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Daredevil – Kinbaku (Review)

This month, we’re doing daily reviews of the second season of Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.

Although she appeared in a small cameo at the end of Penny and Dime, Kinbaku marks the proper introduction of Elektra.

Elektra is very much an essential part of the Daredevil mythos, tied to Matthew Murdock since her introduction all the way back in Daredevil #168. There was even a thinly-veiled reference to the character buried deep in the first season, with Foggy making a nod towards Matt’s Greek girlfriend in one of the flashbacks in Nelson v. Murdock. Elektra was always going to be a part of Daredevil. It seems the only reason the show waited a full season was due to the Jennifer Garner twin disasters of Daredevil and Elektra.

Enter Elektra...

Enter Elektra…

After all, Daredevil owes a lot to Frank Miller. Like every Daredevil story or adaptation after 1980, the television show is steeped in the mythology that Frank Miller carved out for the character. It was Frank Miller who elevated the Kingpin from a b-list Spider-man villain to an a-list Daredevil baddie. It was Frank Miller who introduced Stick, adding a whole host of ninja training to Matt Murdock’s back story. It was Frank Miller who turned Matt Murdock’s life into a slow-moving trainwreck. As such, Frank Miller’s fingerprints are all over this adaptation.

However, Elektra remains Frank Miller’s most lasting and enduring original contribution to Marvel. While Miller transformed and defined characters like Daredevil and Wolverine, Elektra was created from whole cloth. More than any other character, Elektra is Frank Miller’s baby. She represents the pinnacle of Frank Miller’s contribution to the character’s mythos. She is very much “peak Miller.”

Superhero sex...

Superhero sex…

Frank Miller is a massively influential figure in American comic books. In terms of companies like DC and Marvel, Miller is not the most prolific of writers. He certainly doesn’t have a bibliography as long as other medium-defining writers like Alan Moore or Grant Morrison. He has probably written fewer superhero comics than other genre innovators like Garth Ennis or Warren Ellis. However, Miller is a writer and artist who shaped and defined the medium as whole.

Alongside Alan Moore, Frank Miller transformed superhero comics during the eighties. There are any number of obvious parallels. Both Moore and Miller made their first impression with an extended run on a reasonably b-list title. Miller pencilled Daredevil starting in May 1979 before taking on writing duties in January 1981, wrapping up his run in February 1983. Alan Moore enjoyed an extended run on Swamp Thing starting in January 1984 and ending in September 1987.

Their chemistry is Elektra-fying...

Their chemistry is Elektra-fying…

However, both Moore and Miller are best known for their stand-alone 1986 comic series; Moore’s Watchmen and Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. These comics changed the way that readers and publishers looked at the industry. Miller has acknowledged the similarities, suggesting that there was simply something in the air:

Oh, I think that the two books were bound to be tied up together and compared a lot. For one thing, as it is that–all of us are really good friends. But beyond that, there was something in the air–I mean, something that could be shaken up with all these old superheroes, because they were really getting stale. I mean, for goodness’ sakes, Batman was deputized. How wrong is that? And then, ultimately, the differences between me and Alan as writers shone through. I mean, I like to joke that when it comes to superheroes, Alan Moore provided the autopsy and I provided the brass-band funeral.

Moore and Miller brought a cynical self-awareness to the superhero genre that really resonated with audiences. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns are perhaps the best examples of “mature superhero comics.” Naturally, they inspired a wave of imitators, few of whom could match Moore and Miller’s technical abilities.

Dancing with the devil...

Dancing with the devil…

So Miller shaped and redefined the superhero genre in the eighties. There is no escaping his shadow. His influence is still keenly felt in March 2016. It is no coincidence that Batman vs. Superman was announced by having Harry Lennix read a quote from The Dark Knight Returns as Comic Con 2013. Similarly, the second season of Daredevil truly embraces the heritage of Frank Miller by shifting from characters and concepts Miller appropriated for the mythos towards characters and concepts that Frank Miller created for the mythos.

At the same time, it is impossible to talk about Frank Miller without acknowledging that he is a deeply problematic writer. He is a very talented writer and artist, one who pitches his stories on an operatic level. However, his politics can be difficult at times. Miller rather famously railed against the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters as “thieves and rapists” and has made statements that could be interpreted as Islamophobic. Even without this context, some of his work – including 300 and Holy Terror – is deeply controversial.

Lights in darkness...

Lights in darkness…

Nevertheless, Miller is a huge deal. It is telling that the first two seasons of the show have relentlessly mined his run as writer and artist on Daredevil. Miller transformed Daredevil from a generic Spider-man knock-off into one of the most dynamic characters on the stands. When Frank Miller took over Daredevil, it was a failing title. The comic was published once every two months, indicating a comic on the cusp of cancellation. After only three issues as writer, the comic was bumped back to a regular monthly schedule. It is no exaggeration to say Miller saved Daredevil.

Miller’s influence is keenly felt in adaptations of the source material. One of the biggest issues with Mark Steven Johnson’s adaptation of the comic book character was that it was too faithful to Frank Miller. While Bullseye’s murder of Elektra with a badass one-liner seemed horrifying on the comic book page in April 1982, it seemed ridiculous when rendered with Colin Farrell’s Irish accent in February 2003. Johnson struggled to adapt the bulk of Frank Miller’s run into a two-hour film, while struggling to get the tone right.

Suggestively place knife, eh?

Suggestively place knife, eh?

The television series has gotten a better read on Frank Miller’s work. Perhaps acknowledging that there entire seasons to be produced, Daredevil has taken its time unfurling Frank Miller’s take on the title character. The first season borrowed rather heavily from Frank Miller’s work with the Kingpin. It even lifted specific plot points, having some of the Kingpin’s associates poison Vanessa in Nelson v. Murdock because they felt he was going soft, and putting Vanessa in a coma in The Path of the Righteous.

The second season shifts its emphasis to the more mystic aspects of Frank Miller’s original run. These elements were teased in Stick in the middle of the first season, but the second season commits to ideas like Elektra and the Hand. Splitting Frank Miller’s material out across twenty-six episodes allows it all room to breath, rather than trying to condense it down into a single two-hour feature film. Generally speaking, it is a reasonable approach to adaptation, even if Elektra and the Hand prove tougher to adapt than Wilson and Vanessa Fisk.

Fight to the finish...

Fight to the finish…

(It should be noted that the first two seasons of Daredevil actually mine a lot of the material from Miller’s original twenty-three issue run as writer on the character. There is not much left from that original stretch of issues, beyond Miller’s work reimagining the hired killer Bullseye. With that in mind, and given the tease of Fisk getting suspicious about Matthew Murdock at the end of The Man in the Box, it seems likely that future seasons will begin drawing from Miller’s later material with the character; most likely Born Again.)

Elektra is very much a special case. A lot of working in superhero comics involves playing with existing properties and reworking original ideas. Frank Miller might have defined characters like Daredevil, Kingpin and Bullseye, but he did not create them. Similarly, Alan Moore might have a huge impact on Swamp Thing, but he did not create the character. As a result, characters actually created by defining writers take on a special symbolic importance. John Constantine is Alan Moore’s legacy to DC. Jessica Jones is Brian Bendis’ big original creation.

Fightin' finish...

Fightin’ finish…

Elektra is very much Frank Miller’s baby. She is the character that Frank Miller created when he was assigned as writer of Daredevil. She appeared in Daredevil #168, Miller’s first issue as writer, and one that very immediately set the writer’s tone for the book. It also, for example, featured the first glimpse of the “headscarf” disguise that Miller and Romita would return to in The Man Without Fear and which the first season of Daredevil would employ to great effect in its extended superhero origin story.

As such, Elektra is the ultimate expression of Frank Miller’s contribution to the Daredevil mythos. She is the character created from whole cloth and slotted in at the exact point that Frank Miller transformed the character and his world forever. Daredevil exists “pre-Miller/Elektra” and “post-Miller/Elektra.” She represents a line in the sand, a point from which there everything changed and nothing was ever the same again. It is impossible to imagine an adaptation of Frank Miller’s Daredevil without Elektra.

Driving dynamic...

Driving dynamic…

However, this all ties back into issues of authorship and ownership as it relates to comic book publishing. Frank Miller has always felt a sense of ownership of Elektra, to the point that he killed off the character a little over half-way through his run. Impaled on her own sai by the psychotic assassin Bullseye, it initially seemed like Elektra would remain unique to Frank Miller’s tenure on the title. Elektra would remain a character tied to Frank Miller as much as to the larger Daredevil mythos.

Of course, that is not how mainstream comics work. Elektra was resurrected within a year of her death. Miller himself resurrected her in the double-length penultimate issue of his run, replacing her iconic red outfit with a more innocent white variant. Last seen wandering alone through the snow, the comic seemed to suggest that Elektra had finally freed herself of the cycle of violence tied to Matthew Murdock. Miller considered Elektra to be a closed book, to the point he wrote multiple endings to her saga.

On the ropes...

On the ropes…

Reportedly, Frank Miller had stuck a gentleman’s agreement with Ralph Macchio that Elektra would remain a character exclusive to Frank Miller. However, the realities of mainstream comics made this a promise that could not be kept. As Pat Garrahy explains:

Ralph promised Frank Miller years ago that he would keep Elektra dead. He meant to keep his promise. But he made the promise when Marvel was a close-knit company, and Marvel the corporation had no intention of leaving Elektra an unturned stone. The orders for Elektra’s return came from above–they wanted to play with her potential as an action figure.

Under the circumstances, I think we did a really good job of bringing her back. The one thing we tried to do was keep Elektra’s return a secret so it would shock the hell out of everyone. Somewhere early along the way we had a huge response to the first few issues of Daredevil. And we never expected the “press” exposure to be so relentless. So we let it slip.

To be fair, it is surprising that it took so long for Elektra to return. Although Miller finished working on the character in the eighties, she did not re-enter the fold until writer D.G. Chichester was working with artists Scott McDaniel and Hector Collazo on the Fall From Grace storyline in 1993.

I heard the news today, oh boy...

I heard the news today, oh boy…

Again, this is very much the reality of corporate comics. Writers do not retain ownerships of their characters or their concepts. Once released into the shared universe of corporate intellectual property, they take on a life of their own. Alan Moore only made a few minor contributions to the shared universe, but those contributions have been harnessed by later writers and fashioned into a cornerstone of the mythos. Moore has sarcastically quipped about DC “going through [his] trashcan like raccoons in the dead of the night” looking for ideas in his old stories.

John Constantine and Elektra Natchios have lives beyond Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Constantine arguably moreso, to the point that writers like Alan Moore and Jamie Delano claim to have actually encountered the magician drifting through the real world. Elektra took on a more modest sort of life, becoming a recurring figure in various comic books and even launching several monthly series under her own name. Nevertheless, Elektra remains very firmly associated with Frank Miller.

"Does this place do take-out?"

“Does this place do take-out?”

In fact, Miller has frequently talked about how he considers Elektra to be dead. Marvel might still use a character who shares her appearance and name, but Miller insists that Elektra does not exist outside his own work:

When a character’s been published monthly for forty or seventy years, a reader has to pick and choose between the good work and the bad. And if a talent has either made up a character or left his indelible stamp on it, a reader is under no obligation to blindly follow whatever nonsense the publisher pumps out. Surely no reasonable James Bond follower would demand that fans of Sean Connery’s Bond should be required to stick with every actor that succeeded him. As audience, we are the judges of what we consider meritorious.

Did I mention that Elektra is dead?

Miller is very protective the character, asserting a model of authorship and continuity that runs counter to the model traditionally enforced by the major companies, but which makes for a much more satisfying way to read comic book narratives. (Quite pointedly, he has also praised DC for their restraint in using Neil Gaiman’s Sandman characters.)

Propping up the bar...

Propping up the bar…

In fact, Miller’s final word on the subject comes in the graphic novel Elektra Lives Again, which was written towards the end of his Daredevil run. Despite the ironic title, the comic seems to suggest in no uncertain terms that Elektra is dead. Given that the graphic novel was written as Miller was transitioning away from mainstream comic book publishing – although he would dip his toe back into the water for a few short runs in the years that follow – it has been suggested that the death of Elektra carries huge symbolic importance for Miller.

Elektra represents the gift that Miller gave to the shared Marvel universe, his most significant original creation. As such, her death represents Miller turning away from Marvel and DC. The death of Elektra represents Miller moving away from the grind of monthly superhero stories and towards his more iconoclastic work. The death of Elektra paves the way for Miller to start again, giving him the clean slate that he afforded the character at the end of his penultimate issue, clad in white and wandering into a snowstorm. Whiteness that evokes a blank page; a clean slate.

Getting it in the neck...

Getting it in the neck…

Alec Berry summarises this argument quite effectively:

Elektra represents Miller’s time with superhero comics. She is his key, clear, tactile creation up until this point in his career with Marvel and DC. It’s arguable that he changed the genre these publishers publish by utilizing a particular tone/structure/pace previously unseen in this material, but Elektra is something Marvel can actually attribute a credit to. And that means something. Something Miller knew when making Elektra Lives Again. And that may be why he had to let her go. He needed to be removed of this elephant in order to do Hard Boiled, Sin City and Martha Washington. Because without her, he has nothing, and must start again.

As such, it makes sense that Miller would be protective of the character. And her death.

View to a kill...

View to a kill…

This makes Elektra something of a controversial character. Marvel and its staff are perfectly within their right to use the character in whatever way they see fit. However, other writers and artists are understandably wary of using Elektra. When Kevin Smith launched a new volume of Daredevil in 1998, he steered clear of Elektra. He explained why in The Men Without Fear:

When we were working on Guardian Devil, I had zero interest in touching Elektra. It was bad enough that we were touching Daredevil, which we’d all felt was Frank’s character and will always be Frank’s character. So that was a dark enough, long enough shadow to work in without having to bring Elektra into it. And I felt too that Frank had done the Elektra Lives Again graphic novel, which nobody was ever sure whether it was canon or not, whether it was part of the continuity or not. But, in that book, Elektra was very clearly dead. And unlike, you know, Daredevil, the Kingpin, or even Bullseye… Frank created Elektra. It was his character. So Joe’s position – and my position as well – was like, “Frank says she’s dead; she’s dead.” You know, Frank killed her in one of his storylines and that’s that. I mean, it’s one thing to go into your dad’s closet and put on your dad’s clothes. It’s another thing to f?!# your dad’s wife. And that’s kinda how I felt about working with Elektra. It’s one thing to play in the Daredevil universe. To add insult to injury and be like “I’m going to do Elektra too”? Nah, forget it.

Smith is clearly not the only writer who feels this way. Brian Michael Bendis used Elektra during his celebrated run on Daredevil, but made a point to reveal that this version of the character was really a shape-changing imposter during his New Avengers run. Bendis has been unambiguous that he was writing a character who was clearly an imposter when she appeared in Daredevil.

Kiss me, kill me.

Kiss me, kill me.

As such, it is no surprise that Elektra’s appearance during the second season of Daredevil should be so controversial. Frank Miller himself insisted that any version of Elektra who appeared on the show would not be the real version of his iconic ninja assassin. Miller was quoted as contending “they can call it whatever you want, but it will not be the real Elektra.” This generated a predictable backlash and response, stirring a mini controversy. Miller also added, “I’m her father.” Given the character is named Elektra, that seems like quite a loaded (and dangerous) statement.

Nevertheless, it should be conceded that Elektra is very much a problematic character. She is a heavily sexualised ninja assassin, potent mix of sex and violence that plays like a male fantasy brought to life. There is a debate to be had about whether Miller allows Elektra her own agency over the course of that early Daredevil run, or whether she is simply a tool used to make Matthew Murdock seem more interesting by association. That is before getting into her sexualised death by penetration or the sexual abuse that Miller would write into her back story.

Shaken, not stirred...

Shaken, not stirred…

To Frank Miller, Elektra represented the ideal of superhero sex. Superheroes lived lives filled with epic action and adventure; to Miller their sex should be similarly impressive. Miller acknowledges sex and violence as his twin vices:

It’s not possible to tell a good story without conflict, and the best forms of conflict are sex and violence.  I make no apologies for the kind of work I do.  You’ll find plenty of violence and sex in grand opera and epic poetry too.

There is a sense that Miller earnestly believes this, even if some of the resulting images can cross a line between operatic and goofy.

Touching...

Touching…

Miller’s approach to superhero sex can be seen in his later work, with Batman and Black Canary making love on burning docks in All-Star Batman and Robin or Superman and Wonder Woman levelling mountains in The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Elektra was an early meditation on the theme. As he explained to The Men Without Fear:

I thought there was something stupid about how superheroes always had these stupid normal girls for girlfriends. Why? I mean, why would there be a Lois Lane to Superman? Why not Wonder Woman? She could match him? Why wouldn’t these people be operatic in their romance the way they are in their combat? Is there anything more sipid in seeing a superhero in a love scene and all of a sudden he’s just another guy who looks like us, in a bed naked? No, these people bring down buildings with their passion. That’s what they do with their fights. And Daredevil needed a romance that was worthy of him and his passion… and his physicality.

DC embraced his Superman/Wonder Woman idea, using the “new 52” as an excuse to pair up the two as part of an on-going Superman/Wonder Woman title. Of course, demonstrating the shared heritage of most modern superhero comics, the move could also be seen as a nod to Alan Moore’s aborted Twilight of the Superheroes pitch.

Drinking buddies...

Drinking buddies…

Even beyond the character’s hypersexualised elements, Elektra was a character who (in her definitive form) was largely glimpsed through the prism of Matthew Murdock. Even her death was largely fodder to a climactic confrontation between Daredevil and Bullseye, during which the former left that latter paralysed. To be fair, Miller later made great efforts to flesh out her back story and motivation, whether in his penultimate issue or in his Elektra: Assassin miniseries. However, she was still a character killed to generate trauma for a male hero.

Of course, Elektra debuted over a decade before Gail Simone would coin the phrase “women in refrigerators” to describe the tendency of comic book publishers to traumatise and victimise female characters to provide motivation for male protagonists. It is not a phenomenon that is unique to comic books, but it is something that has become part of a larger conversation about popular culture. One of the big issues facing any writer writing an adaptation of Frank Miller’s Elektra saga is how to approach the eponymous character.

Haven't the Foggy-est...

Haven’t the Foggy-est…

Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez are acutely aware of this problem, and the second season of Daredevil does tread very lightly in its handling of Elektra. In particular, Petrie took the time to land a passive-aggressive jab at Frank Miller’s portrayal of Elektra while fending off the writer’s criticism:

“God bless him, it’s his prerogative,” Petrie replied. “I’m a huge fan of what he did, so the [criticism] doesn’t go both ways. I wouldn’t say, ‘What does Frank Miller know?’ I’m so inspired by him and what he achieved and I’m trying to take it further and enrich her. She’s an empowered woman with her own agency, she’s nobody’s victim.”

For a writer who claims to be a “huge fan” of what Frank Miller did, Petrie works hard to score points against the writer. His desire to “enrich” Elektra by rendering her “an empowered woman with her own agency” comes with some implicit (and entirely fair) criticism of Miller’s work.

Stepping out...

Stepping out…

It is interesting how exactly Petrie and Ramirez choose to enrich Elektra. The pair consciously downplay her father issues. Elektra’s father never actually appears. In fact, The Dark at the End of the Tunnel makes it clear that Elektra is not the biological child of the man whose company she inherited. The character’s “daddy issues” are rendered relatively abstract, with the strongest reference to Miller’s abusive father coming in her acknowledgement that Matt knows “know what it’s like to clean up [his] father’s messes.”

This shift makes a certain amount of sense. After all, a female character named “Elektra” with stereotypical “daddy issues” feels a little clunky and heavy-handed. It also allows Petrie and Ramirez to complete side-step Miller’s late addition of childhood sexual trauma to Elektra’s back story, which always seemed like a rather cheap way of delving into the psychology of a brutal female assassin – even if it did play to Miller’s broad operatic sensibilities. However, the decision to sideline Elektra’s father does come at a cost.

Sweeney, the swine!

Sweeney, the swine!

Fathers are a big deal in the world of Daredevil. Matt Murdock himself is nothing but a bundle of “daddy issues”, a collection of psychological traumas tied up in a whole host of fathers and father-figures – “Battlin’ Jack” Murdock, Stick, God. Again, this ties back into the show’s religious themes. In this respect, God is the ultimate father; whether absent or withholding or ever-loving. It is no coincidence that Matt is introduced in Into the Ring confessing his sins to (and implicitly seeking the approval of) Father Lantom.

The second season of Daredevil consciously sidelines its religious themes and downplays these familial anxieties. However, they still simmer in the background. If Matt is a son haunted by the loss of his father, then Frank Castle is father haunted by his failure to protect his family. Elektra plays through her own weird father-daughter dynamic with Stick, starting in The Man in the Box. Unfortunately, like a lot of the second season, these themes never coalesce into anything particularly satisfying. Elektra’s father issues never quite parallel Matt’s.

Twisted reflection...

Twisted reflection…

However, some of the other changes to Elektra’s character ultimately feel more superficial than essential. For example, Petrie and Ramirez do not write Elektra as an assassin. Instead, she is introduced as a dilettante with deadly martial arts skills. It feels like a change that complicates the plotting a little bit. Matt is repulsed by the idea that Elektra is a killer, but it seems like that point might have been more effectively made if she was a killer by profession rather than on the side. (It would also have contrasted her with Frank, a killer for revenge.)

More than that, it is highly debatable whether the show affords Elektra any more agency than her comic book counterpart. For all Frank Miller treated his Elektra as secondary to Matt Murdock, he introduced Elektra as an assassin with her own business that just happened to intersect with that of Matt, their reunion happening by accident. In contrast, the show has Elektra actively seeking Matt. “I didn’t need you,” she boasts to Matt when they talk in the restaurant, but that seems an exaggeration.

Making a house a home...

Making a house a home…

It is true that the entire season hinges on Elektra making a choice about her destiny in The Dark at the End of the Tunnel, with the script presenting Elektra caught between the expectations of various male characters (Stick, the Hand) and trying to define her own course. Unfortunately, the episode is scripted and directed so that her entire decision hinges on Matt. It ultimately seems that Elektra does not make the choice because she has her own agency, but because Matt is able to convince her that she has agency.

It does not help matters that Guilty as Sin robs Elektra of any of the agency she seems to possess in Kinbaku. Rather than engaging in a flirtation and romance with Matt because she wanted to, it turns out that she engaged with a flirtation and romance with Matt because Stick told her to. More than that, she did not betray her mission because she made a choice on her own terms, she betrayed her mission because she feel in love with Matt. It is every bit as clichéd as Miller’s approach to the character, but is just more convoluted.

She even picked up his suit!

She even picked up his suit!

Similarly, it is worth noting that Petrie’s claims about Elektra being “nobody’s victim” are ultimately disingenuous. Elektra ends the season as Nobu’s victim. She is not murdered by a character as prominent as Bullseye in this telling of the Elektra saga, and her death is not presented in such an overtly sexualised manner, but A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen ends with the character rendered as a victim. She does not even die on her own terms. Whereas Bullseye specifically targeted Elektra for botching a hit, here she is caught in the crossfire between Daredevil and the Hand.

Even in Kinbaku, Elektra is primarily treated as a character who exists to progress Matt’s arc. The flashback sequences suggest that Elektra is responsible for unlocking the violent impulses inside of Matt, those expressed in the flashbacks in Nelson v. Murdock or in the teaser to Into the Ring. The implication is that Elektra is vital to Matt’s self-actualisation, realising his potential and becoming who he is meant to be. At the end of Kinbaku, she manipulates Matt into taking on the Hand-as-Yakuza as Daredevil. “Do I need to push you this time?” she teases.

Cooking up a storm...

Cooking up a storm…

As such, Elektra conforms to something of a contemporary stock character. Although its originator has since disavowed the term, Elektra conforms to the archetype that many would describe as the “manic dream pixie girl”, the free spirit who inspires an uptight male protagonist to loosen up a bit. As Natalie Portman, the originator of the archetype, has conceded, it is a complicated trope:

When I read [the Garden State script] I was like, ‘Oh, this is a character that’s wacky and interesting, and no one’s ever given me a chance to play something like this. It’s this sort of unusual girl. So that was my incentive to make it. But of course I see that trope and I think it’s a good thing to recognize the way those female characters are used. I mean, I appreciate that people are writing characters that are interesting and unusual, rather than some bland female character as the girlfriend in a movie, but when the point of the character in this movie is to, like, help the guy have his arc, that’s sort of the problem, and that’s why it’s good that they’re talking about it, because it certainly is a troubling trope.

Elektra is played as something of a superhero slant on the trope. Matt Murdock is an uptight lawyer who bottles up all of his emotions. Discussing the death of his father, Matt reflects on how he “got nothing, learned to live with it.” However, Elektra arrives in his life and ignites passions that he never knew existed. (That might just be the most millennial superhero origin ever.)

This could easily become cheesy...

This could easily become cheesy…

As a result, the television version of Elektra is ultimately a problematic character in ways that are superficially different than her comic book counterpart. At the same time, Petrie and Ramirez make a conscious effort to flesh out and develop Elektra. She is engaging and exciting, even if the show does not always handle her as well as it might. Elodie Yung is fantastic in the role, simmering and sultry. One of the strengths of the second season of Daredevil is the show’s willingness to embrace a very comic-book-y sensibility. It is decidedly pulpy.

For example, the show plays its “good girl”/“bad girl” dynamic refreshingly straight. It takes the old superhero convention of the secret identity girlfriend issue and pushes it as far as it will go. Karen Page is presented as the pure and virtuous girlfriend of lawyer Matthew Murdock, while Elektra Natchios is the aggressive and forthright girlfriend of vigilante Daredevil. It is very much in the spirit of Stan Lee’s classic Marvel romances, albeit with more of a Frank Miller edge to it.

Operating on another level...

Operating on another level…

It is an approach that sounds ridiculous in theory. It is a superhero twist on the whole “Betty and Veronica” dynamic. Karen Page is the proper chaste young woman. Matt and Karen share a single chaste kiss in the rain at the end of Penny and Dime, with the music getting sweet and time seeming to move in slow motion. Matt’s advances also move in slow motion. Coming back from that kiss he asks, “Can I take you to dinner?” On their second date, she offers, “You can come up… if you’d like?” He replies, “I would love to.” Karen acknowledges, “But you won’t.”

Karen is so pure that Matt almost treats her as virginal. She is an ideal. The first season suggested that Matt was something of a promiscuous individual with an active sex life, but he consciously slows down his relationship with Karen. There is a sense that this is Matthew Murdock’s inner Catholic expressing itself. Karen is such an ideal to Matt that he is actually able to suppress all of those base urges in a way that he struggles to otherwise. Stick might have pledged his allegiance to the Chaste, but it applies as much to Matt’s relationship with Karen.

Paging the love doctor...

Paging the love doctor…

In contrast, Elektra is presented as hyper-sexual bad girl. When she passes comment on his furniture, Matt reflects, “I kind of liked my old futon.” She coyly replies, “I liked breaking it in.” However, Elektra represents more than sex. She represents all of Matt’s base instincts, the pure physicality that he channels into Daredevil. She is very much in the spirit of Miller’s approach to superhero sex. The two make passionate love for the first time the gym where Matt’s father used to train, but only after trading blows.

For Matt and Elektra, foreplay amounts to wrestling. She punches him, and eagerly insists that he punch her back. “Get me back!” she insists, suggesting that she is driven by more than just a sense of sportsmanship after punching a blind guy. It is only after Matt has bloodied her lip that the two of them can make passionate love, in what is the most explicit sex scene of the show’s twenty-six episode run. Violence and sex co-mingle even during their make-out session, the scene closing on Matt’s hand around Elektra’s throat.

The best superhero girlfriend ever, bar none...

The best superhero girlfriend ever, bar none…

It is worth comparing and contrasting the sex scene in Kinbaku to the sex scenes on Jessica Jones. Beginning with AKA Ladies’ Night, it was clear that Jessica Jones was going to embrace superhero sexuality. However, that sexuality was expressed through sheer physical force. Over the course of the season, the passion between Jessica and Luke was measured in dented walls and broken beds. It was very much a raw physical approach to intimacy, treating sex as something forceful and powerful.

There are quite a few differences between Daredevil and Jessica Jones, but the most obvious is the difference in how the shows approach their superhero themes. Jessica Jones is a show that is much less romantic about superhero conventions, whereas Daredevil is very much in love with those same tropes. So while Jessica Jones presents superhero sex as a very crude (albeit energetic) affair, it makes sense for Daredevil to approach a more idealised depiction of superhero sex.

Hair-raisingly good sex...

Hair-raisingly good sex…

Indeed, the sex scene between Matt and Elektra is shot in a heavily stylised manner, the ideal of sex. It is full of slow motion shots and reactions, focusing on skin brushing against skin and hair flying through the air. There is no punchline undercutting the scene about the dent that that two left on the mat. Instead, Kinbaku plays everything disarmingly straight. It is sensuous, luxurious, passionate. It is not the raw physical act as presented on Jessica Jones, but more of a spiritual connection in line with the aesthetics of Daredevil.

Indeed, Kinbaku benefits from fantastic direction from Floria Sigismondi. There are some beautiful shots and compositions that do an excellent job elevating the pulpy plotting into a truly visceral experience. Even during the sex scene, the decision to linger on Matt and Elektra’s hands helps to emphasise the intimacy of the moment, particularly as experienced through tactile contact. Given that Matt is blind, it is a very effective way of rendering such a scene.

A towering accomplishment.

A towering accomplishment.

Sigismondi also does great work on the less dynamic date between Matt and Karen. In particular, the sequence where Matt wanders out into the madness of Hell’s Kitchen after his date as the camera spins around him does an excellent job conveying what appeals to Matt about Karen. Kinbaku is packed full of lots of interesting choices and images, which is particularly remarkable give that it is a fairly light episode of the show when it comes to traditional action beats. Sigismondi demonstrates that the show can still be interesting even when things slow down a bit.

The second season of Daredevil has some very key weaknesses, but its willingness to commit to this sort of comic book storytelling in an unapologetic manner is refreshing. While the “good girl”/“bad girl” triangle might be genre staple of superhero comics, it has been been played out so clearly and so effectively across a season of television. The second season of Daredevil might struggle with Frank Castle and Elektra Natchios, but it does not hide from the pulpier elements of its source material.

Food for thought...

Food for thought…

This is one of the season’s key strengths. After all, a lot of the core elements of the season seem ridiculous on paper. The first season had the luxury of doing a standard superhero origin story with a villain who was basically a mobster. The second season is tackling two very complicated and difficult characters on top of a season arc built around mystical ninja assassins. It might not work perfectly or consistently, but the second season is endearingly unapologetic in trying to make it work.

As much as Matt and Elektra might have a very familiar arc, there is something compelling in watching the two of them together, given room to breath. A lot of this is down to the talent involved. Charlie Cox is an underrated gem in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Elodie Yung is fantastic as Elektra. Floria Sigimondi is one of the show’s most visually interesting directors. However, a lot of it is the willingness to give Matt and Elektra a bit of space in order to work, to carry ideas through to their conclusions.

Matt's super ex-girlfriend.

Matt’s super ex-girlfriend.

The sequence of Matt and Elektra breaking into Roscoe Sweeney’s house is particularly effective. The sequence is full of delightful little touches; Matt catches objects as Elektra throws them, free from having to conform to what society expects of a blind man. Indeed, Matt and Elektra openly scoff at the expectations of high society living, with Elektra shattering expensive crystal glasses as a rejection of the sort of social pretense that Roscoe Sweeney lives. If social acceptance is something that a thug like Sweeney can buy, while forcing Matt and Elektra to hide, what good is it?

It is a delightful parody of domesticity (“couple a’ kids playin’ house”), a sequence that communicates why Matt and Elektra are drawn together. Both Matt and Elektra are confined by what society wants them to be. Elektra was adopted into the sort of material wealth that surrounds Roscoe Sweeney, while Matt was forced to study hard in pursuit of it. However, all that money and fine dining and expensive crystal does not satisfy either of them. It becomes an expensive cage, a cage that Matt did not realise he was railing against until he met Elektra.

Wined and dined.

Wined and dined.

(That said, the direction of Kinbaku is a little unnecessarily ambiguous during the confrontation with Sweeney. It seems like Elektra killed him. After all, he had identified Matt. “Know I know your name,” he threatens. “Nothing will stop me from bloodyin’ the street with your corpse.” While Matt might have sent him to prison, it does seem like an odd loose end. When the scene cuts back, there is the sound of a snap; Elektra is gone, the door is open, Sweeney lies still. Was the snap the snap of Sweeney’s neck or the opening of the door? It is a little unclear.)

Kinbaku is a fascinating hour of Daredevil. It struggles with some of the season’s weaknesses, and sews the seeds for bigger problems down the line, but it also plays as a showcase of the season’s strengths. It’s an ambitious and visually compelling hour of television.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the second season of Daredevil:

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4 Responses

  1. Big Damn Heroes, and now Betty and Veronica. Somebody is a TV Troper.

  2. This is really good insight into Frank Miller and Daredevil history. Thanks for the Elektra 101 especially.

    • Thanks Marc, glad you enjoyed! I find breaking down a thirteen-episode season by theme helps to keep me focused, rather than doing a simple beat-by-beat recap.

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