[Updated for season two at end of post]
We’re back! After a long delay FLIM Springfield returns! Over the past couple months Diana and I had to put our hobbies aside so that we could attend to some important personal business, namely our wedding! We’ll be writing about that in a separate post for you to read about, because of course there were some Simpsons touches included—we couldn’t help ourselves, Simpsons is our Language of Love, and it wouldn’t feel right to exclude them from our weeding. And now, back to our program…
Where The Simpsons is a archetypal suburban fantasy, Daredevil is a dystopian nightmare. Nonetheless both are attractive worlds that feed our need for escapism to draw us in. (Essay continues after gif set.)
Aside from the occasional evil billionaire’s Sun blocking scheme, annual visits from the murder-clown, or rare tornado, Springfield is a surprisingly safe place. When there are monsters they tend to be city sanctioned institutions like schools, the DMV, an unending tire fire, the local brothel, or teen-sized bullies. Evergreen Terrace is a tranquil oasis. The mob are unfailingly polite, there’s only one armed crook in town, and Doctor Colossus has promised to keep away from all his diabolical stuff. No wonder the prison can work on the honor system.
Springfield is at its most threatening when the Simpsons stray away from their comfortable suburban rut. Crackton, Bumtown, and Junkytown are parts of the dilapidated skid row that borders Pressboard Estates. Take even just one step into these peepee-soaked heckholes means facing off against frighteningly-enthusiastic Russian chess masters, crooked three-card monte dealers, rock throwing bums, seedy dive bars, raving derelicts, demonic street sweepers, and sadistic military surplus salesmen. Stay out of Bumtown, and it’s all cider mills, wholesome soapbox derby races, and the safe confines of Noiseland Arcade.
The world of Daredevil on the other hand, revolves around an inescapable diseased center. Daredevil, the comic book and new Netflix tv series, is so grim it might as well be a war story, and in a sense it is. The most enduring version of Daredevil was born—or as Comic Book Guy would say born again—in the mid-1980s by legendary writer (and current crackpot) Frank Miller. Over the course of many decades New York City had earned a reputation as a war zone. Gangs operated in broad daylight, Hell’s Kitchen was a slum engineered by shifty landlords and mob muscle, and bystander families fled ahead of continuing waves of drugs, murder, and collateral violence. The media kept trumpeting all this long after it was news—stay away because, “Once the sun goes down, all the weirdos turn crazy”—and eventually any large city in the USA was assumed to be a rotten deathtrap by suburbanites.
Heavily influenced by 1970s gritty crime stories like Taxi Driver, The Warriors, and Dog Day Afternoon–which were as much romanticized looks at the seedy underside of NYC as they were indictments of the it–writer/artist Frank Miller distilled an appropriately comic-fantastic vision of Hell’s Kitchen that was equal parts Martin Scorsese, James M. Cain, and Stan Lee. That is to say, steeped in the bleakest pool of realism, morally compromised souls fighting fantastic larger than life battles. It’s a little like McGarnagle, except filtered through the primary colors of Radioactive Man comics, starring Frank Grimes.
In updating Hell’s Kitchen for the 2010s, the Netflix series cleverly makes post-Giuliani gentrification concerns its underlying conflict. Instead of fighting lowlife thugs or fantastical super criminals, altruistic blind lawyer Matt Murdock takes on a untouchable real estate mogul/control freak Wilson Fisk. The battle isn’t just for control of the neighborhood alone, but to ensure all people have a place in it.
Netflix Daredevil and Vincent D’Onofrio do a great job making Fisk’s drive to remake the slum that birthed him relatable and even seem noble, up to the point where he splatters a Russian mobster’s head to paste with a car door (shades of Homer trying to take Barney’s car keys away). There’s a parallel between Fisk’s hubris, and Sideshow Bob’s turn as Mayor of Springfield, when he used his power to try bulldozing the Simpson’s home for an expressway. Corruption is one thing both The Simpsons and Daredevil have in common, but there is definitely a difference in scale.
When recasting Netflix Daredevil, there were a handful of obvious choices we agreed on right from the start, and then others that left us confounded. Another hindrance to our work this time is that Daredevil is one of JRC’s favorite fictional characters, and getting every choice right became his personal obligation. As usual, working around the dearth of persons-of-color in The Simpsons universe made some compromises unavoidable.
We both agreed on replacing Matt Murdock with Lisa pretty quickly. No other character from The Simpsons, aside from maybe Mr. Bergstrom or Tom the Bigger Brother, has such an achingly right moral compass. Lisa has also helped out with enough serious legal matters, that she’s easily earned more credibility as a lawyer than Lionel Hutz. Like actor Charlie Cox who plays Daredevil, she isn’t blind. What makes Lisa an ideal choice to be Matt Murdock though, is that she is also torn between what is right and what she wants. Yes, Lisa wants social responsibility and justice, but she also wants a pony enough to blind herself to the inequality represented by the Springfield Glen Country Club. It’s not the same scale as deciding whether or not it is right to kill scumbags, but a small quandary is still a quandary when it tests your heart.
Having Don Homer from “Last Exit to Springfield” is a lucky break for our casting, as I said above Wilson Fisk isn’t a stock villain, he comes across sympathetically at first, like Homer’s desire to simply provide for his daughter’s dental needs. It doesn’t take much to corrupt either man though, both are victims of faulty parenting, and can’t control their ravenous appetites. Don Homer is a great version of the Kingpin, but if you recast in the opposite direction, Wilson Fisk could probably step in for Homer at the depths of his Stonecutters corruption. (Essay continues after poster.)
The Simpsons cartoon has a lot in common with comic books. With characters that have existed in some cases for over 75 years, the comics medium has developed a unique ability to use small character traits and story elements to build complex characters over long stretches of time. Made in the 1960s, Matt Murdock’s creators implied the character was Catholic based on the name they gave him and place he grew up. However Matt Murdock’s faith was never explicitly stated until nine years later in Daredevil issue 119 by writer Tony Isabella. Another ten years and 100 issues after that, Frank Miller took the idea further and made Matt’s Catholic Guilt the cornerstone and theme for what’s become the seminal Daredevil story, “Born Again”, which is rife with biblical themes well beyond just its title.
This attention to detail reminds me of Simpsons’ stories such as how Lisa’s vegetarianism became a natural outgrowth of her social conscience, which grew organically over seven seasons of episodes. Similarly, we are treated to Bart’s origin as a kindergarten jokester in the flashback story “Lisa’s First Words,” that flows logically backwards from the fully realized devilish ten year old prankster we already know. Without a well told history to build upon, character moments and growth like that wouldn’t be possible, or as is often the case in sitcoms it would come across forced, blunt, and off-putting.
Another thing “Born Again” did was use the vastness of Marvel Comics shared universe of characters for excellent dramatic affect. Daredevil is what is known in comic book lingo as a street level hero, something that makes him really appropriate for Netflix budget limitations. You don’t expect him to run into Guardians of the Galaxy or Galacticus, instead sticking to reachable targets—the Kingpin is big, but he doesn’t devour worlds. In “Born Again,” Miller engineers a powerful moment: having Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man all show up to end the big climactic fight—the movie invades the TV show, 30 years before it could happen in the way we take for granted now. Those three characters’ surprise appearance in Hell’s Kitchen is rare in Daredevil comics, a juxtaposition that helps show the magnitude of the problem Daredevil is dealing with, and contrast how personal and internal his struggles are, inside the mind-boggling larger Marvel world. The heroes aren’t even there to help him really, just to grab the Kingpin’s hired super-loony and cover up government corruption. (Essay continues after image.)
Similarly, The Simpsons has a character for every situation. In the Marvel Universe, if you need a patriot, you’ve got Captain America where the Simpsons have The Rich Texan. The Hulk’s nemesis “Thunderbolt” Ross is the most starched military empowered crackpot in Marvel comics, the Simpsons has Herman and his menagerie of military antiques. Where Marge is the saintly moral center of the Simpson household, Peter Parker’s Aunt May servers as a constant reminder of familial obligation for Spider-Man. Marvel has the shape-shifting Skrulls and The Simpsons have deployed Kang and Kodos as presidential doppelgangers to similar effect. Snake is just a recurring version of the stickup guy who shot Bruce Wayne’s parents, Doctor Colossus is the similarly inept “brother” of Daredevil’s Stilt-Man, and Mr. Burns is the stand-in Evil Rich Industrialist for Spiderman’s Norman Osborn, Iron Man’s Obadiah Stane or Superman’s Lex Luthor.
Comparing The Simpsons’ attention to detail to Comic Book Guy obsessiveness makes sense, Matt Groening has spent his life in comics: he wrote and drew his own syndicated strip, LIFE IN HELL, for over 30 years, and co-owns the company BONGO Comics which has published Simpsons, Futurama, Radioactive Man comics, and non-Simpsons related books by Sergio Aragonés (of MAD Magazine fame, another huge influence on Simpsons writers).
Daredevil will be coming back for a second season on Netflix in 2016 with a promised appearance by The Punisher, and we’re looking forward to debating who we’d add to a revised casting sheet.
Currently we’re also enjoying the Netflix/Marvel Jessica Jones series, and the most recent run of Daredevil comics written by Mark Waid and drawn by Chris Samnee which has turned the Matt Murdock character upside-down by pulling him away from his bleak life, moved him from New York to San Francisco, and realistically reimagined him as a mostly well adjusted carefree Man Without Fear. If you’re looking for something to do, in between regular rewatchings of classic Simpsons seasons, JRC recommends both.
Season 2 update, March 2016: Based on trailers and source material, we brainstormed a pretty good guess at Netflix take on The Punisher. We’re holding off on Elektra though, because there’s a lot of ways they could reimagine Matt’s college Ninja girlfriend.
The Punisher however is pretty black and white: Frank Castle is a war veteran (Vietnam in his classic comic appearances) who returns to civilian life, his loving wife and family, only to see them murdered by the mob. In that split second Frank Castle psychologically dies and becomes The Punisher, an emotionless gun-toting vigilante who murders criminals without remorse. He’s different from superheroes in that he kills (a strict no-no for the mainstream characters), has no powers, and also has little regard for his own life. The Punisher’s only goal is to exact revenge on the mob until he is himself killed.
With that backstory to extrapolate from, to find a match for The Punisher, we took a look at The Simpsons season eight, episode eight, “Hurricane Neddy” in which a whirlwind blows through Springfield and blows apart
just one two things: The home of mild-mannered Ned Flanders, and his mind.
As we learn through the course of the episode, Ned isn’t so mild mannered. He started out as a hyperactive and violent toddler, with a couple of lousy beatnik parents who refused to instill discipline. The only solution was a comic book-like brainwashing program where the boy was spanked nonstop for a year. It buried his aggressive emotions, and created a long fused powder keg. The destruction of his house, and shoddy rebuilding by his neighbors, is finally enough to trigger Ned’s repressed rage, and he unleashes a torrent of awful (but accurate) invectives upon Springfield’s least capable. It is one of those rare moments when The Simpsons breaks the fourth wall and realistically addresses the characters as if they were people–the truth is, they wouldn’t be so funny in the flesh.
It wouldn’t be funny either if Flander’s family was hurt. In other episodes we’ve seen his nightmare about murdering Homer with a sniper’s rifle, and we also know Ned is extremely buff and athletic for a man his age. Can you imagine what would happen if his wife and children were killed? With so much barely controlled rage, why Ned could reject God and turn into a cold-blooded killing machine.
Luckily, everyone in The Simpsons universe is pretty much safe from change, so we don’t have to worry about the town’s nicest neighbor ever going psycho and running them over with his car . . .