Full disclaimer: I LOVE “Daredevil: Born Again”, by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli. Not like. Love. I make a point to pick it up and re-read it a few times a year, and it is one of the very few books I read – and I mean I can count them on one hand – that actually manages to give me chills.
The full list: “Awake in the Night Land”, “The Lord of the Rings” (the arrival of the Riders of Rohan at the battle of Pelennor Fields is the high point of fantasy literature), “The Last Battle”, the video game “To the Moon” (yes, really), and…”Daredevil: Born Again”. It’s that good. It holds up that well. Issue 231, the climax of the comic, is quite simply one of the greatest, most perfectly executed issues of a comic of all time. I mean look at this image by Mazzuchelli. Just take it in, without any context behind it. Look at the emotion Mazzuchelli manages to pack into this one image.
One of the greatest panels in comic book history. Forget “The Dark Knight Returns”. Forget “Batman: Year One”. “Daredevil: Born Again” will always be Frank Miller’s masterpiece.
[Brief side note – I haven’t finished “The Dark Knight Returns”, but from what I have read I understand why it’s so highly regarded. But…I don’t really get “Year One”? I mean, it’s Mazzuchelli, and he’s always brilliant (though better in “Born Again”), and the story is certainly exciting, but I’m not sure why I’m supposed to think it’s super-duper-ultra special. It’s just a fun, exciting Batman story – very good, but nothing mind-blowing. I dunno. Maybe I’m just missing something.]
And now “Daredevil” has its own show, and it’s entering season three. We’ve seen enough of Matt Murdoch’s world and life for “Born Again” to resonate properly. We have the setup. If there were ever an opportunity to tackle “Born Again”, now would be the time.
But there are some big obstacles in the way. One of the most powerful subplots of “Daredevil: Born Again” – I would argue the most powerful – is Karen Page’s story. Having left New York to become an actress, Karen’s life quickly spirals out of control. Forced to go into pornography to survive, she becomes a heroin addict. At her very lowest point, she sells out Matt Murdoch’s secret identity to one of Kingpin’s goons for a shot of heroin. Broken, almost murdered, and forced to hitch a ride with an abusive gangster, she goes on a quest to find Matt Murdoch and beg for his help and forgiveness. That panel above? That’s not just the climax of Karen’s story. It’s the climax of the entire novel.
That’s a major hurdle in the Netflix show: Karen is very much not in that place, and there’s no clear way for her to get in that place either. The Netflix version of Karen Page just isn’t that desperate…but her betrayal and redemption are a HUGE aspect of “Born Again”. So is there any character who could pull off that arc?
As it so happens, there is. In fact, there’s a perfect character.
And that character is Elektra.
Let’s think it through. They made it pretty obvious that Elektra is going to get resurrected by the Hand for season three, so her death isn’t an obstacle. She’s prophesied to be some sort of evil super-Ninja who will lead the Hand to victory (Taking over the world, I guess? One of the flaws of season 2 was that the goal of the Hand was never really made clear). So the Hand very much needs her on their side for…something.
So let’s imagine Elektra being tortured. She’s taken into a secret underground lair. She refuses to cooperate. She can’t escape. She can’t fight – perhaps she’s too weak for some reason.
But she has one way out: A certain powerful gangster in the area. Somebody with connections, who might have the influence, if she could get some sort of message to him, to get her out. Someone she might have an easier time contacting than Matt because of his links to the criminal underworld and the world of the Hand.
It’s a huge betrayal – the writers spent a huge part of season 2 trying to sell the idea that Matt is Elektra’s soulmate. And no doubt the Kingpin, after he gets her out, will betray her; he’s going to at least attempt to get her out of the picture somehow. That leaves a period of time for Elektra to desperately make her way back to New York, avoiding the Hand and Kingpin’s goons, looking for Matt Murdoch – the one man who can help her. Who she betrayed.
The setup is all there. The betrayal is just as powerful. I think that’s a storyline that could work well, and I’d love to see Netflix give it a shot.
So that’s the most important subplot, but not the only one. We also have Ben Urich. In “Born Again” Urich, a reporter, quickly figures out that Matt is framed and moves in on the story. He zeroes in on a corrupt cop, but is scared off after being assaulted by one of the Kingpin’s goons. He is inspired to finish his story after hearing the cop’s brutal murder over the phone, and during the climactic issue Matt swoops in to rescue him before a thug (A Trunchbull-like nurse) can murder him and his wife. Urich’s arc is just as much a redemption arc as Karen Page’s, just on a smaller scale (Miller gives J. Jonah Jameson of all people a wonderful little monologue where he absolutely tears Urich to shreds after he initially gives up on the story). Urich both contributes to the larger themes of the story with his death-and-rebirth in miniature as well as serve as a reader stand-in to Matt’s show. He’s the everyman perspective as we follow Matt Murdoch’s rise from apocalyptic depths to turn into a superhero. Urich falls and rises too, but from the more realistic depth of “cowardly reporter” to the more realistic height of “brave reporter”. From a more practical narrative standpoint, Urich’s role in bringing the Kingpin’s story to the public drives a large portion of the plot.
So Urich is an important character, to the point where in the novel he’s in it, even narrating, almost as much as Matt; to tell “Born Again” we need him. This raises a major problem: In the Netflix series, Ben Urich died in season one Is there any character in the series who fills roughly the same role as Ben Urich – the everyman who gets a hold of a dangerous story and despite his great fear and threats to his life, sees it through to completion and helps Matt Murdoch land back on his feet?
As a matter of fact we have a character who could easily fill precisely such a role. That character? Karen Page.
As of last season, Karen has become a reporter; her friendship – currently, former friendship – with Matt is as good an excuse as any to look into a potential frame job. She already has a personal stake in the Kingpin’s downfall. She’s the perfect candidate to take on Ben Urich’s role in the narrative.
Okay. We’ve got Elektra in Karen’s spot and Karen in Ben’s spot. Let’s move forward. The ending of the novel – people refer to it as the climax, but I think that’s a mistake; it’s more of a wrapping up of sub-plots, albeit with lots of death and fire – involves the Kingpin bringing in Nuke, an insane super-soldier constantly on edge with amphetamines, to rip Hell’s Kitchen apart with gunfire in order to draw out Daredevil. This section is often criticized in reviews, but it’s only “weak” in comparison to the rest of the novel and the stunning perfection of issue 231, which immediately precedes it. The “inferior” Nuke issues give us one of the all-time great Captain America lines (“I’m loyal to nothing, General…except the dream”) and an absolutely stellar fight scene between Nuke and Daredevil. It’s a classic Daredevil fight – Murdoch up against an opponent physically superior in every way, in a situation where he really shouldn’t even have a shot, winning through a sheer, hard-hearted refusal to even consider the possibility of defeat.
Can the Netflix show pull this scene off? As a matter of fact, the show actually already has the most important piece: Nuke. Nuke is already a character in Marvel’s Netflix shows, appearing as Agent Simpson in “Jessica Jones”. Since Nuke already has connections with Hell’s Kitchen, his re-arrival actually strains believability less than it does in the novel (though you could make the argument that the fact that the Kingpin was willing to go so far out there as to bring in Nuke all the way from Nicaragua is part of the point).
So much for Nuke. But what about Captain America’s role?
The truth is, as well as Miller handled Cap’s appearance…he was really pretty superfluous in “Born Again”. Already a heavily symbol-laden comic, Miller gets perhaps a little too overt near the end, apparently unable to resist the temptation of having his crazed, brainwashed, Vietnam era super-soldier fight good ol’ Cap himself. The fight is well handled and Daredevil’s dramatic rescue at the end is excellently scripted, but it does come off as somewhat heavy-handed (this isn’t helped by the fact that in the comics, Nuke literally has the American flag tattooed on his face, something I can’t see the Netflix guys doing). We could dispense with Cap without much of a problem.
But there’s a narrative purpose to Cap’s appearance as well – it’s the intrusion of other people into a war Matt perceives as personal. The narrative is basically forcing Matt to admit that he can’t do everything alone – he needs help. Is there anyone else who could fill that role?
As it so happens, there are FOUR potential options. I’d say that three we could take out of the equation immediately; so far the Netflix series has, wisely, shown some reluctance in bringing heroes in to “guest star” in another hero’s series (presumably hyping up “The Defenders”). Thus, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist are all out. But that still leaves us with one guy – one guy who’s already been a major supporting character in “Daredevil”: Frank Castle, AKA, The Punisher.
A Punisher/Daredevil teamup to take down Nuke (and, since this is Netflix, probably ninjas) would be a terrific climax. We get the fun of that awesome fight, some aid from outside sources (perhaps Elektra as well?) to mix into the thematic pot, and eliminate some of Miller’s more over the top symbolism.
Voila. “Daredevil: Born Again”.
Disclaimer: I have no clue what the showrunners are ACTUALLY going to do and would be shocked if I was right about any of this. This is just one fan’s theory of how a potential adaptation COULD look IF they did it.
It was pretty fun to think this through, though, and if nothing else you all hopefully got more of an idea of why I hold this story in such high esteem. Man, I wish Marvel just followed DC’s model and released animated movies every few years of their best storylines…
Ah, well. It’s fun to dream, anyway.