I still remember that good ol’ day in 2013 when we were all eager over the idea of an interconnected Marvel TV universe. They’d tease us with that good smelling whiff of Daredevil in 2015; the bone breaking, red spandexed, devil in a mask who self-loathed as well as any. The neo-noir hard-drinking Jessica Jones continued the self-loathing tradition, followed by the more upbeat blaxploitation vibes of Luke Cage— Iron Fist, was just loathed. All of these shows were criticized for being too much a slow burn, for having unnecessary episodes, something Netflix VP of original programming Cindy Holland admitted was an issue, saying they were contractually bound to 13-episode seasons.
Step forward to 2016 and onwards, and we’ve got origin stories put to the wayside in favour of character building arcs. Pacing became far more of an issue here as established characters returned in need of a clearer reason to exist within a similar stretch, and that’s when things went sour; stories felt long, and entire shows got cancelled.
We’re now entering the release of season three of Daredevil on Friday, following the events of the previous season that introduced the psychologically bent Punisher into the equation. Having seen it, I took the chance to speak to Erik Oleson—first timer with the series and previous co-executive producer on Arrow—about how he created, in my opinion, is one of the most strongest seasons of any Marvel show to date. One that embraces its dark themes all the way to a ground level while keeping them there, free of fluff and confusion.
As I asked Oleson about his inspirations for the new season, it surprisingly went somewhere political.
VICE: This may be the first Marvel property that I have to say, feels like prestige TV, and it’s very heavy. It covers topics like suicide, fear, corruption with few smiles in between. I want to know what you learned from past seasons that affected this one tonelly.
Erik Oleson: The great thing about this season was being able to stand on the shoulders of giants. What creator Drew Goddard and season one showrunner Stephen S. DeKnight among past creators touched on in previous seasons set the table up. So when coming in to take over, Jeff Loe and Marvel had all these grand ideas and shiny little toys that were placed in front of me, if that’s what I wanted to do. The return of Wilson Fisk among other things. So honestly, it was an embarrassment of riches, where I walked in the door and there were these things about the show that I already loved, and the things I wanted to include with the kind of style I apply to my writing. I remember when I came in, I told everyone that I was aiming somewhere between season one of Daredevil and The Sopranos. That meant deep, layered character drama that treated every single character of the show like a protagonist of their own story, as opposed to a sidekick.
I wanted time to develop these characters honestly, and what I mean by that, is emotional honesty. We had to experience the events that were happening as opposed to watching it from the outside. My ideas were specific to achieving that in writing, but also down to how I asked directors to film specific episodes, or how I had photographers photograph the episodes. It was in the edit room, and among the production design, all those elements needed to tie together.
That’s a pretty bold ownership of the material.
It was based on what Marvel allowed me to do. I wanted season three to be my run of the show and comics, much like the way that writers Frank Miller and Kevin Smith had their run of the strips. I aimed to own it in the same way, and I received the support I needed. For example, I was never going to do a show where the action sequences were standalone musical numbers that were cool and spectacular but with no impact on the storyline, because you already knew the good guys were going to win before it they even started. That to me just isn’t good writing. The best kind of television considers every beat as a change in direction of the story, and when you don’t pay attention, or if characters didn’t change what they do, the story would turn out differently. I tried to spend a lot of time thinking structurally about the season. I knew about the criticisms of other shows at Netflix feeling like filler episodes, with scenes and storylines that don’t go anywhere and only take up time. There had to be a reason and payoff to everything.
Yeah, and we’ve seen this show go through some different phases and identities. Going in, what did you want Daredevil to primarily be about?
First of all, it had to be an emotionally honest season. I needed to treat characters as if the events of the show were happening to real living and breathing human beings who were going to actually have honest, emotional reactions to everything that occured. I wasn’t here to treat them like props and push them around the screen through scenes without getting inside their heads like I would real people. And of course, I had the blessings of an insanely talented cast here. Actors who I’ll say, are on par with any other actors on any premium show out there. They needed meaty scenes, and they needed the allowance to be good and show colours.
That’s the secret to building that bond between characters on screen and an audience, like when you let Walter White just be Walter White in the quiet moments. Or when Tony Soprano just pours himself a bowl of cereal, staring out the kitchen window. Those are the moments that remind you that these people are going through an experience that feels real.
But where did this mindset around fear come from, just as an observer. Because it worked in a way that different for a Marvel show. Especially with the comic book-y storylines we get that lack consequences.
Well I had a guiding principle, and controlling idea for the season. On the writer’s room wall, I wrote, we can only be free when we confront our fears, because our fears are what enslave us. What I meant was, every person, whether conscious of it or not, are afraid of certain things. It informs the way we behave in the outside world. It may be the fear that we’re not worthy of love, that we’ve failed in our goals in life, that we’re not getting the recognition we feel we deserve, or the real fear of the other. There are narcissistic villians out in our world as we all know, who prey on and stoke those fears in a way that puts people against each other in the name of political power or what not. It’s happening everywhere. In Wilson Fisk, I had this villian who is an expert manipulator. Someone who understands how to play to the insecurities and fears of people to attain what he wants.
So it’s about human behaviours then. Because I always loved Matt as a character who lost. And it seems like a growing theme to have our fictional heroes question their purpose through that. I assume the same applies to Matt Murdock.
Yeah, I just saw obvious parallels to the people in our American life today. And I wanted to be prescriptive in how to overcome a personality like that who is employing the techniques of psychological warfare to turn people against themselves and their friends. That solution is the a power of the free press, the power of the law, and the use of collective action of faith, love and friendship to overcome that. It’s the guiding principle to every character storyline, and in relation to that, every character this season is driven by a fear which may or may not be conscious of that fuels their behaviour. When that’s noticed by an audience, every single one of these characters then becomes a human being. Sure, Daredevil might be a man without fear, but it’s just a symbol. Matt Murdock the man absolutely fears, and is absolutely driven by that emotion. Those themes really allowed me to give a thematic unity to the season, and it says something about the world we’re living in right now.
It’s great that Marvel gave you the freedom to express this way.
Well when you think about it, Marvel has always been an organization that used comics to talk to the times. The best comics from Marvel did this and reminded readers about what our core human values were that made us the best versions of ourselves. The angels on our shoulder rather then the devils. And now, we’re living in an unfortunate time when the worst versions of ourselves, like fear, is being used to psychologically manipulate us to go at each other. I’m not just talking domestically here, I’m talking around the world. It’s for the very reasons that will naturally weaken our society and democratic institutions. I very much wanted to explore that idea and ask questions about fear. I want viewers of the new season to ask themselves about what they fear, and if that’s the reason why they don’t like that person or vote a certain way. I really wanted this show to be a part of the conversation.
I’m just surprised that you’re able to be so open about your feelings politically. It’s pretty damn refreshing.
Yeah, and then you’ll publish this all, and then I’ll get fired, and so on (laughs).
Nah, I’m sure you’ll be fine. I just think we need more honesty these days. it’s why we love a good villain so much. Whether it was Thanos, Killmonger, they shape our best stories because they represent an honesty. How great was it to get Fisk back?
Oh, it was awesome. Wilson Fisk himself allowed me to go deep and introspective with many of the other characters in our ensemble. Vincent D’Onofrio is just off the charts brilliant. We’ve seen his criminal mastermind of a character in season one, but I needed to give him a battery of new tools. I don’t know if anyone told you this, but my father was an assistant director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, he worked at the CIA, and he just wrote a book with Robert Gates, the former secretary of defense and director of the CIA.
OK, that really explains your views lot actually.
(Laughs) Yeah, my dad is kind of an expert in the intelligence business, and I grew up around all that. So I very much wanted to give Fisk that toolbox, and draw this character in a realistic, and very manipulatively fearful sort of way. This is all based on real life, and I’m employing real tradecraft and spy techniques that are used by everyone from our own intelligence services to Vladimir Putin, where conditions in the world cannot happen without their fingerprints on them. So Fisk, at arms length, can have crimes and events happen without any provable ways for them to be tied back to him. And again, I’m also just observing, as someone that watches news on a daily basis, that the American public, and any of any Western democracy is under attack with intentional informational and psychological warfare tactics. The same villains who play into that exist in real life and in fiction.
And then there’s Bullseye who you dedicated an entire episode to rooted in trauma. Was that difficult to shape? Because aside from a couple of comic strips, the original character doesn’t have a fixed origin story.
Oh man, I absolutely loved the fact that I was given the ability to craft a backstory for Bullseye that felt deeper and psychologically realistic. I just love origin stories. And again, in keeping with the overall theme of the show, I looked at this FBI agent, Benjamin Poindexter as someone who was teetering on the edge of light and dark. This person who could have continued to keep his demons in check as a functionally good guy. And an agent that would protect and serve the public if he just stayed on the right side of the law if he wasn’t swayed by a narcissistic tyrant who drew him to the dark side.
I know I’m head back to this man, but just looking around our world right now, there are plenty of good people being drawn to that same dark side, and it’s very disturbing to me that those who would otherwise be good are marching through Charlottesville with Tiki torches. When you have personalities that bring out the worst in people, it’s dangerous to all of us. I wanted to express that same feeling with Benjamin, who of course gets drawn into his own spider web with Wilson Fisk. He can never be a good guy given what he’s done.
I gotta ask, do you find it a responsibility to use your artform to address the world’s issues? You obviously want to express something here.
Well you know, I try hard not to be soap boxy or preachy, but I think any artist, writer, painter, actor or anyone living through a time like the one we’re living in right now have an opportunity to say something positive and be a part of the solution. Look, I grew up in a political family with a Republican dad and Democratic mom in the DC suburbs. I’m not blind to what’s happening in the world. And there are a lot of folks who are marching in protests right now as I was given the helm of a Marvel flagship show. I yeah, I had a unique way of putting my ideas in front of tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of people.
I wanted to say something that asked people to question their fears. Because when you’re acting out of fear, you’re not being your best self. Listen, you can tell I’m trying to dance around naming names here man (laughs). I just needed to be a positive part of the conversation, because I’m honestly sad about the state of things right now, where families are divided among political faultlines. We all have so much more common than we have apart, but those who are using it as a way to wedge us apart are not in the interests of any of us. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t use Daredevil to work through some of my own issues around that.
Well moving onto lighter stuff, we need to talk about that one-shot scene that people will be talking about for a long time. How in the world did you do this?
Haha, oh man, we had this epic fight sequence planned for that certain prison sequence in episode four, but it was guest director Alex Garcia Lopez, working with the writer, Charlie Cox’s stunt, Chris Brewster and Charlie. So Alex brings this insane idea to me that we do this gigantic sequence which had multiple little scenes in it as a one shot. So that meant, I had to call up Marvel, who didn’t think I’d let him do it by the way, and tell them, ‘hey guys, we’re going to stop filming for a day, so that the crew can research a single shot action sequence that goes on for 11 and a half minutes. It was just nuts. But to Marvel’s credit, they gave us the greenlight.
Man, this was insanely ambitious which required close coordination between Charlie Cox and his stunt double. It involved multiple stunt players, an entire crew that needed to light, shoot, hide microphones, weave in and out of scenes, while filming this gigantic sequence that shifts through multiple locations, with a dramatic exchange in the middle before heading into more action, exterior etc. It was nuts. Insane. And I’ll tell you, Charlie Cox and I hold it up as the most impressive sequence we’ve been a part of in our entire careers. It added this shot of adrenalin into the crew like you have no idea. When they pulled this off, the morale went through the roof and stayed there all season long. My one regret was that I was in the writers office when it happened, and I only heard the cheers four thousand miles away when it was completed. No one at Marvel got work done that day.
Yeah, I think it beats that one-shot from True Detective .
Well hey man, one thing I gotta make clear is that this was a true one-er. There weren’t any hidden cuts. In post production, I actually lit the dark hallway so that the audience would see that we weren’t hiding a thing. It’s actually a true single shot...man, if our stunt team isn’t nominated for an Emmy for that...I’m seriously going to cry.
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