TV Show Review: Netflix’s Daredevil

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I am always consuming stories. To me, I don’t care if it’s from a TV show, a movie, a book, or a well-written video game; stories are stories to me, and the medium really doesn’t matter to me.

I also suffer from chronic insomnia, a condition I would not wish upon my worst enemy (except, perhaps, Kurt Russell, who knows what he did). I take medication for it, and it works pretty well, but it also takes about four hours before it starts to affect me (my tolerance is ludicrously high to sleeping pills, as I started taking them when I was around twelve).

Basically, since I also currently only work as a freelancer from home and sell my books (NOW AVAILABLE IN TRADE PAPERBACK! CHECK IT OUT!), I have an additional five to six hours each day that most people don’t. Most insomniacs still have to go to work in the morning; I’m already here. 

Anyway, I tend to fill my downtime with television. Netflix streams endlessly to the TV next to my writing station, because I don’t find more stories distracting to me.

I hunger for good TV nonstop; I devoured Twin Peaks (eight times now, and hopefully Showtime will realize how dumb they would be to let Lynch walk out), Breaking BadMad Men, The Walking Dead, Hannibal and The Following, with many others in between.

Now, I love comic books, too. I don’t read them as much as I used to, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone with a more encyclopedic knowledge of Batman than yours truly. That was why I was so excited for Arrow, which is another favorite of mine.

 

 

Then I heard that Marvel was looking to get in on the live action TV stuff, something separate from their lackluster Agents of Shield. They signed a deal to do series based off Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, and finish the whole thing off with a team up. Some of the details are vague on whether that team up is going to be a series or a movie, but I’m betting on another series; Netflix loves it when you binge watch.

My interest was piqued. I liked Daredevil as a character, the Man without Fear. I hated Ben Affleck’s cross-eyed portrayal of Matt Murdoch in that cinematic abortion from 2003 that felt like it was made in 1995. But I cut them slack, because that movie was made before they knew that superheroes could be cool. It took Christopher Nolan to show us that superheroes could be gritty and realistic, and it took Jon Favreau to remind us that they can also be brilliant and sublimely powerful, until they were both trumped by Joss Whedon telling us, point blank, that they are still, in fact, heroes.

Then came James Gunn, flipping off everyone in Hollywood by throwing a talking raccoon and an anthropomorphised tree into a movie and reminding us for the final time that they can also be fun.

Superhero movies have changed dramatically over the years, and I love most of the changes, but there are a lot of things they can learn from Netflix’s first exclusive foray into the Marvel Universe, and one of those is characterization.

I mean, I get it; Thor is a big dude with a hammer who is often too proud. Hulk is a tortured soul who is terrified of hurting the people around him. Iron Man is brilliant and a little selfish, and also a charming alcoholic with too many quirks to count. And Captain America is a cardboard cutout of all things patriotic circa 1942.

 

But let’s talk about Daredevil for a minute, because I just spent thirteen hours with these characters. And let me tell you something: it is a hell of a ride.

 

The Good:

Daredevil doesn’t get much wrong, so this is a target-rich environment. We’ll start from my wheelhouse– the writing.

WARNING: SPOILERS. DUH.

Plot

The story of Daredevil is not the standard superhero fare. Rather than a bare-bones story about a Kingpin who is doing bad things, and the good dudes need to stop him from doing those things, we are treated to a significantly more complex tale that weaves multiple threads together in a more intricate pattern than I expected.

And let’s talk about my expectations.

I have to admit: they were low. Superhero TV shows have never been the top of my favorite stories. “Smallville” still sticks in my craw as how not to tell an origin story. (But I watched it. Every damn second of it). Before Daredevil came around, the only ones I ever remotely enjoyed– Batman Beyond, X-Men, Spider-Man (1990’s)— were animated. It allowed them to do things that they just couldn’t do live-action. Unfortunately, they were also designed for kids, and were bound by some pretty strict policies. Spider-Man, for instance, wasn’t allowed to depict vampires as blood-drinkers by Fox. When they wanted to do Morbius– a vampire– and Blade, they had to depict him as a weird dude who craved plasma, and instead of biting people’s necks, he somehow leeched the plasma through their skin using suckers on his hands. And no, I didn’t make that up.

Arrow largely changed that. The show is solid, not just because I’m glad that the Green Arrow is finally getting attention outside the comic books (or the adaptation in Smallville), but because it is a good show. I watch it every week– though I avoid the Flash spinoff (I’ll probably cannonball season one once it’s out on Netflix).

But Arrow is DC, not Marvel! I had no idea how Marvel would handle a Superhero show about a dude without superpowers, because they had never done it before. (For the record, Agents of Shield is basically a crime drama, and there is no vigilantism in it, so it doesn’t count). I expected over-the-top effects, ludicrous stunts, and a “stop them guys from takin’ our stuff” attitude.

Instead, my expectations were shattered completely during the first freakin’ episode.

The plot of Daredevil doesn’t revolve around beating up thugs. It deals with fighting something that cannot be fought.

You probably already know that the main villain is Kingpin– though the name isn’t said once in the entire series. As the primary antagonist of the series, you expect him to win-win-win-win-lose-lose-lose and then be defeated. While the plot arc basically follows that structure, the way the have him win is terrifying.

Kingpin is a shadowy figure, nebulous and difficult to even put a face to. Once you know who and what he is, however, you can’t just beat him up and call it a victory. The man is so well-connected that he is virtually untouchable. He owns the police, the justice system, the media, and, eventually, public opinion. How do you stop a man like that, short of killing him– which might only make him a martyr?

That is the question that the plot of Daredevil seeks to answer, and it is a wonderful thing to behold.

Pacing

The biggest advantage Daredevil has over its movie counterparts is time. Rather than immediately ratchet up the speed of the show to get to the good stuff, Daredevil adopts a slow-burn policy that works brilliantly.

Every episode raises the stakes a bit, just a little. We’re given just enough new information to keep us staring at the screen with each reveal.

It isn’t an easy thing to master, but Daredevil managed to pace the series excellently– though I don’t know how well it would play out if you watched one episode per week, because I finished it over three days.

Characters

I’ll be damned if these characters weren’t handled perfectly.

First, we have Daredevil, Matt Murdoch. Excellently casted as Charlie Cox, the blind vigilante is about what you would expect. He’s worried about the people around him, wants to fight people who prey on the innocent because Justice is Blind or something, and is pretty damn smart.

What makes him interesting is that he’s never plagued by the self-doubt that is so often portrayed among superheroes. Spider-Man, Batman, Green Arrow, Iron Man– they all felt compelled at some point to hang up the mask. Daredevil doesn’t, not even once. He believes so firmly in what he’s doing that, rather than give up crime-fighting to protect those around him, he just tells those other people to back off. He actually uses his brain, and realizes that his identity is perfectly secure (because the dude is freaking blind, and who would think that a blind dude could take out ten guys in a fist fight?). So there’s no reason to protect his friends from blowback!

Let’s talk about Matt’s blindness for a bit, because it is probably the most defining character trait of the Man Without Fear. As has been pointed out by critics and on the show multiple times, Daredevil’s blindness isn’t much of a handicap. In fact, it only ever seems to serve as a cover for his nightly criminal beat-’em-ups, or as comic relief. Occasionally, when watching shows that incorporate some type of disability, it can make the viewer almost uncomfortable to watch the struggle that those characters endure. Daredevil completely avoids that, because Murdoch isn’t really disabled at all. He’s blind, but he can still, like, see.

The character has a big following amongst the sight-impaired community, for obvious reasons, and I was glad to hear that Netflix (after some pressure) finally added audio descriptions to the show so that members of that community can fully enjoy it.

 

Foggy Nelson, Murdoch’s best friend and coworker, is played admirably by Elden Henson. Providing much of the comic relief, Foggy’s character is not a sidekick. He doesn’t help Daredevil fight crime; he’s just a good dude with an idealistic streak a mile long. Henson’s portrayal managed to take a side character and turn him into someone worth watching.

 

Karen Page, the obligatory lady character played by the lovely Deborah Ann Woll, is not a typical heroine. Every bit as idealistic as Foggy, her primary motivation seems to be combating the forces operating in Hell’s Kitchen within the legal realm. From her first appearance, she takes on the role of whistle-blower, and doesn’t stop for the entirety of the show. Her hinted feelings for Foggy are a subplot to a subplot, and thankfully don’t encroach too much on the already crowded plot.

Kingpin. Wilson Fisk. The Main Villain. The Big Bad.

Vincent D’Onofrio provides the most intriguing portrayal of the character I have ever seen. Equal parts ruthless and charming, Kingpin represents a different type of villain.

Marvel isn’t known for its brilliantly complex bad guys. Some of them have mixed motives, like wanting to gain equality for mutants or wanting to turn the entire human population into lizardmen, because science. Most of them are fairly one-dimensional: they want money, power, influence– typical bad guy stuff.

Kingpin, however, wants to heal the city. And I believe him.

After the Battle of New York (the alien invasion at the end of The Avengers), Hell’s Kitchen is still heavily damaged. Kingpin, through criminal organization, influence peddling and bribery, seeks to fix it. His methods and definition of fixing, however, are what make him the villain. He kills people, destroys them, blackmails them, and otherwise does whatever he has to do to gentrify Hell’s Kitchen.

If he had pursued the same ends without resorting to murder, the series would have been a blind dude beating up a wealthy philanthropist.

Fisk also has a menagerie of quirks so vast that he puts The Doctor to shame. He has a halting way of speaking, almost like William Shatner without any of the hamminess. He compulsively rubs his cuff links. He spends hours staring at a painting because it reminds him of the wall in his childhood home.

Oh, and he has literally the most interesting love story I have ever watched. Seriously, watching him court a woman is half of the fun of this show, and I am not kidding.

 

Fight scenes!

Boy Howdy!

Christopher Nolan was notorious for making most of the fight scenes in the Dark Knight trilogy borderline unwatchable thanks to a ludicrous amount of shaky-cam. He claimed that it was to add a level of realism, but in reality it was just annoying and stupid and nobody liked it. 

Seriously, a note to all directors: NOBODY LIKES SHAKY CAMERAS. 

Thankfully, Daredevil avoids it entirely! That’s right, you can actually see every punch that’s captured on camera! Without pausing and going through it frame-by-frame!

Aside from the cinematography of them, what I loved was that a wide range of fighting styles were depicted, and they were all effective. Mixed martial arts (which, to my untrained eye, appears to blend aikido with taekwondo) are pitted against each other for a large portion of the show, occasionally thrown up against Kingpin’s balls-to-the-wall enraged haymakers. At one point or another, every style beats every other– which is pretty darned realistic to me.

On the note of realism, holy heck did they capture that. Daredevil doesn’t just blaze through fights unhindered. He is cut, stabbed, shot, bruised, fractured, and concussed frequently. He does not dominate each of the fights in which he is engaged. Nor is every street thug totally defenseless! Almost all of them demonstrate some ability to dish out some pain. That isn’t to say that they’re all black belts, but they know how to hit and be hit, by and large.

Nor does Daredevil display any supernatural or even extremely athletic endurance. In what is probably the most iconic fight scene (a single-shot hallway brawl that spans about three minutes in the second episode), Murdoch is winded halfway through it, and, while he’s clearly winning, he’s also clearly only running on fumes and determination. I’ve been in a couple of fights before (though none against a dozen angry Russians), and I can tell you that one minute of genuine fighting is probably equivalent to about six or seven minutes of sprinting flat-out, Usain Bolt style.

Watch every fight. For each one that Daredevil ends on his feet, there is one that he ends flat on his back, breathing heavily and, while victorious, fried and almost useless until he rests.

As he tires, Daredevil also becomes more brutal, which is interesting to see. In the aforementioned hallway fight, he switches his stances, going from an MMA style to one closer to his dad’s boxing stance.

Honestly, the show is worth watching just to see how fight scenes should be done.

Themes

Fear. Big time. But not in the way that you’re thinking.

Daredevil’s tagline in the comics is The Man Without Fear. It’s why he’s freakin’ called Daredevil. But Matt Murdoch is not fearless in this show.

Oh, he isn’t afraid of dying, or of getting hurt. He parkours his way through the city without hesitation, throws himself headlong into fights against overwhelming odds, and doesn’t flinch.

Matt’s afraid that he likes it too much. The show’s pilot episode begins with him in confession, where he expounds upon “The Devil inside me.” It reveals his own fear that his rage will reach a point of no return, and that he will end up a killer.

The line is echoed throughout the show; he tells a man he is interrogating that he beats up criminals just because he likes doing it.

Basically, in comic book terms, Daredevil is afraid that he will become Rorschach, and it is a legitimate concern.

 

Handicapability! Daredevil is a blind man who refuses to be handicapped. Through iron will, determination and training (some of which we get to see!), he learns how to overcome his blindness, and become the most badass man in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s damn refreshing to see an impairment not be treated as such in a TV show.

 

If you get rid of the criminal element on Kingpin’s side, his intentions seem merely to be to gentrify Hell’s Kitchen. Daredevil and the rest of the cast do not like gentrification, because it requires the uprooting and relocating of poorer residents. In fact, one of the subplots for several episodes revolves around preventing the coerced relocation of an elderly Hispanic woman.

I don’t have a dog in this fight, and there are obviously two sides to the debate, but I’ll be darned if it isn’t fun to watch two clashing ideologies.

Mixed:

Romance

Daredevil doesn’t have a romantic subplot for the main three good guys. Murdoch isn’t chasing Mary Jane across Manhattan. Foggy and Karen flirt a bit, but there isn’t anything definitive that happens between them.

This can be a turn off for some people who like that sort of thing, but I found Daredevil’s  narrative crowded enough without adding a love triangle to the mix.

Instead, we have the main love story taking place for the villain. This is an interesting subversion of the typical romantic plot, as villains usually don’t pursue gallery curators.

I found the flipped approach to be refreshing, but I have a feeling that it will disappoint some viewers.

Which leads me to…

The Shoehorned Kissing Scene

Matt makes a friend as Daredevil in Claire Temple, a nurse who patches him up. Their relationship is interesting, as she only knows him as Daredevil, while everyone else only knows him as Matt Murdoch.

They talk, they banter, and they help each other out. There was no sexual tension that I picked up on, and I thought it was a great change of pace– usually, in a story like this, the two characters would have been sleeping together within one episode.

I was just thinking to myself (and actually said out loud to my dad, who was watching with me) “Man, I’m glad that they aren’t pushing for a relationship between these two characters,” when they kissed.

And it was weird. It felt so forced to me that I didn’t understand why they decided to go there. It was out of place for me, and I think the show would have been better without it, though I’m sure that some people will like it. Just don’t think I’m one of them.

*****MAJOR SPOILER*****

 

 

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The Death of Ben Urich

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I like it when creators aren’t afraid to kill off characters. I don’t hate George R.R. Martin for killing Ned Stark, or Robb Stark, or… Catelyn Stark… or… well, pretty much all of the Starks. And, like, eighty other characters.

It helps raise the stakes of the plot when you know that anyone can die, and prevents characters from overstaying their welcome.

But Ben Urich had potential, and not just because he was a cool character. I think it was a blown opportunity for the entire Marvel Universe, especially the Netflix series.

Urich could have been the common thread of what I’m calling The Marvel Netflix Initiative, which incorporates Daredevil, A.K.A. Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and the Defenders Team-Up.

What do I mean?

Well, remember when the Marvel Cinematic Universe just got started? There was one character who was present in all of the movies, one who tied everything together: Agent Coulson. This handsome devil:

He served as a constant between multiple films, and was almost an easter egg until The Avengers, when he became an actual character.

As a reporter entrenched in Manhattan, where the next bunch of Marvel Netflix series are taking place, Ben Urich could have served the same purpose! A familiar face from Daredevil would have added significant scope to A.K.A. Jessica Jones, who, and I hope fans will forgive me for saying this, is far less recognizable than Daredevil, Iron Fist and Luke Cage.

He also could have helped tie the series into the greater Marvel Universe, maybe even having a cameo appearance somewhere in Phase Three.

Don’t get me wrong– I understand why they did what they did. I just think that they had a great opportunity to expand the universe they’re working in, and they blew it too early.

 

Bad:

NOT A DAMN THING. 

Seriously. There isn’t anything bad about this show. You don’t even need to like comics to watch it and enjoy it.

 

Conclusion:

You have Netflix. If you don’t, sign up for the free trial. It is worth blowing your one-time two week free period just to watch this show.

As Marvel’s first attempt at a genuine live-action show, I think it is an excellent start, and that the movie directors (and Joss Whedon) can learn a thing or two from watching Daredevil. Give the first episode a watch, and if you don’t wind up watching the second one immediately, I feel perfectly confident in telling you that you are a terrible person who needs prompt medical attention.

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