I recently recommended the Netflix series, Daredevil, to a friend. He replied: “Aren’t you tired of comic book-based movies? They just tell the same story over and over.” I suggested that the familiarity of comic book characters was precisely what allowed them to be so good.
Comic book stories are just the modern version of Greeks myths or medieval saint stories. The audience is familiar with the characters and basic plot, but the art is in the particular telling of those familiar stories. And because the characters and basic plot are mostly known by the audience, much less energy needs to be devoted to explication. Only the ways in which the characters and plot deviate from the familiar pattern require greater development.
Originality in story-telling is often over-rated. Shakespeare mostly relied on familiar characters and well-worn plots. His contribution was in how he used what was already well-known. Conversely, I love original Chris Noland films, like Inception and Memento, but it’s amazing how much time in those movies is consumed with explaining how dreaming or memory work. There is an efficiency in using the familiar.
This all being said, good comic book stories still require some development of plot and character, especially to highlight the ways in which the current telling deviates from previous ones. I thought the Avengers movies fell short in devoting far too little to character and plot development and way too much to mind-numbing action.
But the new Netflix series, Daredevil, is a wonderful example of how comic book stories can be excellent if they are told well. I remember the boring Ben Affleck movie-version of Daredevil, so it is striking how different the same story can be if it is just done better. The new Netflix series version benefits from a serialized format to develop its version of the plot and characters more slowly. It also uses Foggy for great comic relief.
And best of all, it crafts a sympathetic Wilson Fisk — so sympathetic that at times I wasn’t entirely sure whether he or Matt Murdock were actually the villain. Fisk clearly uses evil methods but appears genuine in his regret about those methods and sincere in his goal for a better city. Murdock/Daredevil, on the other hand, admits that he derives pleasure from his violence and only differs from Fisk in his methods in his unwillingness to kill his enemies. Deriving pleasure from torturing one’s opponents hardly seems better than killing them with remorse.
Like all good comic book-based stories, Greek myths, and saint stories, Daredevil’s characters are archetypes worth exploring. They capture some essential element of humanity, with its mix of tragic flaws and potential for greatness. Check out Daredevil and let me know if you don’t think it was better than the Avengers and worthy of attention, like stories about Hercules or St. Francis.