Netflix recently dropped the first of five superhero series for its subscribers to enjoy. Daredevil is quite good, though to be honest as of this typing I’ve only seen the first five or so episodes. Charlie Cox makes a good superhero. Vincent D’Onofrio is an excellent Kingpin. There was much rejoicing.
Now, I’m not here to review the series. Better reviewers than I have or will do so, and I have other things to do. Instead, I want to discuss tone and how it applies to superheroes on TV and to a lesser extent in the movies.
In a recent Gabbing Geek editorial meeting, taking place this time in an abandoned bowling alley located above a completely different abandoned bowling alley, one of the geeks was quacking something about how Daredevil may be the single best superhero on TV right now. The absolute gushing from this anonymous geek (OK, it was Jenny) went on to compare Daredevil to Arrow in a manner that was not overly kind to Arrow. All things being equal, that is a fair comparison. I would suspect Daredevil probably has a much higher budget at work, what with being able to hire actors that are actually recognizable to anyone with HBO Go as part of the main cast, but in terms of tone, the two shows are somewhat striving for the same sort of dark, urban setting.
I took it a step further and compared it even less favorably to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which I am not a fan of. I did watch the whole first season of Agents, and while the series improved over time, the show had some serious flaws due to delays caused by waiting for Captain America: The Winter Soldier to come out, and what for me was the serious problem that the entire main team bored the hell out of me. Agents also seemed content to make sure that anyone who was rather cool and fun would be relegated to the status of occasional guest star or were killed off rather quickly.
In fact, here’s how I personally ranked the agents in terms of my personal interest for the first season:
- Simmons when she was trying to tell lies
- Bill Paxton
- Patton Oswalt
- Agent May’s cranky mother
- (tie) Fitz and Simmons not trying to tell lies
- Agent May
- Dead Patton Oswalt in the vents
- Evil Ward
- Good Ward
Agents continued this fine tradition by killing off an interesting Lucy Lawless character in the first episode of season two. Yes, I am aware they brought her back in a flashback, and Mockingbird is cool, but by and large, I find the main core of agents to be a rather dull bunch of people. Keeping the setting of various episodes limited to the plane and various nondescript gray warehouses didn’t help. I actually find that made Arrow more impressive since it was doing what it did on a much smaller CW budget compared to the deeper pockets Disney/Marvel could invest with.
But I am digressing.
Do you know what show didn’t come up when discussing the high quality of Daredevil? Lots, actually, but for the purposes of this essay, The Flash.
Prior to the release of Daredevil, there was a good deal of talk about The Flash being the best superhero show on TV. Now, I don’t really want to compare Daredevil to The Flash. About all the two have in common is the color red. The shows, and the characters themselves, could not be more different.
Daredevil is a dark show. There is some levity, but not much. Matt Murdock bleeds a lot, and the fights look like they legitimately hurt. D’onofrio’s beatdown of a Russian mobster in one episode was predictable before it happened, but absolutely brutal. Even the daytime scenes seem to be rather dark. Most are set in largely rundown-looking places, where there is, at best, construction going on. The world of Matt Murdock is a place of human trafficking, random violence, and dark rooms. And that’s not even getting into the Catholic guilt.
The Flash, by contrast, is a much lighter show. Barry Allen actually seems to largely enjoy what he does. An early episode showed Barry getting mugged. He does a couple superspeed tricks to make the mugger look silly then pulls a cop a in from nowhere. His bad guys all have silly codenames. There’s a telepathic gorilla and a time-traveling villain for pete’s sake. If that sort of thing showed up on Daredevil, it would be about ten times more laughable than it could be on The Flash. Except, they aren’t laughable on The Flash because they fit well into a world where a guy in a red suit runs faster than the speed of sound on a regular basis. They keep the tone right for the character, just as Daredevil does for its own show.
For a good way to view the differences between The Flash and other shows, look at the two-part “crossover” with parent show Arrow. While The Flash kept things light with a mind-altering bad guy, the Arrow episode focused on just how different Ollie and Barry are. Barry didn’t really fit in with Team Arrow. He made people feel good and inspired hope. Ollie mostly stopped bad guys with some really harsh methods Barry just wasn’t comfortable with. It was very possible to watch one episode without the other, but it was clear the producers understand Barry and Ollie were two very different types of heroes from two very different types of environments. And it should stay that way.
That’s probably why Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is ultimately so disappointing for me. Though the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a certain house style, the different heroes have had distinctive feels whether it is corporate espionage (Iron Man), body horror (Hulk), fantasy (Thor), war and espionage (Captain America),space opera (Guardians of the Galaxy), or big budget stuff with everybody (the Avengers), Marvel has managed to find the right tone for each. Agents just seems so generic by comparison. In fact, now Daredevil continues to make Agents seem even more generic than before.
Understanding the proper tone for the protagonist of any superhero property is important since heroes don’t necessarily come in a one-size-fits-all mode. As much as I enjoyed Man of Steel, it did seem to be taking hopeful, prototypical good guy Superman and trying to make him something like the dark brooder Batman in the popular Christopher Nolan trilogy. That mood fits Batman: he is a dark character. As much as Man of Steel gave the audience a good feel for what a throw-down between two (or more) god-like beings would be like, the excessive property damage and Superman seeming to bounce back rather quickly from killing Zod at the end don’t seem much like a Superman sort of thing. This Superman doesn’t really inspire hope…yet. There’s always time to fix that, but the washed-out color scheme and the solemn soundtrack don’t really help.
Bottom line: tone counts, and not just for superheroes. Producers need to remember that, and getting the tone right doesn’t mean everyone needs to be brooding in the corner. Batman can brood. Daredevil can brood. Groot? Probably shouldn’t.