“Yellow is visually powerful. It’s a good choice for a character who is both daring and exuberant. It’s a color that, once seen, tends to stay in your consciousness.”
–Patti Bellantoni, If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die: The Power of Color in Visual Storytelling
Ever since I first watched Marvel’s Daredevil, I have been both baffled and intrigued by the show’s lighting and use of color. I would tell friends, “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” strangely attracted to the harsh neon tones and tinges throughout the series. Of course, this was around six months ago, amidst my immediate binging of the series (like any responsible Marvel-loving Netflix user would) upon its release. More recently I have decided to rewatch Daredevil with special attention to its cinematography, tweeting around four stills that stand out to me each episode. I am currently five episodes in — while the lighting and composition are obviously important, the color patterns are truly fascinating to me.
With that, I’ll jump right in.
POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT
Episode one starts to lay some groundwork with the color choices. Neon yellow and neon olive, as demonstrated by the still from the boxing gym (bottom right), permeate Daredevil‘s visuals. As I watched, it became more and more apparent that YELLOW gives Matt Murdock and the Daredevil persona POWER. When in this color’s presence, Daredevil and company are secure and in charge of the given situation. This is exemplified in the boxing gym scene as Murdock demonstrates his power and prowess, as well as his ability to harness his rage and use it as a weapon.
However, the cold blues and whites in, say, the accident scene (top left) tell a different story. Blue is everything that is wrong with Hell’s Kitchen. When faced with this visually sterile and chilling palette, the heroes are out of their element. Blue and white lend themselves to the wicked, the criminals, and (wait for it…) The Kingpin.
In episode two, the neon olive/yellow hits you full force. The two stills that I selected of Daredevil (top and bottom right) exemplify this perfectly. In the close-up (top right), the neon light illumiates the edge of his face and neck. Again, as he interrogates a captive Russian gangster, Daredevil is in control. The tables have turned from just earlier, when he was bleeding out in a stranger’s dumpster. Now Daredevil is back in charge. The second image (bottom right), builds upon this concept. As Daredevil stands at the end of a hallway before single-handedly defeating an entire squad of Russian gangsters, the color completely engulfs him.
I have not quite figured out the color red yet — but notice Karen’s face in the bar scene (top left). As Karen confesses her fear of the city to Foggy, cool tones rest on her face. For now, it has taken hold of her.
I have to admit, episode three threw me for a loop. Breaking away from previous trends, a majority of this section was virtually devoid of color. It was mostly white and desaturated, with hints of cooler tones here and there. In addition, a lot of the shots isolated the heroes by framing them in window frames and boxes, sometimes separating multiple characters within one shot. It was not until the episode’s conclusion that I had my realization. One of the first shots of the Kingpin, or Wilson Fiske, (not shown above) places him in the middle of a completely white painting, referred to as “Rabbit in a Snowstorm.” When asked how the painting makes him feel, Fiske replies, “It makes me feel alone.” This was my eureka moment! The entire episode, absent of color and filled with isolating cinematography, was building up towards the introduction of Daredevil’s main villain. As the episode goes on, this feeling creeps up on you, before finally slapping your face the episode’s final scene.
The stills I selected for episode four continue to build upon previously established trends. Yellow and neon olive color schemes follow the protagonists. In Murdock’s apartment (bottom left), the windows are glaring with oversaturated color. This makes sense — the apartment is his safe haven and his home. Similar, albeit more muted, colors make their way into Claire’s apartment (top left) for related reasons.
Episode five — villainy is clearly afoot. Three of the four selected frames feature desaturated and cool color schemes. The Russian gangster’s office (top left) is the most blatant example of the malintent that blue represents. Fiske’s dinner (bottom left) is much more subtle, however, with absence of color indoors as he watches the city burn.
The top right frame, Murdock inside the police station, is possibly the most interesting. While there are some good officers at the station, many of them are corrupt and on Fiske’s payroll. Similarly, while there may be a faint yellow background in this shot, cool blue tones flood the foreground and Murdock’s face. He is in the lion’s den. An interesting note is the purple poster over his shoulder, featuring a clever caption. As Patti Bellantoni writes in her book If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die: The Power of Color in Visual Storytelling… well, you get the picture. Two of Fiske’s men are about to commit murder in the next room.
In the final selected shot (bottom right), Daredevil is back in business and has the upper hand as he questions one of Fiske’s officers. Neon olive abounds!
Episode six is as far as I have gotten as of now, and it did not disappoint. At the beginning of the episode (the top left frame), Daredevil is in control as usual, having saved his target from execution by a group of corrupt police officers. However, things quickly spiral out of control. Before long, he finds himself cornered in an abandoned building, without much hope of escape. The tables have turned and Fiske takes the upper hand. The top right and bottom right stills, appropriately chilling and blue, demonstrate this shift in power perfectly. For the entirely of Murdock’s struggle, cool tones overwhelm the frame. It is not until the episode’s end (bottom left), when Daredevil makes a lucky escape, that the neon olive pseudo-warmth returns.
I will no doubt continue to explore these color themes as I progress deeper into the series. It has been both fascinating and exciting to see my theories and realizations materialize on screen — I’m definitely learning a lot about color as a storytelling tool through this exercise. I can tell you one thing: Daredevil may be blind, but the people making the show most definitely are not.
EDIT: Thank you to Marc Weilage for pointing out that I should also credit Tony D'Amore and Kevin Krout for their work as colorists on Daredevil, for without them this bold look would not have been possible.