killing him. It builds off his conversations with Claire in Cut Man and World on Fire, teasing out the idea that Matt’s quest is driven by his own inner demons.
Indeed, when Matt admits that he would happily stand by and watch Vladimir bleed to death if he did not need the information on Fisk, Vladimir calls him out on it. “So you just stand there and let me die, huh? But you couldn’t kill me yourself. Is that where you draw the line?” It appears that Matt subscribes to the Batman Begins school of non-lethal crime-fighting. In fact, the end of Condemned reveals that Matt is quite happy to leave Vladimir and the armed police (or private security) squad in a combat situation that will undoubtedly result in fatalities.
Of course, the ambiguity of the decision is somewhat undercut by the implication that every police officer in Hell’s Kitchen (with the exception of the one knocked unconscious here and Foggy’s old friend) is on Fisk’s payroll. The level of police corruption that exists in Daredevil borders on the absurd. “You find anyone alive, shoot ’em in the head,” the officer overseeing the search shouts. His men reply “got it” and “roger that.” It seems as though the police force in Daredevil is as much a hostile occupying force as a law enforcement agency.
The suggestion that most of Hell’s Kitchen police department is a giant roving death squad for Wilson Fisk fits with the atmosphere of the show and explains why Matt feels the need to take the law into his own hands. At the same time, it removes a significant amount of tension from what Matt does. If a bunch of honest cops tried to take him down, how hard would Matt fight for his freedom? Would he surrender willingly, as he seems to at the start of Condemned, or would he try to break loose?
Miller is quite fond of the idea of corruption inherent to the system. His stories frequently feature the exploitation of the system to the advantage of the rich and powerful – and criminal. In Born Again, Wilson Fisk is given access to a living superweapon by senior figures in the United States military. Police corruption is presented as the default in stories like Sin City and Batman: Year One. Then again, this might be a natural result of Miller’s tendency to portray the city as something akin to a living (possibly hostile) organism.
Miller is probably the writer most responsible for the sheer frequency with which superheroes on shows like Arrow and The Flash (and, yes, Daredevil) use the noun “city.” Miller’s work demonstrates a fascination with the vital workings and structures of the city. Batman: Year One is the story of Gotham as seen through the eyes of Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon. However, this dates back to some of Miller’s earliest work; five issues after taking over Daredevil, he wrote the story Gangwar which juxtaposes the actions of its characters against static shots of and insights into New York itself.
This is not a surprise. Miller’s work on Daredevil was largely influenced by Will Eisner’s work on The Spirit. Eisner was another artist absolutely fascinated with the idea of the city as a system that pushed people together and into conflict, as Greg Smith argued in Will Eisner, Vaudevillian of the Cityscape:
The city architecture impinges on the people who inhabit it, uncomfortably shoving them up against each other like characters on a comics page. Will Eisner sees the city as a prison, but mostly he sees that prison as being created by other people. … There is no escaping other people in the city, and so relationships make Eisner’s characters into jailors.
It is interesting to note how Miller’s Daredevil reinforces the idea. Matt remains in New York, while Elektra – the love of his life – travels the world without him. Wilson Fisk has a chance to enjoy a free life in the world beyond New York, but finds himself pulled back to his old role upon returning to the city.
Miller’s relationship with New York has always been complex and compelling. As Christopher Irving noted in a profile piece for New York City Graphic Novelists, Frank Miller’s Daredevil offered readers a glimpse of New York seldom seen in earlier comics:
Daredevil’s New York, under Frank’s run, became darker and more dangerous than the Spider-Man New York he’d seemingly lived in before. New York City itself, particularly Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, became as much a character as the shadowy crimefighter; the stories often took place on the rooftop level, with water towers, pipes and chimneys jutting out to create a skyline reminiscent of German Expressionism’s dramatic edges and shadows. The bold inks of Klaus Janson complemented Miller’s style, giving Daredevil that final Noir look.
“Have you ever flown over?” Frank posits in defense of his rooftops. “There are really that many water towers. It’s not a joke.”
Indeed, Daredevil is so faithful to Miller’s vision that it even includes a water tower as a point of reference in Cut Man, using it to transition between a conversation from Foggy and Karen to Matt’s interrogation of a suspect on a rooftop.
As such, it seems appropriate that the first season of Daredevil should ultimately boil down to an extended conflict between Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk about the soul of the city; the opening credits of the show even map out the city, emphasising its importance to the narrative and thematic arcs of the season. Daredevil might unfold in a place that shares a name (and a lot of architecture) with a real world locale, but it is just as stylised as any of Miller’s cityscapes. It is not quite Gotham or Sin City, but it occasionally feels close enough.
Of course, there is an argument to be made that Frank Miller’s version of New York is outdated. It has been suggested that Miller’s portrayal of the city in Daredevil might have been influenced with his own experiences of New York – arriving in city from Vermont, the young artist was reportedly mugged several times in a very short space of time. Frank Miller’s work landed at the perfect time; his version of the Caped Crusader has been described as “a creature of the night who seethes with rage, lusts for vengeance — a Batman just right for the urban decay of the 1980s.”
It is quite difficult to imagine The Dark Knight Returns or Year One (or even Born Again) outside the context of the eighties. Discussing his decision to replace Miller’s iconic Batman: Year One with the updated Zero Year, writer Scott Snyder suggested that perhaps Miller’s version of the city had drifted out of touch with contemporary realities:
As a kid, I live in New York and reading Year One I thought, this looks like my city, this looks real. But to do that exact thing now and make Batman grim in the same way, where a lot of it a corollary to urban decay, I don’t think that works for as many people now. Urban decay exists, but I think now people are more afraid of climate change, terrorism, and of economies running on fumes.
To be fair to Steven DeKnight and his production staff, Daredevil does a good job of updating Miller’s concerns. The issues facing the city are not confined to urban crime – they relate to gentrification and erosion. At the start of Stick, Fogey refers to “the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen” as something akin to a “terrorist.”
Nevertheless, it is clear that Daredevil owes a rather conscious and clear debt to Frank Miller – one that extends beyond even the title character. Condemned owes more to Batman: Year One than it does to The Man Without Fear. The plot of the episode finds a hunted vigilante trapped inside a dilapidated building as a corrupt police force stalks him. It is very clearly modeled on the same sequence from Batman: Year One that inspired the escape from Arkham Asylum in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.
It is one of the most iconic superhero sequences ever committed to the page. It is instantly memorable, and one of the biggest dramatic beats in one of the best-loves superhero stories of all time. There was even a poster commissioned by Mondo for the celebration of the character’s seventy-fifth anniversary. As such, it is no surprise that it should be of interest to the producers of Daredevil. If Frank Miller is really the godfather of the television series, it makes no sense to limit the focus to just one piece of his work.
Condemned perhaps leans a little bit too heavily on the contrast between Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk. The show has worked quite hard to parallel their arcs to this point – World on Fire featured the two promising to clean up the city around them as their lovers contemplated what it would be like to love somebody with that passion and power. However, Condemned does over-egg the pudding a little bit, veering away from clever structuring and into the realm of stock superhero storytelling.
Presenting the villain as a foil to the hero is just basic storytelling. It allows the characters to compliment and contrast one another, allowing the viewer a keener insight into what makes each character tick. Are they forces that are fundamentally opposed to one another? Or are they just twisted reflections of each other? It is an approach that invites a lot of drama and a lot of interesting development for both the characters and the world around them. It is efficient and it is clean; it can also be elegant.
Condemned is not elegant in how it deals with the overlap between Wilson Fisk and Matt Murdock. As Vladimir lies dying on the floor, he taunts the vigilante, “You think you’re different… from me? From him? But you’ll get there. Sooner or later… we all do, men like us.” Given that Vladimir is a human trafficker who abducts children, it hardly seems like the most compelling criticism. Matt has made any number of reckless and questionable decisions, but he is a long way from that manner of monstitude.
To be fair, it takes a lot of effort to blur the line between organised criminals who traffic in children and the men who throw those organised criminals off buildings. Neither behaviour should be encouraged or considered healthy, but Vladimir’s rhetoric seems like a collection of cheap shots. Matt is dealing with the idea that he might have to murder the head of a vast crime syndicate; it is tough choice, but it is not one that really lends itself to a convincing slippery slope argument when it comes to the scale of the evil committed by Fisk.
It is great that the show waits until Condemned to put Matt and Fisk into direct contact with one another. The two have a couple more episodes to kill before they come face-to-face, but there is something quite exciting about the idea of prolonging the audience’s anticipation. It is a decision that really underscores the strengths of something like Daredevil. On a network drama, there would be more pressure to get to that big confrontation quicker. Everything would be more tense and more rushed. Instead, Daredevil luxuriates in the space afforded it.
At the same time, the script’s efforts to compare and contrast Matt and Fisk feel rather heavy-handed and clumsy. “Not that I don’t admire what you’re trying to do,” Fisk confesses. “To change the world… with nothing but desire and your own two hands… secure in the knowledge that you’re doing the right thing, the only thing. That’s something that I do understand. But we both can’t have what we want. So, your part in this drama, by necessity, comes to an end.” It is a very big and bold villain speech, and Vincent D’Onofrio sells the hell out of it, but it does feel just a little bit too much.
Condemned really marks a turning point in the season. It is an episode that begins the transition into the second half of the season. It brings Matt and Fisk together for the first time, while getting rid of the last element of the Russians. It gives Matt the name of somebody else in the syndicate, allowing his quest to continue. It clears the way for Wilson Fisk. Although Stick interrupts things somewhat, Condemned marks a turning point for the show and its characters. The opening act of this thirteen-part origin story is over.