MARVEL AT THE MOVIES: FILMS AND TV PRODUCTIONS FEATURING ‘DAREDEVIL’.
Andy Ross returns with his on-going series about the Marvel universe, looking at the film and television appearances of Daredevil – The Man Without Fear!
‘Can you guess why Daredevil is different from all other crime-fighters?’
So ran the tantalising tag-line to Stan Lee/ Bill Everett’s Here Comes Daredevil, The Man Without Fear (#1, Apr 1964). A character delivered in the true Marvel tradition, where Daredevil treads new ground is through the revelation that its pivotal hero is a victim of childhood blindness. The son of ‘Battling Jack’ Murdock – a prize-fighter from the notorious Hell’s Kitchen – Murdock loses his sight after saving an old man from being hit by a truck. With splashes of the vehicle’s radioactive payload damaging his eyes, Matt’s remaining senses become supernaturally enhanced. Struggling to provide a better life for his son, ‘Battling Jack’ refuses to throw a fight… an act of disobedience which is dealt with in the most brutal of fashions. Continuing to pursue his studies in the wake of his father’s murder, Matt’s passage into adulthood sees him fighting crime on two very different fronts; firstly, as a dedicated lawyer representing the down-trodden of the ghetto and, secondly, as the crimson-clad defender known as Daredevil.
A rather unique comic-book hero – who, in the hands of Lee, was awarded a great deal of emotional gravitas – Daredevil’s world is very different to that of his up-town Marvel stable-mates. He devotes his crime-fighting antics to the neighbourhood in which he was raised. Both by day and by night, Matt Murdock is very much a hero of the under-privileged. Protecting the vulnerable against the brutality of thugs, pimps and assorted lowlifes as Daredevil, Murdock intervenes whenever and wherever conventional means of justice fail. Feared by the bad guys and admired by those he stands up for, the creators invented countless villains whose ultimate agenda is to bring the hero to his knees. Chief amongst them is Wilson Fisk (a.k.a The Kingpin), Daredevil’s long-time nemesis and one of New York’s most notorious crime-bosses. A large, bald-headed man who professes a love for the finer things in life, when the Kingpin isn’t directly exchanging blows with Daredevil you can be certain he is orchestrating his downfall from the sidelines. Armed with a set of ‘billy-clubs’, and squaring up to the likes of Gladiator, The Owl, and Bullseye, ‘The Man Without Fear’ Matt Murdock is a hero who stacks the odds back in the peoples’ favour.
With Netflix’ thirteen-part series series Daredevil (2015) capturing the pragmatism of the comic-book, and Charlie Cox delivering the definitive dual portrayal of Matt Murdock/ Daredevil, it may come as some surprise that the first television incarnation of the costumed crime-fighter appeared by means of NBC’s The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982). One of three spin-off films inspired by the popular prime-time series, Trial Of The Incredible Hulk (1989) witnesses David Banner (Bill Bixby) accused of a crime perpetrated by the henchmen of Wilson Fisk (John Rhys-Davies). Determined to prove Banner’s innocence, blind defence attorney Matt Murdock (Rex Smith) finds himself assigned to the stranger’s case. Curiously revealing his identity to Banner who in spite of his own transformations into a huge, green rage-monster finds his story difficult to believe, Daredevil winds up severely beaten in a clash with Fisk’s hoodlums, at which point the Hulk dutifully intervenes.
Constrained by its moderate budget, and with slow-motion badly used to accentuate the action scenes, Trial Of The Incredible Hulk is no more of an event than the individual episodes that preceded it. The second television movie to co-star a canonical Marvel character (the other being Thor – The God of Thunder) is 1989’s The Incredible Hulk Returns, a pilot vehicle for a proposed Daredevil series which lacked the necessary thrust to lift itself off the ground. Attired in a black, stealth-like version of the iconic costume, the appearance of Rex Smith’s Daredevil was latterly re-visited in Frank Miller’s definitive Man Without Fear graphic series in 1993. Covering an earlier period of the hero’s development, the darkly clad Daredevil seen in Trial Of The Incredible Hulk might have appeared cheap, but in retrospect was genuinely rather inspired.
With a combination of live-action wire work and CGI realising the incredible on-screen acrobatics of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), the development of a Daredevil feature seemed a logical direction to go in. An origin story incorporating Kingpin, Bullseye, and Elektra, Daredevil (2003) is, if anything, a little overpopulated for a standardized debut feature. Besides dealing with the murder of Matt’s father and the subsequent torment the youngster is put through, Daredevil all-but ignores the unique relationship between Matt and his partner-in-law Foggy Nelson. In parts quite brilliant, in others decidedly cringe-worthy, Daredevil sits uncomfortably on the fence between the bold super-heroics of Spider-Man and the profound film-noir territory of Alex Proyas’ The Crow (1994). Setting Matt Murdock’s (Ben Affleck) first meeting with Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner) aside for a moment (and you don’t need me to remind you how wacky that particular episode is!), the development of the individual characters, how each of their destinies becomes dramatically inter-twined, is quite competently dealt with. Although the Kingpin’s (Michael Clarke Duncan) direct involvement with the murder of ‘battling Jack’ is an unfortunate contrivance, the Elektra revenge sub-plot – coupled with the appearance of manic hit-man Bullseye (Colin Farrell) – provides a fair share of comic-book genius. Adding further fuel to the fires of contention, the casting of Affleck in the lead role is a decision that was never going to please everyone. In a similar vein to Nicholas Cage (another actor whose on screen performances are very much like Marmite), Affleck, to his credit, acquits himself rather well as the moody but likeable vigilante. With it’s religious imagery, brooding night skies, and athletic violence, it’s a task to fathom out what the director actually intended for the piece. As a film that casual viewers found nonsensical, and the comic-book faithful contentious, Daredevil wasn’t the resounding success that 20th Century Fox hoped for. As a twist on the original material, though, it sincerely isn’t that bad.
With the Marvel cinematic universe proving increasingly lucrative and the rights to several of its properties reverting back to them, the company revisited their old stomping ground of television for Daredevil’s latest, and most critically acclaimed, appearance. Starring Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Vincent D’Onforio as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page and Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, Daredevil premièred on April 10th 2015. The first of four inter-connected shows designed to unite Marvel’s super-team The Defenders, (the remainder being Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist), Daredevil benefits immensely from its hour-long episodic format. Besides allowing a much deeper insight into Matt’s childhood and his early tuition under the auspices of the mysterious Stick (Scott Glenn), the series fleshes out the supporting characters of Karen Page and investigative reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall). The most perfect Marvel adaptation to date, Daredevil‘s incredibly brutal set-pieces and wonderfully in depth narrative win the hearts of even the most jaded of comic-book advocates. Here we see the hero primarily as a street-wise vigilante utilising his enhanced abilities for a just and righteous cause. Becoming increasingly despondent when associates of Fisk invariably escape conventional means of justice, Murdock takes to the streets as ‘The Devil’ to close their cases in his own rather unique fashion. A worthy opponent, Wilson Fisk takes great care to cover his criminal tracks, portraying himself as a property developer who is the saviour of Hell’s Kitchen. But his dealings with both the Russian Mafia and an Asian drug cartel paint a very different picture. Chipping away at the foundations of Fisk’s mighty empire, Matt’s nocturnal activities soon see him requiring the help of experienced ER nurse, Clare Temple (Rosario Dawson), and, in expanding his network of accomplices (both in and out of costume), Matt resigns himself to the fact that no man can fight injustice on his own.
Daredevil is an exceptional piece of television drama; wonderfully written and brimming with believable cast performances. Set within the existing Marvel Comics universe, but with its dirty back-streets and impoverished inhabitants proffering a very different world to the crystal mansions of The Avengers. Besides featuring a lead villain that puts the extreme character traits of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde to shame, Daredevil gives us – in the shape of Charlie Cox – a hero we can not only believe in but one we can sincerely relate to.
Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989) 4/10
Daredevil (2003) 5/10
Daredevil (2015) 9.5/10