Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Daredevil is the show comic books have always deserved (spoilers)

Daredevil posterNo doubt by now you’ve at least heard about the new Daredevil show available only on Netflix. It’s been getting rave reviews across the board, and for good reason – it’s the show comic books have always deserved. That’s not to put down any of the other comics-based shows that have been a critical and commercial success, such as Gotham, Arrow, The Flash, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Constantine, etc. I think what makes Daredevil stand apart from the others is because of its non-network, commercial-free, and generally censorship-free approach. This is a relatively realistic (e.g. “earnest”) depiction of a relatively realistic superhero fighting a relatively realistic war on crime. So, yes, it’s much more violent and profane than those other shows, but it in no way comes across as exploitative – and that’s what makes it great.

Now, there are already a plethora of spoiler-free reviews of Daredevil across the web, but I’m not interested in jumping on the dogpile. I’d rather take a more introspective/deconstructive approach intended for audiences that have already seen the show. So if you haven’t watched it yet (and really, what are you waiting for!?), I’d highly recommend reading Anthony’s blog from last week instead. Otherwise, be aware you are about to enter a veritable minefield of spoilers. Let’s get started:

The Influences

Daredevil definitely has a look to it that’s quite familiar. It’s dark, moody and violent, with fairly typical tropes often seen in other live action comic book movies and TV shows. That being said, it in no way comes across as cliché or pandering. You can quite literally see where it has drawn its influences from. I’d say Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are probably the biggest source of inspiration considering its earnest approach, and also considering there are certain action scenes that are very Nolan-esque (e.g. the first battle at the docks against the human traffickers is eerily similar to Batman’s first appearance in Batman Begins). Even the music sounds a lot like the Nolan trilogy score. Some other sources of inspiration I suspect are: The Godfather, The Crow, The Wire, The Matrix, and various Martin Scorsese, films (the massive arrest of Fisk’s mob by the FBI in slow motion was almost identical to a similar scene in Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street).

Daredevil_171And of course let’s not forget the actual comic books themselves. It’s pretty obvious that the entire premise of the show is heavily influenced by Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil in the early 1980s. In fact, I started reading the first of three trade paperbacks that reprint those comics and it was uncanny how similar in tone the show is to the comics, especially Wilson Fisk as the maniac-depressive mob boss with a heart of gold (more on this later).

The Cinematic Approach

I was listening to Kevin Smith’s latest episode of his “Fat Man on Batman” podcast and he and co-host Marc Bernardin analyzed the entire Daredevil series in detail. Smith and Bernardin pointed out that since the show doesn’t have to account for commercial breaks, it doesn’t have to employ typical TV show rhythm. I noticed this as well. Consider that each episode is between 53 and 58 minutes long – that’s essentially a mini-movie. Often I would be watching an episode and by the time it was over I’d felt like I had just watched a three-hour movie because so much had happened. I suppose that’s where its TV roots come into play: they’ve got an epic story to tell but only about half the time to get through it all compared to a theatrical movie. Yet, I never feel that any episode is rushed or taking shortcuts to execute the plot.

And since they take a cinematic approach to a format that is inherently episodic, it makes for a unique viewing experience. You might almost call it the 21st century’s equivalent to those old movie serials which were both cinematic in scope, but episodic in story-telling. Nearly every episode ends on a cliff-hanger and because it’s captivating I found it difficult to not binge watch the entire series (about three episodes at a time was sufficient).

The Cast and Characters

I enjoy it when lesser-known (or completely unknown) actors are cast in a show or film that is bound to be a hit. It helps keep the tone more grounded and less glamorous since you’re watching the character rather than the marquee-name actor (that’s one of the reasons why the Daredevil film with Ben Affleck and Colin Farrell didn’t work). With the exception of Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, I wasn’t familiar with the majority of the cast here aside from vaguely recalling seeing them in small roles elsewhere.
  • Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock/Daredevil: I enjoy his fairly humble approach to the character. In fact, I can’t recall anyone playing a “superhero” with less flamboyancy than Cox does here. He never snarls or delivers cheeseball lines about revenge or justice or boisterous B.S. in order to intimidate the villain (though sometimes I wish he had). I absolutely can buy him as a blind lawyer, though I think his character does need a bit more of a backstory. It’s easy to just accept a superhero at face value (they have super powers, therefore they must fight crime); but this show isn’t a typical superhero story but more of a drama that happens to be about a superhero. I think he needs a bit more depth to make him completely sympathetic.Mattmurdock
  • Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson: I feel like we’ve seen this character before: the snarky sidekick always quick with the one-liners. I buy him as Matt Murdock’s friend, but I’m not quite I believe him to be a bleeding heart lawyer who really thinks he can right wrongs through the criminal justice system. When he finds out Matt is Daredevil, his reaction is strange – he turns into a blubbering baby. I don’t believe Foggy ever figured out Matt’s true identity in the comics, so I’m not sure why they chose to go that route here.3-Karen3
  • Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page: Again, this character seems familiar: the bombshell who’s a magnet for bad luck and terrible circumstances. She’s essentially a version of Lois Lane, but (thankfully) without the schoolgirl-like attraction to the hero (though Karen and Foggy do flirt pretty heavily). She’s the constant damsel in distress, though she rarely needs anyone to save her – she manages to escape plenty of dangerous situations on her own (I couldn’t believe she actually killed Wesley!).
  • Toby Leonard Moore as James Wesley: I wasn’t familiar with this actor before the show, but I must say he gives probably the most impressive performance of anyone on the show. He is the consummate slimeball consigliere. He rarely raises his voice; it’s simply his tone and the words he uses that are chilling and intimidating. Moore reminds me a lot of Liev Schreiber – but manages to be much scarier in simply glasses and a suit that Schreiber ever was as a mutant (I can’t believe they killed this character off. Nor can I believe he was dumb enough to leave his gun on the table like that).wesley
  • Vondie Curtis Hall as Ben Urich: Journalists are too often written, cast and performed as larger-than-life, do-gooders who know everything about everything. Though there is a definite heroic component to this character, Hall plays him in such a way that he’s kept grounded and restrained at all times. I thought they went a little overboard depicting his personal life, though. He should have been the Jim Gordon equivalent in this show, but they decided to make him a tragic character instead. And yet again, this is another character I could not believe was killed off when he would’ve made a great supporting player throughout the series. I thought that was a melodramatic choice on the producers’ part.urich
  • Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple: Now this is an under-utilized character if ever there were one. Dawson is probably the most recognizable name on this show next to D’Onofrio, but she only appears in five of the 13 episodes (and thankfully they don’t kill her off). She serves several important roles – Matt’s confidant, romantic interest and literal stitcher-upper and she absolutely is believable in every aspect. Perhaps she’s a bit too glamorous for a lowly nurse living in the bad part of town (with a heart of gold, no doubt). Having her appear only occasionally makes this easier to overlook, though. The chemistry between Cox and Dawson is good, but it’d be difficult to buy them falling in love with each other so quickly and easily. I’m sure she’ll be back in Season 2 and I’ll be curious to see where it goes.dawson
Kingpin: Brilliant crime boss or sad sack?

I didn’t mention Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk (aka “Kingpin” – even though he’s never referred to by that name) because I wanted to discuss this character individually. It seems like most people are raving about both the character and D’Onofrio’s portrayal of him, but I have mixed feelings.

First of all, a mob boss should always be intimidating both physically and psychologically. Fisk definitely has the former down, but not the latter. We’re only given a small glimpse into his past where we see him as a chubby 12-year-old raised by an abusive father with delusions of grandeur. This “origin story” isn’t what I associate with that of a crime lord, but rather a serial killer (especially considering he off’ed his other father as a child and his mother helped him cover it up!). There’s a huge section of his biography that’s missing – we need to know how he rose to power and why people continue to take him seriously because he’s so soft-spoken and clearly an introvert.

kingpin-netflix

I’ve heard many fan theories about this character. Nearly everyone agrees he has some sort of mental handicap – autism, Asperger’s, or maniac-depression. You don’t have to be a foul-mouthed violent sociopath to be taken seriously as a mafia don (i.e. Marlon Brando in The Godfather); however, if you lack basic social skills as people with those mental handicaps often do, it’s difficult to believe you’ll not only rise to the role of Alpha Male, but be an imposing, unquestioned, iron-fisted Alpha Male.

I will say that D’Onofrio is completely unrecognizable when compared to his more famous performances such as in Full Metal Jacket, Men in Black, or Law & Order. He certainly has the look of Kingpin down; though the character in the comic was unrealistically huge, D’Onofrio definitely translates that large, intimidating presence to live action. When he has his occasional violent, rage-filled, blow-up it usually catches me off guard and makes me nervous. He’s very Darth Vader-like in that even his henchmen are afraid of him and he doesn’t tolerate failure.
Lastly, his romance with Vanessa the art dealer, was difficult to buy. Mostly because they don’t give her a reason for liking him. For a woman to fall in love with a villainous character like this, she usually must be already from that world, or attracted to power, or never discover his true identity (or maybe just a little crazy). Fisk non-nonchalantly tells Vanessa he’s a mob boss and she essentially just shrugs it off. WTF?

So, on one hand this villain is unique in that he’s not a total cliché and that he’s scary for different reasons than most villains. But at the same time, he comes across a little pathetic to truly buy as the master kingpin of a vast criminal enterprise. He seems more like a corrupt politician, banker, or other powerful elitist.

Final thoughts

I must say that I haven’t been as captivated by a new television series like this since the first season of Lost or The Walking Dead. It’s well-written, well-paced, well-acted, well-directed, authentic, earnest, exciting, suspenseful, humorous, and just plain fun to watch. As Marvel’s successful Iron Man and Avengers movie franchises have proven – you don’t have to be familiar with the comics to enjoy these adaptations. The major difference is that Daredevil is deliberately trying to be adult-oriented. It definitely earns its TV-MA rating (seriously, this is not a show for young children).

I can’t wait to see what happens in Season 2. Will Fisk be acquitted? Who will take his place atop the criminal underworld? Will there be a mob war? Will we see Elektra? Will Bullseye appear? Will Matt hook up with Claire? Will Foggy and Karen get together?

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