DrDoom Presents: Character Death – A DAREDEVIL Case Study

DrDoom Presents: Character Death – A DAREDEVIL Case Study

It's been a few months since the release of the first season of Marvel's Daredevil, and DrDoom wanted to take the time to discuss something that's been on his mind: the death of a certain major character. Come see what he has to say in this spoiler-filled editorial!

It ain't how you hit the mat . . . . it's how you get up.” - Matt Murdock

After the live action film rights for Daredevil reverted back to Marvel Studios at the end of 2012, many fans were wondering what would happen next for the Man Without Fear. The 2003 release of Mark Steven Johnson's Daredevil film was generally seen as a financial and critical disappointment, becoming something of a stillborn franchise in that all plans for sequels were indefinitely postponed. Instead, the studio opted to pursue a spin-off film with 2005's Elektra, which was so poorly received that it seemed to kill any further interest in Daredevil as a property despite the rich quality of the characters and decades of source material to pull from.

Still, Fox would retain the rights to Daredevil for seven years past the release of any film based on the property, per the licensing agreement signed with Marvel. As such, when 2012 rolled around, Fox entered into discussions with director and screenwriter Joe Carnahan, who pitched a trilogy of Daredevil films that would be set during the 70's and early 80's. However, due to being brought in so late, he was unable to put together a script in time for the reversion deadline. A last minute appeal was made for an extension, but Marvel made it quite clear that they wanted the rights for Daredevil back, and so the official reversion occurred on October 10th, 2012.

Come on, Matty. Get to work.” - Jack Murdock

Of course, after the reversion, no immediate plans for a film based on Daredevil were announced. At the time, nobody was quite sure how Daredevil would fit into Marvel's future film slate, if at all. Films based on the core Avengers and even obscure property Guardians of the Galaxy were in the works, and with a second Avengers film on the horizon, it seemed like there was little room for a Daredevil movie in the MCU. Everything changed when Marvel announced in October of 2013 that they had secured a deal with Netflix to create five television series based on their street-level properties that would be set within the MCU, those being Daredevil, AKA Jessica Jones (taken from an earlier ABC pitch, and later renamed Jessica Jones), Luke Cage, Iron Fist and a team-up show called Defenders, with the original plan being a sixty episode run between all five properties.

While anticipation was high, and the possibilities of the format were quite promising, there was still the knowledge that the release of the first season would make or break the entire deal. If the first season of Daredevil was a failure, then the entire enterprise could have been at risk. Luckily for fans, Marvel Studios spared no expense when developing the property, bringing in quality showrunner Steven S. Deknight, and one of the most stellar and balanced casts yet seen in a comic book adaptation. Upon release on April 10th of this year, the first season of Daredevil was a monumental hit with critics and fans, with many people praising it as one of the best overall entries in the MCU canon due to its strong plotting, characterization, performances and action sequences. Despite some relatively minor stumbles, Daredevil was generally considered to be a spectacular opening for the Marvel and Netflix side of the universe.

I don't see the city anymore. All that I see are its dark corners.” - Karen Page

However, this article is not a review of Daredevil, since I already wrote that article a long time ago. Rather, this article is going to be an essay about what I feel is Daredevil's only major narrative misstep, that being the death of Vondie Curtis-Hall's Ben Urich, at the end of Episode 12 of the season. I want to preface this essay by saying that this creative choice does not completely detract from the overall quality of the show that Marvel has been able to produce, but rather that it serves as a disappointing miscalculation on their part that squanders a lot of potential not just for future seasons of Daredevil, but also other upcoming MCU projects.

Since first appearing in Daredevil #153 back in 1978, Ben Urich has been a mainstay character of the street-level Marvel comics, most commonly being associated with Daredevil and Spider-Man. As a reporter for the New York Bulletin (although he worked for The Daily Bugle in the comics), Ben served an important purpose during the season as a character who helped the world-building as well as to provide an interesting avenue through which to explore the investigative angle of the story. Given the format, it made sense that there would be numerous subplots dealing with the supporting cast, and Ben became a crucial part of the group of heroes who worked to try and bring down the main villain, Wilson Fisk.

There used to be a time when the people in this building wrote the hell out of the news.” - Ben Urich

Beyond just filling in a necessary slot in the show's cast, Ben also became a sympathetic and intriguing character in his own right, largely thanks to some sharp writing and a great performance from Curtis-Hall. Many stories use news organizations and characters as a means of exposition, due to the similar function they serve in the real world, but Ben became more than that because, like many of the best characters in fiction, he has a definitive arc that results in him changing as a person over the course of the story. While the parallel arcs of Matt and Fisk are the emotional and dramatic core of the season, Ben also has an arc with its own narrative momentum that results in him becoming far more than just another supporting character in the script's toolbox.

While both Matt and Fisk go through arcs that resemble Joseph Campbell's classical “hero's journey”, due to being heavily formative, Ben goes through an arc that serves as a reversal of it. At the time that Daredevil's story takes place, Ben is an elderly reporter, at least in his mid-50's, who has already gone through his own journey as a person. Numerous references are made to his previous work as a tough-as-nails reporter (his comic personality), and the show takes this and uses it to deconstruct that archetype. What happens when the tough-as-nails reporter grows old, becomes smarter, and the toll of the job wears down his resolve? You get Ben Urich, as portrayed at the beginning of the season.

I read every big story with your byline. The VA kickbacks, toxic runoffs, the Teachers Union scandal. Hell, you pretty much brought down the Italian mob back when I was in diapers. Whatever happened to that reporter, Mister Urich?” - Karen Page

But what's great about Ben is that he is not static. Through his early conversations with Karen Page, to whom he becomes something of a mentor, you can see his thought process, his skills, and how he pushes her, and by association, himself, so that he can recapture the glory of the reporter he used to be. During his conversations with his boss, Ellison, Ben makes it quite clear that he's become disillusioned with the way that the New York Bulletin, and by extension, the world of Hell's Kitchen, has changed for the worse. When Ellison chides Ben for saying “girly mags”, it's not just a sideways jab that may or may not elicit a laugh from the audience. It's a peek into the mind of a man who is at odds with his surroundings; a man who used to be in tune with the world and has now become disconnected from it.

The reason why Ben's perspective is so critical to Daredevil's narrative is because it stands in direct opposition to that of its main characters. Throughout the entire story, Matt's goal is to “make his city a better place.” He honestly believes that what he is doing will save Hell's Kitchen from a place of ruin and elevate it to a better state of existence. So, when Fisk says that he and Matt “have a lot in common”, he's actually not wrong; Fisk also believes the same thing. He thinks of Hell's Kitchen as a city mired in poverty and decay that he needs to save. Perhaps the most critical quote when it comes to Fisk's motivation occurs when he explains himself to Vanessa during their second date in Episode 5:

I've done things that I'm not proud of, Vanessa. I've hurt people, and I'm going to hurt more. It's impossible to avoid for what I'm trying to do. But I take no pleasure in it, in cruelty. But this city isn't a caterpillar. It doesn't spin a cocoon and wake up a butterfly. A city crumbles, and . . . . fades. It needs to die before it can be reborn.”

So what does this have to do with Ben's perspective? Unlike with Matt and Fisk, who think of Hell's Kitchen as a wretched hive that needs to be saved, Ben already knows that Hell's Kitchen is a great place, because he was part of it before they were. The timeline on exactly how old Ben is in relation to Fisk is a bit unclear, and as such it may undermine my premise somewhat, but the point stands that Ben, as presented in the narrative, is clearly privy to a larger part of Hell's Kitchen's heritage and its spiritual core than Matt and Fisk are because he himself helped to create that core via his actions as a young reporter. It's also important to note that Fisk was taken out of Hell's Kitchen at a crucial and traumatic stage in his development (12 years of age, and right after murdering his own father, which immediately stunted any further emotional growth as a person), which means that his understanding of what Hell's Kitchen truly is is irreparably damaged by his lack of perspective and his own crippling insanity.

You've been in an awful lot of wrong places at the wrong time lately. But I've heard the other stories. About the man in the mask, helping people. Sounds like maybe there's more than one side to you.” - Ben Urich

As such, Ben has a very clear objective that drives the momentum of his character arc forward: to keep the spiritual core and integrity of Hell's Kitchen intact. Note that this is not the same as Matt or Fisk, who want to change Hell's Kitchen completely. Rather, Ben doesn't want to change Hell's Kitchen, but redirect it; to modify its path and prevent it from being destroyed. At the same time, he is working to modify his own path so that he can recapture the essence of the man he once was, the man who helped to make Hell's Kitchen into a place worth fighting for in the first place. So, while he and Matt come to be allies and they share the same end goal of stopping Fisk, they are being driven by completely different internal desires.

We get to see the differences between Matt and Ben during the pivotal conversation the two characters have in the rain at the end of Episode 8, right before Fisk goes public with his identity. In a manner, Ben also takes on something of a mentor role for Matt at this time, with Matt being subconsciously open to the idea after rejecting his previous mentor, Stick. Foreshadowing conversations that Matt will soon have with Father Lantom, Ben insinuates that Matt is becoming more and more loose with his morality, and that perhaps he will eventually end up becoming the very thing he is trying to stop. Here, Ben shows both his compassion and his pragmatism, two things that Matt and the other heroes need to keep close to their hearts if they wish to succeed.

When we first met, you weren't fearless. You were reckless, pushy. You were all about making a big splash, turning heads. You certainly turned mine. But that's not who you were always supposed to be. Experience made you more careful, wise. I don't know, Ben Urich . . . . I think your best work is still ahead.” - Doris Urich

Further insight into Ben's character is also provided via the subplot revolving around his wife, Doris, who spends most of her time ill in Metro-General Hospital. Through their conversations, we get to peer into more layers of Ben's personality, such as his fears, his regrets, and what drives him to reconstruct himself. Because of this, we truly buy the change in Ben when he decides to forgo his connection to the Bulletin after being fired and publish his own version of the story about Fisk online. And when Karen says that “this will change everything”, she's telling the truth; Ben striking out on his own as what essentially amounts to a vigilante reporter is a major shift in the status quo of not just the world of Daredevil, but Ben's character arc. Finally, he has cast aside all previous doubts that time and experience have laid upon him, and has become fully committed to being the heroic reporter he is at his core, regardless of exterior circumstances.

This is why it's so frustrating that such a big change is immediately sliced at the ankles by Ben being murdered by Fisk in the next scene. Now, to be clear, the conversation between Ben and Fisk is actually very well written and performed on both sides, and as a displaced part of the narrative, it doesn't feel like a particularly egregious detour. But taken as a piece of the overall whole, it does seem to be very mishandled on two important levels: firstly, that it immediately severs the characterization of an extremely nuanced, complex and interesting figure who had reached a new stage of his character arc, and secondly, that it also forfeits plenty of narrative potential in other properties where the changed version of Ben could have made an appearance. Taking into consideration the vast amount of work that went into getting Ben to this point character wise, it makes the previous development feel wasteful in that little to no time is given to explore him now that he has changed.

I am not here to threaten you. I am here to kill you!” - Wilson Fisk

Now, multiple arguments have been made for why Ben's death is a necessary part of the plot, and I want to take the time to address and dismantle these individually. The first actually comes from a justification given during an interview by showrunner Steven S. Deknight, who said that Marvel wanted to risk killing off a major character, and that Ben's death ensured that the audience were no longer sympathetic to Fisk in time for the finale. Well, killing off a major character just for the sake of it almost always comes across as a desperate attempt to subvert expectations, which is quite hilarious in hindsight since many people have expressed that they actually saw Ben's death coming far in advance. As well, Fisk himself, like Ben, was incredibly well characterized, which would naturally lead to the audience at least having some level of sympathy towards him, but that does not necessarily mean that they don't understand that he needs to be stopped. There is a wide distance between feeling sympathy for Fisk and genuinely wanting him to slaughter the heroes and rule Hell's Kitchen unopposed.

Another argument is that Ben needed to die so that Matt was motivated to defeat Fisk in the end, and that Fisk himself was truly shown to be the insane monster that he is. Both of these are fundamentally flawed ideas because not only are they devoid of logic, but they also reduce Ben to an object who serves the characterization of others rather than his death actually fulfilling a narrative purpose that is tied into his own arc. Matt has proven through the entire season how motivated he is to take down Fisk, and Fisk has already shown himself to be an insane monster numerous times prior to this point. Hell, given how violently he dispatches Leland in the finale, even the brutality of Ben's death isn't a unique character moment for Fisk. As well, we've already seen the lows that Fisk is willing to resort to with him ordering the death of Mrs. Cardenas to lure Matt into a trap. Now, you could say that that moment uses Mrs. Cardenas in the role of “object”, and you would be correct. However, Ben is a fully formed major character, and Mrs. Cardenas is not, nor does she have the narrative potential to become something greater in future installments in the franchise. When a three-dimensional character is killed off, there needs to be a higher level of weight assigned to such an event that serves the overall characterization of that specific individual, or else there will be an inevitable loss of narrative potential.

He thought you were something else. The way you wouldn't let go until you got to the truth. We never got around to having kids, too busy with this or that, but . . . . if we had, I think he would have wanted one like you.” - Doris Urich

The last argument that I've heard regarding Ben's death being necessary is that it actually did further his characterization because he acted heroically in his final moment. Fisk asks him if he went to see his mother alone, and Ben says yes, refusing to put Karen in danger for what was essentially her mistake. However, while this is a character moment, it doesn't push his characterization forward because we already knew that Ben had become more heroic by choosing to publish the story on his own. This moment also makes Karen unintentionally unsympathetic, because she, inadvertently or not, caused Ben's death by going against her own growth as a person and not learning from her previous mistakes as she was supposed to. The fact that this event occurs so late in the season, thus rendering the audience incapable of feeling the effects of such a creative choice for any real amount of time, makes it seem even weaker.

So, if Ben's death wasn't necessary, then why was it put in there? Well, the reasoning has already been explained above by the interview Deknight gave, but as someone who was such a fan of the writing for the rest of the season, I find the excuses provided to be woefully inadequate. Ben's perspective as a character was unique. His role in the story, and his character arc, did not necessitate his death. Worst of all, the changed version of Ben had nearly limitless potential as a character who could have shown up in numerous future MCU projects. More Daredevil seasons? Jessica Jones? Spider-Man? Ben Urich would have been one of the few characters who could have appeared in contextually natural scenarios in all of those franchises and more. Instead, he's too busy being dead, and for a man who was so critical to saving Hell's Kitchen, he definitely deserved far better.

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