I absolutely LOVED the Netflix series “Daredevil.” In truth, I’m really not a fan of Daredevil at all. In the comics, he was always an odd after-thought in the stories I read. His focus was so narrow (He pretty much stayed in Hell’s Kitchen and fought the villains who operated there.), I never got into the character. And, I will freely admit, I actually enjoyed the Affleck/Garner Daredevil/Electra movies, even though they can never measure up to the latest MU movies. But Netflix hit on some great plot points for a superhero like Daredevil, hired the right cast, writers and producers, and have created something truly amazing.
A CONFLICTED HERO
Daredevil the character in Season One is still pretty new to the whole superhero business, and the world itself is still getting used to the idea of guys with armor or hammers that will battle against criminals. More importantly, he is a man in conflict within himself as to how far he is willing to go to achieve his goals. Will he kill the bad guy? Could he? Should he? Throughout the season, as he uncovers and faces “the devil” in Wilson Fisk, he has to deal with that inner conflict. Is it worth the greater good for him to sacrifice his own morality? Would he be damned if he did?
The world of superheroes is absolutely gray, and I applaud contemporary comic book, TV and movie writers who recognize this. When I first started reading comics in the 1980’s, superheroes were still, for the most part, righteous, sin-free and they always won the day. Superman could do no wrong. Wolverine may have killed but only for the greater good. Batman would never, ever kill. But the past 30 years of superhero stories have shown that our heroes are also human beings who must struggle with the same questions of morality that any soldier on the battlefield or normal person must face when their back is against the wall. Those struggles and the decisions they make are not going to be universally accepted by society, no matter which path they choose. In the end they must be able to live with themselves and accept that they can’t solve every problem for all time. They must remain true to who they are and address the problems directly in front of them.
Matt Murdock, brilliantly played by Charlie Cox, is dealing with those same struggles between right and wrong, law and order. His conversations with Father Lantom are some of the best scenes in the whole series and are the very conversations I expect every superhero, from Iron Man to Superman, to have at some point with themselves and then make their choices. In the end, Murdock is still seeking definition, purpose and acceptance (both inside and outside himself) for his choices and actions. By the end of the season, he comes to terms with his morality, sets his identity, and dons the symbolic costume that will display that identity to Fisk and the whole world. The show spent a great deal of screen time to highlight his growth and development. That so rarely makes its way to the screen, large or small, and the journey makes for a great origin story and a more-compelling main character.
A VULNERABLE VILLAIN
I love that the first scene where we actually see the “big bad” of the season is in the quiet, quaint setting of an art gallery. I love that our first moments with the villain demonstrate and highlight his own humanity and vulnerability. We see him fumble when hitting on a beautiful woman. We see his stolid features and nervous demeanor as he juggles his professional and romantic lives. We hear about his noble intentions towards the city, and then we see him decapitate a man with a car door. Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk solidified his identity long before Season One. He is a righteous criminal, doing whatever must be done for the greater good. Paying off corrupt cops, getting in business with human traffickers, drug dealers and violent street gangs, hurting innocent people and forcing them from their homes. Fisk wakes up each morning assured of his path and his goals and is willing to do what has to be done to make his dreams come true. In the end, his path will be righteous.
But the show decides not to display Fisk as the all-powerful, mustache-twirling nemesis. We see him first as a man, and an insecure one at that, trying to balance the titanic persona of his professional identity with the vulnerable man who is longing for affection and a partner to share his journey with. Vanessa proves to be a strong companion, and it wasn’t until she fell into the coma that I remembered that the comic book Kingpin of the 1980’s had a wife in a coma that he took care of even while he masterminded a massive criminal enterprise. It’s just another small way that the show honored the history of the characters from the original comic books. But more importantly it gave us a bad guy with a heart, soul and purpose. I know there were many times I looked at D’Onofrio’s face and didn’t see a brutal killer, but saw the face of the little boy who killed his father. That’s great acting, and it’s also great storytelling.
A SUPERB CAST
I’ve already mentioned how Cox and D’Onofrio bring such life to their characters, and their scenes are the heart and soul of the whole show. Cox has a charming charisma but can still show the introverted, closeted man that Matt Murdock is. Cox carries the moral questions of the show through his character and brings us along for the ride through his spiritual journey/hell.
D’Onofrio’s Fisk (the Kingpin, even though he’s never given the name) is a far more interesting character than the comic’s because of how the actor portrays the character. You can see the determination in his gaze and demeanor and sense the inner turmoil from his past that isn’t really addressed until Vanessa enters his life and helps him wipe that blood away. You see a man of confidence shaken at just the right times. You see a man of conviction. So, so well done, Mr. D’Onofrio.
Elden Henson was the find of the series, no question. Foggy Nelson in the comic was always the comic relief inside a dark, violent vigilante story. Henson takes it one step further which makes him a warm reminder of how good our main character can be. Henson’s comedic timing is spot on, and every scene he is in is made better with his presence. You just want to hug him when he hurts or does something noble.
Whoever asked Scott Glenn to play Stick should be given an award. Glenn, not normally one for superhero movies, drops effortlessly into the role and hams up the attitude of the character far above anything the comic book ever achieved. He knows he’s an asshole and embraces it. The acid comes out in every line he utters because that’s who the character is: someone who is pissed off at the world and is ready to do battle with it (verbally or physically) at the drop of a hat. His training scenes with the young Matt are just fun to watch and even better to listen to. You only get a hint of fatherly affection from the character, perhaps not enough to justify his actions, but we get the point.
The only weak casting, in my opinion, is Deborah Ann Woll, but I have to confess I’m pretty biased. I see her on screen and all I see is Jessica from “True Blood.” And for the most part, her Karen Page is practically the same character as Jessica, minus the occasional Southern drawl. I don’t remember much about Karen from the original comics, but I imagined her to be far more strong-willed that Woll’s portrayal. I would have preferred a gruffer, New Yorker actress to play the part like Anna Kendrick or maybe even Emma Stone (if she hadn’t already been cast as Gwen Stacy). But it still works, and when Cox, Henson and Woll are on screen together, it’s a joy to watch.
KICK ASS FIGHT SCENES
The first time I heard the enhanced sound effect for a punch in the show, which was Episode 8, I felt disappointed. Up to that point the punches had all sounded natural, real. The fight scenes are absolutely amazing. The single-hall fight in Episode 2 is probably one of the greatest fight scenes I’ve ever seen on TV, if not better than most movies. No special effects, no sound effects. Just a dozen stuntmen dukeing it out on a wooden set. Fucking awesome.
Whoever plays Daredevil’s martial arts persona on screen is to be given an award as well. We really get a sense of the limitations of the character, either due to his blindness or an injury he sustained in the same or previous show. His moves are not always perfect and pristine. Sometimes his punches send him off-balance or to the ground. The blood and cuts make-up are so realistic it’s scary.
Most of all, the fight scenes in Daredevil show just how lurid crime fighting is when you don’t have a suit of armor or a magical hammer at your disposal. It’s about grinding out the victory, to keep punching until your opponent is down, to get back up when you’re knocked down no matter how tired you are. It really is like watching a boxing match, which just makes it that much truer to the character and how he fights, which just makes the show better.
DIALOGUE RIGHT OUT OF THE WHEDONVERSE
The Marvel Universe right now is overlorded by the underlings of Joss Whedon who came up with him in the days of Buffy, Angel, Firefly and beyond, and you can tell … and we’re grateful for it. The dialogue from every character is snappy. Henson’s comedic lines seem like they came right from Joss Whedon himself. Drew Goddard and Steven S. DeKnight’s hands are all over the show, but no more visibly than in the dialogue. As Joss Whedon once said, “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” I think that is bronzed on the walls of the writers’ room because that is exactly what they do in every episode. It lightens the darker moments and gives you a moment to breathe and process what happened. It’s good TV. It’s great writing.
IT’S NOT ABOUT HIS SUPER POWERS
If there is one limitation to “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,” it’s the weekly expectation by the viewer to see what great new super power shows up next. What we get on that show are watered down superpowers, limited by special effects budgets more than imagination. AoS will present a thrilling setup of a superhero/villain (ex. Mister Hyde) that is ultimately a let-down because our expectations are so high in what we expect those superpowers to do. Daredevil’s super powers are ever-present in the series but at no time are they the focus. We know that Murdock can tell if someone is lying, and we don’t need cool special effects to tell us that. We also don’t need slow-motion camera tricks to tell us how he sees an oncoming attacker. It’s just not important, and in the end not what the story is about. Yes, Daredevil is a superhuman doing the work of a vigilante and that makes him worthy of a comic book hero. But really as you’re watching the show, the fight scenes and all the choices Murdock makes, you could take his abilities out of the equation and still get a compelling story. Like I said, that’s good writing. I’m glad they didn’t waste money on special effects to show me what his sonar hearing looks like. In the end, it’s not what matters.
UNFORTUNATELY, A FEW TOO MANY DEATHS
[SPOILER ALERT] The show set up some amazing characters that would have been fun to develop in future seasons. Sadly, they were all killed off. Wesley could have developed into an amazing character who could have taken over for Fisk after he is in custody. In the comics, the character was a masked villain known as “The Rose” since he always left a rose on the corpses he left behind. It was one of my favorite Kingpin characters and could have been easily developed using Wesley, especially with the cool, calculated performance that Toby Leonard Moore gave. I know Karen killing him will be addressed in Season Two, but for all the wrong reasons.
Ben Urich was also a great character sadly wasted (pardon the pun), and Vondie Curtis-Hall was a delight to watch on screen. So much more they could have done with him, especially if he’d landed at the Daily Bugle in Season Two (now that Marvel has the rights to the name again).
Leland Owlsley in the comics evolved into the crime lord The Owl which could have been another contender for Fisk’s operations in Season Two. Bob Gunton just makes a great bad guy, doesn’t he? But alas the show’s Owlsley was arrogant enough to walk around without his own bodyguards and got what was coming to him.
Lastly, while I expected Vanessa to remain in the coma and serve as a reminder to Fisk of what he lost in his quest for his dreams, keeping her out of the coma and likely as his means of continuing his operation from prison (can we say “spousal privilege” everyone?) was a good take on the character, most likely because the producers realized they had a beautiful, talented actress in Ayelet Zurer, and her chemistry with D’Onofrio is natural and enjoyable. Good call there not killing her off.
Without a doubt, “Daredevil” is the best origin story for a comic hero and villain I’ve ever seen (Granted, I’m still getting caught up on “The Flash,” but that’s a blog for another day.). Forget Affleck and Garner ever happened, and watch the show. Remember that being a superhero is hard. Being a supervillain is hard. Remember that no one ever wins every time and never completely. And for all those TV execs and writers out there trying to find ways to make DC Comics superheroes interesting … watch this show a couple of times and learn.