'Daredevil' Boss on Netflix's "PG-15" Series, Connecting to Marvel's ABC Universe and Beyond (Q&A)

"There is an over-arching global plan culminating in 'The Defenders' and some of that groundwork has been laid in 'Daredevil,' " Steven S. DeKnight tells THR.
Courtesy of Netflix; AP Images/Invision

Marvel is looking to change what it means to be a hero with Daredevil, the first of five comic book adaptations headed to Netflix.

Daredevil's television adaptation finds Matt Murdock (Boardwalk Empire's Charlie Cox) a blind lawyer by day and donning a black mask at night as he takes to the streets to deliver justice in Hell's Kitchen.

Unlike the other heroes in Marvel's Cinematic Universe, Murdock's mortality is much more evident. The vigilante has no suit of armor or fast healing ability; the only thing he has going for him are his enhanced senses. As organized crime rises through the neighborhood, Murdock learns that the corruption runs deeper than he could have imagined. Willing to do whatever it takes to make a difference, Murdock must come face to face with the city's dark underbelly, where a single mistake could cost him his life.

The Hollywood Report caught up with showrunner Steven S. DeKnight (Spartacus) to discuss bringing the MCU down to a city scale, the challenges Murdock faces and how Daredevil and its upcoming Netflix brethren Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and The Defenders fit in.

The MCU has been grounded in a global, super-powered world with Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter. Daredevil is smaller in scale and more human. What was roadmap like for creating a world for street-level superheroes?

This was [Marvel head of television] Jeff Loeb's brainchild. He had this idea for taking the street-level heroes from the Marvel Universe — characters like Matt Murdock, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Danny Rand who is Iron Fist — and really focusing in on them in a TV series where they're all interconnected like the MCU did with Iron Man, Thor and Captain America culminating in The Avengers. Loeb wanted to make a gritty, grounded and realistic series, hearkening back to those Daredevil comics we read as kids — the Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev runs. He wanted to make them smaller and more intimate. He wanted to make this more of a crime drama that just happens to exist in the Marvel Universe. He mentioned The Wire, and I immediately perked up and said, "You know, no one will ever make another Wire, but that is an excellent thing to shoot toward." On a TV scale, you can't match what they do in the movies. What you can do is shoot for a premium cable feel and make things more "PG-15" than you can in the movies. The movies have to reach a broader audience. With Netflix, we could zero in on something specific, realizing that this isn't for everyone. It's not for younger audience members.

How will Daredevil set the stage for Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and The Defenders? Is the plan to cycle through all five every year?

There is an over-arching global plan culminating in The Defenders, and some of that groundwork has been laid in Daredevil. I've had people ask me if Jessica Jones or Luke Cage make an appearance in Daredevil this season, and my answer is unfortunately 'no' because we were operating pretty much in a vacuum with this first one. Jessica Jones showrunner Melissa Rosenberg (Twilight) is adapting Bendis' graphic novel. I was shooting the finale when Krysten Ritter was cast as Jessica Jones. With Daredevil being the first out of the gate, we didn't have the opportunity to cross-pollinate with other shows because they still in their formative stages. My hope is moving forward with Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, now we will see more cross-pollination. There is a global plan moving toward [miniseries] The Defenders. We started to put things in place.

How will Daredevil fit in with the rest of the MCU in terms of ABC's Agent Carter/Agents of SHIELD where "everything is connected"? Is it just the Defenders-verse or does it tie-in with everything else?

We definitely exist in the MCU, but we're the first TV show since Marvel Studios started producing their own stuff with Iron Man that isn't actually spun off from the movies. We have a very liberating reading format where we don't have to connect as strongly as Agents of SHIELD or Agent Carter did since they had a direct lineage from movies. With us, we exist in the universe. We reference the Battle of New York and Iron Man and Thor, but I've always approached it like it's a normal person living in the real world. How often do they meet Brad Pitt or sit next to George Clooney? You know these people exist, but you hardly ever get to see them in person even if you live in Los Angeles. We're a part of the MCU, but we don't have the burden of having to interlock so strongly with what the movies are doing. We'll reference them, but this is in its own little corner of the MCU.

The action in Daredevil is brutal and sometimes hard to watch. Were there any restrictions on that from Netflix and/or Marvel?  

Netflix was fine, much like HBO, Showtime or Starz. There are no classic standards of practice like there are on network television. They are fine going for the more mature audience. There is, however, some self-regulation on my side and Marvel's side. None of us wanted to take this to an R-rated show. The Daredevil character warrants things being grittier and a little more violent. I didn't want to take it to an R-rating. I often use a show that I love as an example, AMC's The Walking Dead. The violence in their show is what I would call very R-rated; it's very graphic, and I love it. We didn't want to go quite that far on Daredevil. You'll notice a lot of the violence is visceral and impactful but more suggestive than graphic. In episode four, Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio) loses control and has a run-in with the Russian. It's very disturbing and definitely more violent than something you will see in a Marvel movie. Because of that, it makes it feel more graphic than it is. We were still cognizant of the fact that we didn't want to push it all the way to the envelope.

When it comes to street level heroes like Daredevil, how important is his morality in defining the hero?

It's really important. One of the things that attracted me to Daredevil as a kid was the fact that Murdock is built on one dichotomy after another. The most obvious one being that he's a lawyer by day sworn to uphold the legal system, and then by night he goes out and breaks all those rules. And on top of that, his father never wanted him to fight, and every night he goes out and fights. He wants to think his father would be proud but there's another part of him that knows his father would be disappointed in how he's doing it. Mixed on top of that is the fact that he's a devout Catholic in the comics. It all makes for such a wonderful internal struggle with Murdock. That's something we really wanted to pay attention to in this first season. He's very new at being a vigilante; how far will he take it? It's a question he struggles with most of the season. I've always said he's one bad day away from becoming the Punisher, and that's something we wanted to look at in that moral quandary.

What separates a vigilante from a superhero, and what is the catalyst for the transformation?

If you take it as far as actively going out to kill people, that crosses a very strong line and that's why some of my favorite Daredevil comics were when he runs up against the Punisher. It's two guys who are ostensibly doing the same thing, but it is just Frank Castle taking it one step further. It was a really fascinating part of this season for me. As the show progresses beyond episode five, we get much more deeply into Matt's desire to save his city and his frustration at what he's been doing and how he's been doing it. It isn't effective enough. So should he take that next step? The obvious logical step for him to stop what's going on is to kill Wilson Fisk, and that is the moral quandary: Should he or shouldn't he do that?

Most threats in the MCU have come on a global scale. What are challenges in conveying a threat when scaling it down to a district in a city?

As long as you have a really great antagonist, this story naturally falls into place; the bones are there. Toward the end of the season, we started to have discussions about if the story was big enough. We started talking about if we should put Matt in a situation where there's a building about to explode with people in it, and Matt goes into to save them. That's more of an external conflict, wherein a lot of our conflicts are internal in this show. I used to say in the writers' room that this show was built on man vs. man and man vs. himself. It's not that we've got to save the world. It's more save the neighborhood. To a certain extent, it's about exploring the idea of how do you do that without losing a chunk of soul in the process. We explore that on both sides with Matt — and on the other side of the coin, Wilson Fisk. They are two sides of the same coin, and it helps to have an antagonist like Wilson Fisk who is human; there's nothing superhuman about him. Vincent D'Onofrio, got what we were trying to with making Fisk — a three-dimensional human character. We always wanted the audience to go, "Yeah, he's the bad guy," but in a way they may still root for him. That's also why Wilson Fisk has the big love story of the season and not the hero, which an unusual way to go about. But, again, we really wanted to round out who the antagonist and his motivations as much as we do with our hero.

Season one of Daredevil drops Friday on Netflix. Will you be watching? 

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