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Re-“Born Again”: Daredevil, Season Three, and the Limits of Textual Fidelity…

One of the more interesting aspects of the modern boom in geek culture is the increased emphasis on textual fidelity.

Much has been written about the high volume of adaptations, sequels, remakes and reboots that dominate contemporary popular culture. The trend is strong, even among this year’s prestige releases. A Star is Born is the third remake of the film, and there are many more stories besides. First Man is a story that covers well-worn ground, a modern American myth, albeit from a unique perspective. Suspiria is a remake of a beloved cult classic. Widows is an adaptation of a British television series. If Beale Street Could Talk… is taken from a James Baldwin novel.

However, it is also very revealing that so many modern adaptations of beloved properties are very much fixated on the idea of fidelity. “Faithfulness” has become a watchword for these adaptations, not just in terms of easter eggs, but in terms of basic construction. In its own way, this may perhaps be an extension of the emphasis on comic books and graphic novels as a key inspiration for modern blockbusters. Given how many comic book artists also work as storyboard artists in film, it is tempting to treat the source material as a storyboard, to adapt a panel into a still image.

This is an interesting approach, but one which often overlooks the actual act of adaptation as an art of itself. It is not enough to cobble together a film from a collection of familiar static images, and can occasionally lead to a very surreal and uncomfortable disconnect, with a filmmaker lifting very literally from their inspiration while also making something that bears little resemblance to the source material in any non-visual manner. The third season of Daredevil runs into this problem repeatedly, largely as a muddled attempt to bring Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Born Again to the screen.

Note: This article contains minor spoilers from the third season of Daredevil.

It isn’t always a bad idea to take inspiration from source material in adapting a beloved comic book character to screen. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy adapts a number of key elements from various story arcs and events. Batman Begins owes a lot to Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Year One. Nolan himself cites The Long Halloween as a major influence on The Dark Knight. In terms of basic plot, The Dark Knight Rises owes a lot to Knightfall and Cataclysm. However, none of these of these films are particularly beholden to their source material.

Indeed, Nolan blends a variety of influences into each of the individual films. Batman Begins draws from comics like Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams’ epic seventies Batman runs or the forgotten story The Man Who Falls. The plot of The Dark Knight blends elements from Batman #1 and The Killing Joke. Along those lines, The Dark Knight Rises includes aspects lifted from The Dark Knight Returns or The Cult. None of these elements drown one another out, and none of these films are quite close enough to be direct adaptations. More to the point, Nolan includes certain visual cues in ways that don’t overwhelm the story.

However, there is a tendency in modern comic book films to place an undue emphasis on “fidelity” or “faithfulness”, to treat these adaptations not as stories of themselves, but instead as collections of familiar moments and beats played out in another medium and packaged within a feature-length adaptation. Watchmen may be the best example of this, with direct Zack Snyder lifting a number of shots verbatim from Dave Gibbons’ original artwork, producing one of the most visually faithful cinematic adaptations since Gus Van Sant’s Psycho.

Historically, comic book adaptations tended to be quite broad in translating story elements from the page to the screen. The classic Batman! television series glossed over the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Tim Burton’s Batman suggested that the Joker had murdered Bruce Wayne’s parents. The version of Lex Luthor who appeared in Superman and Superman II was quite distant from the mad scientist in the suit of armour from contemporary comics. Catwoman and the Penguin in Batman Returns were worlds apart from their comic book counterparts.

Some of these elements obviously don’t work. There are any number of comic book films that suffer because of decisions that cannot be traced back to their source material. In many cases – such as Batman & Robin – the changes made to characters and plot beats from the source material actively make the story worse. At the same time, there is no denying that some of these early adaptations of comic books had a certain freedom to invent and reimagine their characters and premises in a way that shaped and defined them. Superman is arguably more influential on Superman comics than any individual issue or story.

To be fair, Watchmen is not exactly ground zero when it comes to this level of faithfulness in comic book adaptations. Ironically enough, Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil is perhaps one of the great early examples of a superhero adaptation that may have suffered from being too faithful to its inspiration. Johnson’s comic book adaptation drew incredibly heavily from the iconic Frank Miller run on Daredevil, particularly in its portrayal of characters like the Kingpin, Elektra and Bullseye. In fact, Bullseye’s murder of Elektra is lifted directly from the comics, right down to the choreography and line delivery.

Johnson was so fixated on hitting all of these beats, and including all of these moments, that he struggled to structure them into a compelling narrative. Daredevil might have worked better had it taken a single element and built the film around it, rather than running through a checklist of homages and beats to tether the film to the work of Frank Miller. After all, Miller had built up to many of these big moments over years, but Johnson was instead trying to set them up and pay them off within a two-hour film. Johnson seemed to understand the power of these moments, but not the context of them.

However, Watchmen will probably always be the best example of this, with director Zack Snyder displaying an incredibly fidelity to the source material. The extended cut of the film even includes an animated adaptation of The Curse of the Black Freighter, the comic-within-a-comic from the original story. Snyder structured the film to reference particular frames from the original comic book, to the point that it may even be possible to reconstruct a lot of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original story with stills from the movie itself.

At the same time, there is a sense that Snyder offered a literal adaptation of the text without understanding any of its underlying meaning, and so used fidelity to the text as an opportunity to bypass the actual process of translating the story from one medium to another. Watching Watchmen, it often appears that being faithful to the literal text and imagery of the source material was more important that trying to distill its essence on to the big screen. It is a very strange sensation, feeling almost like an art house experiment rather than a big-budget blockbuster.

There are any number of examples that illustrate the gulf between that textual fidelity and the essence of the comic. Moore and Gibbons repeatedly point out the absurdity of the idea of superheroes in Watchmen, fixating on characters who are either mentally unhinged or physically out of shape. In particular, Dan Dreiberg is presented as an overweight over-the-hill impotent middle-aged man. However, Snyder cannot resist the urge to shoot his characters in a very traditional manner, including slow motion fight scenes with stunning choreography. This is very much at odds with the core thematic point of the book.

On an even simpler level, there’s the weird decision to keep The Curse of the Black Freighter as a comic book within the world of the film as a nod to the original text, while also adapting it as an animated film for the audience. In order to preserve the relationship between the text-within-the-text and the larger work, it might have made more sense to adapt The Curse of the Black Freighter as a television series or a feature film, rather than preserving it as a comic book. A comic book within a comic book caries different connotations than a comic book within a film.

(Incidentally, this is part of the reason why Nolan consciously changed the inspiration of Bruce Wayne’s transformation from the comics. In the comics, Bruce had been inspired by seeing The Mark of Zorro at the cinema on the night his parents died. Nolan was anxious that making Bruce’s transformation (even in part) a result of a movie-within-a-movie would have different connotations than citing a film in a comic book, so he changed the cinema trip to a night at the opera in Batman Begins. Bruce was inspired by Mefistofele rather than The Mark of Zorro.)

In recent years, comic book films have become increasingly visually faithful to their source material. For example, Thor: Ragnarok includes an extended subplot featuring the character of Skurge the Executioner that only exists to build to one particularly memorable image from Walt Simonson’s iconic Thor run. Similarly, Thor: The Dark World ports over beloved characters and designs like Malekith and Kurse from Simonson’s Thor run, without any real consideration of what makes these characters work. They were in the comics, and they were popular in the comics, so they go into the films.

This shift is probably as a result of multiple different factors. Increasingly, the kinds of people involved in major creative decisions at the studios producing these films have an extensive background in nerd culture, such as Geoff Johns’ involvement in projects like Green Lantern or Justice League. More to the point, it also seems likely that the directors and writers being assigned to these projects are more deeply versed in the characters and continuity. Zack Snyder’s obvious fondness for The Dark Knight Returns inevitably informed Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

There is also an increased emphasis on fidelity and faithfulness as cultural currency, particularly when making films and television series for hardcore fans of beloved properties. The “canon” has become an increasingly (and sometimes frustratingly) important concept for modern blockbuster franchises, with companies like Marvel Studios take great pride in how directly and how faithfully they draw from the source material in building these movies. It does not matter that the comics have a much smaller audience, nor that adaptation is about more than literal transposition. Faithfulness is key.

This is perhaps what made a film like Venom seem so very old-fashioned. It felt like a relic of the early years of the early twenty-first century for reasons that extend beyond the weird Eminem rap track. The film Venom seems to have been written and produced by people who had only read the wikipedia summary of the character, and had never picked up a copy of Amazing Spider-Man in their lives. After all, this was a Venom movie without Spider-Man in it. It required a much looser form of adaptation.

Venom obviously did not work, but it was interesting for the contrast it provided with the more polished and conventional superhero fare. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that the best parts of Venom were those least likely to appear in a conventional Marvel Studios movie, such as Tom Hardy throwing himself into a lobster tank or the mysterious case of the ominous puppy. In contrast, the film really fell to pieces when offering the sort of epic spectacle that audiences expect of modern superhero films.

All of this circles back around to Daredevil. The Netflix series has cycled through four different sets of showrunners during its three seasons. While the first two seasons of the show were never direct adaptations of individual story arcs, they were both heavily influenced by the work of Frank Miller. The first season drew heavily from The Man Without Fear, while the second leaned heavily into the mythology that Frank Miller developed around Elektra Natchios and the Hand. More than than that, the first and particularly the second season seemed to use key comic book panels as storyboards for key sequences.

Neither of the first two seasons was a direct adaptation of any individual run or arc written and illustrated by Frank Miller. However, the spectre of Born Again hangs over both runs as it hangs over Daredevil as a character. Put simply, Born Again is one of the most influential stories in comic book history. While Frank Miller’s original run elevated Daredevil from an also-ran to a figure of interest, it is Born Again that enshrined Daredevil as a character who exists on the bubble between A- and B-list comic book characters.

Born Again is a story that has influenced countless writers following Miller, whether inspired to emulate it or to reject it. Writers like Kevin Smith, Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker drew heavily from it despite writing approximately two decades after the story had been told. In fact, Bendis even brings back a minor marginal figure in Born Again to play a small but important role in his own Decalogue. An entire generation of fans and writers read Born Again and embraced it as the platonic ideal of what a superhero comic could be. It makes sense that it would cast a shadow over the Netflix adaptation of Daredevil.

However, despite the huge shadow cast by Born Again, it is interesting that the first proper attempt at an adaptation should come almost two decades into the superhero boom. After all, there has already been one Daredevil movie and two full seasons of a Daredevil television series. It is perhaps revealing that it has taken so long to get around to adapting Born Again for the screen when comics like God Loves, Man Kills and Spider-Man No More! and even When Cometh… The Commuter! have already inspired big-budget blockbusters. Born Again is a surprisingly intricate story, rather than one big ideas and bunch of cool images.

This is the issue that the third season of Daredevil runs into in trying to adapt Born Again for the screen. It treats the story as a collection of images and series of quotes rather than a cohesive narrative of itself. The season is peppered with story beats lifted directly from Born Again, such as Matt spending a lot of time recovering with a nun who might be his mother or Wilson Fisk skilfully deducing that Matt Murdock is the one and only Daredevil. It even borrows particular cues and images, such as the idea of Fisk being haunted by a botched attempt to drown Matt Murdock in a taxi, with the words, “There is no corpse.”

To be fair, it may be impossible to adapt Born Again for film or television in the twenty-first century. The comic book story arc famously opens with Matt’s beloved ex-girlfriend Karen Page as a heroin-addicted porn star who sells out Matt Murdock’s secret identity for a fix. This information makes it all the way back to Wilson Fisk, who sets about dismantling Matt Murdock’s life piece-by-piece. He gets Murdock disbarred. He has his assets frozen. He blows up his apartment building.

None of these things really happen in the third season of Daredevil, because of the plotting logistics coming into the third season of Daredevil following the events of The Defenders. Matt Murdock is missing and presumed dead at the start of the third season, so there is no life for Wilson Fisk to dismantle. Wilson Fisk is in police custody, so he cannot smite Matt Murdock from on high with the same impunity. Actor Deborah Ann Woll has assured fans that Karen will never become a drug addicted porn star, and so cannot be the person to sell out Matt’s identity to his arch foe.

Some of these issues are purely logistical. Maybe the series could have constructed a story like Born Again for its fourth season, having made sure that all the pieces were in place at the end of the third season. Maybe the third season could have worked as a better adaptation of Born Again if the production team had been more careful in what they were doing in the second season of Daredevil and the first season of The Defenders. However, some of these elements were simply never going to be feasible to realise under any conditions, given the modern social climate and the constraints imposed by Marvel Studios branding.

The third season of Dardevil does carry over certain plot points from Born Again. Wilson Fisk does attempt to drown Matt Murdock in the river. At his lowest ebb, Matt does retreat to the care of the church and rediscovers his faith. After this, Matt subsequently fights a lunatic that Wilson Fisk has paid to dress up in a Daredevil costume to destroy his good name. These are all things that happen in both Born Again and the third season of Daredevil. However, the context for them is radically different, and so the impact of them is changed significantly.

Wilson Fisk does attempt to drown Matt Murdock in the river, but not as a last-ditch effort to kill the character after destroying his life. Indeed, watching the third season of Daredevil, it is never explained why Fisk wouldn’t just have him shot or beaten to death while unconscious, apart from to ensure a shout-out to Born Again. Similarly, Matt’s time with the church is not a result of his life falling apart after Wilson Fisk tears him to pieces. Instead, Matt has retreated to the church before Wilson Fisk makes his first move. It throws off the balance of the story.

This creates a strange tension within the third season of Daredevil, where the narrative superficially resembles the comic book Born Again, but only in tiny snippets of dialogue and few borrowed images. The underlying narrative is completely different, which creates a disconnect. Born Again is fundamentally the story about a death and rebirth of Matt Murdock, but the third season of Daredevil opens with the the rebirth, meaning that the series has to kill Matt Murdock again, which throws off the balance of the story being told.

It isn’t just that the third season of Daredevil fails to be a successful or compelling adaptation of Born Again. The issue is, as with a lot of comic book adaptations that suffer from these superficial nods towards fidelity, that the decision to make room for all of these nods as an end of themselves greatly affects the story being told. The third season of Daredevil might work better as a story of pure rebirth following the character’s death in The Defenders, but it has to constantly stop and start to include all of these references and plot beats, like Ragnarok suffers a little bit from having to squeeze Skurge into its own story.

Similarly, the third season of Daredevil actively tries to incorporate a number of other threads and images from the comic books that don’t otherwise fit in the overarching narrative. The season’s big one-take fight sequence finds Matt fighting his way out of a prison, an obvious nod to The Devil in Cell Block D by Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark. However, their prison brawl existed in a story framework where it made more sense. Similarly, the third season includes a sequence wherein Bullseye attacks a church, lifted directly from Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada’s Guardian Devil.

These are effective images, to be sure. Comic books are a visual medium, after all. The logic is that what works on the page should work on the screen. However, these images don’t necessarily work was well outside of context, and the series itself occasionally struggles to integrate these images into a cohesive narrative. Instead of feeling like its own thing, the third season of Daredevil often feels like an extended remix. It lacks its own distinct voice, often feeling like a collection of familiar samples and hooks.

The result is a process of adaptation that doesn’t just miss the forest for the trees, but also actively swerves towards the trees. It isn’t that there aren’t good stories to be adapted from the source material into film and television stories, it is rather a question of what the purpose of adaptation should be. Adaptation is not a case of simply transposing plot details or even still images from one medium to another, it is an art of understanding what a character or concept is about on a fundamental level and finding away to apply this to an entirely different medium.

It should be noted that many truly successful adaptations do so by effectively moving past strict textual fidelity to their source material. The Shining may not have satisfied Stephen King as an adaptation of his work, but it stands as one of the greatest horror movies ever made. The Fugitive has largely supplanted the television series that inspired it. The Godfather and Jaws both ditched large sections of their source material that didn’t work in order to distill the ideas to their core essence. The Godfather dropped a subplot about Sonny’s dick, while Jaws dropped an affair between Hooper and Brody’s wife.

There is a sense that modern comic book adaptations adhere to a very a simple and straightforward understanding of fidelity, one that is overly literal and overly fixated on the finer points of the work in question. It is difficult to image, for example, modern comic book movie fans tolerating something as delightfully gonzo as Batman Returns. There is something stiffling in all of this, reducing these adaptations from compelling stories in their own right to a series of checklists of familiar sequences and homages. There is something very hollow in that.

For all that fans of comic book adaptations might believe that this is a golden age of page-to-screen adaptations, the third season of Daredevil suggests that there is more to the art adaptation than simple transposition of images and phrases.

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