In this week’s Leaving Proof: Netflix’s Daredevil series demonstrates the untapped potential of writing superheroes for the episodic live-action medium, but there’s still room for the genre to grow and improve.
For several years now, a new industry narrative has been making the rounds in Hollywood. The message, as it has been articulated in various in-depth feature articles (“The New Hollywood: Movie writers find more power, better jobs on the small screen”), insider thinkpieces (“TV is viewed as holding more promise for screenwriters than film”), and creator interviews (“Boardwalk Empire creator says writing TV is better than film”), is that television—premium cable, in particular—has supplanted film as the go-to live-action medium for quality writing.
That this theme has emerged just as “geek” movies such as Marvel Studios’ interlocking superhero projects, Michael Bay’s Transformers films, and serial YA novel adaptations have come to dominate the box-office is no coincidence. Movie studios are looking to double-down on franchises, and if there is one unifying note to the chorus of dissent and dissatisfaction issuing from the writers leaving film for television, it is this: Right now, there is only room in the major studio movie business for PG-rated, formulaic, sequel-ready fluff that’s been focus-tested to within an inch of its life, cookie-cutter regurgitations of established pop culture commodities, and the occasional “prestige” Oscar-bait to maintain the illusion that they aren’t just in the business of churning out three-hour tech demos and merchandise adverts. Just about everything else is left to chance development in the indie film ghetto. (If all that sounds vaguely familiar to returning readers of this column, it’s because it echoes many of the complaints comics creators have expressed in recent years as they’ve migrated from Marvel and DC to creator-owned concerns.)
It does seem like premium, original, episodic content providers such as HBO (The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire, True Detective), AMC (Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead), Netflix (House of Cards, Orange is the New Black), Showtime (Dexter, Weeds), FX (Sons of Anarchy, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), and even Starz (Spartacus, Outlander) are where it’s at right now if one is looking for original, high production value live-action entertainment that doesn’t involve superheroes, cars that turn into robots, or the latest, trending YA novel series. They’re not all gems, of course, but the variety of content compared to what you can see at the local cineplex is undeniable.
What does it mean, then, for Daredevil, a 13-episode series jointly developed by Marvel Studios and Netflix, to debut on the industry-leading on-demand streaming platform, as it did last Friday? Apart from the obvious—Marvel is looking to grab a piece of the sweet, sweet, episodic on-demand streaming pie—one would hope that this signals at least a partial shift away from the predictable, safe, and simplistic stories and structures of the Marvel Studios films. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed most of the recent Marvel Studios films on a basic, kick-back-and-relax, leave-your-brain-at-the-door level, but the MacGuffin-driven plots are ultimately forgettable and the extended, CGI and explosion-heavy action sequences and inane dialogue that are served up as a substitute for any coherent third act can get very wearying.
From a technical and production design standpoint, the show looks quite impressive, especially when one considers its relatively modest budget, which is in the neighborhood of about $3.3 million per episode, as one outlet has estimated. The entire budget for all 60 hours of Netflix’s original Marvel programming—comprising 13 episodes each of Daredevil, A.K.A. Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage; and four to eight episodes of The Defenders—is $200 million, $20 million less than the production budget for 2012’s The Avengers. Contrast that with ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, which had a budget of $14 million for its pilot episode or Netflix’s own House of Cards, which reportedly has a budget of $3.8 million per episode.
Daredevil‘s TV-MA rating—what would be the equivalent of an R rating if it were a film—gives stunt coordinator and fight choreographer Philip J. Silvera the creative leeway to craft some truly standout (and memorably gory) action sequences. One especially notable fight scene in the series occurs near the end of the second episode, a three-minute long single take that is an homage to the corridor fight scene in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. The scene was shot as a continuous take without any cuts. A physically demanding scene of that length, so dependent on split-second timing, precision camera movement, and flawless choreography, would normally be edited together from multiple takes.
In terms of the direction Marvel Studios’ television arm is taking with its Netflix co-productions, the signs coming from Daredevil are encouraging. Taken together, the first five episodes do an excellent job of introducing the characters, the setting, and the main conflicts without falling into the same, stereotyped narrative pattern of the Marvel Studios films with which it co-exists (some minor references are made in the dialogue to events and characters in 2012’s The Avengers, but the show is largely accessible to anyone willing to accept the superhero premise).
Part of the show’s success as an adaptation of a comics property is just a function of the medium. The source material is serial in nature, so it follows that the episodic format of a Netflix series will be better suited for a Daredevil adaptation. There’s space for the writers to engage in the kind of long-form storytelling that just isn’t possible with the restrictions set by the summer blockbuster superhero film formula. The necessary exposition can be spread out across multiple episodes instead of being dumped on the viewer in awkward chunks (and time doesn’t need to be wasted on rehashing the exposition the way it is done in movie sequels), characters can be introduced gradually and allowed to develop without forcing the pace, and multiple plot threads can weave in and out of the spotlight for extended periods.
The writing is better than what we’re accustomed to seeing from superhero films and non-premium television, but it has its flaws and weaknesses. As with any superhero story that takes itself so seriously and grounds its narrative in grit and realism, there are points where the idiosyncrasies of the genre and the source material threaten to undermine the story’s overarching themes and the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. Daredevil‘s writers make an earnest attempt to frame the show’s central conflict as more than just a black and white, good versus evil affair that can be resolved by one person punching another, but at the end of the day, it is still the kind of reductive morality play those critical of the superhero vigilante conceit find risible.
Daredevil‘s writing shares the relative sophistication of Captain America: The Winter Soldier but, as with that film, it’s still not at the level where it would be accruing unreserved praise that isn’t qualified by genre: A common critical sentiment encountered online is that the writing on Daredevil is surprisingly mature, for a show with superheroes. That says as much about the juvenile proclivities of mainstream superhero entertainment in general as it does about Daredevil, but it also tells us that as good as the show is, there’s still work to be done if future superhero shows on Netflix and elsewhere are to be discussed alongside premium TV fare like Breaking Bad and The Wire as examples of the best that the episodic medium can offer.
- Leaving Proof 257 | On Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil
- Leaving Proof 161 | Storytelling 101: On Ed Brubaker’s Angel of Death and why comics are more than just “paper movies”