Comic book aficionados refer to the period from 1938 through the early 1950s as the "Golden Age." The Golden Age brought us superheroes like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. These heroes were secure in the knowledge that what they did was right, and their foes were unambiguously evil.
The Golden Age superheroes we remember best today were published by D.C. Comics. But in the early 1960s, during a period that comic book fans call the "Silver Age," a writer named Stan Lee who worked at rival publishing house Marvel Comics, hit on an evolutionary tweak to the comic book superhero formula. Lee afflicted his heroes with self-doubt, thus making them more compellingly human. This evolutionary advantage gave many of Marvel's Silver Age superheroes an edge that distinguished them from their Golden Age predecessors and allowed them to thrive in their own niche. Classic Marvel superheroes who debuted during the Silver Age include Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, and Daredevil. And though Daredevil was not as famous as some of his Marvel stable-mates, he was to figure large in the next evolutionary step of the superhero comic book.
Of course, that possibility could not have seemed less likely to comic book readers of the time. After all, this was not one of Marvel's A-list titles. Spider-Man or The X-Men, sure. Those were titles that were selling well and getting lots of attention. But Daredevil? This was a comic book whose hero, Matt Murdock, was blinded as a child by radioactive waste. True, the radiation also amplified his other senses - taste, touch, smell, and, most especially, hearing - to superhuman levels, but that's all that makes him a "superhero." He has no super-strength; he's just a regular man, not an alien with special abilities from another planet, and unlike, say, Batman, he's not even super-rich. Rather, he was raised by his father, a poor, past-his-prime prizefighter, who made his son Matt promise to study, not fight, so that Matt could escape the lower-class life his father had led. Matt does study, eventually going to law school and becoming a lawyer. And in order to keep his promise to his father, he invents an alter ego, "Daredevil," and utilizes a loophole that only a lawyer could sanction: "Daredevil" does the physical fighting so that Matt Murdock doesn't have to.
But as unlikely as it seemed, Daredevil, the comic book about the blind lawyer, was about to host a series of stories that would push superhero comics to the next rung on the evolutionary ladder. Their impact would be felt far into the next decade.
That evolutionary push came in 1981 when a young, very talented man named Frank Miller began writing and illustrating the Daredevil comic book stories. Where Stan Lee had complicated the internal life of the superhero, Miller complicated the world in which the hero lived. Gone, in Miller's Daredevil tales, were the clear-cut, easy choices that had typically faced superheroes. Instead, Miller reinvented Daredevil as a hero who had flaws, struggled with questions of right and wrong, and had to engage in moral compromise in order to make progress in a hostile, morally difficult contemporary world.
Movie fans will recognize these themes as being particularly prevalent in films noir, and indeed, Miller drew heavily upon the noir tradition, not just for his stories' themes, but also for their visual conventions, storytelling methods and tone. His panels were filled with lighting and shadow effects, rain and voice-over narration that would have been right at home in a 1940s Fritz Lang or John Huston movie. The result was a run of twenty four stories - appearing in issues 168 through 191 - which are to this day regarded as legendary.
Miller's noir influences included use of the voice-over...
The most memorable of these stories told of the relationship between Matt Murdock and a new character who Miller introduced to readers right at the beginning, in issue 168: Elektra, the beautiful but now deadly assassin who had been Matt Murdock's first love. Like her mythological namesake, she sought to avenge her father's death. Having trained in the deadly arts with a band of Ninja warriors, she becomes a bounty hunter for hire. Outwardly aloof and detached, she is a consummately emotionless killer, and to prove it, Miller had her coldly delivering lines like, "Put it on or you will die in the next five minutes," that could raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Inside, she is a boiling cauldron of repressed love for Matt, a situation complicated by the fact that they are now on opposite sides of the law.
Every noir needs a femme fatale, and in Miller's story-arc, Elektra was it.
... rain, and the conflicted femme fatale ...
So when I heard that 20th Century Fox was going to release a film version of Daredevil, I got to thinking. Wouldn't it be interesting if the film were shot entirely in black and white, in the style of a 1940s film noir? It could use all the classic noir conventions: the voice-over, the stripes of shadows coming through blinded windows, the rain - everything. Shooting it in black and white would also help to minimize some of the more garish aspects of the superhero tale, especially Daredevil's bright red costume. This would give the film a highbrow, documentary-like look, perhaps recalling a 1940s newsreel. And its very artiness might redefine the audience's perception of what a superhero comic book movie could be, in much the same way that Miller's groundbreaking run on Daredevil had a major influence on the future of mainstream superhero comics themselves. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. I awaited Daredevil's opening weekend with increasingly excited anticipation.
... and classic noir lighting effects.
But when I finally saw the Daredevil movie, I found that it wasn't the film that felt old; it was me. This is a movie which is so obviously aimed at a young audience - an audience that likes music videos, video games, and WWF "wrestling" - that I could tell I was being excluded. My hopes for a film that maintained the literate formalisms and emotional complexity of its source, looked less and less probable as the film progressed.