Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Crime/Fighting - Netflix's Daredevil, Reviewed

(As always, spoiler-free!)

I never intended to watch all 13 episodes of Netflix's Daredevil over a single weekend.

It is clear to me, now at least, that my attempt to bolster my lack of self-control when it comes to compulsively completing ongoing narratives by leveraging my 16 year-old daughter was somewhat ill-considered, as we co-enabled our completion of the entire series before bedtime Sunday.  Thankfully, our various commitments over the weekend prevented us from truly binge watching, peaking instead at 5 episodes watched on Saturday.

The fact that both of us felt compelled to finish this initial arc in such a short span of time is probably testimonial enough, but in the event you are on the fence about watching Netflix’s first collaboration with Marvel Studios, let me try to give you an idea what to expect.

Daredevil is significantly darker than any Marvel offering to date, with both language and graphic violence being quite a bit more explicit than the movies.  This is wholly appropriate, given the comics transition in the 1980s (under Frank Miller) from a ‘tights & fights’ offering to a gritty and noir-influenced crime drama that just happened to take place in the Marvel Universe, and centered around a former Spider-Man villain, the Kingpin.  Marvel TV head Jeph Loeb had stated that the goal was to end up somewhere around a ‘PG-15’ rating, and I think they were spot on: no f-bombs or nudity, but there is what feels like an appropriate amount of cursing, given the circumstances, and they do not at all sugar coat what it looks like when someone is beaten to death (or thereabouts).

The casting of Charlie Cox as blind attorney Matt Murdock and his vigilante alter ego Daredevil caught me by surprise, but he brings the goods, balancing rage with compassion, Matt’s love of law with his ruthless application of justice, and his tremendous special abilities with an almost tragic vulnerability.  Deborah Ann Woll (True Blood) enters the story as a victim, but Karen Page's need to set things right and prevent others from being hurt drives the story forward, putting the inevitable love interest potential on simmer, rather than boil, and keeping her from just being a damsel in distress.  Matt’s law partner and best friend, Franklin “Foggy” Nelson, is portrayed by Elden Henson, who brings a lot of humour to the role, as is natural.  He is also quite convincing in the scenes where he has to portray an effective and committed lawyer, and is quite a bit more capable and less hapless than his comic book counterpart.

These three roles form the tripod that the series rests upon, and it is exceptionally stable.  When they come into opposition with each other, the effects range from unsettling to completely heartbreaking.

In terms of acting, however, Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk (never actually referred to as the Kingpin) is absolutely spellbinding.  They take their time in revealing him, and make it very clear early on that he is a ruthless and intelligent crimelord, leading an unlikely alliance between Chinese triads, Russian mobsters and Japanese criminals presented as yakuza, but who are more likely the infamous ninja clan The Hand from the comics.  At a little more than 6’3” and having putt on a little weight for the role, D’Onofrio has both the imposing presence and compelling charisma Fisk’s portrayal requires, and when he finally allows himself to supplant his reason with rage, it is terrifying.

But far more telling than this is the considerable vulnerability and shyness he brings; the furtive glances, the uncomfortable way his mouth moves when he is trying to actually converse with someone as opposed to simply giving orders, the uncertainty when he is dealing with an attractive woman.  When Fisk’s tragic backstory is revealed, viewers are forced to reconcile the relentless monster he is with the tortured youth he once was, humanizing a character who does some truly inhuman things, and D’Onofrio swings between these disparate elements with ease and grace.

Great work is also done by Vondie Curtis-Hall as reporter Ben Urich and Scott Glenn as Matt's blind warrior mentor Stick, but even among these worthies, D'Onofrio is a stand out.

Having a villain motivated by something outside of wealth or power can make for a compelling story, and the multiple elements and perspectives about what is best for Hell’s Kitchen leaves Daredevil having more in common with HBO’s brilliant The Wire than most of the superhero television that has preceded it. 

They also make effective use of flashbacks to flesh out the backstory for both Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk, similar to Lost or Arrow, making the 13 episodes feel less like an origin story than a tipping point in the lives of two dangerous men.

Some of the best moments in the series are Matt’s sessions with Father Lantom, a somewhat familiar face in Marvel Comics (Cloak & Dagger, Runaways), both within the confessional and over the occasional latté, about the nature of good and evil, and how far a good person should go in bringing justice to someone who has set themselves above it.  The 2003 Daredevil movie with Ben Affleck lost a lot of us (myself included) very early in the film, when the title character not only callously allows someone he has been fighting to get run over by a train, but taunts them about it.  Heroism is almost completely absent from the film, whereas Netflix’s Matt Murdock wrestles with his conscience throughout the movie in true Catholic fashion, along with his guilt at involving those he cares for in his battles, and moral conflict is the order of the day.

For most of the episodes, Daredevil would not appear to casual viewers like it is based on a comic book: the classic costume is absent for almost the entire series, with Matt choosing a black bandana mask and sap gloves instead for his violent interactions with NYC’s underworld.  The villains don’t wear masks or even have colourful nicknames, so Leland Owlsley is a corrupt accountant instead of a violent gangster called The Owl.

The fight scenes, however, more than make up for this.  Powerful, fast, imaginative and acrobatic, they combine graceful martial arts like tae kwon do and capoeira with the sweet science of boxing, liberally salting both with mixed martial arts and straight-up brawler moves like head butts.  Brutal but captivating and effective, and I hope the producers of CW’s Arrow are prepared to up their game, especially after watching one action sequence from an early episode in a hallway that runs over four minutes long with no obvious cuts.

Overall, the series keeps up a steady pace, especially considering that Matt Murdock has neither body armour nor healing factor, and actually needs to heal between some of his battles.  During one of these recoveries, however, things slow down a little too much, although they use this time very effectively in terms of exploring conflict between the main allied characters.  Had I been watching an episode a week like a saner person, this might have been more noticeable, but with the next installment waiting immediately after the conclusion of the current one, it was pretty easy to overcome.

Speaking of pacing, some will undoubtedly (and understandably) find it regrettable that the iconic costume barely appears in this series, but at least it looks good when it gets there.   It takes a lot of cues from Chris Nolan's Dark Knight armour as well as Captain America's suit from The Winter Soldier.  The trademark DD from the comic version is missing, but the point of this costume is not branding, but protection, intimidation, and symbology; a guardian devil for Hell's Kitchen.

Fan Service
I actually missed Stan Lee’s cameo, as it was done with a photo on the wall of a police precinct, and there are very few overt references to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe outside of some clippings referring to the Battle of New York (which I had hoped would be from the Daily Bugle), but linkages to both the comics and future Netflix series are there:
  • Fogwell’s Gym, where Matt surreptitiously works out, comes straight out of the pages of Daredevil #1.
  • A poster in the gym shows Matt's father, Battlin’ Jack Murdock, fought Carl ‘Crusher’ Creel at some point, probably prior to his becoming the Absorbing Man on Agents of SHIELD.
  • Roxxon Oil, most recently seen in Agent Peggy Carter, makes a brief appearance as Marvel’s ominous and often evil Big Oil outfit.
  • A red-hooded warrior with a hooked knife on a chain is a direct reference to not only infamous ninja clan/death cult The Hand, but a visual callback of Frank Miller’s depiction of their exotic weaponry from his run on the comic three decades back.
  • After Vanessa describes a former lover's outfit to Fisk, he replies, jealously, "A white suit and ascot?  That's a bit much, isn't it?", belying the fact that the comic book version of the Kingpin dressed just like this for years.
  • A college flashback shows Foggy chiding Matt about his relationship with “that Greek girl” can only be a reference to the infamous assassin and occasional love interest Elektra.
  • The window sign across the hall from Nelson & Murdock, Atlas Investments, shares a name and logo with Marvel’s predecessor, Atlas Comics.
  • Underworld haberdasher Melvin Potter has a board on the wall displaying the logo he wears in the comics as villain The Gladiator.
  • In addition to some weaponized sawblade designs on his workbench, Melvin also appears to have some prototype extendable legs for Stilt Man in his shop.
  • Paper packets of heroin have a snake sigil known as ‘Steel Serpent’ which is likely to play a role in Netflix’s upcoming Iron Fist series.
(Once you’ve seen the series, you can look up even more easter eggs here!)

Response to the Netflix Daredevil series has been very favourable (9.3 on iMDB, with over 20,000 raters), and demand apparently crashed their servers this weekend.  Many people are calling this their favourite Marvel iteration to date, and I do have to agree that a street-level crime drama/adventure like this is far, far better served on the small screen than the silver.  With 13 hours to outline motivations, highlight future tensions, identify both internal and external conflict, a far more robust story can be told in this television format than in the two hours or so provided by a movie.

Daredevil is one of the first comics I collected as a teenager, starting with the re-relling of his origin in issue 164.  The dichotomy of lawyer by day, vigilante by night, and one man’s struggle to balance out these two disparate approaches to the singular goal of justice, was as intriguing and compelling to me as the outlandish characters he fought.  Charlie Cox and company have created something that draws a bit more heavily from the darker and grittier iteration of the character so prevalent in the ‘90s Marvel Knights era, but still do justice to the character, and without losing sight of Daredevil’s core morality.  

The showrunners, including Whedonverse alumni Steve S. DeKnight and Drew Goddard, have woven together threads from a brilliant comics heritage and the best of modern televised storytelling to create a tapestry accessible to not just comic fans, but everyone who likes their TV a little darker, but not completely without hope (Walking Dead, I am looking at you!).  I give Daredevil my highest recommendation, whether you binge-watch it, or view it at a more reasonable pace.

The best part about Daredevil, to me, is how much they didn’t do: no mention of ol’ hornhead’s greatest nemesis, Bullseye, no sign of Elektra, no overt superpowers.  There is tremendous potential to be explored here, not just in Miller’s defining run, but in subsequent works by Mark Waid, Brian Michael Bendis, and Ed Brubaker; I would love to see the trial of White Tiger played out on screen, combining a terse courtroom drama with costumed characters battling it out behind the scenes. Hopefully Netflix doesn’t take too long before announcing a second season of Daredevil.

Netflix’s next Marvel venture is the much lesser known AKA Jessica Jones, about a woman with super powers who finds she can’t cut it as a costumed hero and becomes a private investigator instead.  This will be followed by bad neighbourhood good guy Luke Cage (Power Man) and then kung fu adventurer Iron Fist.  Eventually these characters should find themselves drawn together in a Defenders series, similar to how the MCU movies culminated with The Avengers (perhaps with Rosario Dawson’s nurse character Claire Temple serving as the Phil Coulson of Hell's Kitchen?), but current rumours have these shows coming about a year apart. Perhaps Joss Whedon, loving television as he does, might consider taking a turn at the wheel of one of these, now that he is wrapping up his involvement with Marvel movies after Age of Ultron.

Either way, we will need to be patient, but given the care and quality that has been applied to these properties, I'm certainly willing to do so.  Besides, to tide us over we have the Avengers sequel next month, Ant-Man in July, and Agents of SHIELD in the meantime (with a possible spin-off in the works).

It’s a great time to be a Marvel fan, even on the darker side of the street.

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