[Review] - Daredevil, Season 1



It would appear that Agents of SHIELD is once again the exception, not the rule. Agent Carter suggested that Marvel was better at making TV shows then SHIELD suggests on a weekly basis, and Daredevil, the first in the Netflix original Defenders series, confirms that. Marvel is good at adapting their properties to the visual medium, so long as the people behind the scenes are talented and have an interest in what they are doing. The people responsible for Daredevil are talented, and clearly have an interest in what they are doing.

Daredevil is the best Batman series we ever could have hoped for. I don't say that to be reductive, or crass, or comparative. It just that, when I think about what DC could be doing with their properties, and with batman in particular, how Daredevil turned out is practically identical to how I picture a modern Bat-series. And it makes sense: Daredevil is the Marvel Batman. Not Iron Man, as many people claim. Tony Stark shares very little in common with Bruce Wayne. Matt Murdock shares practically everything. And so, the influences of Nolan's Dark Knight are plain in this handling of the Devil of Hell's Kitchen. Often, too plain. But, the series manages to avoid becoming a stale clone of the "dark and gritty" subgenre by focusing on the characters, making them believable and relatable and sympathetic, across the board. Mostly strong writing, very strong directing and a unified style throughout, and exemplary acting knock Daredevil into the upper tier of the MCU, and make me increasingly excited to see what the other Netflix series will turn out like.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that blow harder the closer you get to the mountaintop.

Again, I find myself feeling kind of bad for Drew Goddard. Still credited as the series creator, and writer for the first two episodes, this series was apparently the culmination of a life long dream. Which he left when Sony promised him the Sinister Six, during the heady days of Amazing Spider-man 2's pre-release, before no one outside of Sony and Marvel expected that ASM2 was going to sink the ship. Now, he might get a chance to work on the MCU Spidey reboot, but I can't help but feel, now having seen the finished product of the series and character that he began, that he's probably wishing that he'd stayed where he was. And how different a series might that have been? I can't say, though I expect not by much. His first two episodes set the mood pretty definitively, and the only major fluctuation in the aftermath was a slight reduction in the quality of the writing.

I say slight, because the acting in this series makes up for any faltering in the scripts. When marvel cast this series, they hit it out of the park. There isn't a single actor involved who isn't perfectly suited to their role, and doesn't give their roles everything the characters deserve. There isn't anyone, from the main cast down to one-off guest roles, that I would deem inadequate or disinterested in what they are doing. Charlie Cox of course gets the most screen time, but he is also expected to do the least obvious work. Matt is a tormented character, but he's also a stoic one, internalizing the majority of his suffering. Yet, he never feels stiff. With only occasional outbursts, but mostly relying on voice fluctuations and body language, he imparts to the audience everything they need to know about how he is feeling. It might have been easy to roll up inside the character and let him be the stick-up-the-ass party pooper, but Matt has a real and dynamic personality that he chooses to rarely show. And the few times, and the few people he does reveal his honest self to feel all the more earned and true because of it. Certainly, Cox's role is more physical than most of the other characters, but he doesn't hide behind that either.

If Daredevil is an indictment of anything in the MCU, it is the tendency for the film's characters to be one or two dimensional. Tony and Thor and Bruce, they have their personalities and rarely show progression beyond them. Only Cap has shown any true depth of being. This series makes them all look like cardboard cut outs. Every character here is imbued with subtly, desire, disgust, intent, disinterest and passion. Netflix is cultivating a nice reputation for being the source of the best characters in TV, and this series doesn't disappoint. None of the characters, except perhaps a few of the most minor ones, and especially the media characters, fall back on cliche. And the most dynamic, engrossing and rounded of all of them is Wilson Fisk. I expected, when they cast Vincent D'Onofrio that we'd be in for something special, but I wasn't prepared for what we actually received. His Fisk is not a lumbering goon. Nor is he a God hovering above everyone else. Fisk may well be the most fully realized villain since the premiere of Hannibal. He is genuinely sympathetic and even likable. He is a shy, soft spoken, introverted and damaged man who is repelled at the idea of exposing himself, physically or emotionally, for fear of rejection. And, he happens to have an uncontrollable temper and a tendency to overreact in moments of passion. But, throughout, you understand his position.

In fact, the greatest triumph of the series might well be that there isn't a unreasonable position among any of the characters. Every single one takes action, and those actions are so reasonably explained that the audience can't help but think, "yeah, OK, I understand exactly why they feel they have to do that." And none so more than Fisk. But Matt's logic is as individually as credible as Fisk's, or Leland's, or Karen's. The only character that fails to ring true throughout the entirety of the series is Ben Ulrich. House of Cards has the same problem, in that it can never figure out exactly what to do with the media character. You understand why they are included - an investigation would occur at some level, and if police aren't involved (or corrupt) it would fall to the press. But Ulrich never really develops beyond standard newsman tropes. He has an editor blocking his stories, he's receiving threats from those he's investigating, his best days are behind him and he's at a personal and emotional crossroads. Pairing him with Karen allows her story to progress, and nicely takes the investigative onus off of Matt's shoulders entirely, but Ulrich feels like he's there mostly because he's closely associated in the canon, not because he's achieving anything himself.

His death is also hollow. I have very particular opinions about the purpose of death in fiction, and Ulrich's meets none of them. If it is meant to establish Fisk as a physical danger, they managed that at the start of the season, when he takes a guy's head off with a door. If it is meant to provide Nelson and Murdock the motivation to take Fisk down, they already had that, individually and collectively. If it was meant to Provide an emotional gut punch, the death of Mrs. Cardenas had a far more profound effect on every, especially Karen, who was closest to both characters. Mostly, I expect that Ulrich was dispatched to give episode 12 a shocking moment to end on, and the writers saw that Ulrich, as a character, was a dead end of their own making, and the best way to fix their mistake was to wipe clean the board. Steven S. DeKnight, the showrunner who took over for Goddard, as went on record as saying if the Spider-man deal had went through earlier, the Bulletin would have been the Bugle, and part of me wonders if the Bugle might still appear in season two if media covered is called for.

Alternatively, the greatest surprise of the series is very likely Foggy, as played by Elden Henson. Foggy was a character I was expecting nothing from, as he's generally a character that is ignored, or sidelined, or used to fulfill the plucky sidekick role. The writers did a marvelous job at bringing him honestly to the forefront, making him an integral part of the show, and earning his first named-place on the law office sign. he filled the role of audience surrogate in a lot of ways, mirroring the reactions of the audience, and expressing in universe what we were likely shouting at our screens. He was also the comedic relief, though as part of the well-roundedness of the characters, humour was the domain of everyone, as was pensive sadness. But Foggy was clearly written to be funnier then everyone else, though in a way that makes it clear he's hiding his own anxieties behind it. He's a "talks when he's nervous" kind of guy, someone most of us can relate to, I think. It also humanizes the most innocent and human of the characters, and likely the most genuine of the bunch. He claims to be in it for money, fame and women, but he's the least selfish character in terms of action.

The series isn't big on nuance, though it balances that by being very good a building tension and plot. So where subtly fails, it makes up for it in cleverness. Fisk wears black suits, compared to Vanessa's white dresses. There are very obvious lines regarding the condition of Matt's costume. Fisk's crime syndicate hits the head of every mob cliche and trope going. But, it counters these by having Fisk's operation reasonable impenetrable, making Matt's systematic approach to taking him down believable, and able to stretch the length of the series without feeling decompressed or plodding. It imparts exactly the right impression that Matt is putting real effort into taking Fisk down, and that while every door knocked down leads to another door, the hall is leading someone. Of course, there are some plot lines that don't go anywhere. Claire (Rosario Dawson) is an instantly likable character who get shunted into love interest territory, then out, then disappears completely. Happily, they managed to avoid turning Karen into a love interest, or a damsel, carefully avoiding setting her up with either Matt or Foggy. It might be (one of) the best platonic relationships on TV in... I struggle to think of another. [writer's note: I was immediately and rightfully called out on this one: Peggy/Jarvis is far superior in Agent Carter, because unlike Foggy/Karen, it wasn't relentlessly teased that there might be something romantic between them. Karen is no more defined by her romantic relationship with either of the leads than Peggy is, but the writers didn't force Peggy into an endless flirtation with her co-star at every available opportunity until opting for the more mature direction. And I'm increasingly convinced that Karen will become a romantic foil to either or both Matt and Foggy in any potential season 2, while Peggy and Jarvis I would expect to see no romantic entanglements between.]

The best episode of the series was episode two, being a superb microcosm of the series as a whole. Who is Matt Murdock is laid out completely bare in an episode that found a purpose for every character in a constricted timeframe (the episode takes place over a single night), and ends with as encapsulating a moment as exists in the series. Everyone is rightly celebrating the one-shot fight sequence in the hall, but for me the defining moment of that scene was near the end, when Matt has pummeled the goons into submission. He throws a punch, takes a half step, trips on a broken door and collapses into a room out of frame, only to jump right back out, fists up as he launches another assault. That is the definition of Matt Murdock: the fight to exhaustion, and keeps going.

The weakest episode is a tie between episode 7, Stick, and the finale. Stick was a fine bit of necessary back-story, but the episode was so divorced from the rest of the series, more interested in laying the groundwork for what I expect to be Iron Fist, that everything about it felt rushed and inorganically forced. The episode - the fulcrum episode, if you'll remember my thesis on those from my Justified reviews - took us out of the prevailing events of the series, which up to that point was a seamless through-line of plot and character development. So, it was jarring. The finale felt disingenuous. A great success of the series was the way they believably built up Fisk's empire and public persona. The finale felt like it was trying to achieve too much too fast, which is an occasional sin of the rest of the season as well. Vanessa and Fisk's relationship seems to move at bullet speed, culminating in her, what, taking control of his interests as his proxy? Vanessa was never given the same level of focus as anyone else, so her immediate acceptance of Fisk and his ways sits uneasily in terms of the characters. Is she just so taken with him, or does she have her own motivates? We don't know.

The collapse of Fisk's empire comes all too quickly, in the form of a montage. I like that they managed to find a way for Nelson and Murdock to do it rather than Daredevil, but it comes tumbling down like a Jenga tower. Likewise does the sudden appearance of the costume, fully formed, seem wrong. He dresses like a ninja the entire series, then boom, he's all in red and horns? With no transitional period or slow merging of the two. The seeding of the nickname of the Devil of Hell's Kitchen was nice, and it would have been nice to seem him slowly adopt and assume that mantle. As it stands, it seemed like they realized at the eleventh hour that they wanted Fisk in jail and Daredevil in place by the season's end, and failed to find a way to run up to it naturally. Also, it ended in a fist fight, which is a pet peeve of mine - surely, there is another way to end things in the action genre?

My biggest quibble, and it is only a quibble, is that there is no indication of how long this season is meant to take place over. And time is a critical element when dealing with things like building Vanessa and Fisk's relationship, establishing a criminal empire, and working court cases (the series avoids becoming a legal drama by almost entirely avoiding legal work for Nelson and Murdock). The fist six episodes all blend into one another, and therefore presumably take place over the course of a week or two at most. The series successfully incorporates the events of the films into the DNA of the series, more so than Agents of SHIELD has ever managed, but is the show meant to takes place over months in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of New York? Weeks seems more likely in terms of how events are presented, but that also seems unbelievably quick for everything that happens in the course of this season.

The series has its faults, as does most things. But the successes far outweigh those. This is a worthy addition to Marvel's cinematic tradition, washes clean away the aftertaste of the former movie, and shows what Marvel's properties are capable of as long form story-telling. The films are great at the big, flashy explosions and larger than life character. But Daredevil deserves to become the Iron Man-esque inspiration for what the more grounded characters can achieve if given time, attention, and the right people to do the right job.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

3 comments :

  1. "It might be the best platonic relationship on TV in... I struggle to think of another."

    Better than Peggy Carter/Jarvis? You don't have to struggle to think of one - it happens to also be recent a Marvel property, and your review of the third episode of Agent Carter perfectly explained why Peggy/Jarvis were the best platonic relationship on TV. Did your opinion of Peggy/Jarvis change at some point?

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    1. Nope, I've just got a crap memory, apparently. I bow to your powers of recall: indeed you are correct, Peggy/Jarvis is superior, because unlike Foggy/Karen, there was never any hint at a potential relationship in Agent Carter. Just professionalism.

      I just get excitable is all when writers make use of female characters in non-romantic roles, and especially when men and women are able to act as equals without any sort of fraternization becoming the defining element of the character. Rosario Dawson in this series is a perfect example of that cliche played to a tee: she has a usual purpose, but ultimately is defined by her romantic relationship with Matt, and when that ends, she's gone.

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    2. In a large part that was apparently due to their rather restricted ability to use her; it was a very limited number of episodes she was available for. Since she's apparently going to appear in the other Marvel Netflix series, however, it stands to reason she'll get a more well-rounded role by the time The Defenders rolls around.

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