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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.

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The Defenders – Fish in the Jailhouse (Review)

The second season of Daredevil hangs over The Defenders.

This is not a surprise. Daredevil was the first Marvel Netflix show, and so it occupies pride of place in the line-up. It was the only series to get a second season before the release of The Defenders. More than that, the showrunners in charge of The Defenders are the same showrunners who oversaw the second season of Daredevil. It makes sense that Matt Murdock would find himself cast as the protagonist of The Defenders, and that the show would like a logical continuation of his arc.

Apparently the Dutch settlers made the mistake of building Manhattan on a load-bearing dragon skeleton.

In many ways, the story of The Defenders is the story of Matt Murdock. In fact, Matt Murdock is the only character to end The Defenders in a markedly different place than he began. He begins the show having retired his costumed life following the death of Elektra in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen. Over the course of the show, he embraces his status as hero. He comes to don the costume again and to lead the nascent team in Take Shelter, just over half-way through the season. He ends The Defenders sacrificing himself to save the city, only to narrowly survive.

While the stars of Iron Fist, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are all returned to a position where their first and second seasons might flow organically into one another, The Defenders almost feels like a truncated blockbuster season of Daredevil.

“Yeah, Thor: The Dark World did this gag first, but let’s just go with it.”

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Marvel and Netflix’s The Defenders (Review)

The Defenders stumbles in familiar ways.

The series is nominally a crossover between the four Marvel Netflix series, a small-screen version of The Avengers providing a point of intersection between Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. In theory, this is the perfect opportunity to bring together four television superheroes to face a larger threat. There is something inherently cool in the idea of a crossover, in watching worlds collide and watching protagonists folded into a larger ensemble.

However, things are not so simple. The Defenders prejudices some of its constituent elements more than others. Most notable, it is overseen by Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie, the producers on the second season of Daredevil. It also carries over several elements from that season, including the hole in the ground from Semper Fidelis and the death and resurrection of Elektra from A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen. More than that, The Defenders carries over the mythology of the Hand and the Iron Fist from Iron Fist, putting heavy focus on Danny Rand.

From the outset, The Defenders effectively handicaps itself by leaning on the two weakest pillars of this multimedia empire. The second season of Daredevil was a disjointed mess packed with poor writing and stuffed with generic ninjas. The first season of Iron Fist was a collection of Orientalist stereotypes crammed into a cheap and poorly constructed origin story fashioned from whatever meat that Daredevil had left on the bones of the template that Christopher Nolan had established in Batman Begins. These are not foundations for an epic.

More than that, this emphasis on the second season of Daredevil and the first season of Iron Fist comes at the expense of the three strong seasons of Marvel’s Netflix output. The Defenders never captures the emotional power of Jessica Jones, nor the street-level perspective of life in New York conveyed through Luke Cage. Even more basically, The Defenders never even tries to create the same sense of pulpy thrill that defined so much of the first season of Daredevil. Instead, The Defenders focuses on ninjas and mystical nonsense.

The central plot of The Defenders hinges on the revelation that the island of Manhattan has been built on a volatile foundation. The Defenders could just as easily be speaking about itself.

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The Defenders – The H Word (Review)

It’s a hell of a town.

One of the most striking aspects of The Defenders is its emphasis on New York City. Of course, the Marvel Universe has always been centred on the Big Apple. Decades before Fantastic Four #1 laid the foundation stone for that elaborate shared continuity, Marvel Comics #1 established New York City as a hub for characters like Namor, the Angel and the Human Torch. The city has a long and rich shared history with the comic book publisher, allowing visitors to take tours of iconic comic book locations and even lighting the Empire State Building in the colours of The Amazing Spider-Man.

Matt’s got the devil off his back.

Of course, this long-standing association between New York and the Marvel universe has inevitably bled over into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most obviously, The Avengers places its iconic long pan around the eponymous heroes right in front of Grand Central Station. Spider-Man: Homecoming features its hero swinging through Queens and the suburbs. However, most of these scenes are shot on location outside New York; Atlanta and Toronto frequently double for New York.

In contrast, the Netflix Marvel series have all shot in and around New York. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist all went to the bother of filming Manhattan, rather than trying to recreate the city using another location. In many ways, it feels like these series unfold in a more authentic and grounded version of New York than the corresponding feature films, right down to the fact that their skylines all feature the real-life MetLife Building instead of the fictional “Avengers Tower.”

Trish Talk.

The Netflix shows did not always engage with a particular vision of New York. Iron Fist was so confused about its own identity that it never engaged with the city around it. Jessica Jones never invested in Jessica’s surroundings, but it still found time to include the city itself in the title character’s goodbye tour in AKA Top Shelf Perverts. However, both Daredevil and Luke Cage were very firmly rooted in their own versions of the Big Apple. Daredevil imagined a pre-gentrification eighties urban hellscape, while Luke Cage celebrated the history and culture of Harlem.

Given that The Defenders is being overseen by showrunners Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie, it makes sense that the series would have a very strong sense of place. Ramirez and Petrie were previously in charge of the second season of Daredevil, which imagined a version of New York that seemed trapped in the urban decay of the late seventies and early eighties, Bang even evoking the Summer of Sam in its introduction of the Punisher while the ninjas that populate the second half of the film look to have escaped a particularly dodgy seventies exploitation film.

Cage re-match.

However, The Defenders is not particularly interested in one individual version of New York. It is not a show that is firmly rooted in one single idea of the Big Apple, not a story that unfolds against the backdrop of one individual conception of the urban space. Instead, The Defenders is particularly interested in the capacity for these various iterations of New York to overlap with one another. The opening credits offer a visual expression of this approach, suggesting the series serves as a point of intersection.

The Defenders is a series built around the infinite potential of New York, this idea of the city as a space in which narratives collide and coalesce, where separate stories might come together and where people on their own journeys might find common cause with one another. The Defenders seems to accept that nightmarish cityscape of Daredevil is hard to reconcile with the uncaring urban environment of Jessica Jones or the vibrant community of Luke Cage. However, The Defenders also insists that they are are all facets of the same city.

Oh, and Danny is there too.

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Iron Fist – Under Leaf Pluck Lotus (Review)

With Under Leaf Pluck Lotus, Iron Fist truly embraces its inner Batman Begins.

To be fair, there were shades of this in the earlier episodes. Snow Gives Way introduced Danny Rand as a long-lost (legally dead) billionaire who returned home from a trip to the orient. Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch embroiled Danny in battle to take control of his company and reclaim his father’s legacy. Indeed, it seemed fair to reflect that if Daredevil had gorged itself on many of the more interesting and compelling facets of Christopher Nolan’s superhero origin story, then Iron Fist had been left to gently pick over the remains of that particular corpse.

Ain’t gonna Gao…

Under Leaf Pluck Lotus finds Iron Fist borrowing even more from Batman Begins, lifting plot points and story beats that were already stolen by Daredevil. The bulk of Under Leaf Pluck Lotus focuses on Danny’s discovery that a cult of secret ninjas have been using his company to smuggle dangerous materials into the city, having made a dangerous alliance with “the chemist.” This leads to a dangerous confrontation on the docks, recalling one of the most memorable sequences in Batman Begins and Matt Murdock’s own dockland adventures in Into the Ring or Stick.

When Under Leaf Pluck Lotus isn’t borrowing heavily from Batman Begins, it is awkwardly emulating Daredevil. Once again, the Hand are using the docks to smuggle something dangerous into New York City. Once again, that dangerous object turns out to be a person rather than an object. All of this feels very familiar, almost suffocatingly so. There are any number of interesting stories to be told about the character of Danny Rand and using the Immortal Iron Fist. Why settle for a dull retread of a story that has already been told within this run of television series?

On the defensive.

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Daredevil – A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen (Review)

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

And so we reach the end of the second season of Daredevil.

Except it is very clearly not the end. “This is not the end,” Elektra whispers as she lies dying in Matt’s arms. Although Elektra has hardly been the most honest or reliable character across the run of the season, she seems to be telling the truth. While the first season of Daredevil made a point to square away most of its characters and plot points at the end of the run, the second season consciously leaves things dangling. Nelson and Murdock has been dissolved. Elektra’s body has been stolen. The Hand are not defeated.

The dead only quickly decay...

The dead only quickly decay…

The first season ended in a relatively tidy fashion, with only a few oblique hints towards what the future might hold. The most significant of these loose ends, Wilson Fisk being taken to a holding cell, was consciously put on the backburner when the second season began. Although the second season would pick up on that storythread, it would not do so until the cliffhanger of Guilty as Sin leading into Seven Minutes in Heaven. There was a sense that the audience could have left Matt Murdock there and been happy. At least until The Defenders.

The end of the second season is much more ambiguous. There is no sense that anything is being left anywhere for an extended period of time. Whether those dangling plot threads will be addressed in a hypothetical third season of Daredevil or during The Defenders, it is clear that audiences are being kept on a hook.

"John Luther and James Bond both recommended this, so I thought I'd be foolish not to give it go..."

“John Luther and James Bond both recommended this, so I thought I’d be foolish not to give it go…”

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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.”

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Daredevil – .380 (Review)

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

One of the strongest things that the second season of Daredevil has going for it is the three-act structure.

Pacing and structure can be concerns for Netflix television shows. After all, the distributor works on a completely different model than most television broadcasters. Instead of releasing a series on a week-to-week basis across a period of several months, Netflix releases all of a season at the exact same moment. As such, the focus and goals of a Netflix series are different from that a series developed through more traditional means. Netflix shows are consciously designed to be “binged” rather than to be digested in hour-long chunks.

He's the devil, that one.

He’s the devil, that one.

In some ways, this has seen the erosion of the episode as a functional unit of storytelling. If an episode of a regular television drama simply does not work, then the audience is left with a bad taste in their mouth for a week. If an episode of a Netflix drama does not work, the next episode is right there. In fact, Netflix makes it even easier by automatically moving the viewer to the next episode, meaning it takes more effort not to watch the next episode than it does to just keep going. With that in mind, an individual episode not working is not a deal-breaker.

In some respects, it is disappointing that Netflix has yet to truly embrace the potential of the streaming model. Storytelling that would be unthinkable in a weekly model are easier to work around when it comes to binging. In terms of playing with narrative formating, Aziz Anasari’s Master of None is probably the most ambitious of the “Netflix original” shows; the series bounces between its arc-based storytelling and more standalone pieces. In most cases, Netflix shows only really exploit the potential of the model when it comes to serialising their story.

Frank interrogates The Usual Suspects.

Frank interrogates The Usual Suspects.

That said, there is still some division between how streaming affects the plotting of comedies as compared to dramas. Comedies like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Bojack Horseman seem to adopt a more conservative episodic approach to their episode-to-episode plotting; given that The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was moved to Netflix rather late in its production cycle, this makes in a certain amount of sense. Nevertheless, it would appear that the streaming model tends to lean towards a “single story told over [number] hours” approach to drama.

This is not inherently a good thing. One of the bigger issues with streaming dramas remains the attachment to classic television formal conventions, whether it is a set runtime or a predetermined number of episode. Not every story needs to be thirteen episodes, especially not on a streaming service. There is a question as to whether shows like Mad Dogs and Jessica Jones might have been better served with a shorter order. There is also a sense that the demand of telling a single story over a set number of hours leads to stalling and repeating.

Just a regular guy, talkin' about love and punishing.

Just a regular guy, talkin’ about love and punishing.

While a fantastically ambitious show in terms of storytelling and themes, Jessica Jones had an unfortunate habit of running around in circles in order to reach that thirteen-episode count. Early episodes like AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey wasted a lot of time on how to knock Kilgrave out. Kilgrave himself was introduced twice in both AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey. Kilgrave was captured and escaped no less than three times over the season, in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts.

In many ways, Daredevil is a conventional piece of television drama. Part of that is down to structuring. Daredevil has a stronger sense of episodic storytelling than many contemporary streaming dramas. Within the second seasons, episodes like Guilty as Sin and Seven Minutes in Heaven are held together by internal themes like the idea of perpetual war as it links the season’s two plots and whether various characters are trapped within prisons of their own makings. Care is taken to ensure that something is accomplished between the start and end of a given episode.

Guy talk.

Guy talk.

More than that, the second season takes the idea further and very clearly structures itself into conventional three-act design. The first act introduces Frank Castle and pit him against Matt Murdock, running from Bang to Penny and Dime. The second act introduces Elektra and focuses on Frank Castle’s trial and incarceration, running from Kinbaku to Seven Minutes in Heaven. The third act completes Frank’s origin story while pitting Matt and Elektra against the hand, from The Man in the Box to A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen. The structure is very clear.

Unfortunately, .380 marks the point at which that structure begins to fall apart.

There's going to be hell to pay...

There’s going to be hell to pay…

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Daredevil – The Man in the Box (Review)

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

Throughout the second season of Daredevil, major characters debate the nature of Frank Castle.

In Bang, Frank Castle is introduced as a force of nature; he is presented akin to an old horror movie monster. In New York’s Finest, Frank tries to argue his case with Matt; Frank suggests that he simply offers a more permanent variation of the justice that Matt dispense. Indeed, Regrets Only seems to suggest that Karen has a more sympathetic perspective on Frank; Foggy dismisses him as obviously insane. In Semper Fidelis, Matt and Karen argue about whether Frank could be considered a hero.

"You should put that on a t-shirt or something."

“You should put that on a t-shirt or something.”

As the second season of Daredevil marches on, the series continues to offer excuses and justifications for what Frank does. The show goes out of its way to avoid any potentially challenging read of Frank Castle, tying everything neatly back to the death of his family. Guilty as Sin implies that Frank is a victim of “sympathetic storming” that keeps the death of his family constantly fresh in his mind. Seven Minutes in Heaven makes it clear that Frank still has a lot killing to do to avenge his family. Frank is presented as a brutal avenger, rather than a violent serial killer.

However, as the second season of Daredevil enters its final act, the show tips its hand. The Man in the Box makes it clear that Frank Castle is not an anti-villain. He is not even an anti-hero. Frank Castle is a straight-up hero. As the show moves into its final stretch, it becomes clear that the production team have crafted a thirteen-episode superhero origin story for Frank Castle. That gets to the root of the problems in his characterisation.

Sai.

Sai.

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Daredevil – Guilty as Sin (Review)

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

Part of what is so infuriating about the second season of Daredevil is that fact that there is a lot of good material here.

The issue is nothing as simple as saying “good ideas, terrible execution”, or anything as trite. There are good ideas that are executed well and bad ideas that are handled with a surprisingly deft touch; there are also good ideas that are needlessly squandered and bad ideas that turn out to be exactly as terrible as they initially appear. It isn’t even that there are clearly discernible unambiguous flaws. Everything is a mix. For all the issues with the writing of the Punisher and Elektra, Jon Bernthal and Elodie Yung do great work with the material afforded to them.

Let us pray...

Let us pray…

The second season of Daredevil is very much a curate’s egg of a television season. There are good bits and bad bits. There is breathtaking ambition and incredible miscalculation in equal measure. The series is not entirely a failure, but it is far from a success. With Guilty as Sin, the show clumsily repositions itself as a morality play about the conflict between good and evil within the soul as Elektra Natchios. However, there is a similar conflict brewing at the heart of the show.

Even in the season’s strongest moments, there are clear weaknesses shining through. Even in the season’s weakest moments, its strongest elements are frequently in play.

Eye see.

Eye see.

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