How Daredevil gave birth to dark superhero stories -- and showed us how to end them
One of the most insightful critiques of modern superhero stories came in the form of a really bad song in the middle of The Lego Movie.
“DARKNESS,” bellows Will Arnett’s Lego Batman over some kind of bastardized industrial grindcore track. “NO PARENTS.”
Thanks to the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, “dark” and “gritty” became synonymous with superheroes on screens both big and small. But even though Batman was the character who popularized cinema’s dark superhero psychodramas, it was Daredevil that did so in comics. Unfortunately for Daredevil, the 2003 film bearing his name failed to convey this (and a lot of other things)—so the character was never associated with the grim-dark vigilante chic aesthetic in the public consciousness.
But with the upcoming launch of Netflix’s Daredevil series—which drops its first season Friday—Marvel’s Man Without Fear appears primed to reclaim the goth crown of comicdom from Batman’s pointy-eared cowl. We’re only a few days away from finding out if he’ll do so successfully. But here’s a better question: Should he even bother?
There’s a very good reason both Daredevil and Batman tread similar moody terrain. That reason is Frank Miller.
A lot has been written about Miller’s influence on Daredevil/Batman, and it’s all true—it’s almost frustrating how seminal the man’s work has been to modern interpretations of these characters. Miller led Daredevil toward being one of the most consistently good Marvel series of the past 30 years, with creators like Ann Nocenti, John Romita Jr., Brian Michael Bendis, Alex Maleev, Ed Brubaker, and Michael Lark all turning out fantastic comic book stories. Nothing stays at 11 on the dial, but Daredevil often came close. It’s always been hard to go wrong with a Daredevil comic.
Most of the work that followed Miller adhered to the mold that he’d sculpted out during his run: superhero noir, with drugs and organized crime and ninjas thrown in for good measure. Because of Miller, Daredevil also became the Marvel Universe’s most tragic figure—his loves were doomed to die, his life was always on the brink of falling apart, and he never really won in the sense that most superheroes do. Daredevil’s life became torture porn, a parade of terrible things that threatened to break him at every juncture. As bleak as it was, it often made for absolutely gripping storytelling.
But in 2015, that grim angst that defined American superhero comics in the ’80s and later informed their cinematic adaptations has become trite. It’s no longer edgy to be bleak or cynical. Superheros have been deconstructed and subverted so much that the notion of “realism” in superhero stories is tiresome, even as executives cling to it.
What’s ironic about this is that Daredevil, the character who served as the literal template for the modern “dark” superhero, has also shown how to move on from that darkness—and become something more. Something better. Something we may never get to see in a film or TV series.
It started in 2011, when Mark Waid and Paolo Rivera relaunched the Daredevil comic series with the explicit goal to have Matt “win again.” The comic they ended up with was nothing short of stunning.
Waid and Rivera’s (and later, Chris Samnee’s) take on the character was a revelation. It pivoted from its trademark grim tonality while also refusing to sweep all of Matt Murdock’s darkness under the rug. Waid, Rivera, Samnee, et al remember all of the terrible things that happened in those seminal, gritty stories—even that crazy one where he gets possessed by a literal devil—and Matt has to find a way deal with them.
So he does, in a way that’s astonishingly simple. He becomes a daredevil not just in name, but in attitude: fearless, fun, and recklessly charming. There’s a stroke of genius to the new approach (which is ,in some ways, an old approach, more in line with the character’s swashbuckling early stories), and it’s in a small, quiet, suggestion that Waid plants in the mind of Murdock’s closest friend Foggy Nelson: Maybe this carefree new attitude is a symptom of a man truly reaching his limit. Maybe Matt isn’t really okay. Can someone really move on from all that tragedy?
Over nearly 50 issues, Waid and Chris Samnee (the artist who would eventually settle in to be Daredevil‘s co-storytellerafter issue #12) crafted one of the most refreshing, measured depictions of a character dealing with depression in a mainstream superhero comic—while also telling wonderfully fun, colorful stories that make Daredevil a must-buy every month. It’s one of the most mature superhero comics out there—not mature in the marketing sense, which denotes sex or violence, but mature as in “well-adjusted” and “grown-up.”
This approach isn’t just a welcome change; it’s a necessary one. Again, crafting darker stories about superheroes isn’t exactly groundbreaking anymore. What’s more, after 30 years of storytelling defined by tragedy, there’s a sense of narrative debt that has remained unpaid—if creators are going to spend all this time piling on this character, then they owe it to him (and to readers) to show how he’ll deal with it all in the end.
In this context, Waid and Samnee’s run isn’t a refresh or a reinvention, but a necessary third act. Depression is a ghost that haunts Daredevil, ever-present, ready to claim him should he ever stop moving—so he surrounds himself with people that keep him going. A best friend that’s in on his secrets and speaks frankly. A love interest that’s strong, independent, and capable. It’s a small cast, but an honest and open one that calls Murdock out when he needs to be called out or reaches out when he doesn’t think he needs to be reached.
With the help of others, Matt Murdock keeps moving so he can live without fear. Let’s hope we can watch him do the same on the big or small screen.