Saturday, May 9, 2015

Where Law Meets Reality: Daredevil

Charlie Cox and Rosario Dawson in Marvel's Daredevil on Netflix.

Matt: I can't see, not like everyone else, but I can feel. […] All of the fragments form a sort of…  impressionistic painting.
Claire: Okay, but what does that look like? Like, what do you... actually see?
Matt: A world on fire.
When Netflix launched Marvel's Daredevil last month, the series entered a crowded field. Superheroes are everywhere on television right now. Against the proliferating DC-televison universe (Gotham on Fox; Arrow and The Flash on The CW, with another Arrow spinoff, Legends of Tomorrow just announced today, and CBS's Supergirl currently in production), Marvel seems intent on conquering the small screen all on its own. Daredevil joins Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which will air its second season finale this Tuesday) and Marvel's Agent Carter, whose brief run (also on ABC) will be followed by a second season next year. Moreover, Daredevil marks the first of four projected Netflix/Marvel team-ups, the next one being A.K.A. Jessica Jones (starring Krysten Ritter and David Tennant), currently in production and set to air sometime later in 2015. At some point in the future, Daredevil and Jessica Jones will team up with the stars of the as-yet-unproduced shows Iron Fist and Luke Cage for a multi-cast miniseries, The Defenders. On paper, all of this sounds overwhelmingly ambitious, and for this viewer it is, maybe dizzyingly so – but if the first step of that journey of a thousand miles is Daredevil, Marvel might just pull it off.

The Netflix series comes with a powerful pedigree: it was conceived and created by Drew Goddard (Cloverfield, The Cabin in the Woods). And when, after laying the groundwork, Goddard withdrew from the project, Steven DeKnight took over the reins as showrunner. DeKnight, like Goddard, also comes with some serious Joss Whedon cred (he, with Goddard, wrote for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, before creating and helming Spartacus for Starz). All that, and the fact that Daredevil was a childhood favourite of mine – Daredevil was the one Marvel comic I read, despite being a DC kid at heart – put the new series at the top of my "most anticipated" list for 2015.

Daredevil stars Charlie Cox (Boardwalk Empire) as the "Man without Fear," Matthew Murdock, a young, blind lawyer who serves the troubled community of Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen. But Murdock also has a secret: the same accident that took his sight as a boy also gave his extraordinary sensory abilities, which (along with some sweet martial arts moves) he uses to protect the citizens of Hell's Kitchen from its dark criminal elements. From its first shot, the series stands out from its other comic book-inspired brethren currently on the air. Moody, character-driven, and intricately told, this first season of Daredevil has a novelistic ambition that perhaps makes it truer to its source material.

Deborah Ann Woll and Elden Henson in Daredevil.

The series opens in the confessional, with Matt revealing his struggles, both moral and practical, to his childhood priest. Daredevil's secret weapon – for all of Matt's enhanced senses and high-kicking gymnastic prowess – turns out to be Matt Murdock's Catholicism. Another series might have used Matt's faith as window dressing or an excuse for moralistic monologuing and exposition, but here it goes to the core of not only the character of its protagonist but the character of the series itself. Matt's soul searching – as a dedicated lawyer struggling with his extra-legal vigilante activities – is much more than an apology for ass-kicking set pieces: it also grounds him and the story as a whole. For all the suspension of disbelief that Matt's almost-extrasensory abilities demand (and as much as I love the show, even I had trouble believing he could identify the precise number of flares in a roadside emergency kit fifteen feet away just by "listening" intently), Matt Murdock might be the most realistic superhero the small screen has ever seen. His physical vulnerability – he gets beat up, blown up, stabbed, cut, and bled in practically every episode – is matched by his spiritual anguish. Cox's Daredevil is not a conquering hero, but at best a limping rescuer. His choices have costs, both empirical and moral, that neither he nor the series flinches from. In short, Matt's very real and messy faith gives the show a soul – an anguished, human, conflicted soul. And the raw reality of his struggle is the beating heart of the series.

The Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood of Manhattan emerges as as much a character of the series as any of its human players – putting Daredevil, in this way, in the same company as The Wire whose single most defined character was always Baltimore itself. Daredevil paints with shades of grey; its New York City is a city under siege: dirty, rainy, dangerous, and seemingly on the verge of imploding. The stark realism of the setting makes the show's inevitable shout-outs to the larger cinematic continuity (one of the initiating events for the criminal tug of war over the renewal of Hell's Kitchen being the epically destructive "Battle of New York" depicted at the end of The Avengers film) jarring, and even unwelcome. That Daredevil, in thirteen episodes, can create a powerful and realistic story within a wider, established world that, among other things, recently survived an alien invasion, pushed back by heroes wielding "iron suits" and "magic hammers," says a lot about just how good this new series is. Despite the overburdened continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this first season of Daredevil just might be an object lesson in patient world-building.

In its relatively short narrative timeframe (the first seven episodes take places over a single week, with new episodes ending practically minutes after the previous episode ended, and the remainder of the season covering only a couple of more weeks of story), it somehow still takes its time to build every character and every relationship. Even as the body count rises – and it does get rather high – we feel the pain of each loss along with the characters who mourn them, whether the victim is a good guy or bad guy.

Vincent D'Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, in Daredevil.

At the centre of our story is Matt, his best friend and law partner Franklin "Foggy" Nelson (Elden Henson, The Mighty Ducks trilogy), and their office assistant, Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll, True Blood). Karen's storyline is mostly independent of Matt's, and it comes with its own anguish and moral compromises. Foggy is sweet, optimistic, and profoundly genuine – more so than any other character in the series – and Henson's charming portrayal (which grows stronger with every passing episode) brings a sharp poignancy to those moments when the darkness of Matt's world touches him.

At its heart, this first season of Daredevil is an origin story, but not only for its titular hero. We meet Matt in the early days of his crime-fighting, and broadly speaking, it isn't much of a spoiler to reveal that the season's story is designed to take us to a single, closing shot of our hero, finally donning his signature red suit. But admirably Daredevil isn't only Matt Murdock's story, not by a long shot. The first season not only takes time to build the inner lives of Karen and Foggy, but more admirably of its primary antagonist, the shadowy criminal overlord Wilson Fisk (known more commonly to Marvel fans as "The Kingpin"). Fisk is portrayed with a gruff, controlled intensity by Vincent D'Onofrio (Law & Order: Criminal Intent), and his character has as much inner life and complexity as Murdock. An ambitious man, with precise habits and routines designed to keep his inner demons at bay, Fisk is as flawed and vulnerable as the hero who spends the entire season trying to take him down. D'Onofrio invests in Fisk the full dimensions of a human being – a man of contradictions, at times homicidal and at others romantic, who is also slowly becoming known to himself over the course of the season.

Netflix launched Daredevil on April 10. True to Netflix's distribution model, all thirteen episodes of the show's first season became available all at once, and it seems designed to be consumed in the same way. Still, one week after the series launch – on the day that I had intended to write up this review – I was still watching. In the end, I took a leisurely two and a half weeks to finish the season. I have binge-watched other new shows, and I do often enjoy the experience. But sometimes a story proves itself in the way it lives in between episodes, and you lose that space – those gaps – in marathon viewing. For some shows, perhaps this is a blessing, but for others, like Daredevil, I know something would have been lost. Daredevil proved to be too intense, often too dark, and quite frankly too good to binge over a single weekend.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.     

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