On Arrow, Daredevil, and how to tell a comic book story on TV

ddevil rosario poster

Comic book adaptations have been the rage for some time now. However oftentimes examples such as the MCU (which I love), do not feel like something with a comic book heart. Rather they feel like homogenous action/adventure stories taking vague inspiration from characters that started out in the form. Recently I’ve been delving into the first seasons of a couple of TV shows which manage to tell highly authentic comic book style stories, in two very different ways.

The heroes at the centre of both Arrow and Daredevil are what I would call ‘street level’ comic book characters. They are not gods, do not dress in super suits and are not from another planet. They don’t even have the bank balance of Bruce Wayne. Both of them start out in lo-fi costumes, unsure of what the hell they are really trying to do. Despite those character similarities, these shows feel totally different. Arrow is schlocky, it screams classic comic book tales in its telling. Daredevil is all gritty procedural, think the period comic creators realised people would still buy in if they went all grounded and dark. Daredevil is telling a very specific story, wrapped up in the mythos of the place it is occurring. On the other hand Arrow takes place in Starling City, a fictional place that functions essentially as Anytown USA, though there is also a separate plotline told in flashback form that takes place on island in the middle of the Pacific. The real-life issues of the former see Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock/Daredevil fighting against gentrification and the evil of property developers. Oliver Queen’s is a more personal quest. He is attempting to right the wrongs that various individuals have wrought on his home-city, on an undertaking driven by a notepad his old man gave him before he died.arrow amell

The overarching focus of Daredevil ison keeping everything grounded. The writing, whilst a little overscripted early on, wants this to feel dangerous and above all realistic. Even Daredevil’s pretty incredible sensory powers are presented in an artistic, reserved way, almost as if anything else would take the viewer out of the world of the show. The action is not like that you would see on a cinema screen. Can feel the blows and even better you can see everything that’s going on. Wish more film action was shot in a similar way, but I guess it is not showy enough. The whole show is harsh, tense, nerve shredding and oh-so violent. The action is reflective of the show’s thematic concern with the darkness and fallibility of individual humans. Perhaps the only letdown in how Daredevil is delivered is the writing on occasion. As mentioned above, it does feel overwritten at times and the dialogue is patchy, with Vincent D’Onofrio having to deliver the worst (and on occasions probably the best) of the lines as the villainous Wilson Fisk. However there is an extended sequence of a priest waxing lyrical on the nature of the devil that is the best written piece of TV I can recall seeing in ages. Arrow on the other hand brings the frivolity happily. There are people flying all over the place in their silly suits, using bow and arrows and even sillier weapons. Though there is a hell of a lot of death in this first season, Queen’s no holds barred approach coming off as quite conservative in a way. But that approach, and its ethical ramifications, evolves nicely over future seasons. Arrow brings that classical comic storytelling vibe. There are, often silly, self-contained episodes with a rollcall of villains and moustache twirling plans. But the entire story is also feeding into a larger arc that involves Oliver’s family and the most devious plan of them all. The flashbacks are really quite prominent in this first series. They serve an important function in developing the mythos of the Oliver character. But are perhaps not as interesting on a pure plot level.

Character wisddevile, Arrow sets itself up as a cool mini-team show (a trend that majorly continues in seasons 2 and 3) David Ramsey’s John Diggle and Stephen Amell’s Oliver have a great patter from the start that evolves from fun one-upmanship to shared commitment to a cause. Amell may have limited range, but he is great at action and able to set up a lot of the character through his physical presence. The writing of the character makes him surprisingly layered and majorly flawed. You would expect the more serious show to take this approach, but Oliver stuffs up and carries on like a bit of a jackass a fair bit in this show, much more than Murdock does in Daredevil. There is also a good family dynamic with Thea, drawing out the emotional beats and delivering some of the weight of the fact that Oliver really was marooned on an island, presumed dead, for five years. It is not easy for someone to simply return from that and have everything and everyone around him be normal. But the real star character of the supports is Felicity Smoak. Initially intended as a one episode character, Emily Bett Rickards’ winning performance obviously convinced the creators that she needed to be kept on board. Felicity is an awesome character, essentially a very capable, funny and sassy Miss Moneypenny or Lois Lane, though with more agency than either of those comparisons suggest. The fact that such high-schlock bothers with such complex characters is a major reason the show does not flame out after the original camp-fun has dissipated. On the other hand Daredevil essentially only bothers with the lead. Sure Foggy is a funny offsider, though an overblown and too comedic one. And their employee Karen actually has a fair bit to do as well as a good performance from Deborah Ann Woll that draws a whole lot of character out of the writing. But we are never that invested in what happens to these people. Perhaps the only other character we care that much about is Rosario Dawson’s Claire who functions as a really good counterpoint to Murdock. But that character appears far too little for some reason, popping up in only a handful of episodes. Even Murdock is a little thin at least in the present day action. Though like Arrow, the show delivers pretty successful flashbacks to progressively flesh out the character’s origin story.

arrow smoak

Verdict: Much has been made of an over-saturation of comic book properties and it is hard to disagree with that. But the first seasons of these two shows prove that there is scope to tell these stories in a way that is appealing to more hard-core comic book fans and broader audiences. These are the type of comics I like to read, smaller scale and for the most part contained. But they are still quite different. They both prowl the streets, but Daredevil takes an ultra-serious approach in the fight against gentrification whilst Arrow culminates in a desperate race against an earthquake machine levelling most of the city. The first will probably appeal more to those who are into this golden age of TV more broadly or general crime fans. Whilst the latter damn fun but also damn cheesy and geeky at times. If you’re like me, both of these are well worth your time (I’ve since plowed through seasons 2 & 3 of Arrow as well as The Flash season 1).
Arrow Season 1: Pint of Kilkenny
Daredevil Season 1:
Pint of Kilkenny

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