“No Such Thing As A Superhero Film, There Are Films With Superheroes In Them” – Charlie Cox
I have to admit that the second episode of the first season of the Netflix show Daredevil had me a little disturbed for a bit. This is the part of the show when the central character, the heroic one-man army of Hell’s Kitchen (Midtown West), Manhattan, is being introduced.
Here’s what we know about the Marvel creation Daredevil. His actual name is Matt Murdock. He’s blind. He lost his eyesight in a road accident when he was a little child. He was trying to save an old man’s life then.
As a result of his blindness, all his other senses — hearing, smell etc — are miraculously heightened. That’s hardly a superpower, if you ask me. It’s true for visually impaired people in general. But of course, we are looking at Daredevil being able to hear heart beating from a distance, or a wristwatch ticking even when that person wearing the Cartier is far ahead in a crowded street.
What got my goat, though? In his first display of superheroism, as it were, Daredevil follows the footsteps of the arch enemy (a Russian human trafficker) down the stairwell of a building. He can even smell this man’s perfume inside an apartment, when he’s walking up from a few stories below. Knowing exactly where the villain is, going back down the spiral staircase, Daredevil flings a fire extinguisher on to his head from above, while the villain is not looking. I’m thinking “Bloody realistic all right, but this has to be the most cowardly way to kill an enemy, even by nonsuperhero standards.”
Meeting up with Charlie Cox, the on-screen Daredevil, in Singapore, on his promotional tour of the show’s recently launched Season 2, I realise the problem is with my perception, and not so much with the series. You can tell how popular Daredevil is, looking at, well, one journalist in the room who’s showed up in the Daredevil costume herself (although inspired by the comic book version, and looking totally comical asking rather serious questions with her face behind a mask). The thing about superheroes, Cox tells me, is that it is “not a genre anymore”, with its own set of expectations or tropes. In fact there is no such thing as a superhero film. There are films with superheroes in them, he argues, but they could otherwise be dark dramas (Christopher Nolan’s Batman films), or comedies (Deadpool), or multi-starrer intergalactic fantasies (Avengers, Guardians Of The Galaxy), or flat out masterpieces (Mad Max).
I sort of get his point, especially coming from Mumbai. Yes, Cox has the usual foreigner’s chitchat with me about whether it’s Mumbai or Bombay. For decades now, since the ‘70s in particular, mainstream Bollywood has been defined by superhero movies – except, the superhero is a superstar (from Amitabh Bachchan to Salman Khan), who can deliver poetic justice to his audience in under three hours. Yet, each of those super-star/superhero films have had a genre of their own—they can be comedies, family dramas, romances, bromances, thrillers or, as is more likely the case, all of these, comprising one ‘masala film’.
Looking at Daredevil, it’s hard to pigeonhole the series into a specific genre as well. It is very realistic, yes, especially for a show whose main guy is a superhero. But that choice could also be dictated by the medium. Superheroes in Hollywood are usually associated with tent pole pictures mounted on massive IMAX or 3D screens. George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road may have even exhausted the scope and size of such gigantic movies. Daredevil, on the other hand, produced and available on Netflix (inarguably the world’s largest, legit DVD player/library) is designed for television, or any other modern screen even closer to your eyes— your laptop, tablet or cellphone. The show’s intrinsic minimalism only adds to an intimate experience.
Furthermore, since Daredevil is all too human, you follow elements of the series like any other human drama. Matt Murdock’s father, for instance, was a boxer who’d be forced to throw matches by his promoters to take home the extra buck. That’s a boxing movie straight away. Murdock himself, along with his partner Nelson, runs a fledgling law practice, nearly pro bono. They take up cases on behalf of underdogs that no firm in their right mind will fight.
Nelson and Murdock, in a way, come across as Sherlock and Watson, naturally playing off each other, investigating crucial crimes like in any other detective fiction. There is then Karen, the vivacious secretary. You can sense a very latent sexual chemistry between the two men and her—nothing oddly creepy or uncomfortable so far as the work situation is concerned, but intriguing enough to keep you engaged, or guessing.
None of these facets are static, though. The show evolves rather quickly from when Drew Goddard (The Cabin In The Woods, The Martian), the credited creator of this screen version of Stan Lee and Bill Evert’s Daredevil, passes on the writing duties. By Season 2, Cox reasons, “Daredevil exudes much less Catholic guilt. He feels vindicated by the right choices he’s made. There is arrogance and swagger as a result. Matt Murdock knows he’s a celebrity.”
The difference is quite palpable even at a superficial level. Daredevil’s suit gets spiffier and tighter in Season 2. He takes on a more formidable opponent, The Punisher. The blind Daredevil, crime fighter by night, very much turns on the heat with manic mortal combat in almost every episode. Part detective fiction, part action—is this still ‘superhero fantasy’ by any stretch of a child’s imagination? This is a rather old lament by now: do we produce superhero material mainly for adults? Have Disney/Pixar taken over the kids’ market altogether? Where the hell is He-Man? In Cox’s words, “There are some characters whose original source material is more suited to an adult audience. Daredevil, like Batman, is one of them. An R-rated Spiderman would be a mistake. Spiderman’s 17. Matt Murdock is 28-29, extremely relatable, exploring his flaws…”
The beauty of discovering a superhero such as Daredevil at a later age, if you haven’t grown up on the character is that it becomes organically easier to consume this entertainment without nostalgia inevitably messing with an adult experience. Cox himself first picked up the original Marvel comic only after he’d read the show’s script.
Speaking of which, my wholly contestable theory around the ‘adultification’ of superheroes is the phenomenal success of dark and edgy graphic novels among young adults in the mid to late ‘80s—ones by Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns) in particular. They certainly had a profound effect on expressive filmmakers looking to dabble in this ‘saving the world’ business, and placing their characters in the heart of darkness sometimes.
Daredevil looks every bit urban noir in its mood and lighting. The tone isn’t a gimmick – it strongly reflects the theme. The blind crime fighter operates in a very real city, facing relatable demons. He isn’t an unquestioned overlord with a cosmic mandate to rescue the planet. He’s a very normal guy. The uncomfortable ethics behind someone like Daredevil could give rise to men like The Punisher, the archenemy, who feel equally entitled to believe they’re above the law. Daredevil, in his defense, says he never kills anyone.
The Punisher, a vile eccentric who exists to excite extreme hatred in Season 2, wonders aloud for the audience if the superhero himself isn’t only “one bad day away from being me.” That, essentially, was also the point behind both the US government and Batman taking on Superman in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, which opened in theatres around the same time as the second season of Daredevil.
The thorough Brit Henry Cavill is the current American Superman. Likewise, Cox, 34, was born in London and grew up in East Sussex. He seems so instinctively Yankee as Daredevil, strolling on the streets of Manhattan, subtly cracking the part, making it seem all so easy. “Not easy,” Cox says, “I had to get the intonations right, not just for an American, but also for a man from a blue-collared upbringing who went to (the Ivy League) Columbia University.” It is his breakout role, and he takes to Daredevil like any New York actor would have. If you don’t think that’s a big deal, the only American to have played James Bond (which was also the first time anybody essayed the role) is a man nobody remembers — Barry Nelson.