Thursday, April 30, 2015

Netflix's Daredevil

Daredevil, the new Netflix series developed in partnership with Netflix is a wonderful, if somewhat frustrating, origin story for one of Marvel’s oldest and most interesting super-heroes. A lot of this story works exactly as designed. Reflecting the gritty source material, the brutal fights have repercussions, and the needs of the characters drive the story. The cinematography is top-notch, creating a world of neon glittering in the damp murk of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen.


Still from Netflix's "Daredevil" Trailer

The entire series functions as one long origin story for Daredevil, introducing quixotic defense attorney Matt Murdock (played by Charlie Cox) as he attempts to fight injustice on the mean streets of Manhattan. The show offers sketches of Murdock's beleaguered father (John Patrick Hayden), his best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), and the semi-love interest of Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) with an economical and wrenching style. One of the advantages of a 13 episode run is that the entire show steamrolls through plot-lines that fans of Agents of SHIELD get tired of in the  second episode they appear in. The disadvantage of this approach is there isn’t a lot of time to simply ‘be’ with these characters. Henson has a good chemistry with the other two leads and it would be nice to see them have more than a moment or two of down time to flesh out the relationships.

This series doesn’t have down time, though. As much as the show spends time with Murdock, it spends an almost equal amount of time with his primary adversary, a corrupt businessman by the name of Wilson Fisk. Fisk, who I believe we are meant to assume with develop into the iconic Daredevil baddie the Kingpin, has a backstory nearly as convoluted and emotionally traumatic as Murdock. Except where Murdock gains his hard-edged perspective from overcoming adversity -the loss of his sight and his father - Fisk endures a childhood in the shadow of brutality and failure.  His father humiliates him and his mother to the point that Fisk finally beats him to death. This violent, shameful past provides motivation for him, a wounded man attempting to hide his insecurities in lethal outbursts. Vincent’s D’Onfrio’s portrayal, especially in the first episodes, is fascinating. There is something of the pathos of Tony Soprano mixed with the tragic blindness of Walter White. In another series, Fisk might even be the protagonist, an anti-hero like Frank Underwood in “House of Cards,” or a sympathetic monster like Dexter Morgan.

Mild Spoilers for end of series ahead.

Unfortunately, a comic book needs a super villain and one gets a sense in the later episodes that D’Onfrio is cramming his nuanced portrayal of Fisk into something more serviceable as a traditional bad guy. Even as Fisk bellows louder and louder, his motivation thins. In the final scenes of the show Murdock catches up with his White Whale and they do battle. It’s an awesome, well-staged but largely empty spectacle. What were the stakes of that final confrontation? Daredevil had defanged Fisk by exposing his corruption so how does thrashing him serve any purpose other than catharsis for Murdock?In Dark Knight, Batman is not only confronting his demons in capturing the Joker also preventing further tragedy.

Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison. Although Daredevil is a Marvel version of Batman, what makes the show special is the many ways this hero becomes its own distinct being. The world of this series is very detailed and filled with intriguing hints to what might come in future Netflix series such as Jessica Jones and Iron Fist.

Ultimately, much like Agents of SHIELD, the most compelling reason to watch Daredevil might be that promise of future greatness. I don’t think this series has found its full voice yet, but with recent news that the show will be back for a second season, there’s time for Marvel and Netflix to get this right.
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