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Hell's Angel: How the Return of 'Daredevil' Darkens Marvel's Universe

Netflix's new superhero series resurrects a fan favorite and kicks off a gritty new era

Charlie Cox teaches some thugs a lesson in 'Daredevil,' Netflix's superhero series and bid to eastablish a "mature corner" in the Marvel Universe.. Credit: Barry Wetcher/Netflix

Bring up the subject of superheroes to Steven S. DeKnight, and he will not regale you with tales of truth, justice and the American way, or how great power begets great responsibility. Instead, the former Spartacus showrunner will jump straight to a specific set of panels in a specific comic book, one that hit newsstands and specialty shops in April, 1982. "There was this issue of Daredevil, near the end of [writer-artist] Frank Miller's run," DeKnight says. "Our hero is fighting with a professional assassin named Bullseye, on a wire. The bad guy starts to fall; Daredevil catches him. He has him by the hand, high above the city." There's a pregnant pause on the other end of the phone line.

"And then he decides to let him go," DeKnight continues. "Daredevil drops him to his death — or what he thinks is his death — because he doesn't ever want this guy to kill again.  I remember reading that when I was a kid and thinking, Oh my god. When we started working on our show, that scene from the comics kept coming up. We all thought, this is a hero who is one bad day away from permanently crossing a line."

Morally conflicted caped crusaders have become a part of the pop cultural firmament in the same way that "difficult men" antiheroes are now permanent fixture on prestige-TV dramas. But Netflix's 13-episode series Daredevil, which will hit the streaming service en toto on April 10th, feels like more than just a sum-of-its-parts combination of the two concepts. By emphasizing the gritty, noirish feel of the Marvel comics' adventures of Matt Murdock, blind lawyer by day and costumed crimefighter by night, this latest endeavor in superhero entertainment feels less like a small-screen summer blockbuster than a throwback to a whole different era of hardboiled storytelling. "The idea was to go for much more of a classic 1970s New York City feel," DeKnight admits. "The template was Taxi Driver."

Comic fans can recite the Silver Age superhero's general evolution from generic do-gooder to tortured Travis Bickle-ish character by heart: Originally conceived by Stan Lee and artist Bill Everett during Marvel's gold rush of iconic creations in the 1960s, Daredevil started as a typical hero, the son of a boxer who was blinded in an accident involving radioactive waste. With the help of a benignly Satanic costume, a billy club and highly developed sonar-like abilities, the character doled out after-hours justice in Hell's Kitchen. It wasn't until Frank Miller took over the title in the late Seventies, however, that the comic's popularity started to spike; in addition to introducing a kinetic drawing style and ninjas into the mix, the writer-artist began exploring what putting on a disguise and fighting criminals does to a person's psyche. Long before his revisionist interpretation of Batman would help usher in a new way of looking at men in tights, Miller was using his run on Daredevil to create what would eventually become the go-to mode for modern masked-men stories: the superhero as damaged goods.

So when Marvel's Head of Television Jeph Loeb approached writer, producer and director Drew Goddard about doing a Daredevil series for Netflix — the first of four separate superhero shows that would culminate in an all-star miniseries called The Defenders ("Think a street-level version of The Avengers," DeKnight says) — the idea was always to do Miller's version of the character as a vigilante-like avenging angel. And after Goddard had to bow out of the project to go work on the Spider-Man villain movie The Sinister Six, his old Buffy the Vampire Slayer colleague DeKnight stepped in and took the reigns.

"I grew up reading the comics, so I knew the material," he says. "But it was the fact that both Marvel and Netflix wanted something different than the movies that drew me in." So if, for example, DeKnight wanted to forgo using elaborately made-up supervillians in favor of using Wilson Fisk, the imposing bald mobster known in the comics as the Kingpin, as the show's central bad guy, or to skew towards edgy pulp realism over pow-whiz-bang Pop Art, he had their blessing. "I liked the notion of approaching it as a crime drama first, and a superhero show second," he says.

Which is not to say that this is not a recognizable Marvel property: There are still origin stories and training montages. There is a majestic looking hero — clad in an all-black ensemble with a head scarf instead of the trademark horned red suit — surveying the mean streets beneath him. There are two possible romantic interests, in the form of legal assistant Karen Page (True Blood's Deborah Ann Woll) and nurse Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). Vincent D'Onofrio's take on the Kingpin suggests a villainish malevolence that's downright chilling. And there's a violent, showstopping fight sequence between Daredevil (Charlie Cox) and an army of thugs in the second episode, filmed in what appears to be a single take, that puts many of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's sound-and-fury set pieces to shame. (DeKnight credits The Raid movies as inspiration for this sequence.) This is still a comic-book adaptation — it's just one done in deeper shades of black, blue and blood red than usual. 

"The idea was to go for much more of a classic 1970s New York City feel. The template was Taxi Driver."

"'Darker,' was the word that kept coming up," Cox says. Best known for playing the lead in the 2007 cult fantasy Stardust and a supporting role on Boardwalk Empire, the 32-year-old British actor beat out a number of contenders to play both Murdock and, per the comics' tagline, the "Man Without Fear." "I had a Skype conversation with the producers and remember thinking, I'm not sure I'm the right guy for this," he recalls. "Then one of them said 'The second episode begins with you half dead in a dumpster,' and I thought, Oh, this could be interesting!" Cox quickly boned up on the books, started hitting the gym, worked with a "blindness consultant" to get a sense of Murdock's sightlessness and began to construct an idea of who this person was. "Once I realized that as soon as he puts that mask on, all bets are off — I had it" the actor says. "He's a guy who, if he's going to deal with some bad guys…he's not going to stop until he's done. And he might not even stop then."

Whether or not Marvel and Netflix's experiment will end up duplicating the separate-entries-to-supergroup-team-up success of the movies, the gamble of starting their "street-level" franchise with a show that pulls no punches, literally or otherwise, immediately pays off in other ways. It effectively erases the memory of Daredevil's last live-action outing, a 2003 film starring Ben Affleck that most superhero aficionados consider an offense on par with a nippled batsuit. The series establishes a solid foundation for what the creators hope will be viewed as the "mature corner" of the Marvel Universe, where envelopes can be pushed a bit further and longer formats will allow for more nuanced storytelling. And judging from the reception at Comic Con last year, they have already won over a fickle fanbase weaned on complex notions of good and evil co-mingling in their costumed warriors.

"I think people are responding to the same thing I responded to," Cox says, referring to the positive feedback he received at last summer's convention. "Listen, I love Superman, but the problem I've always had with that character was that he seemed so earnestly good, you know? I'm more interested in seeing a flawed superhero. Maybe someone who puts on a mask has noble intentions but those intentions get warped along the way. Fans are interested in watching someone take that journey. And I'm much more interested in playing an antihero than a hero."