WHEN IT was announced more than a year ago that Marvel Television and Netflix were collaborating to create a new pocket of the live-action Marvel universe, with Daredevil leading the way for the project, one fan who particularly rejoiced was Steven DeKnight.
A longtime writer, director and producer, DeKnight (“Smallville,” “Angel”) was under contract with the premium channel network Starz at the time of the announcement. When DeKnight heard that a good friend, Drew Goddard, was spearheading “Daredevil” for Netflix, he knew the series was in good hands. DeKnight considers Goddard a “phenomenal writer and fantastic director,” and considers Goddard an even bigger fan of Daredevil than DeKnight was.
Then Goddard was whisked away by Spider-Man’s Hollywood web.
Goddard was linked to work on a Spider-Man spinoff “The Sinister Six,” but when Marvel Studios announced that it had made a deal with Sony to share the rights to Spider-Man, Goddard suddenly became even busier — and he is rumored to be the man to revive the once-dominant franchise under the guidance of Marvel Studios.
At that point, DeKnight received a phone call from his agent: “Daredevil” suddenly needed a producer.
DeKnight’s agent had spoken with Jeph Loeb, head of Marvel Television (and writer of the comic book “Daredevil: Yellow”), who wanted to know whether DeKnight would be interested in taking over “Daredevil.” DeKnight was wrapping up his contract at Starz and was looking to take some time off, but his familiarity with those involved with “Daredevil” persuaded him to look at what they had been working on.
“I read the first two scripts and I was like, ‘Damn, this is great,’ ” DeKnight told The Post’s Comic Riffs. “I went in and heard the idea for the season and I thought, ‘As much as I need a break, I can’t say no.’ ”
DeKnight signed on to lead the way for Marvel’s Man Without Fear, with two episodes of the 13-episode season (streaming live beginning today) already written by Goddard, a third in the works, no actors cast, no production crew put together — and he was a little more than 10 weeks from the beginning of filming. He’d have to become a producer without fear.
There was one major casting decision DeKnight didn’t have to worry about: That of the city of New York. Before DeKnight came aboard, Marvel made an agreement with the Big Apple to film “Daredevil” on the hero’s native streets. DeKnight had heard rumors that the production, like many other television projects, was considering filming in Canada — Toronto specifically. But DeKnight says “Daredevil” already having secured the rights to film in New York was a major factor in him coming aboard the project.
“Much to Marvel’s credit, they really wanted [Daredevil] to be shot in their hometown,” DeNight said. “The heads of Marvel are all in New York, and they really felt like the city needed to be another character in the series — and I totally agreed. I don’t think this show would be as successful without having shot in New York. It’s a feeling and a look, that you just can’t replicate anywhere else.”
The city’s shadows would serve as a concrete sidekick to DeKnight’s urban vigilante. The next question was: Who was New York’s devil? DeKnight decided that a 32-year-old British actor, Charlie Cox, would be his man in the mask.
“Amazing performer. Fantastic guy. You always want a leader in your number-one spot. He just had all the elements,” DeKnight said of the decision to cast Cox as Matt Murdock/Daredevil. “He had the acting chops. He had the personality to be a leader on the set, and he just stood out from everyone else.”
When Cox learned that he won the role of Daredevil after auditioning in New York, London (via Skype) and Los Angeles, he was excited to dive into a role he grew attached to while trying out.
“By the time I got the news, I was so invested in the role and in the project that it was more of a relief by that stage,” Cox told Comic Riffs. “I was hoping so much that I would get the opportunity. It was very thrilling.”
Cox arrived in New York a month before “Daredevil” shooting was set to begin on. He had never owned a gym membership and admitted to not being much of a weightlifter. But he had little time to get into superhero shape.
“They sent me out with a trainer in New York, and I went along there every day and tried to put on as much weight and muscle as I could in the month that I had,” Cox said.
Cox is well-aware that his role as Daredevil includes a connection to Marvel Studios’ highly successful superhero movie universe, the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). There has been no announcement saying that Netflix’s Marvel heroes could join Marvel’s stars on the big screen. The possibility of crossing over to the MCU — and the fact that such an idea hasn’t been shut down yet — intrigues Cox.
“I would love that,” Cox said of the possibility of appearing on screen in a Marvel movie. “I have no idea what Marvel’s intentions are, and whether there’s potential involvement for me in other projects — whether they be on the Netflix shows or the wider range of the Marvel cinematic universe. What they say [at] Marvel is that it’s all connected. Hopefully I can be part of that.”
With his hero having signed on, and with the rest of the cast in place, DeKnight next needed to establish the tone of “Daredevil.” DeKnight had the benefit of working on both sides of the television spectrum, having worked in network television, with all its restrictions, as well as producing “Spartacus” for Starz (known for sexual and violence content). Netflix provided “Daredevil” with a rare opportunity to not be bound by network-television rules and constraints, so he could approach some of Daredevil’s comic-book material that was dark enough to at least consider approaching an R-rating.
DeKnight ultimately decided that a hard PG-13 would be the right way to go. “I didn’t feel like [Daredevil] really warranted an R-rating,” DeKnight said. “I believe it’s classified as PG-15. It’s one graphic shot, maybe a touch of nudity, some harsher [profanity] away from being R, but I didn’t feel like it needed to be R-rated.”
“Daredevil,” though, doesn’t lack for intensity: In the show’s debut episode, when Cox’s black-clad, masked vigilante makes his first appearance breaking up a human-trafficking ring — as Daredevil takes down multiple men and gets to the guy in charge — the devil decides to send a message. Fifteen of them — that’s how many punches the boss gets to the face. There is a message being sent — to those who would attempt crime in Daredevil’s Hells’ Kitchen, and to viewers in terms of what type of action to expect. All this before the show’s opening credits.
“It was very much in the script,” DeKnight said of Daredevil’s violent first appearance. “Distinguishing the Matt Murdock character, that there is a devil inside him, literally. It’s something we explore later in the series. Is he doing this because he wants to help the city, or is there also another reason that he’s doing it? Is there something else inside him that he has to let out? The question of: Does he enjoy doing this? And he does lose control — that we see in that first opening sequence. That was absolutely part of the character, [part] of the tone.
“And no, I don’t think you could do it on network television,” DeKnight continued. “You can do it on basic cable or premium cable, but network television is a different animal. When you get to that kind of thing in network television, where you have to appeal to a broad audience, you usually don’t want your hero to be sullied like that.”
Cox’s vigilante comes off like a New York night ninja. “Daredevil” features intense violence, with Cox frequently going into danger zones against gangs single-handedly. Which leads to lots of martial-arts defensive blocks, counters and hard strikes. The only other live-action Marvel property to approach the hand-to-hand combat shown in “Daredevil” would be Marvel Studios’ “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” That’s no coincidence.
If you remember a scene in “Winter Soldier,” when a multitude of men try to take down Chris Evans’s Captain America in an elevator (they don’t succeed), one of the men who tried to beat the Captain was Philip Silvera. DeKnight brought Silvera on the set as “Daredevil’s” stunt coordinator, and credits Silvera with finding the perfect stunt double for Cox: Chris Brewster, who also doubled for Evans in “Winter Soldier.”
“We just had an A-team,” DeKnight said of his stunt-coordination crew. “We had a long talk about [that ] this is the style we want to see. We want to keep it as realistic as possible. Matt uses parkour, gymnastics, but it should be down and dirty and… a little bit of MMA, and they just knocked it out of the park.”
New York darkness and violence aside, “Daredevil” joins a list of comic-book adaptations that, whether intended or not, should appeal to a diverse audience. And Hells’ Kitchen provides a multitude of accents and nationalities.
When Murdock goes into a gym to box — dropping a few dollars in the hand of a custodian so he has privacy — overhead, as he pounds away on a body bag, is the flag of the Dominican Republic. At their law office, Matt and his law partner, Foggy Nelson, receive a visit from a Honduran woman who is scared that she and her neighbors are being forced out of their apartments. The woman speaks more Spanish than English and Cox’s Murdock, in Spanish, assures her that everything is going to be fine.
“That was tricky. Very, very tricky,” Cox said of his attempts at coming off bilingual. “I don’t speak a word of Spanish, so I had to really get my head down. It’s very difficult to learn lines when you don’t know what you’re saying. It’s an odd experience.”
Vondie Curtis-Hall, who is black, was cast as reporter Ben Urich, a well-known Marvel character who is white in the pages of the various Marvel comics he has appeared in. That continues a trend seen in other comic-book adaptations. (Laurence Fishburn was cast as Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White in “Man of Steel.” Candice Patton plays the object of the fastest man alive’s affections, Iris West, on CW’s “The Flash.” And Mehcad Brooks was recently cast as Jimmy Olsen in CBS’s upcoming “Supergirl” TV show.)
When asked whether comic-book properties are more diverse in their casting efforts — given the many minority actors and actresses who have been cast in traditionally white roles — Rosario Dawson is insightful. Dawson plays Latina nurse Claire Temple (who also speaks Spanish) on “Daredevil” and is known for embracing comic-book works, having filmed two “Sin City” movies and having recently voiced Wonder Woman in an animated Justice League movie for DC Entertainment.
Dawson said she sees things from multiple angles: “I think Michelle Rodriguez got caught on the fire for that in talking against that. I lean both ways. Peter Pan has been played very often by a woman. There’s a lot of teenage characters portrayed by much older folks.”
“Look at Daredevil and look at any of our iconic, sort of major heroes,” Dawson continued. “They were different when they were created 75, 60, 50 years ago. They changed. And changed according to the times and the era.
“I think it’s great that there’s a push to be able to go: ‘I want to see more diversity in characters that weren’t created in a time when there was a push for more diversity. Let’s change those characters.’ So why not? It’s fantasy, you can do whatever you want. But I lean also towards Michelle’s points of just going, ‘Well, create your own characters.”
“There are quite a lot of characters in DC [Comics] and at Marvel that are different ethnicities that just have never had a chance to have their own show,” Dawson said. “At the same time, I think it’s really exciting and awesome, especially to see stuff like this that Marvel is doing with Netflix. Let’s get into those more street-level characters and maybe some of the other characters that don’t normally get as much shine. Luke Cage is already black. There are characters out there to explore and we don’t have to change anything, but actually just give them their moment.”
Ultimately, Dawson said, “I’m down for both sides. I think we need to play more, and it needs to be fun, and hopefully the situation in reality will change so much that we’re not so easily triggered by an accent or by skin color in our entertainment. That shouldn’t be the case. I’m less counting on our entertainment changing our values on that than just in general the situations changing across the board.”
Dawson, a native New Yorker, also agrees with DeKnight that filming in New York offers a unique and very realistic setting for “Daredevil.”
“Especially in Hells’ Kitchen, but anywhere in New York, it’s almost impossible to walk through and not encounter some kind of accent. I really loved that they’ve made sure that that’s a part of [Daredevil’s] story in a way that feels very authentic. I feel like everything kind of stands out. Like, ‘Oh, they’re speaking Spanish, they’re trying to go for the diversity.
“It’s a Spandex superhero — well, actually yes and no,” Dawson continued. “That doesn’t mean he’s not fallible, that doesn’t mean that [Claire Temple] can’t be from where she’s supposed to be from just because it’s a Marvel show and everyone is supposed to speak English.”
The cast and crew of “Daredevil” are focused on the present — with the show debuting today — but their future already looks bright. If all goes to plan, “Daredevil” will serve as the first step in Netflix’s mission to form its own street-level Avengers-like team, “The Defenders” (which will combine “Daredevil” and the other three Netflix/Marvel shows in development “A.K.A. Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage,” and “Iron Fist”).
“The Defenders is down the road, so it was never predominantly in our thoughts. Our thoughts were always: Just make [Daredevil] the best show we can,” DeKnight said of the eventual Netflix super team. “I’m delighted that the reaction has been so positive so far. I think it bodes very well for ‘The Defenders’ when they come around. Hopefully we’ll follow in Jon Favreau’s footsteps with ‘Iron Man’ and this will start something really special.”