Retrospect: Daredevil Season One

Contains: protagonists, narrative jargon and feels.

The new season of Daredevil drops on Netflix on March 18th. With that in mind, here’s why I loved season one.

Of all the work in the MCU, I’ve probably enjoyed Daredevil most. Not necessarily for the characters, the world or the writing — although each of these is top notch in season one. I love its narrative structure. I’m going to geek out about that structure now — the architecture of this story. It’ll be fun! I promise!

Spoilers to follow for season one of Daredevil and some for Jessica Jones!

One recognizes a protagonist by many signs, but one is their supporting cast and relationships with those characters. Let’s take a look at what that cast usually looks like and then see how it suits our titular hero and the significant people around him.

We have four (or three and a half) important roles to look at. First is the protagonist. S/he is the center of the story. We have a story because S/he wants something. Second is the antagonist. They also want something — which puts them in the way of the protagonist, either intentionally or unintentionally. Third we have a ‘relationship’ character — not the romantic partner necessarily, but an acquaintance of the protagonist who can be honest to the protagonist. My fourth (or a half) sort of characters is a romantic interest.1

Let’s see what happens when we plug Matt Murdock into this structure.

Matt is our protagonist. His best friend Foggy is his relationship character — the one who can speak truth to the protagonist. Claire Temple also, occasionally, fulfills this role and is his romantic interest. His antagonist is Wilson Fisk, not because they’re trying to kill each other, but because they want the same thing in different ways.

That’s all pretty standard. As much as Claire is a nuanced character and a solid love interest, her relationship with Matt isn’t as important as the best friend relationship. In a four person cast, the romantic subplot is generally the least integral, even if it gets a lot of fuss.

All of that would be plenty for a film — two to three hours of content. But. This particular thirteen episode season is treated as one enormous movie. It’s true that the above set of relationships could fill out those thirteen episodes. But, may the ghost of Joseph Campbell bless these folks, the writers didn’t stop there.

Let’s flip it 180* and plug Wilson Fisk into the structure instead.

Fisk is our protagonist. His best friend Wesley is his relationship character — the one who can speak truth to our protagonist. His romantic interest Vanessa also, occasionally, fulfills this role. His antagonist is Matt Murdock, not because they’re trying to kill each other, but because they want the same thing in different ways. Once more — as much as Vanessa is important to him — Wesley is more important, more constant.

😀 Nifty!

A villain is frequently the hero of their own tragedy, but a narrative usually doesn’t have the space to develop and breathe life into that tragedy. Thirteen hours instead of two opens up a myriad of possibilities.

Now, I’m not saying these two stories get equal weight in the season — Matt’s is privileged. The show is named for him. We know who is going to ‘win’. But the breadth of characterization offered to the villain by his circle of secondary characters elevates the show.

Plus, we have another character with protagonist style support characters. A third protagonist.

Let’s take a 90* turn. Let’s plug in Karen Page.

Karen is our protagonist. Her mentor is Ben Urich, her relationship character — who speaks the truth to her. Her love interests are Foggy and Matt — who occasionally fulfill that role. Her antagonist is Fisk, via Wesley, because she wants the people behind Union Allied to pay for committing murder and framing her for it and Wesley wants to keep it secret.

We spend a lot of time on Karen’s story, for a tertiary narrative. Again — Matt and Fisk’s stories are privileged above hers, but not by a whole lot. We could also swap this out and make Ben the protagonist (with Karen as his relationship character, his wife as his love interest and his editor as his antagonist2), but I’m going with Karen because her story starts in the first episode and her arc is more clearly described — she’s pulled in when she’s framed for murder and meets Matt and Foggy, then she pulls Ben in.

But the fact that it could go either way, that there’s enough detail in those characters and their orbital relationships to replicate the basic structure of a protagonist’s supporting cast — that’s what gave this first season its depth.

Hell. I can do it with Vladimir — the Russian mobster. His brother is his best friend — who speaks the truth and Matt/Fisk are his antagonists. He gets no love interest, but like I said that’s actually the least important of the four.

How many other shows can you see that sort of repeated pattern in? That sort of attention to a web of relationships? This isn’t an ensemble show. It’s three interwoven stories.

Now let’s look at Jessica Jones. It’s not the same show, of course, but they are the only two examples of the MCU/Netflix experiment so far and comparisons are inevitable.

I like Jessica Jones. It’s a solid show, with great acting and writing and it addresses themes that other people are afraid to tackle.

But it’s a smaller, less explored cast. Jessica Jones is our protagonist and no one comes within striking distance of her connections within the show. Kilgrave can’t have relationships. Trish gets some attention to her background — she gets a romantic interest, Jessica as her best friend and her mother as an antagonist, but with only two or three flashbacks to flesh those things out her story isn’t really comparable to Fisk’s. Kilgrave also gets attention to his background — again, not nearly in the way Fisk does. And privileging the story of an attacker in a show about the survivor as a secondary protagonist would be bloody hard to get right.3

Jeri Hogarth also has an orbital cast — she’s got a romantic interest in her secretary and an antagonist in her wife — but it’s not enough to make her narrative more than a simple sub-sub plot. Hope ought to have had more — she’s got Kilgrave as an antagonist. But the only choice she gets to make is killing herself and her scenes with Jessica are always about Jessica. Malcolm would be another candidate, but again he doesn’t get the time or attention. None of them get that solid, human secondary cast.

Ah! And I almost forgot about Luke Cage. Which tells me something. I’m excited for the first season of Luke Cage, but he doesn’t get a whole lot in the way of choices, attention to his backstory or relationships outside of Jessica.

None of that is a problem.

But the reason I end up preferring Daredevil is because Jessica must carry the show — all thirteen episodes — on her shoulders. They are worthy and well built shoulders, and it’s a standard length, but after watching the burden of protag-ing spread over three characters, their narratives intertwined, each with their own hero’s journey to walk — it was hard to go back to a more standard narrative structure in Jessica Jones.

And now we’re getting Daredevil season two. I’m excited to watch the new season — I’ll be reviewing it for Killer Moose. I’m not expecting them to replicate this structure. Season one feels a bit like lightening in a bottle.

But man.

Oh man.

Would that be cool or what?

 

  1. This is a variation on the Hollywood Formula according to Lou Anders. You can listen to him talk about it here.
  2. The editor is not evil, but he wants to sell papers and Ben wants to pursue whatever stories he wants. This puts them at odds
  3. I’m tempted to say ‘impossible to do right’, but I have problems with the idea that there are stories that are impossible to get right.