Marvel’s Daredevil features a beautiful red opening title sequence. Red is Daredevil’s signature color, so you think the entire show would be drenched in it, but excepting the opening titles, it’s not. The color palette of the show is a base of blue and black, with highlights of sodium yellow and bilious green. Shadows are deep and stark, often creating frames like comic book cells, with what little is revealed by the stark lighting cast in sickly, sallow tones. Hell’s Kitchen is not a welcoming place—this is not Tony Stark’s sun-drenched Malibu or the gleaming, bright world of the Avengers. The streets Daredevil patrols are murky and darkness looms around the edges of the frame, obliterating what little light trickles down to the street.
But red—bright, bloody splashes of it—keep popping up. Blinded as a child, we get only a brief glimpse of what the world looks like to Matt thanks to his enhanced senses. He describes it as a “world on fire”, and that is what we see for just a moment—a world lit up in shades of red and orange, a world literally on fire. But once he becomes a vigilante, the red that is Matt Murdock’s vision of the world begins bleeding into the reality of the criminals that are sucking his neighborhood dry.
It starts with the confrontations—every time “the man in the mask” fights someone, red finds its way into frame. In the second episode, there is a spectacular fight sequence in a hallway. When Matt, wearing his homemade black ninja costume, enters the hallway, a red “exit” sign glows over his shoulder. The rest of the scene is done in the show’s signature yellow and green with deep shadows, but that little red sign glows in the background. After the fight is over and Daredevil goes to rescue a kidnap victim, he opens a door to reveal a wash of red light, which backlights him as he carries the boy to safety. It doesn’t light up the whole hallway, but it’s there behind the door, signifying Daredevil’s victory. The war is not won, but this battle belongs to Daredevil.
The further down his path toward becoming Daredevil Matt Murdock goes, the more frequently red emerges in his world. At the beginning of the show the law office of Nelson & Murdock is colorless and non-descript; at the end a wide shot reveals that the building sports bright red lentils around the door, on which Foggy Nelson and Matt mount their office sign. Similarly, in the montage depicting the string of arrests following the collapse of Wilson Fisk’s criminal empire, each person arrested is framed with the color red in the scene. Red is Daredevil’s thumbprint, and as his reputation grows and he successfully removes criminals from the street, red spreads throughout the city like a stain.
Conversely, there is no red in the world of Wilson Fisk, Daredevil’s arch-nemesis. Fisk never wears red, his penthouse apartment is achromatic—his favorite pastime is staring at white walls. The only time red makes a significant appearance in Fisk’s orbit is in episode five, unsubtly titled “World On Fire”, in which Vanessa, Fisk’s crush object, wears a red dress to dinner the night that Fisk blows Hell’s Kitchen up. That’s also the night that Vanessa commits to Fisk, cementing her role as his partner. After that, she favors white, Fisk’s signature color; she never wears red again.
But red is not exclusively Daredevil’s mark. Nobu, the Yakuza boss who nearly kills Matt in a confrontation, wears a red gi while they fight. Matt is haunted by nightmares of the red ninja—perhaps a very subtle foreshadowing of Elektra?—but ultimately he embraces red as his own color when he dons Daredevil’s famous red suit. His father, Battlin’ Jack Murdock, wore a red boxing kit, which undoubtedly influenced his preference, but there’s also an element of taking that power for himself. Red is symbolic of fear and retribution, the very things Daredevil wants to imprint upon his enemies. He takes red for himself, becoming to others what Nobu is to him.
Red never dominates the frame in Daredevil, but that makes it all the more effective when it does pop up. In the final episode after Fisk has been recaptured and Vanessa flees, she is pictured across the river from Manhattan. In the background, over Manhattan, a giant red sign glows brightly against the stark black background of the city at night. There is no clearer instance of red signaling a Daredevil victory than this, a red beacon over his city after Fisk’s fall. Over the course of the season Daredevil’s red light spreads from small glimpses behind dark doors to burning brightly over the city, as he embraces his devil persona and dons the red suit. Red is the devil is fear and retribution—Daredevil is red is fear and retribution.