A modern Marvel: Superhero adaptations get grittier, more realistic

A modern Marvel: Superhero adaptations get grittier, more realistic

By ADITYA MANI JHA | | 17 May, 2015
Last month, Marvel and Netflix released Daredevil, a martial-arts-fuelled crime-drama that’s a far cry from the superhero adaptations of yore. Aditya Mani Jha examines the rise of a new, fearless brand of comicbook adaptations.

For fans of the domino effect, the release of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight was a nodal point in history. Everybody agreed that Heath Ledger was the bomb, but there was another narrative being built up, quietly and without as much fanfare, at least at first. This was about the film's political allegory: or so people would have you believe. Batman faced a moral dilemma and so did George W Bush. Batman was the good guy who had to do some horrible things, things not legal in the strictest sense of the word; so did George W Bush. Batman good, ergo Dubya best. It's not important whether you agree with this analysis or not. What matters is that Nolan, by making The Dark Knight as realistic, as gritty and as morally urgent as he did, made his film eligible to be a vessel for such theories. In doing so, he set the tone for future superhero adaptations. The message was clear: get real or get the f**k out.

With the recent release of Marvel's Netflix TV series Daredevil, the stakes have been raised for the superhero/vigilante genre. You are sorely mistaken if you think Daredevil is another silly superhero caper, like the Ben-Afflicted movie of the same name. It is, in fact, an ironclad film noir-meets-martial-arts drama, interested more in the rapid moral degeneration of Hell's Kitchen (the New York neighbourhood that provides the setting for the Daredevil comics) than the finer points of its hero's Kevlar suit (it's not much of a spoiler that the famous red Kevlar only makes an appearance in the final episode of the first season).

Moreover, Daredevil, created by Drew Goddard and helmed by Steven DeKnight (first season only), is the logical culmination of this process: the writing on the wall had been clear, even in such eminently over-the-top comicbook fare such as Kick-Ass, which featured a gruesome scene where Nicolas Cage's character, Big Daddy, is burnt alive. Iron Man took the hint as well. Most recently, we saw the DC Comics character Barry Allen/The Flash in a television adaptation, where the emphasis was on Allen's crime-scene deduction abilities, not on his lightning bolt-induced superpowers. Even Gotham, with its colourful line-up of baddies led by Jada Pinkett Smith, maintains a noir dignity about proceedings. It never forgets what it truly is: a police procedural, albeit one set in a cesspool of psychopaths. In this, these shows are taking their cues from David Simon's classic The Wire, with its leisurely pace and its emphasis on authenticity and detailing. Actors John Doman and DomenickLombardozzi, The Wire graduates both, are in the thick of things once again: Doman plays the brutal mob boss Carmine "The Roman" Falcone in Gotham, while Lombardozzi plays the abusive father of a young Wilson Fisk (who grows up to become the villainous magnate Kingpin) in Daredevil.

Nolan, by making The Dark Knight as realistic, as gritty and as morally urgent as he did, made his film eligible to be a vessel for such theories. In doing so, he set the tone for future superhero adaptations. The message was clear: get real or get the f**k out.

On that note, it's interesting to note that while The Dark Knight was deliberately ambiguous about the origins of Ledger's Joker, Nolan's spiritual successors have lavished great attention to its villains, their origin stories and what motivates them to do the terrible things that they do onscreen. True realism, after all, does not believe in the kind of absolute, immutable evil represented by, say, an Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men), who was a very convincing villain in his own way. When Lombardozzi's character teaches young Wilson the virtues of brutality, we see what he will grow up to become: a child-man who is convinced that his violence is serving the greater good, that for Hell's Kitchen to be reborn, it has to be razed to the ground first.

Vincent D'Onofrio is out-of-the-ballpark brilliant as Fisk/Kingpin; that's three PTSD-stricken sociopaths for him now, after Full Metal Jacket and The Cell, and it's remarkable how he has made these three characters so different from each other. Charlie Cox, who plays the blind lawyer Matt Murdock/Daredevil, has also turned in the performance of his career. He grabs the bull by the horns in every scene he's in. He's in great shape, but not absurdly beefed up, which is crucial for playing the Man Without Fear, essentially a skilled street brawler-turned-ninja, a regular man who has pushed himself to take more punishment than one can imagine for a person his size. 

Although Daredevil has several moments where the drama reaches fever pitch, the last five-and-a-half minutes of the second episode must surely take the cake. These 330 seconds are shot in one take, with most of it being a long and gloriously messy action sequence where Daredevil takes down a gang of Russian kidnappers single-handedly, smashing them to pulp with his bare fists. This scene reminded me of the hammer sequence in Korean revenge classic Oldboy, where Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) repeatedly gets knocked down, seems out for the count, only to rise up and land a few telling blows (and fall down again to nurse his wounds).

It's ironic that Marvel only decided to greenlight such a gritty series after the success of The Avengers, which must surely rest at the opposite end of the realism spectrum.The Avengers was made after its individual components — Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and so on — had been "introduced" through films of their own. Similarly, Daredevil is the first of four pay-per-view series that Marvel has promised to make for Netflix, the other three being Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Krysten Ritter (Breaking Bad, The Blacklist) will star as Jessica Jones in the first of these three, which will be available for streaming later this year. Once Marvel is done with all three, they will combine the four protagonists in a mini-series called The Defenders. And if the other three series set a mood similar to that of Daredevil, we could be in for some Avengers-style fun, minus the implausibility.

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