Daredevil sees Marvel break its own mold. Based on classic comic-book arcs by Frank Miller and Brian Michael Bendis, the show debuting on Netflix this Friday is grittier and more violent than the studio’s blockbuster summer movies. But it also takes a page from the Marvel Cinematic Universe; Daredevil is the first in a crop of four interrelated shows on the streaming platform—the Man Without Fear will be followed by Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist—which will culminate in a crossover Defenders miniseries. (Just like the Avengers, but with some of Marvel’s lesser-powered, more approachable “street-level” heroes.) Daredevil showrunner Steven DeKnight took some time to talk to us about what inspired the series, what to expect, and how to bring the MCU to the small screen.
WIRED: Are you still working on the show?
DeKnight: Last night, we just did the final mix on the finale. It’s all in the bag, it’s all mixed and we’re done. I’m for all intents and purposes done with season 1.
How does it feel to be finished?
Sleepy. With no exaggeration, it was working seven days a week for eight months. The only actual time off I’d have was the plane trips back and forth to New York, but I have no complaints.
Daredevil is so tonally different from the movies, but also from Marvel’s other shows like Agents of SHIELD.
Oh, absolutely. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the gods of the Marvel Universe. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor: they tend to save the world. Daredevil is really our first time doing the street-level heroes, so we wanted to differentiate that in terms of both the palette and the tone. We always referenced the classic films of the ’70s is terms of what we wanted to do: Dog Day Afternoon, The French Connection, The Conversation—movies that had that gritty New York feel. It was one of the reasons we wanted to shoot in New York. It’s cheaper to shoot in Canada, but to Marvel’s credit, they really wanted it to be in New York; they felt, and rightly so, that you just can’t capture the feeling of New York without being in New York.
There’s a line in the first episode about things happening in New York that reflect the events of Avengers. Was there pressure from Marvel about wanting it to tie in to the movies even more?
We all wanted it to exist in the same cinematic universe, but we at no point wanted to lead the audience astray and have Iron Man drop from the sky. I’ve never bumped into George Clooney, even though I live in Los Angeles, you know? That’s the way we approach this: we’re in the same universe, but it’s a one in a several hundred million chance that you’d run into one of them.
Since Daredevil is the first of the four Netflix shows, what kind of conversations were there about things that you should seed for other shows moving forward?
I was up to my eyeballs just trying to get this show off the ground. [Laughs] At that point, AKA Jessica Jones was still in a very, very early stage, and they hadn’t actually put the writers room together yet, while we were much further along. I would have loved to have Jessica Jones pop up, even for a scene or two, but I was shooting the last two days of the finale when they cast Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones, so we couldn’t do that on our side. Hopefully down the line, on the other shows, they can take advantage of that a little more.
One thing I appreciated about the first five episodes was that it felt like one story told over multiple chapters, as opposed to an episodic TV show or a procedural.
Jeph Loeb, head of Marvel Television, refers to it as a 13-hour movie, and that’s definitely how we approached it. My last serialized show was Spartacus, and I approached that in the very same way: It was one episode a week , but while each had its own arc, it was also part of one larger story. And now, the way the entire first season goes, there’s definitely an act one, an act two, and an act three. We wanted to give the feeling that you could sit down over a day or two watch the whole thing.
We really approached this foremost as a crime drama. We kept saying, ‘let’s edge towards The Wire instead of anything else.’ One of the things that you keep getting told with a lot of shows in Hollywood these days is that no scene should run longer than two pages, which drives me bananas. My feeling is that a scene should run as long as a scene needs to run. The great thing about Netflix and Marvel is that they let us have these really long, intense scenes of people talking, which you don’t get much on an action TV show.
The Marvel convention has always been to start with the origin story, but Daredevil starts in media res, with the audience having to catch up.
We go back and fill stuff in later on, but why belabor the point with an entire episode of origin story? Let’s get down to it. With a movie, you have some more leeway, you can spend the first act on the origin story and then tell the rest of the story. But with a TV show, I think you have to tell the audience, this is what you’re going to be watching for 13 hours.
What were the comic book influences for this? The opening titles mention Stan Lee and Bill Everett, but I got much more of a Frank Miller vibe, and a Bendis vibe as well.
You hit it right on the head. Stan and Bill, of course, co-created the characters. We drew our spiritual inspiration from the Frank Miller run and the Bendis run. We pulled a lot from elsewhere, but those two, for me, were the big influences of the tone we wanted to capture. I’m a huge Frank Miller fan and a gigantic Bendis fan — I’m very excited for Jessica Jones, because I think that Alias is one of the great graphic novels, just one of the greatest I’ve ever read. I love Bendis’ work, and I loved his run on Daredevil. It was so different for a comic book.
Are you involved in the Defenders series, or perhaps thinking about a Daredevil Season 2? Is there a future for you and Daredevil after this?
We’ve had no official word on a Season 2 of Daredevil. I’m extremely proud of the show; I think certainly deserves a second season. It’s a little too early for Defenders—I know they’re still working on Luke Cage and Iron Fist and they just started shooting Jessica Jones, so I think that’s down the road a little bit. But if fans pay close attention, there are little things we drop through the season of Daredevil that might get picked up in Defenders.
Were there things that you had to set up, or was it a case of leaving things that you hoped would turn into something?
There’s a little bit of both. There are things we definitely know will pay off, and there are other things that we thought would be really cool to explore later on, either in Defenders or one of the other shows. There are easter eggs that I didn’t even get. We would need to replace a storefront in the background of one of our locations, and we would reach out to our Marvel rep, and we would get back Marvel references that I had to look up—and I’ve been reading comics since the ’60s. There’s a ton of references, both verbal and visual.
The cast is relatively small as well; is that in case there’s another season?
One of the questions I get on social media is ‘Is Elektra going to be in it?’ ‘Is Bullseye going to be in it?’ I love Miller’s Elektra/Bullseye run, but this didn’t seem like the place to do it. I’m not big on cluttering up the landscape with too many ‘villains,’ unless it really serves an emotional purpose. Focusing on Wilson Fisk was exactly the right thing to do. Focus on one antagonist, and really parallel the rise of the hero with the rise of this criminal mastermind.
Vincent D’onfrio does a great job playing Wilson Fisk. You can’t take your eyes off him.
I cannot say enough good things about Vincent. When I first signed on, I started sending Jeph Loeb pictures of Vincent D’onfrio with a shaved head, saying ‘We gotta try to get him.’ We were very, very fortunate. Our casting director knew Vincent and reached out to him, and he was very enthusiastic about the character and the material. I don’t think there’s another human being on the planet that could embody Wilson Fisk as he appears in the comics.
D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk. Barry Wetcher/Netflix