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Daredevil – The Dark at the End of the Tunnel (Review)

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

Adaptation is a tricky business.

One of the more interesting aspects of the comic book movie boom that occurred in the years following Blade (although really kicking into gear with X-Men and Spider-Man) has been the discussion over narrative fidelity. It seems like a comic book adaptation is no longer truly judged on its own merits, but weighed against how faithfully it recreates its source material. It is not enough to produce a good superhero film, it is expected that most contemporary production teams should produce a good superhero adaptation.

Trinity.

Trinity.

This would have seemed ridiculous during the nineties. After all, Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns stand as two of the most successful superhero films of the decade, and they are arguably better described as “Tim Burton films” than “Batman films.” There was a point at which Tim Burton was planning to direct his own Superman film that would have been (very) loosely inspired by The Death and Return of Superman written by Kevin Smith and starring Nicolas Cage, a giant spider, and some polar bears.

Largely driven by the success of the Marvel Studios business model, however, it seems that contemporary superhero films and television shows are expected to show their work and to emphasise their connection to the source material.

"Let's turn this town into a warzone. A Punisher: Warzone."

“Let’s turn this town into a warzone. A Punisher: Warzone.”

A lot of this current trend can be traced back to the success of the Marvel Studios model, with the launch of Iron Man in 2008. One of the big innovations that Marvel Studios brought to superhero cinema was the idea of appropriating comic book storytelling sensibilities for the live action medium. Franchises have long been the backbone of the Hollywood economy, but Marvel Studios invested in a storytelling model that owed a lot more to the source medium.

With Samuel L. Jackson’s cameo at the end of Iron Man, it became clear that Marvel Studios were appropriated a shared superhero comic book continuity for the big screen. When Nick Fury promised Tony Stark that he was about to become “part of a bigger universe”, Marvel Studios was launching one of the most ambitious narrative experiments in blockbuster cinema; a massive and sprawling shared universe that connected several franchises and would even come to encompass some television shows into a single narrative.

Elektra's neck is on the line...

Elektra’s neck is on the line…

Of course, there had been cinematic crossovers before stretching from Abbot and Costello Meet the Wolfman to Alien vs. Predator. However, Marvel teased the idea of adopting a long-form semi-serialised approach to multiple cinematic and televisual properties that offered a loose approximation of how mainstream American comic book storytelling worked. The Avengers was essentially one big crossover between pre-existing properties, the big screen equivalent of Secret Wars or Civil War or Secret Invasion.

Still, there is a sense that this innovation was driven by necessity. During its bankruptcy, Marvel had sold off the live-action rights to many of its choice properties. Sony owned Spider-Man, Daredevil and Ghost Rider. Fox owned the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. By the time Marvel Studios decided to break into the blockbuster game, they hardly had a roster of a-list brand-name superheroes upon which to build their empire. It is no coincidence that The Avengers replaced the X-Men as the comic book publisher’s flagship title around the time Marvel Studios kicked off.

"See? I told you my Wolverine impression was pretty great!"

“See? I told you my Wolverine impression was pretty great!”

(Marvel restructured its superhero properties in the years leading up to the release of Iron Man, as the idea of Marvel Studios solidified. Through eighties and nineties, the X-Men and Spider-Man had been the most high-profile and popular of Marvel comics brands, as demonstrated by their breakout nineties animated television shows and the fact they launched the blockbuster superhero boom. However, starting in 2005, Marvel made a point to turn its Avengers line into the heart of the shared universe, beginning with New Avengers written by Brian Bendis.)

At the turn of the millennium, it would have been hard to imagine that characters like Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy could be blockbuster superhero properties with their own dedicated mainstream followings. As a result, this shared continuity was used as a selling point for the shared Marvel cinematic universe, playing into the idea that every film released under the Marvel brand was “important” in building towards a singular story. In reality, some of these links were tangential – cameos and post-credit scenes. But the idea worked.

Stealth mode!

Stealth mode!

Perhaps driven by the success of their appropriation of comic book storytelling techniques, Marvel Studios began to place a heavier emphasis on their “faithfulness” to the source material. Alex Brundige argues that this fidelity to the “source” material has become a major part of how the movie studios approach comic book adaptations:

Marvel Studios and DC Entertainment’s shift towards a franchise defined by  branded characters hinged on the acceptance of multiplicity over definitive continuity, which in turn relied on the need for fans to identify with these filmic iterations as acceptably faithful to their various source materials. Studios, therefore, sought to position  themselves as allies of fan culture rather than as appropriators of comic content. While  Marvel Studios and DC Entertainment were intrinsically connected to the original  “canonical” versions of the branded characters they were producing, these studios  nonetheless had to prove themselves as not subservient to the Hollywood conglomerates  such as Disney and Time Warner in the eyes of the fans. Indeed, key to the global success of the current superhero blockbuster has been the surrounding rhetoric of fidelity and  authenticity on the part of these studios. The hiring of producers, directors, screenwriters,  and actors who adamantly portray themselves as long-time fans colours much of the  paratextual content associated with the pre – release campaigns of films like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. Even in cases where certain filmmakers do not identify as fans per se, as is the case with director Christopher Nolan of DC’s Dark Knight trilogy,  the commentary in interviews still refer to the avid consumption of past comic book  incarnations as a form of research. Consequently,  gaining fan approval is inherent to the  production of these properties. There is a fundamental reliance on the individual  “authors” behind these properties to provide the “correct” interpretation of the content. In marking themselves as fans, these filmmakers align their positions of authority as writer – directors with their authority as fanboys.

The degree to which this has become expected for comic book movies in general and Marvel Studios productions in particular is quite striking. The degree to which audiences and fans seem to expect faithful recreations of particular stories is striking.

Stick with me.

Stick with me.

Whereas it is hard to point to a single comic book as an influence on superhero films like Batman or Batman Returns, most Marvel Studios releases seem to come with a veritable bibliography of references and citations. Captain America: The Winter Soldier draws heavily from Ed Brubaker’s seminal and influential run on Captain America. Thor: The Dark World repeatedly references characters and plot beats from Walt Simonson’s celebrated run.

Even the more auteur-ish Marvel Studios films like Iron Man III or Guardians of the Galaxy treat certain core runs and ideas as touchstones for their work with the characters. Shane Black might offer his own take on Tony Stark, but it is very definitely informed by Warren Ellis’ work on Extremis. James Gunn might have crafted his own unique superhero film, but it still shared a lot of DNA with Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s reimagining of Guardians of the Galaxy.

Family fun time!

Family fun time!

In many cases, these case demonstrate the appeal of drawing from source material. Comic books often offer a visual template of what works and what doesn’t. When it comes to adapting properties that have been allowed to grow and develop over decades, there is a solid base for success to be found if the production team look hard enough. There are decades of research and development. However, the key to comic book adaptation often seems to lie in carefully choosing and curating source material. Selecting which version of the source material to adapt is the challenge.

Fidelity is an ethereal concept. It is possible to faithful to the text of a thing while betraying the spirit. Zack Snyder drew a lot of criticism for his decision to have Superman kill General Zod at the climax of Man of Steel, following a heated battle in downtown Metropolis. The ending was divisive, with producer Christopher Nolan objecting to it. However, Snyder’s decision has precedent, which includes the final issue of writer and artist John Byrne’s reboot of the character. Nevertheless, it was still largely considered a betrayal of the character, even by veteran writers.

Putting his neck out there.

Putting his neck out there.

After all, most major comic book characters have been around for about fifty years – if not more. It is possible to find precedent to support just about any interpretation of the character. However, just because Marvel decided to turn the Punisher into a literal avenging angel does not mean that it is a workable approach to the character. Conversely, just because something has not been done before does not make it a bad idea. Much of Superman’s lore has been imported or appropriated from media outside of comics, elements that would have had no precedent in the source material.

Still, faithfulness has become a template for approaching comic book properties in general. Warner Brothers chose to announce Batman vs. Superman by having Harry Lennix read a quote from The Dark Knight Returns. When adapting Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen for the big screen, Zack Snyder faithfully recreated any number of memorable shots and sequences to the point of including an animated adaptation of The Curse of the Black Freighter. He later justified his adaptation by claiming he “saved” the film from a looser adaptation by Terry Gilliam.

Taking the Hand in hand.

Taking the Hand in hand.

It might be argued that these cases serve to prove the limit cases for faithful adaptation. There is a point where adapting a story too faithfully from one medium to another ultimately harms the film. While films and comic books are reasonably similar, what works in one medium may not necessarily work in the other. Adaptation is an artform of itself, one that amounts to more than a direct and literal translation. Some ideas cannot be transposed directly across, and the key to successful adaptation is recognising those challenges.

Still, there is a sense that modern comic book studios and audiences have become increasingly fixated on fidelity to source material. Discussing his plans to have Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 depart from the source material, James Gunn argued the decision was “risky.” Despite the brilliance of Shane Black’s reimagining of a deeply problematic character, there have been vocal complaints about changes that were made to the Mandarin during the scripting and development of Iron Man III. Do fans really expect a faithful racial caricature?

"I see," says the blind man.

“I see,” says the blind man…

Of course, it could be argued that the superhero genre is simply embracing a postmodernist aesthetic whereby everything is part of a complex web of reference and adaptation tied together into a complex intertextual loop. As Robert Stam contends in New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics, every text is in its own way an adaptation:

The concept of dialogism suggests that every text forms an intersection of textual surfaces. All texts are tissues of anonymous formulae embedded in the language, variations on those formulae, conscious and unconscious quotations, conflations and inversions of other texts.

This is particularly true of superhero comics, where it occasionally seems the genre might cannibalise itself. Consider the constant referencing and recycling of iconic comic book covers and images. Even the character of Daredevil could arguably be seen to fit this trend, with the bulk of his writers and artists responding to Frank Miller’s tenure.

Down the hole.

… “a hole in the floor…”

As with any adaptation, Daredevil finds itself struggling to strike a balance between the source material that inspired it and the demands of its medium. The first two seasons of the show are particularly dense with references and callbacks to various takes on the character from across his fifty-year publication history. These references are both broad and specific. In broad terms, the look and feel of the first season borrowed a lot from the aesthetic of iconic Daredevil artist Alex Maleev and the production design owed a lot to the comics.

However, the attention to detail is astounding. Throughout the second season, there are an astonishing number of visual homages and references to classic Daredevil moments. Many sequences are shot and framed so as to evoke moments from the Frank Miller run. The fidelity is not measured in terms of plot and characterisation, but through visual reference to specific comic book storytelling beats. This makes a certain amount of sense; as much attention as Frank Miller garners for his writing, his visuals are equally distinctive.

"There's something in woodshed..."

“There’s something in woodshed…”

So Elektra skewering Stick’s henchmen at the end of .380 consciously evokes Elektra scaring Ben Ulrich in Daredevil #179. Matt venturing into the sewers to confront the Hand in The Dark at the End of the Tunnel is constructed so as to mirror Elektra’s similar journey in Daredevil #175. The shots of Nobu meditating at the top of the Hand’s secret headquarters in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen are lit and framed so as to evoke Frank Miller’s origin of Elektra in the pages of Daredevil #190.

Of course, the influences extend beyond even Frank Miller’s Daredevil run. There are visual influences from other Daredevil comics; Matt’s daring mid-air rescue of Claire Temple at the start of .380 was practically storyboarded by Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark in Daredevil #98. There are Frank Miller influences beyond Daredevil; when Elektra is pulled through a wall in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen, it evokes a similar sequence in The Dark Knight Returns #2. The Dark at the End of the Tunnel even has Frank Castle recreate the cover to Punisher MAX #1.

"You know, I should really stop hanging pictures of criminal murderers in my study while having the press over..."

“You know, I should really stop hanging pictures of criminal murderers in my study while having the press over…”

Not all of these images match perfectly. Most notably, the circumstances and the characters involved frequently shift from the original comic book panels to the live action interpretation. Nevertheless, it is very clear that the production team have made a conscious effort to reference and acknowledge the source material, even beyond little Easter eggs like the background props visible in Melvin Potter’s workshop in episodes like Dogs to a Gunfight and A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen. This sort of fidelity is important to the production team.

It is not uncommon for actors and writers to be asked about their connections to the source material. Vincent D’Onofrio has a strong relationship with artist David Mack that has helped him to understand Wilson Fisk as a character. Charlie Cox has strong opinions about whether Bullseye should finally make his inevitable debut during the show’s third season. Jon Bernthal has been photographed reading comics to get in character. Even Elodie Yung has been asked about it, admitting that she took a “crash course” as “homework.”

Daredevil: Ninja.

Daredevil: Ninja.

At the same time, it is clear that certain compromises have to be made. One of the more notable examples concerns the costuming of Elektra. While Frank and Matt get to go into battle in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen wearing fairly faithful variants of their traditional costumes, Elektra’s costume is radically reworked. As costume designer Lorraine Calvert explained:

“Ideas were tossed around about how she was possibly bohemian, [because] she was a free spirit who traveled all over the world with as much money as she possibly could,” Calvert says. “And then it got a little more spare … She really needs a very simple, elegant line because too much cloth is overwhelming.” With that in mind, the design shifted into using stark pieces for both Elektra’s daytime outfits and her fighting costume. “You have to know that she could kick ass,” Calvert adds with a laugh, “as opposed to the bikini that was in the comic books.”

While Elektra’s “bathing suit and cloth” costume might be the default look for female characters like Miss Marvel and Psylocke, it makes sense to choose a more practical look for Daredevil‘s female lead. Although X-Men: Apocalypse opted to retain a lot of Psylocke’s swimsuit costume, it was operating on a blockbuster budget and actress Olivia Munn still acknowledged the impracticality of the costume.

They're behind you!

They’re behind you!

It is natural for an adaptation to deviate from the source material. Faithfulness to source material does not correlate directly to the quality of a finished story. Evolution and revision are natural. Daredevil even touches on that slightly within the framework of The Dark at the End of the Tunnel. Instilling life lessons, Ellison advises Karen, “Stories don’t disappear; they become different stories.” That is certainly true, to an extent. A story told in the early eighties might share characters, themes and plot with a modern story; but they are different.

Stories change, in the same way that people and circumstances change. As the world marches on, certain themes and ideas come to be examined in a different way. Even within the confines of Daredevil, the themes of Guilty as Sin do an excellent job weaving Frank Miller’s ninja mythology into the larger cultural context of post-9/11 realities. That would not have been possible with the original comics, given they were written two decades before the attacks upon the World Trade Centre. An adaptation is not just a reflection of the source material, but of the world around it.

These sewers are revolting.

These sewers are revolting.

While Daredevil has been quite considerate about adapting material from the comics right down to the panel, it should be noted that what the show has chosen not to adapt can be as revealing as what it does adapt. Most notably, the series avoids perhaps the most iconic Elektra-related image; the sequence where Elektra is brutally impaled up her own sai by the psychotic assassin Bullseye in Daredevil #181. The sequence is one of the most memorable pages in comic book history, to the point that Mark Steven Johnson’s 2003 adaptation recreated it almost perfectly.

Although Elektra is still killed in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen, and is still impaled on her own sai, the episode is quite careful to avoid reproducing that moment. Elektra is killed while fighting alongside Daredevil, rather than fighting alone. She is not disarmed and defeated with her own weapon, she is killed while trying to stop Nobu from killing Matt. Nobu is not trying to kill Elektra; he wants her alive. More to the point, the sequence is framed differently than Bullseye’s attack on Elektra. She is not lifted off the ground. Nobu does not revel in the murder.

"So, who gets the last of the bananas we were paid in kind?"

“So, who gets the last of the bananas we were paid in kind?”

These changes all exist in the larger context of the show’s reimagining of Elektra, reflecting the fact that the comic book character as created in January 1981 was somewhat problematic when recontextualised in terms of March 2016. Most obviously, Elektra was one of Gail Simone’s original “women in refrigerators”, comic book wives and girlfriends victimised to justify an emotional reaction from a male hero. As Susana Polo argues:

Elektra is introduced, glorified and murdered in a single volume. At this point I don’t even bat an eye. I know the character’s history from years of osmotically accumulating comics knowledge. Like Catwoman in Batman: Year One, she’s another iconic comic book badass-lady-until-she-wants-the-hero-as-a-boyfriend with a Frank Miller-penned origin. Like Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke, she’s brought into an iconic story arc about a male character in order to take the brunt of a terrible act of violence, and other writers will work for decades to reclaim her agency and humanity in her universe.

As pop culture has grown more and more cognisant of the issues around using female characters in such a way, it makes sense that the production team would want to craft a version of Elektra who sidesteps a lot of the issues apparent in her original appearance and characterisation. When Frank Miller disavowed the show’s use of his character, the producers responded with a sly jab of their own, promising to give Elektra “her own agency.”

Sticks and stones may break your heart...

“Put your tiny hands in mine…”

This explains the chances and revisions made to Elektra’s origin as they play out over The Dark at the End of the Tunnel. Despite the attention paid to replicating particular panels and action sequences from the source material, the second season of Daredevil heavily tweaks and reinvents Frank Miller’s iconic femme fatale. Hugo Kostas Natchios is no longer her biological father, and The Dark at the End of the Tunnel denies him even an appearance in Elektra’s origin story, despite the importance he played to Frank Miller’s version of the character.

The adaptational choices that Daredevil makes with both the Punisher and Elektra are interesting. In both cases, the show makes sure to liberally borrow imagery and iconography from defining runs on the characters; as if to prove that the production team has “done their homework”, so to speak. However, very significant revisions are made to the back stories and characterisation of these comic book icons, to the point where they can occasionally feel quite divorced from the characters who inspired them.

Assassin... and heartbreaker.

Assassin… and heartbreaker.

It is interesting to wonder why certain changes were made. While the changes to Elektra’s death make sense in the context of shifting cultural norms, the decision to write Hugo Natchios out of his daughter’s story is particularly puzzling. While it might make sense to avoid focusing on Frank Miller’s decision to write child sex abuse into her back story, focusing on Elektra’s relationship with her father would give more weight to her interactions with Matt and Stick; Matt as another orphan with daddy issues, Stick as an abusive father-figure.

One of the more interesting dynamics of the second season of Daredevil is the dysfunctional dynamic that exists between Stick and his two wayward wards. A lot of this is down to the performances as much as the writing, with Scott Glenn able to communicate so much with a single “Mattie” or “Ellie” while the plot has him bounce between “distant but loving-in-his-own-way father figure” and “guy who would totally murder Elektra even as she is preparing to leave the country.” Glenn brings a strange humanity to the bitter old mentor figure.

He ain't heavy, he's my murderous surrogate father figure...

He ain’t heavy, he’s my murderous surrogate father figure…

It helps that Glenn works well with both of his co-stars. Charlie Cox is somewhat underutilised over the course of the second season, but there is a wonderful emotional connection between Cox and his two co-stars. There is a sense that the emotional heart of the Hand storyline rests in the dynamic between those three characters as a deeply dysfunctional family. Unfortunately, all of that gets lost in the shuffle a little bit with so much else going on. As with a lot of the second season, there is a good idea let down by the fundamentals of the execution.

More than that, while A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen works hard to avoid recreating the misogynistic undertones that bubble beneath Elektra’s original death sequence, it has its own gender issues. In theory, both The Dark at the End of the Tunnel and A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen are stories about Elektra learning to make her own choices and asserting her own agency in a world where she has been cruelly and chronically exploited by men. In practice, the decision to position Matt as her moral compass undercuts that agency.

A sharp response.

A sharp response.

Elektra spends most the show acting based on what male characters expect of her. Stick raises her and trains her. Stick sends her to live with two upper-class Greek parents. The hand treat Elektra as a weapon, as “the Black Sky” to be employed against their enemies. To be fair, Daredevil is smart enough to recognise the undertones at work in this particular plot thread. Much like Karen called out Ellison  on his “patriarchal sh!t” in .380, Elektra calls out Nobu and Stick here.

“Call me ‘it’ again and I’ll cut you in half,” she warns Nobu. When Stick points out that her adoptive parents cannot have a child, Elektra responds, “They’ll never ‘have’ me.” The script is acutely aware of the thin ice upon which it walks. Unfortunately, it still walks on that ice. Karen Page might talk a good game, but the second season suggests that she still needs strong men to protect here; Frank Castle in .380 and Matt Murdock in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen. This is somewhat disappointing given how she looked after herself in The Path of the Righteous.

"I was played by Clancy Brown and you never suspected? Really? You're meant to be a journalist!"

“I was played by Clancy Brown and you never suspected? Really? You’re meant to be a journalist!”

Similarly, Elektra might reject the “patriarchal sh!t” of Stick and Nobu, but The Dark at the End of the Tunnel and A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen still makes it clear that Elektra needs Matt Murdock to validate her decisions. “They don’t get to tell you who you are,” Matt assures Elektra at one point. “You said the same thing,” she responds. “I was wrong,” Matt concedes, “no one gets to tell you.” However, Elektra seems to bow down to Matt’s morality repeated over the final two hours of the show; the suggestion is that she is only “good” because he guides her.

It is highly debatable whether the version of Elektra presented on Daredevil ever exercises any greater agency than the version who appeared during Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil. Frank Miller’s depiction of Elektra was hugely problematic, but at least she was nobody’s pawn. She might sacrificed some of that agency to Matt Murdock when she fell back in love with him, but Elektra was introduced as free from the manipulations of either Stick or the Hand. Frank Miller’s version of Elektra might have been an assassin, but she made her own decisions.

Stick with him.

Stick with him.

The same is certainly true of the Punisher, with the second season of Daredevil going to great pains to borrow references and plot points from the comic books while consciously avoiding a lot of the more interesting and defining takes on the character. Even within The Dark at the End of the Tunnel, care is taken to incorporate the classic comic book character Colonel Ray Schoonover into Frank Castle’s origin. Schoonover is hardly a major Marvel character, appearing in two issues of Punisher War Journal. His inclusion here speaks to attention to specific detail.

Nevertheless, Daredevil still seems to avoid any particularly challenging or provocative take on the Punisher. The series is still framing Frank Castle as a man seeking retribution against the people who killed his family. It is only in The Dark at the End of the Tunnel that Frank seems to reach the end of his quest for revenge. In killing Colonel Ray Schoonover, Frank finally completes his quest for revenge against those responsible for the deaths of his family. In a way, the more interesting character arc is what happens after this point.

Getting a Hand(le) on the situation.

Getting a Hand(le) on the situation.

Unfortunately, the show glosses over what happens to Frank Castle following the death of Colonel Ray Schoonover. The fact that Frank just kept going after avenging his family is what distinguishes the Punisher from the lead characters of films like Death Wish or Taken. However, the death of Schoonover in The Dark at the End of the Tunnel is treated as the functional end of his arc. The finer points of his transformation into a skull-wearing gun-totting vigilante in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen are treated as inessential and tangential. Details, nothing more.

While Daredevil draws heavily from the comic books that inspired it, the show also has a very retro and pulpy vibe to it. In a way, this fits with the emphasis on Frank Castle and Elektra Natchios. The Punisher is the kind of urban vigilante who feels like he belongs in an old pulpy exploitation film about urban decay in New York City. The Hand feels like they escaped from an old pulpy exploitation film about ninjas and kung-fu. It should of course be noted that these old pulpy exploitation films were likely what inspired the creation of these characters in the first place.

"I got my first real AK, bought after Penny and Dime..."

“I got my first real M16, bought after Penny and Dime…”

The second season’s production has a very grindhouse feel to it, one cemented by the strong thematic connections made between Bang and the New York City of Summer 1977. The show’s visual aesthetic recalls the old flourescent appearance of dingy seventies and eighties thrillers, particularly with the deep reds and greens of episodes like Penny and Dime. This is to say nothing of the show’s casting. As Frank kills his way through the conspiracy that murdered his family, he squares off against old-school heavies like William Forsythe and Clancy Brown.

John Paesano deserves a great deal of credit for the show’s soundtrack. Daredevil has a pulpy synth-heavy score, one that recalls the sort of seventies and eighties action films that inform a lot of the show’s aesthetic. There is pulse to the show, simmering away in the background and helping to give the visuals just a little bit of a stylised edge. For sequences like the aftermath of the false-flag attack on District Attorney Reyes at the start of The Man in the Box or Elektra’s training at the start of The Dark at the End of the Tunnel, there is a very John Carpenter feel to it.

I'd recognise his Hand-iwork anywhere...

I’d recognise his Hand-iwork anywhere…

(Paesano also acknowledges the show’s superhero elements. The show returns quite often to variations on the theme music, to give the action a little bit of a mythic vibe to it; in The Dark at the End of the Tunnel, that happens during Daredevil’s climactic showdown with Nobu in the sewers. Paesano’s score for also acknowledges the show’s fascination with the work of Christopher Nolan. There are shades of Hans Zimmer’s Dark Knight score to be heard; such as in Matt and Elektra’s brawl with the Hand at the start of The Dark at the End of the Tunnel.)

The show’s pulpy seventies and eighties vibe is even reflected in the basic plotting of The Dark at the End of the Tunnel. Over the course of the episode, it is revealed that Colonel Schoonover is really the heroin dealer known as “the Blacksmith.” In hindsight, the fact that he had a hook for his hand and was played by professional screen villain Clancy Brown should have given the game away; not to mention the law of conservation of detail and the fact that it seemed like a very small role for a recognisable actor.

Natchios your weapon.

What do you call an unwilling “Black Sky”? Natchios weapon.

However, the details of Schoonover’s operation are very old school. Schoonover served as Frank Castle’s commanding officer in the Middle East, as part of a tour that included Afghanistan. Apparently Schoonover and his men decided to diversify their business model. Schoonover apparently got a good line on some heroin (which is remarkably plausible given Afghanistan’s status as a leading exporter) and attempted to break into the market as supervillain-slash-druglord.

Of course, this plot leans heavily on contrivance. It seems strange that Frank Castle should have just taken his family out to a picnic at the same time that his former superior officer was organising a massive drug buy that involved both “the Avengers of stereotypical drug gangs” and an undercover mole for the District Attorney’s office. Even allowing for the overlap in the timing of all of this, Central Park is a very big place. It stretches a lot of credibility to suggest that all of this happened so neatly and so tidily. Then again, that is a larger issue with the season’s Punisher plot.

A commanding presence...

A commanding presence…

Still, Schoonover’s operation is very consciously and very clearly framed in terms of Vietnam. The idea of United States army officers using a foreign war as pretext to smuggle in huge quantities of drug has become part of the narrative of the Vietnam era. It is part of the iconography and imagery associated with the Vietnam War, even if The Dark at the End of the Tunnel appropriates it for the post-9/11 era. As with the portrayal of New York in Bang, the details of Schoonover’s operation make The Dark at the End of the Tunnel feel almost like a thematic period piece.

After all, Schoonover’s operation is quite similar to the depiction of army smuggling rings in eighties pop culture. Miami Vice touched on the idea in Back in the World, an episode in which Colonel Oliver North played a formed army staff member who had hit upon the idea of smuggling heroin back to the United States along with the dead bodies of soldiers who had been killed in action. This was based upon the so-called “Cadaver Connection”, a contemporary urban legend that former operatives like Mike Levine insist actually existed.

A creeping sense of dread...

A creeping sense of dread…

Seventies drug kingpin Frank Lucas often claimed to have been a beneficiary of this practice, smuggling in heroin from the Far East in the coffins of dead soldiers with the help of Sergeant Ike Atkinson. As Mark Jacobson points out, this smuggling operation was a powerful metaphor for the corrosive legacy of Vietnam:

Of all the dreadful iconography of Vietnam — the napalmed girl running down the road, Calley at My Lai, etc., etc. — dope in the body bag, death begetting death, most hideously conveys ‘Nam’s spreading pestilence. The metaphor is almost too rich. In fact, to someone who got his 1-A in the mail the same day the NVA raised the Red Star over Hue City, the story has always seemed a tad apocryphal.

But it is not. “We did it, all right . . . ha, ha, ha . . . ” Lucas chortles in his dying-crapshooter’s scrape of a voice. “Who the hell is gonna look in a dead soldier’s coffin? Ha ha ha.”

The logic holds just as true for the legacy of the War in Afghanistan and the War in Iraq, although without the same raw historical power as the connection back to the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, it plays into the (sadly underdeveloped) theme that Frank Castle represents the “spreading pestilence” of a brutal war.

"Okay, we'll fight to the death. But we should really clean up after ourselves."

“Okay, we’ll fight to the death. But we should really clean up after ourselves.”

That said, it should be noted that Sergeant Ike Atkinson has always insisted that the story was apocryphal and that the rich imagery was the result of a miscommunication with Frank Lucas. As Atkinson tells Ron Chepesiuk:

And that is how Atkinson believes the story of transporting heroin via coffins got started: his use of the teak furniture to move heroin to the U.S. “One time, when I was in Bangkok, Frank came to visit,” Atkinson recalled. “We used teak furniture to smuggle the heroin and we were getting a shipment ready. Frank barged in and went right to the back. ‘What are you doing?’ Frank asked me. “I was caught of guard, and didn’t want him to know how I was moving drugs. The only thing I could think of to say was: ‘We are making coffins.’”

Still, while the story might be apocryphal, it still offers a lot of powerful symbolism. It seems like a suitably grim detail to weave into the back story of Frank Castle, thematically tying him to death exported from a foreign war.

Rifling around in Schoonover's things.

Rifling around in Schoonover’s things.

To be fair, connecting the Punisher back to Ray Schoonover does suggest all manner of rich thematic connections. As Frank prepares to murder his former commanding officer, Schoonover boasts about how he was responsible for turning the former soldier into a relentless killing machine. Colonel Schoonover effectively made the Punisher, in more ways than one. Schoonover may have organised the drug deal that killed Frank’s family, but he also gave Frank the skills that he would employ in his one-man war on crime.

It is not a bad idea, but The Dark at the End of the Tunnel never quite follows through on it. The second season has been reluctant to engage with the question of what it means to teach a man to kill so cleanly and effectively. While tying Schoonover to the drug deal in Central Park is a lazy plot contrivance, it at least touches on the idea that Frank’s military service and the monster that he became can be connected in some tangential way. Unfortunately, The Dark at the End of the Tunnel lacks the commitment to really go anywhere with this.

Sai through the eye...

Sai through the eye…

The Dark at the End of the Tunnel struggles with the season’s two central figures, grappling with complex issues of adaptation and revision. The second season has heavily reworked and reimagined both Frank Castle and Elektra Natchios, remaining remarkably true to the letter of their continuity while grappling with the more problematic spirit of their characterisation. The Dark at the End of the Tunnel is a fascinating showcase of how Daredevil struggles with issues of adapting comic book storytelling into live action.

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

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8 Responses

  1. Very interesting take on the role of comic fidelity. I like to think I don’t care and that the films/TV should go their own way yet I was thinking “that should be Bullseye!” when Nobu killed her! You’re also spot on about Miller Elektra being the classic example of plot device to drive the hero on. It’s also unfortunate that Karen was made into a damsel in distress, rather undoing the solid work the writers have done with her this season, to the point where she’s become one of my favourite characters. Even though this is 2016, female characters still struggle to come out from under the shadow of their male counterparts. Why haven’t we had a Black Widow movie, for example? Jessica Jones was fascinating but spent the season reacting to what men had done to her. The creative talent need to let female characters drive their own stories. BTW, your best DD review yet, in my humble opinion. if you’d like to read mine, you can find them on theblogofdelights.blogspot.com. Or not. Looking forward to your views on the finale.

    • Thanks for the kind words. Personally, I’m quite fond of my Kinbaku piece as sort of “Elektra 101.” Oddly enough, I expected this would be one of my shorter reviews.

  2. All this talk of fidelity seems to me a red herring. If you adapt a book, you don’t change the ending (Jean Valjean survives!) and expect it to be a success.

    “This was a comic book movie made for comic book fans.” “This was a film made for general audiences, not fanboys.” “This is origin story.” “This is a composite.” “It’s too deep for most people to understand.” “This is an Elseworld”. To me these are rationalizations for a poor adaption by fans who have blinders on.

    I hesitate to use the word “cult” but it is most definitely dogmatic in nature. The creator can do no wrong. The creators works in mysterious ways. The heretics, that is critics, are trying to mislead you. We have to spread the Good News of Defenders/JLA.

    Sorry about the rant. You really picked the wrong week to bring up fidelity. 😉

  3. “Do fans really expect a faithful racial caricature?”

    No, I think fans understand that the filmmakers (and future comic book authors for that matter) have enough leeway in the way they adapt the source material that they should be able to translate these characters onscreen in a way that manages to lose these kinds of offensive overtones. As I said in 2013, literally all you have to do for the Mandarin is not dress him up in a Fu Manchu costume and not have him speak in fortune cookie proverbs. That’s it.

    (Much like Elektra, on this show, loses a big chunk of the offensiveness in the character, simply by replacing the stripperific costume with something that’s, well, not).

    • But the character is called “the Mandarin” and had ten magic rings. It is next to impossible to get around the toxic associations involved with that. I think the approach taken was the best possible way of dealing with a deeply problematic character. (I mean, I still cringe when he turns up in the comic books.)

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