The Adaptation of Daredevil into Film, Part 1

In any comic book adaptation, there are people who will criticize the film’s translation from the original comic book.

The actor has to suit the part, the costume has to be exact, the origin has to remain exactly the same, all the important supporting characters have to make at least one appearance, the tones and personalities of the comic book cannot be ignored, the film has to be rifled with homage’s to previous creators, and finally the intangible feeling a fan gets when they read about their favorite comic book has to remain 100% faithful. It is no wonder then that most adaptations of comic books never manage to please the fans of the original comic book. It is no surprise that a comic book adaptation like Albet Pyun’s Captain America (1990)  - which was neither hailed by critics nor by fans – had barely fitted any of the previously mentioned criteria. But whereas a film like Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) did fit this criteria and had been quite popular with both critics and fans alike, the film was still criticized by fans for its slow pacing and lack of favorite supporting characters. These are the problems a filmmaker faces when adapting a comic book to film, and of course there is the added bonus of choosing which incarnation of the character to adapt if it has had a long lifespan with a variety of different writers and artists.

Daredevil is a comic book that was first published by Marvel Comics in April 1964 it was written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Bill Everett. Matt Murdock was blinded by radioactive waste as a child and this incident gave him superhuman abilities as his remaining senses worked as a radar which he uses to fight crime. The film had tried very hard to be faithful to the character’s source; it had included popular characters, themes, relationships and a variety of intertextual and interlinking homages to the history of the character. Not only this, but the director insisted for the studio to release special editions and director’s cuts for over two years after the film’s initial release; this allowed the film to be more faithful to his version of the film and therefore more faithful to the character. This resulted in an unresolved debate between Daredevil fans, who could not decide overall whether or not the film was a successful or failed attempt at adapting the character onto the screen.

I. Adapting Characters to film using Geoffrey Wagner’s Taxonomic Approach to Adaptation and Fan Fidelity

Daredevil has had a variety of different artists and writers in its 40 plus years of publishing, and therefore it is not surprising that the character had a variety of different costumes as well as personalities. Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson had decided to adapt the most popular and well known storylines/source texts of the comic book series, which was primarily written and illustrated by Frank Miller. But instead of using transposition to adapt any particular storyline, he had decided to use various plots to create a new storyline with all the major characters in the Daredevil comic. This would work as a commentary adaptation which would restructure kernels and satellites to illustrate the tone of the original stories and the personalities of the characters involved. However, characters like Karen Page (Daredevil’s second great love) and Heather Glenn (a failed relationship) were kept as background characters due to the lack of space in the film. Their roles were kept minor, Heather dumped Daredevil over the phone and Karen Page was a secretary who had a crush on Matt Murdock, which commented on their ultimate role in Daredevil’s life.

Three additional characters were included in the director’s cut, a mysterious nun who appeared to stalk Daredevil in the background, a corrupt cop who had a pacemaker, and a lowlife hoodlum named “Turk.” The original theatrical release was cut and so these characters were not included in the original film, but their involvement was nonetheless quite significant in the comic book. The mysterious nun was later revealed as Daredevil’s mother and the symbol of his catholic background. Turk was a low class hoodlum who was regularly beaten by Daredevil for information, and worked as the book’s comic relief. The cop was a minor character but was noted for successfully lying to Daredevil, a noteworthy achievement since Daredevil listens to heartbeats when interrogating liars. In the director’s cut, the nun simply followed Daredevil in the shadows similar to a flashback story that occurred in the Daredevil comic book. Turk is only mentioned once in a humorous context during a murder trial and the corrupt cop had taken on his role to lie to Daredevil during the murder case. These commentary adaptations were accurate in portraying the roles and tones of the original characters personalities, and although the casual movie goer would not notice these subtle elements, a fan would appreciate these intertextual references as fidelity to the Daredevil world.

Although the accuracy of the background characters was highly regarded by fans, the inaccuracies that occurred in the supporting cast were not. The supporting cast members consisted of Foggy Nelson (Daredevil’s best friend and law partner), Ben Urich (a reporter that accidentally discovers Daredevil’s secret), Jack Murdock (Daredevil’s father), and Wesley Owen Welsch (the Kingpin’s henchman in an early Frank Miller storyline). Nelson and Urich were largely the source of these criticizms as Nelson had changed from a simple and humble supporting character into a quirky comic relief, while Urich transformed from an un-heroic and insecure character to a more sleazy version. These almost analogous representations of character show one failed element of the film; however, the accuracy of the remaining supporting characters, Jack and Welsch, were almost direct transpositions.

Welsch was a small, tempered and sleazy minor character that was portrayed accurately in both the theatrical release and in more detail in the director’s cut. Similar to the comic book, his character often came to odds with other members of the cast while often disappearing during any physical confrontation. Jack’s character remained faithful to the flashback sequences in Frank Miller’s Daredevil: Man Without Fear mini-series. He was an ex-boxer, turned alcoholic thug who attempted to raise his son as a studious Catholic. But after the loss of his son’s sight, Jack decided to reform and return to the boxing arena, but when a local mob boss asked him to throw a fight, he refused and was killed. Jack’s personality and rocky father-son relationship with Matt Murdock was kept intact, while the set design of the small apartment prosthetics used on his face were almost exact transpositions of the comic book panels. This transposition of Daredevil’s origin was successful because it illustrated the drive of his past.

Even though the film received some criticism for its portrayal of supporting cast members, it was nothing compared to the criticizms of its main characters (Daredevil, Elektra, Bullseye and the Kingpin).

The Kingpin is an eloquent mob boss who raised himself up from the ghettos of New York City. He is 6”7, Caucasian and weighs 300 pounds. He’s cold and calculating and was responsible for destroying Daredevil’s life in the comic books. In the film, he was cast by Michael Duncan Clarke an actor who was 6”5 weighed 200 pounds, black and looked far more muscular then his comic book counterpart. Although the criticism for this casting choice was quite superficial, the criticism for his character’s role in the theatrical release was valid. The theatrical release was heavily cut and removed most of the violence which diminished him as a genuine threat, in the director’s cut, his cold and calculating role was reinstated, but the film still lacked character development to fully illustrate his role as a fittingly intelligent arch-nemesis.

Bullseye’s character was far more different in appearance than the Kingpin but was still hailed by casual movie-goers and fans alike. Bullseye changed from a blue spandex wearing American assassin into a costumeless Irish assassin with a trechcoat, goatee and a Bullseye scar on his head. His psychotic murderous personality and his obsession with Daredevil were kept intact and portrayed entertainingly for audiences. This free interpretation of the character although partially analogous worked more as a commentary because he still achieved his personality and character role as the man that killed Elektra. His comic book counterpart was never given a factual back-story and so had always worked one dimensionally focussing more on his behaviour. In the film and the director’s cut his behaviour was the only focal point for his character and therefore the interpretation was simple to translate and reinterpret with minimal violation.

Elektra’s personality was far more difficult to translate as her character had many incarnations by her own creator, Frank Miller. When Elektra first appeared, she was a sai- wielding assassin who was feminine only around Daredevil. In her later interpretations, she was a mysterious character with dark secrets that was portrayed as more of a sex symbol. Her historical background also changed. In her early incarnation, Elektra had become an assassin at the event of her father’s death, while in the later incarnations, it was implied she was abused by her father and gained an unnatural attachment and psychosis to him. In the end, Mark Steven Johnson had decided to adapt the early and more emotional version of the character, and to keep as faithful as possible to the character, he invited Frank Miller onto the set as a consultant. Frank Miller had previously left Marvel over a very public disagreement over the rights and treatment of Elektra, his approval and involvement of the film version of Elektra promoted the character fidelity on an intertextual level to fans. Miller’s involvement meant Elektra’s character would be translated faithfully, while the recreation of her death from comic book panel to screen punctuated this. The only difference in this early incarnation of Elektra was the changes in her costume, and so this representation of Elektra can be seen as a borderline transposition/commentary adaptation.

Finally, there is Daredevil. Although Daredevil was created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett in 1964, he had a variety of different incarnations in personality and costume, Mark Steven Johnson had chose to translate his most popular interpretation by Frank Miller and his most iconic costume, the red suit. During the production of the suit, Johnson was concerned the suit would create intertextual references to Batman’s costume or camp spandex which would undermine the character’s integrity, and so a leather biker-influenced costume was chosen for the screen adaptation. This cinematic interpretation was darker than Daredevil’s traditional suit but worked well onscreen, as did the translation of Daredevil’s multi-functional weapon the “Billy Club”. Visually, the costume was acceptable by fans, and the choice to saturate the red colours in the film gave the narrative a gritty crime feel which again connected intertexually to Frank Miller’s run. During the production of the film, Daredevil had become popular again under the helm of writer/director Kevin Smith and artist Joe Quesada, so Johnson had decided to insert visual homages that related to their run into the film and add Kevin Smith’s friend Ben Affleck as the starring character. This last intertextual act was not as well received as expected, as his acting skills were highly criticized by fans.

The next hurdle Johnson had to adapt were all of Daredevil’s themes and characteristic behavior from Frank Miller’s run. Daredevil’s character had developed from the son of a lower-class single father into an upper-class adult lawyer. Daredevil was fearless and cocky with a wild spirit which developed from his childhood. Daredevil jumped hurdles of trauma beginning from losing his sight to losing his father and loved ones. He often came into conflict with his Catholic background, and led complicated relationships with all his girlfriends, but even with all these hurdles, he kept his faith. Only some of these themes were explored in the theatrical release; his religious background, his complicated relationships with girlfriends and elements of his childhood. The director’s cut explored his complicated feeling of faith in greater detail, as well as his as his role as a lawyer, cockiness, touching briefly on his abandonment issues. The transposition of Daredevil’s character ranged from satisfactory to accomplished until two major uncharacteristic acts: Daredevil letting a rapist die on train tracks, and chosing to spend the night with Elektra instead of saving lives in imminent danger. Though the latter was explained as a studio choice and fixed in the director’s cut edition, Daredevil’s uncharacteristic behavior is still unacceptable to most fans. This act is mostly ignored by fans of the film (as is Affleck’s inconsistent acting) who consider his adult character a satisfactory commentary, while his childhood is considered an accurate transposition.

In conclusion, Geoffrey Wagner’s taxonomic approach to adaptation illustrates how the characters are mostly accurate or in tone with their comic book counterparts through transposition or commentary adaptation. Fan fidelity analyzes these elements of adaptation and chooses whether or not they are successful or failures, and whether the failures are major enough to make a difference or minor enough to be ignored. Although Frank Miller’s version of the characters are considered canon and therefore untouchable by fans, they still accept the fact that some inconsistencies such as changes to Elektra’s costume has to be accepted as it may not work plausibly onscreen, but other inconsistencies such as the thinly adapted personality of the Kingpin cannot be ignored. The theatrical release was considered a failure because it was edited badly (for a lower PG13 rating), the “uncut” special edition of the theatrical version is where fans began to choose sides on the film, while the director’s cut is widely accepted as a superior film. The director’s cut of Daredevil is a far more accurate adaptation of character, and so is considered a good but not great commentary adaptation.

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1 Comment

  1. Gary Ancheta says:

    It seems that what fans want isn’t an adaptation, but rather a remediation of the experience of reading comics. Remediation proposes that not only is something adapted, but that the new creation is also in “conversation” with the previous text. Not only is something adapted to the screen but, in turn, that adaptation changes the comics too.

    I think of the new Avengers movie as something that is adapting the concept of a shared universe by being an exemplar of the genre of movie which, in turn, reverberates back into the comics. I always though the first X-Men movie was something that resonated with the Ultimate X-Men and that current x-men line, which came back in X-2.

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