Vampires have always been one of the most intriguing aspects of supernatural fiction. Ever since Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, vampires have been one of the foremost aspects of the horror genre. With the rise of superhero comics in the 1960s and 70s, it wasn’t long before the wizards at Marvel created a character which crossed the superhero and vampiric genres together. Enter Morbius: The Living Vampire, who made his first appearance as a Spider-man villain in 1971’s The Amazing Spider-Man #101. The idea of a scientist turning himself into a monster in an attempt to better himself isn’t unfamiliar in fiction, but the character of Michael Morbius places an interesting twist on this. To have Dr Michael Morbius turn himself into a vampiric superhuman attempting to cure a rare blood disease creates an ironic twist which blends the superhero genre with the supernatural. The new Morbius film directed by Daniel Espinosa retells the story of this tragic anti-hero, and whilst it may be not be perfect, it is a unique addition to the plethora of comic book films.
Morbius follows Dr Michael Morbius (Jared Leto), a Nobel prize-winning scientist with a seemingly incurable blood disease which is slowly killing him. In a ditch effort to find a cure, he experiments with bat DNA which leads him to turn himself into a vampiric monster who cannot function without consuming blood. What I enjoyed most about the film was it’s dark, supernatural flavour, which sets it apart from any other Marvel film. In a world where we have a Marvel Cinematic Universe made up of big-budget, family friendly flicks, it was nice to see Marvel do something a little different. From what I’ve read of the original comics, it seems the film was relatively close to the source material in terms of the character’s origins. Michael’s first transformation happens on a ship, as in the comics. He becomes the monster and hunts a group pf unsuspecting mercenaries in what is almost a tense, horror-esque action sequence. Whilst the slow-mo moments in the action sequences were rather slick, the action was generally very shaky and too fast paced to the point where you can’t tell what’s going on. In fact, this almost made me think they only added slow-mo moments so you could tell what was going on!
In terms of its story, Morbius has both pros and cons. In the film, he is a sympathetic figure; you understand why he goes to the lengths to save himself, and you can tell he is a genuinely good man trying to do right by himself and others. He doesn’t want this vampiric curse because of the harm it could cause others, yet he struggles to fight the need to consume human blood. This is exactly what Morbius is about; the classic battle between morality and animalistic nature. That said, it would’ve been good to see more of this conflict between man and beast. As I said, the film makes it clear Michael is a good man, but not much else. We don’t see him kill anyone he wasn’t supposed to, or cause any harm to any loved ones. In fact, he seems to gain control over his condition relatively quickly. In the comics, he is constantly battling the urge to consume human blood, even from those he cares about. Whenever he does, he is in anguish at his actions, condemning himself as a dirty, corrupt soul. Unfortunately we don’t see much of this in the film, as the story focuses more on his conflict with his surrogate brother Milo (Matt Smith). It almost seems that they translated the man/beast conflict between Morbius and Milo, rather than have it be within Morbius himself. Milo is afflicted with the same blood disease as Michael, and when Milo uses the same treatment as Michael, he embraces his lust for blood and new-found superpowers after a life of disability. Matt Smith’s performance as Milo was possibly the most enjoyable aspect of the film, giving a convincingly sympathetic performance as the villain who, unlike Morbius, embraces his vampiric side. Other supporting characters include Michael’s girlfriend Martine, portrayed by Adria Arjona, who provides Michael with the ‘moral compass’ throughout the film, and Jared Harris Dr. Emil Nicholas, Michael and Milo’s father figure. Martine and Dr. Emil aren’t the most memorable of side characters, but they provide us with external observers of Michael and Milo’s predicament, and remind us of the moral ambiguity of their actions.
Morbius is far from a perfect film. The action sequences are choppy, the characters aren’t quite developed as they should be, and the post credit scenes feel like Sony attempting to grasp at straws to connect Morbius with the wider Marvel universe. However, as a stand-alone Marvel film about a character with a sympathetic predicament and supernatural abilities, there is still some enjoyment to be had. This is quite possibly the first Marvel film to verge on the supernatural since the Blade trilogy of the late 90s and early 2000s. This is what sets it apart from other Marvel films. It’s dark, gritty atmosphere and unique supernatural twist on the superhero genre provides a refreshing change to the typical superhero formula we are all too familiar with. The character has had a rough ride through comic history, going through many changes of writers and some periods where it seemed the character was left to lie dormant. As such, it was nice to see such an intriguing character have a shot at a live action feature film, even if it wasn’t quite what fans had hoped for. Hopefully, Sony will listen more to the wishes of fans in future, and give us more of the character’s anti-heroic nature which made him so iconic in the comics.
It’s the early 1960s. The Marvel comics industry has already produced a colourful variety of iconic characters such as Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and Spider-Man, still within the first few years of their creation. Then one day, comic legends Stan Lee, Bill Everett and Jack Kirby decide – “Hey, what if we created a disabled superhero?”. This superhero’s disability would be that he is blind, but his big compensation for this is the fact that his four other senses are heightened to super-human level. Not only that, but his every day alter-ego is a lawyer named Matthew Murdock who fights crime using the legal system. This is juxtaposed to the fact he is a vigilante at night who catches criminals who slip their way through the legal system; because sometimes the law just isn’t enough. This is a man who pushes away his loved ones as he attempts to balance these two lifestyles, a man whose religious faith is ironically reflected by the fact he beats up criminals dressed as the devil. A man with the heroism of Spider-man and the emotional complexity and darkness of Batman. A man who attempts to lift Hell’s Kitchen from its criminal damnation by working both sides of the law. A man who faces loss, abandonment, trauma, and constantly struggles with his identity whilst still defending his city. A man, without fear.
To me, all these things are what make ‘Daredevil‘ one of the most unique and intriguing characters in the Marvel universe. The character resonates with me in a way that not many other characters do. The very concept of a blind superhero was enough to interest me, but his abilities and emotional complexity is what put him on my personal pedestal. Matthew Murdock lost his sight at a very young age when a radioactive substance splashed into his eyes, whilst attempting to save an old man from the truck carrying said substance. Initially, you’d think being blinded is quite possibly one of the most nightmarish experiences a person could go through, considering how much humans rely on their sight. But Matt made it his mission to transform his disability into a strength. A strength that he could later use to commit more acts of heroism like the one that cost him his sight. Not only did he lose his sight, but Matt also lost his boxer father, Jack ‘the devil’ Murdock, who refused to intentionally lose a fight for a mobster. Jack used to encourage Matt to not become a fighter like him, but instead study to become a lawyer or doctor to make the world a better place. Like so many other superheroes have shown, loss is a powerful motivator, and Matt was then motivated to support his father’s wish, but also to bring the criminals who murdered his father to justice. This led to the dual lifestyle that Matt leads as lawyer-by-day and vigilante-by-night. This bipartite personality reflects the different ways of how we choose what the ‘right’ thing to do is. We like to keep our loved ones close as they inspire us to be our best selves, using our knowledge and rationality to defend others and resolve injustices. This is the Matt Murdock in all of us. On the other hand, it is only human to give into our emotional impulses, and resolve injustices by whatever means necessary, even if it sometimes means pushing away our loved ones. In other words, sometimes we simply need to ‘let the devil out‘. This is the Daredevil in all of us.
The world of Daredevil and Matt Murdock is perfectly encapsulated in Netflix’s Daredevil series. This is the series which first absorbed me into the character and his world. The series opens with its protagonist sitting in a confession box admitting he needs to ‘let the devil out’, setting up for something which will blur the line between right and wrong. What separates this series from other Marvel TV shows and movies is its perceptiveness and grit. It isn’t afraid to explore deeper themes and make flawed characters likeable. Its reliance on dark, grainy cinematography to encapsulate a much darker comic book story rather than overusing CGI makes it much more grounded and real than most other Marvel properties. Season 1 isn’t just a superhero show – it’s a 13-episode character drama about how far protagonists and antagonists are willing to push the moral boundaries to do what they believe is ‘right’. Charlie Cox’s performance as Matt Murdock is possibly my favourite portrayal of a comic book character; he is to Daredevil what Robert Downey Jr was to Iron Man. He brings likability and emotional complexity to a flawed character, similarly to the antagonist of the series, Wilson Fisk, portrayed by Vincent D’Onofrio. Fisk does unspeakable things throughout the series, but still manages to provoke feelings of empathy and understanding with the audience. He is intimidating, anxious, calculating, and somehow empathetic all in one. He doesn’t need superpowers or weapons to show his power. Simply by displaying the effect he has on people and what he makes them do for him before he even appears on screen is enough to show how much of an unstoppable force he is, and how he truly lives up to his comic book alias, ‘The Kingpin’.
Whilst some argue season 2 of the series wavers in its objective quality, upon several re-watches I have come to appreciate the thought and depth placed into its story arcs. The first few episodes centre around one of Marvel’s most compelling and morally ambiguous villains – the Punisher. Once again, Jon Bernthal to me is the Punisher like Robert Downey Jr is Iron Man. He is a man to be feared by criminal organisations yet the series isn’t afraid to show his more emotional, familial side. Should we simply kill criminals so they don’t commit their unspeakable crimes again? Or does every criminal, no matter how terrible their crimes, deserve a chance at redemption? This intriguing dilemma is discussed in depth between Daredevil and Punisher, showing two different perspectives on the idea of vigilantism yet showing how similar these two characters are. As the Punisher says to Daredevil – ‘You’re one bad day away from being me.’ That is what makes these characters some of the most compelling in the Marvel universe. The parallels drawn between them throughout the series show how easy it would be for Daredevil to kill and turn into those he fights so hard to defend Hell’s Kitchen from. Season 2 also crafts a story about what it means to live two different lives, as Matt struggles to maintain his day life as an attorney with his night life as the man without fear. He pushes his two closest friends away, Foggy Nelson and Karen Page, trying to balance the demands of the Punisher’s trial as Matt Murdock and the fight as Daredevil with a secret organisation known as The Hand. He forms romantic connections with Karen as Matt Murdock, and with assassin Elektra as Daredevil, epitomising the struggle of which life is best to lead. The more absorbed he becomes in one, the more it infects the other. Season 2 creates believable conflict between those who call each other friends, and understanding between those who call each other enemies. It encapsulates the dichotomy of right and wrong, and how many different approaches there are to achieve what an individual believes is the ‘right’ thing to do to protect others.
As if the first two seasons weren’t enough to fulfil even the Devil’s appetite, Netflix and Marvel provided us with a third (and possibly final) season of Daredevil. Season 3 effectively uses what made season 1 great and adds refreshing new dynamics to Matt’s defence of Hell’s Kitchen. A broken, beaten Matt seemingly has abandoned his everyday life as an attorney and fully embraced his vigilante persona. Not only this, but the Kingpin of Crime, Wilson Fisk, has returned to the Kitchen and proves that house arrest is far from enough to keep his atrocious criminal schemes at bay. Season 3 also provides us with an intriguing portrayal of one of Marvel’s most underrated villains, Bullseye. Season 3 turns what was originally another costumed assassin who can turn any object into a deadly projectile into a compelling yet terrifying antagonist for Matt Murdock. Bullseye, or known in the series as Poindexter (Wilson Bethel) is an unhinged FBI agent whose childhood abandonment and unresolved psychopathy leads him to become a tool of Fisk’s to incriminate Daredevil with the very crimes Fisk is guilty of. Not only does this parallel Matt’s own abandonment issues from his mother, but it provides us with yet another antagonist who has understandable motives yet atrociously goes about fulfilling them. Similarly to D’Onofrio’s Fisk, he is a villain whose actions you do not condone, yet with a character skilfully crafted to provide an understanding of why he is like he is. The impending clash between Daredevil, Fisk, and Bullseye occurs in one of the most climactic series finales I’ve ever seen. Will Bullseye kill Fisk’s wife Vanessa before Daredevil can save her? Will Daredevil cross the line and kill Fisk? Charlie Cox provides an award-worthy performance as he cries out in pain when the opportunity to kill his adversary arises but he can’t bring himself to do it. What makes the protagonist of Netflix’s series a hero is not Daredevil, but Matt Murdock. As Fisk urges Matt to kill him, Matt exclaims “You don’t get to destroy who I am“. If Matt kills Fisk, Fisk wins. Daredevil becomes a hero by maintaining the integrity of his humanity, by choosing not what is easy, but what is right. I could probably write pages and pages more about why Netflix’s Daredevil is one of the best series of the 2010s. About the stunning comic-book inspired cinematography, the intense, dark soundtrack by John Paesano, and the performance of every actor. But it’s a series you should simply watch for yourself, because I believe it is a series that every comic book fan should experience and could learn from.
Netflix’s masterful series inspired me to indulge in other Daredevil media and explore the world of Matt Murdock further. Comic book writers and artists have provided us with some of the most stunningly drawn and compelling tales in the Marvel universe. Kevin Smith’s Guardian Devil storyline not only provided the basis for the 2003 feature film, but also became one of my favourite comic book stories to date. An infant is mysteriously placed into the care of Matt Murdock, which is revealed to be either the Messiah or the Antichrist, leaving Matt to struggle with his faith in Catholicism and how it weighs on his sense of morality. The story isn’t afraid to deal with themes like substance abuse, suicide, and religious faith. I couldn’t talk about Daredevil comics without mentioning the main man who made the character what he is today, Frank Miller. Miller took Lee and Everett’s creation and placed him into much more real-world scenarios, and immersed him in darker themes and conflicts which readers could resonate and empathise with. Miller’s Born Again story arc is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential Daredevil storylines. Having discovered Daredevil’s secret identity, the Kingpin is hell-bent on bringing down Matt Murdock in every way he can, leaving Matt to pick himself up and find the willpower to pursue his adversary. With its uniquely religious symbolism and struggles with identity, Born Again provided much of the inspiration for seasons 2 and 3 of the Netflix series. Even the criticised 2003 feature film starring Ben Affleck I find enjoyment from. It may have some toe-curling cheesiness, but I appreciated its performances, tone, faithfulness to the comics, and of course those underground-early 2000s Matrix vibes which most comic book films tended to have back then.
Whatever media is used to portray the story of Matt Murdock, whether it be film, TV, or graphic novel, I have come to appreciate him as one of the most interesting and unique characters in the Marvel universe. The way he turns his disability into effectively his greatest assets is awe-inspiring, and shows that irrespective of potential disadvantages, you can still stand up for what you care about. I recently read Travis Langley’s book, ‘Daredevil Psychology: The Devil You Know‘ which explored the complexity of the character and his powers using psychological literature. As Langley writes in his final essay of the book, “Life’s balancing act lasts as long as we do“, which I believe encompasses what makes Daredevil so compelling. The character epitomises the dichotomy of life and morality; lawyer by day, vigilante by night; working both inside and outside the system. Do we indulge in our emotions or keep ourselves level-headed? It shows how things aren’t always as simple as right or wrong or good versus evil. Daredevil taught me things about myself which I wouldn’t have even considered before, and provided me with a reason to express my passion and resonation with the world of comic books and TV. But most importantly, the character taught me to always have faith, no matter the odds. It’s fair to say Daredevil is my favourite comic book character of all time.