Whenever a movie studio becomes a “brand,” it means going from being reliable based on what you’ve made in the past, to being reliable based on some sort of (often intangible) governing philosophy, i.e. Walt Disney as family (as opposed to “Children’s”) entertainment, Pixar as emotionally-involving high-end animation, and Studio Ghibli as anime you don’t have to feel ashamed about enjoying. In Marvel’s case, the “brand” happened when the studio’s reputation transcended beyond a mere list of popular superhero movies to a philosophy about its approach to making superhero movies – and that philosophy is essentially: “You can trust us with these characters.”
In some ways it’s a continuation of a fandom-focused editorial dictum famously espoused by the late Mark Gruenwald (often referred to as the best Editor/Executive Editor Marvel ever employed) that “Every character is someone’s favorite,” but by now it’s grown to encompass not only the way the studio’s founding projects took an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to adaptation, but also the way they’ve enthusiastically leaned in to the way new audiences have embraced elements of the MCU in their own way (Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson, for example, who went from being a sacrificial lamb in The Avengers to leading the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for three seasons).
So, even though no one makes the right move 100% of the time, and even the most successful creative enterprise is bound to overshoot the target once in awhile (even Pixar eventually had to make Brave and The Good Dinosaur), it was still hard to imagine when and where Marvel would finally fumble the ball when translating one of the company’s hundreds of famous characters into the Cinematic Universe. Still, it’s surprising (and yet, in other ways not) to binge one’s way through an otherwise laudable second season of Marvel’s flagship Netflix venture, Daredevil, and realize that not only has the studio finally failed to spin live-action gold out of one of its top characters, but that the character in question… turns out to be Elektra.
Granted, there’s been more than enough writing pointing out that female characters are often harder to migrate to screen than their male and/or funny talking-animal counterparts. For one thing, you tend to up having to negotiate the baggage that fictional women created by (however well-meaning) men in less enlightened times than our own tend to find themselves saddled with. (Will Melissa Benoist’s Supergirl ever encounter her Earth 2 counterpart Power Girl, who replaced her uniform’s familial “S” emblem with exposed cleavage as a statement of feminist empowerment?) But still, you’d be forgiven for imagining that any showrunner who asked Marvel for use of Elektra Natchios receiving the “okay” in a foam-padded box befitting an especially delicate Faberge egg. Not only is she one of Marvel’s most popular and widely-merchandised female characters, from a certain perspective she’s very nearly the main reason to make a TV show out of Daredevil in the first place.
That may seem a bit unfair to Matt Murdock but the fact is Elektra and the multi-volume storyline that encompassed her debut in the pages of Frank Miller’s landmark Daredevil run were in large part responsible for turning the series from a Marvel also-ran to one of the publisher’s premiere titles (and most celebrated characters). Not only was she a concentrated fusion of Miller’s most fervent fetishes (an “exotic temptress” archetype suffused with film noir femme-fatale attitude, uniquely 80s fear/fascination with Japanese culture by way of ninja fantasy, and an unapologetic aping of the Sand Serif storyline from Will Eisner’s classic Spirit comics), she was also the vessel through which Miller injected his then-radical reconception of what Daredevil should become into the book’s DNA. By retroactively casting her as the previously-unknown key relationship of Matt Murdock’s earlier life, Miller was able to rebuild a character previously defined by the disconnect of his supposed handicap and his upbeat vigilante thrill-seeker costumed life into the hardbitten avatar of old-school Catholic martyrdom complex.
From that description, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the massive overhaul the Netflix/Marvel Cinematic Universe version of the story gives the character is necessary. Miller will go down as a titan in world of comics’ writing, but over the last couple of decades he’s mainly been known for ideologically toxic screeds like Holy Terror (in which a thinly-veiled expy of Batman declares war on Not-Gotham-City’s Muslim population in response to a terrorist attack) and for a succession of female characters crafted as though Freud’s “Madonna-whore complex” was the first and last work on the subject of women in his reference library. All of which sounds like more than enough explanation for why the makers of Daredevil might have decided to do away with her traditional costume, her origin, her backstory, her personality… pretty much everything but the name – which, with those other aspects deleted, is itself robbed of its own mythological/symbolic weight.
The costume was probably always destined for a change. There are plenty of perfectly good ways to excuse its existence (if Matt Murdock can stick a pair of devil horns on his head, Elektra can decide that it’s best that her enemies die knowing the pride she takes in never skipping leg day), but it still easily tops the list of aesthetic touches that likely weren’t going to make the transition. But while every Marvel character has changed a little (or a lot) en route to the screen, never has one changed in so consistently the wrong way as their story has played out. The components of Elektra’s bizarre reimagining range from understandable yet oddly avoidable misjudgements to creative decisions that are downright baffling.
The Elektra readers first encountered in January 1981’s Daredevil #168 was a figure of tragedy befitting her namesake (read your Sophocles, kids). Once the carefree, uninhibited girlfriend who was likely the love of college-age Matt Murdock’s life, she had vanished suddenly following the murder of her father (a wealthy Greek diplomat) by terrorists, leaving Murdock emotionally-scarred and without closure. When she reappears in his adult life, it’s revealed she sought the skills to avenge her father’s death by becoming part of the ancient ninja clan The Hand, and as such the Elektra Murdock meets as Daredevil is now a ruthless, cold-blooded ninja assassin for hire. Worse yet, she’s a major player in a complex inter-gang organized crime war that has drawn legendary criminal mastermind Wilson Fisk, The Kingpin of Crime, back to New York. This places Daredevil in the wrenching position of having to (violently) oppose her activities while also hoping to rescue her from what she’s become – which he ultimately fails at when she’s killed in battle by the costumed assassin Bullseye.
Problematic, to be sure, but as tragic story-arcs go at least she gets to own it. Miller/Marvel’s Elektra’s life may be a long list of unfortunate decisions, but at least they’re hers – born of her own agency and comprising her own identity. In fact, that’s the core of the tragedy on Daredevil’s end: His tortured, self-flagellating moral code can’t rationalize away the evil things Elektra does because there’s nothing external to blame. She is what she is because she’s chosen to be so.
As reimagined for Netflix, just about all of that is gone. Elektra now enters young Murdock’s life as a fully-formed murderous sociopath, and she vanishes on him not because of her father’s death but because he refuses her gift-wrapped opportunity to kill the gangster who murdered his father. When she shows back up in his life, it’s as a jet-setting socialite who’s figured out that he’s Daredevil and wants his help thwarting the interest of Hand agents operating inside her family’s businesses. Where did she pick up her martial-arts skills and association with The Hand to begin with? As it turns out, she’s another pupil of Murdock’s enigmatic, vaguely-mystical blind childhood martial-arts instructor Stick (Scott Glenn) – and, in fact, she has been all along. Everything in her life – from her fighting skills to her adoption by a wealthy childless couple, to her first meeting and relationship with Matt – has all been a series of missions and manipulations by Stick, whose “thing” is recruiting gifted youngsters to be trained as soldiers in a secret centuries old war to prevent The Hand from harnessing the power of something called “The Black Sky” which (one assumes) will eventually take the combined might of The Defenders to fight off two more shows from now.
Elektra is literally not much more than a plot device – a pawn being used in Stick’s plotting. She doesn’t even get to have agency in rejecting that role: In a third act twist that manages to make even less sense than that time she’d actually been an alien imposter for several decades in the comics, it turns out that Stick has been controlling her life in order to thwart her real destiny: “The Black Sky” is Elektra herself, and The Hand intends on making her their personal apocalyptic warrior-queen.
It feels very much like the writers and producers were working from a rough sense of what needed to happen for the season plotwise (break up Nelson & Murdock, dump a metric ton of expository worldbuilding for The Defenders, get to the sex/temptation side of Matt’s seething Catholic guilt, get everyone back on the Ancient Pan-Asia Mysticism train ahead of Iron Fist, put a new supervillain-level threat on deck for later) and then fit a character named for, but only sort-of inspired by, Elektra into the machinery. But along with being a hugely retrograde step backwards in terms of her presence as a noteworthy, mold-breaking female character in the genre, it defeats the entirety of her purpose in the story they’re (sort of) trying to tell.
Like any proper Jezebel figure, Elektra’s role in the Daredevil character-narrative is as a symbol of temptation – which, to be fair, is what the show tries to go for at its midpoint: Staying out late fighting ninjas with his ex keeps ruining Matt’s lawyering, his friendship with Foggy, and his relationship with morally-upright non-assassin romantic prospect Karen. And it’s not just sexual temptation, though that is a key component and the main reason why the traditional costume does actually have importance beyond making Marvel pencilers’ afternoons more bearable. The fact that she visually represents a temptation for Daredevil to abandon his sexual inhibitions is really a literalization of all the other freedoms she invites: Freedom from his difficult moral code (just kill whomever needs to die to fix things), from his responsibilities to his friends, from the same responsibilities to his city, etc. Turning all or even some of that temptation into things she doesn’t embody in and of herself, but is rather just affecting as an agent for Stick? That doesn’t just make her into little more than an Act I James Bond henchwoman, it implicitly lets Daredevil off the hook for his actions.
On its own, that’d be dull writing. In the bigger picture, it’s a spectacular misfire by Marvel in terms of giving one of their all-time great characters a proper existence in their Cinematic Universe. As much as Daredevil’s first season was a flawed creation elevated by one magnificent performance (Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin), season 2 is an overall better work (particularly when it comes to the execution of the Punisher) that’s nearly scuttled by one seriously bad characterization. The only thing sadder than watching the Elektra story limp to the finish is recognizing how hard actress Élodie Yung is struggling against the poor choices that’ve been made on her behalf.
Perhaps there’s still room to right this. The season closes out on the implication that Elektra could return in some potentially more familiar-feeling manner later on. That sort of slow build would be right in line with Daredevil’s sense of pacing, where both Murdock and The Punisher needed an entire season to acquire their respective proper uniforms and Matt’s weaponsmith friend has now spent 26 episodes very gradually morphing into The Gladiator (he’s about 1/3 of the way there as Season 2 wraps up.) But for now Elektra has a very peculiar position to occupy: The first real dud (in terms of individual main characters) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and, worse yet, one that’s likely only to give greater weight to the perception (fair or not) that the studio has a serious problem when it comes to female characters.
Daredevil seasons 1 & 2 and Jessica Jones season 1 are now available on Netflix. Luke Cage season 1 will arrive on September 30th, 2016. Release dates for Jessica Jones season 2, Iron Fist, and The Defenders on Netflix have not yet been announced.