What I’m Watching: Daredevil

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I felt my hype creeping up upon hearing that Netflix had gotten rights to create miniseries out of several of Marvel’s superheroes. Netflix has put out some quality original programming in recent years, most taking advantage of the binge-friendly format and creating long-form stories that play out almost like longer movies. I expected much the same out of Daredevil, the first of five planned Marvel offerings hitting Netflix over the next few years. Daredevil has had one cinematic outing in recent history, but to call it “derided” would be an understatement. This series is something of a blank state, as most viewers unfamiliar with the comic know little about the premise beyond “he’s a blind superhero what sees with his ears”. After finishing viewing the series with my wife earlier this week, it seemed a good time to throw down some impressions. I’ll keep light on the spoilers for this post, driving my way deep into spoiler territory next time around.

So first things first- you should almost certainly watch Daredevil. Give it a couple of episodes at the minimum, as it’s done some unique things within the superhero mold. I loved the series, and I know I’m not alone there, though I can see a few things dragging people down. The show wears its comic origins proudly, not letting a cheesy name or questionable logic (and physics) get in the way of the story. It definitely takes its TV-MA rating seriously, packing in enough violence to give pause in recommending the series to the squeamish. If you can’t stand a bit of gore on screen, you’re better off skipping this one. You’ll see body parts removed, violence and death splattered across the screen with some regularity. This is definitely a stark contrast to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which lives safely in the realm of the PG-13. While Daredevil takes place in that same universe, referencing the Avengers from time to time, the focus is shifted to street level heroes and requires zero prior knowledge. The Marvel universe has plenty such characters- the heroes who look to clean up neighborhoods and protect the common folk rather than going toe to toe with aliens and gods. This is the focus of Netflix’s offerings, as they will move on from Daredevil to Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and my personal favorite Iron Fist, before moving on to a team up in Defenders. By removing these heroes from the grander, more family-friendly adventures, we’re able to focus on a somewhat more realistic and gritty story.

Normally, this is a bad thing for me. Attempting to gritty up a story is a shaky foundation, as it often comes off as a desperate attempt to emulate Batman’s success. Superman has been a symbol of hope for decades, and when you try to take something bright and force it into an anti-hero mold, you end up… well…

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Pretty much like that. Batman has always worked because the character was created a bit darker, given a painful past and plenty of personal issues to work through. The DC Universe in comics works because not everyone is Batman. He shares stories with more stalwart heroes like Superman, straight-forward warriors like Wonder Woman, and even jokers like Green Arrow or the Flash. These divergent personalities get a chance to bounce off of each other, showing different attitudes and painting a more complete picture of the world. This why DC’s current track in television is seeing such success, and why I have doubts about their cinematic future. Marvel has thus far lived in the pulpy, doling out polished popcorn flicks.

Daredevil has always been a darker character, marked in every era by the awful things that happen to him and his bravery in the face of it. The series doesn’t shy away from the consequences of becoming a purely mortal vigilante, nor of the lengths criminals will go to accomplish their goals. This is where the TV format really shines, however. When trying to pack that much pathos into a movie, it’s hard to make room for anything else. Secondary characters often get pushed aside, backgrounds lack punch because you never get to see the good things they lost, and there is never any uplifting or comedic relief to the relentless depression. Spanning 13 episodes, Daredevil is able to pack in plenty of character development, comedy, and background, while still maintaining a brisk pace. You get to feel for both the heroes and villains, and this is not just because of the horrible hands they are dealt, but because you see them in their element. Charlie Cox plays Matt Murdock, the eponymous Daredevil, and he packs in the internal turmoil between plenty of genuine onscreen charm. He’s certainly a charmer, seeming at home in court during his day job as a lawyer, but they consistently address that the smiling face is something of a front. While he’s not always faking that happiness, it’s often a way to cope with the awful things he’s gone through. I found a lot of this ring especially true in light of my own life events, but that’s its own blog post.

Vincent D’Onofrio plays Murdock’s antithesis Wilson Fisk, the popular Marvel villain Kingpin. D’Onofrio is probably best known as Gomer Pyle from Full Metal Jacket, and he manages to be simultaneously terrifying and vulnerable. The show belongs as much to Fisk as it does to Murdock, working as an origin story for both. The series plays as a long form movie, going through the origins of the characters, but allowing enough time to make the story really matter. You never find yourself wondering when the hell Murdock is going to don the suit- the journey has enough meat on it that the superhero is really secondary to the whole thing. You get a great view of how different personalities deal with loss, success, and failure. The series definitely pushes the idea that there are no heroes and villains, simply opposing ideologies- and if you’ve read many of my other posts, you’ll know the sweet song that sings me. The message is occasionally undercut by the purely vile acts of some of the villains, but you still get the impression that most of them are driven by their own view of what is fair or just.

I’ve heard some drop the series after the first episode, citing the metric ton of cliches dropped within that first hour. I have no good refutation for these claims- the cliches pile up in the first episode, and though I thought they were executed excellently enough for me to be on board, I can see why some would be driven off. I would recommend sticking out another episode or two if you’re in that boat, however. Over the next twelve episodes, they take that somewhat cliched starting point and deconstruct every element they can. The damsel in distress shows stronger conviction than any other character in the show, and hints of a background that keeps us guessing. The faceless villain comes through in a big way, and his overly calm messenger slowly unveils his character over time. The hero becomes less heroic, through a series failures, qualified successes, and questionable decisions, while still maintaining a core that demands respect and awe. Even the generic thug criminals develop over time, showing what drove them to become the people they are today.

Finally, the action scenes are real show stoppers. Some of the stunts veer far into “over the top” territory, with Daredevil’s signature fighting style becoming equal parts flip kicks and bank-shot baton throws, but the choreography is consistently entertaining to watch. There is real weight to the fights, as every hit a character takes is accounted for in both the course of the fight and, for survivors, their life afterwards. The cinematography steals the show here, however. The action is clear and easy to follow, CG is mostly kept out of the fray, and the directors are not afraid of trying a different style when the scene calls for it. Without spoiling anything, there is a fight scene at the end of the second episode that has already gotten plenty of attention on the internet, and will doubtlessly come up in conversations for a long time to come. Half the reason I recommend sticking through the second episode is to check out that scene and be in on the conversations when they inevitably pop up.

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