Writing Lessons from Daredevil

I was burnt twice by the Daredevil film. I watched the theatrical cut and hated it. Then, a few years later, I kept hearing the director’s cut was so much better. So I bought a copy. And hated that too. So I was understandably reticent to watch the new Daredevil series on Netflix. But it’s fantastic, and a writer can’t go far wrong in studying it.

Watch out for spoilers skulking in the alleyways.

Kill the Status Quo

Not the band. Daredevil made it clear pretty early on that it had no interest in setting up a long-running status quo. It started with a secret identity, an unnamed and unseen crime kingpin, and a host of allies and foes. I fully expected the kingpin to be revealed in the series finale, with Murdock having to fight through his underlings first. I fully expected the series to spend plenty of time showing us Murdock’s efforts to keep his identity a secret before revealing to any other characters. And I fully expected the kingpin to remain in his seat of power for many series.

But, in short order, the series blew Murdock’s identity to his best friend Foggy, named Wilson Fisk and then brought him onscreen, and then started working through the allies and foes in a string of deaths. It threw me off balance and kept me wondering just what would happen next. Anyone seemed like fair game. Nothing seemed sacred. And I loved it.

Keep the Mystery

Matt Murdock is blinded as a boy, but somehow his other senses are heightened to an incredible level. He can feel air currents, taste nails from across the room, hear heartbeats. He can, in effect, see. He can do some incredible things, and Daredevil does an excellent job of explaining Matt’s abilities. It left me in awe of what he can do and wondering what his world must be like.

But one episode tried to give us a visual representation of how Matt ‘sees’; his “world on fire”. It was a pin to the balloon of mystery, proof positive that some things are best left to the reader’s imagination. It’s not that theirs is better than ours; it’s that they’ll enjoy the numerous possibilities rather than being locked into the one we decide to give them.

Don’t Let Old Ideas Hobble You

Daredevil took a slow walk from vigilante to superhero. It called Matt “the man in the mask” and “the devil of Hell’s Kitchen”. And he wore a simple, plain outfit and a mask. It’s only in the series finale that he wears a costume and gets the name “Daredevil”. But the truth is the name doesn’t fit the show. The show is a gritty, brutal, emotive thing. The name sounds like a circus act. And whilst Matt’s desire for armour made sense for a man on the receiving end of some brutal beatings, a costume isn’t something that fits with his character. He’s not trying to be a symbol like Batman. If anything, he was doing his best to work in secret.

Sometimes it’s tempting to hold onto old ideas. You might really love them. They might even be the genesis of the entire story. But if the story has evolved, don’t hang onto something that doesn’t work anymore.

Love Makes a Villain Loveable

It would have been easy to have Wilson Fisk as evil. A kingpin of crime, concerned with power and money. But Daredevil made him more than that. He has a tragic backstory, yes. He has a mission that differs from Matt Murdock’s only in the execution. And he thinks of his right-hand man as his friend.

But the real moment that makes you secretly love him? His love for a woman. It’s a normal, fierce, romantic love that makes Fisk human. Vulnerable. But it doesn’t undermine him at all. He’s still violent and ruthless. But he’s also loyal, protective, emotional. Rather than a two-dimensional villain, he’s a three-dimensional character. Fisk is one of the primary reasons Daredevil is so good.

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