Friday 17 April 2015

REVIEW: Marvel's Daredevil

Now, that's how you do it.

It's understandable that some people are starting to become a little fed up with superhero films and series now. As the new big thing, they have become ubiquitous, and for every geek who looks forward to the next snippet of comicbook movie news, there's ten people who got bored with it all around when The Avengers was in the cinemas. Which is a pity, since there are some genuinely very good productions out there. Still, it's not too much of a surprise that many people were unenthused by the news that Marvel/Disney had five series planned for streaming on Netflix. Superhero overkill, it might sound like. However, going by the first of these series, Marvel have finally found their niche for television. If anyone asks which of the many comic-based shows are worth watching, then Daredevil is what I shall tell them.

There's a qualifier, though. Daredevil is dark as hell. “Dark” is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, and it's usually pretty meaningless, but in the case of Daredevil, it's very apt. Daredevil is cynical and unflinchingly brutal. I'm genuinely impressed by Disney for allowing something so bloody to go out under their name. I'm usually the first to condemn an adaptation for being needlessly grim; you only need to look at the recently leaked trailer for Batman vs. Superman to see something that's had all the joy mercilessly sucked from it. With Daredevil, however, the darkness has a point. Life is vicious and unjust, but we can try to fight against that injustice. Sometimes, violence must be met by violence, but in doing so, we risk becoming what we are fighting against. It also helps that the darkness is not relentless; there's plenty of humour and quieter, more philosophical moments to offset it. While Arrow just dragged on and got boring, Gotham can't seem to balance its tone between grimdark and absurd, and Marvel's own Agents of SHIELD has taken a season and a half to become must-see TV, Daredevil set itself as a self-contained story, told over thirteen chapters, perfectly balancing the tone so that it was an intense, powerful, and entertaining experience.

That said, I absolutely wouldn't want all of Marvel's productions to be like this. The Netflix set is set out to be the street-level section of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, harder, dirtier and distinctly unsuitable for kids. Marvel's great strength on screen is their variety, with different films hitting different marks. Someone who loved Guardians of the Galaxy may hate Daredevil, however, they are to my eyes both excellent adaptations of very different comicbook properties that each do their own thing very well. Daredevil in comics has long been a very dark affair; the series so far hasn't come close to some of the depths to which the comics have plunged. There's still the future, of course; after the team-up series The Defenders, presumably late next year, I would be surprised if we don't see a second run of Daredevil. That said, the showrunners have killed off a surprising number of major characters, including one I would have sworn would make appearances in other series. It makes for an unpredictable viewing experience, and unlike the comics (or The Avengers movie), I don't think we're going to see dead characters returning to life.

Daredevil has always been a great concept: the blind lawyer who fights crime by night, empowered by enhanced secondary senses and martial training. A character who has to juggle twin identities, who fights to protect his city without the aid of superhuman strength, just skill and determination. So far, so Batman, but unlike Bruce Wayne (or his current TV stand-in, Oliver Queen), Matt Murdock doesn't have a vast fortune behind him to make things easier. That's the strength of this adaptation, compared to the previous cinematic version (which was enjoyable enough, for all its flaws). It's a ground-up approach, with Murdock arriving on the scene in little more than simple black clothes and a black bandana. It's not an origin story – god knows we've had enough of those of late – but it's an early draft of a character, learning how to be the superhero he's destined to become. He doesn't even get called Daredevil until almost the final scene of the series; something that many modern superhero adaptations go for, leaving the often corny names out until in-universe media coin them. Instead of an origin story, we get a work-in-progress whose beginnings are sketched in with detailed flashbacks. It helps Murdock become the most three-dimensional character in a cast that is full of them. Indeed, none of the major characters feel anything other than entirely real, and even lesser characters have depth. No one comes across as rushed or sketched-in. This is a vital part of the series' success; not only in the fundamentals of making a compelling drama, but also in bringing a lesser known property to the screen.

The cast are, to a one, absolutely compelling. Charlie Cox is not the man I'd have cast as Murdock, which just goes to show how little I should be listened to, because he is note-perfect. Handsome and confident, but tempered with a certain awkwardness that it's never quite certain is real or put on, Cox's Murdock is a deeply flawed individual who struggles to balance his inherent anger and violence with his need to do the right thing. Daredevil is unusual in that he is a religious superhero, his Catholicism both a source of strength and conflict. Cox is himself from a Catholic background, and has said that he found this element of the character easy to recreate. His accent is also note perfect, at least to my admittedly untrained ears. What must have been far more challenging is playing a blind man, something that is incredibly difficult for a sighted person to convincingly portray. Both Cox and Scott Glen, as Daredevil's mentor Stick, are entirely convincing as blind men with preturnatural precision in their bearing and skills. It's quite remarkable.

It's difficult to single anyone out for particular praise, because the cast is so very good throughout. Eldon Henson makes an excellent Foggy Nelson, a character who has previously been ignored or poorly presented in adaptations. While he has his moments of comic relief, Henson's Foggy is no useless comedy sidekick, rather representing the ordinary but skilled, hardworking and noble other half of the Nelson and Murdock firm and friendship. Henson is physically right as well; odd-looking but certainly not unattractive, but nonetheless not up to the same grade as Cox's good looks, There's a real charm to his performance, and genuine poignancy to his, as he sees it, betrayal. The central trio is completed by Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page. What could have been nothing more than a mutual love interest for Matt and Foggy, has instead been a headstrong and entirely compelling character. Karen's presence is the catalyst for the entire plot, but she is no mere plot device; the trouble she gets into are a direct result of her own investigations, no less than Matt's injuries are a result of his actions as Daredevil. Woll is really quite something, dominating scenes even when she is not the focus. Indeed, she often takes attention away from Matt and Foggy's interactions, and that's not simply because of her stunning looks. I hope if there is a second series we get to learn more about her past; there's a great deal more to be done with the character that I am certain Woll can illustrate brilliantly. An interesting fact is that Woll's real life partner is suffering from a degenerative disease that will eventually rob him of his sight. Without wanting to trivialise their experiences, I wonder if this allowed her a certain insight into playing someone close to a blind character.

The remaining cast are equally as impressive. Again, it's impossible to call out to everyone, but there are certain actors who are especially deserving of praise. Vondie Curtis-Hall is an excellent choice for Ben Urich, the stalwart reporter for, in this version, the New York Bulletin. A wonderfully characterful actor, Curtis-Hall is a perfect choice for the old city boy who's seen and weathered it all. Bob Gunton is as watchable as ever as Leland “The Owl” Owlsley, wisely portrayed as a straightforward criminal type rather than the more outlandish supervillain of the later comics. He's a slippery one, if a little obtuse. Both Rosario Dawson and Ayelet Zurer are excellent in their roles, Claire Temple and Vanessa Marianna respectively. Although neither of character exists for anything other than their relationships with the show's hero and villain respectively, both are equally as well-rounded and three-dimensional as any of the characters. Claire Temple, integrated with the character of Night Nurse (a wise streamlining of concepts), in particular could do with more exploration, but given her character's links in the comics to other upcoming characters such as Luke Cage, I think it's a certainty we will see her again in the remaining Netflix. As for Vanessa, I doubt we shall see her until any second Daredevil series, which is a pity. Zurer's scenes with D'Onofrio as Wilson Fisk are a highlight of the series, a complex, dangerous but believable relationship between two formidable individuals tied together by real love and affection.

Yes, Vincent D'Onofrio. His performance as the Kingpin is quite incredible, possibly the most remarkable performance in the series. While physically impressive, D'Onofrio does not have the gigantic stature that the comicbook character has, nor his previous screen incarnation as portrayed by Michael Clarke Duncan. This doesn't matter in the slightest, however. D'Onofrio portrays the crimelord as man barely suppressing a furious rage, one that threatens to erupt with terrifying brutality at any moment. He is absolutely terrifying, but nonetheless, a hugely sympathetic and complex character. His refined exterior contrasts with his thuggish true face, yet there is real love there, for his mother, for Vanessa, for his right-hand man Wesley (albeit, in that case, an undeniable and distracting Burns/Smithers vibe). An astonishing meeting of fine writing and acting, Wilson Fisk is the standout character of Daredevil, more compelling even than the hero. He is, of course, the dark reflection of Matt Murdock, a man who puts on his own sort of disguise to remake the city in the image he sees fit. Both are trying to change Hell's Kitchen to something greater, but their methods and goals are at odds. Nonetheless, the two men become dangerously similar when pushed to extremes. Both are moulded by the hard lessons they learnt in childhood. There are fascinating parallels. The Kingpin has long been a favourite villain of mine, since his major role in the nineties Spider-Man cartoon series, but it's opposite Daredevil that he comes into his own. D'Onofrio's portrayal is the most powerful version ever, and I would be astonished if we have seen the last of him. Certainly, the actor himself is keen to return (he has shown particular enthusiasm for appearing opposite the new Spider-Man.

Daredevil is also visually accomplished, in a very different way to the glitz of Marvel's big screen outings. Elastic's beautiful, haunting title sequence sets the scene, introducing us a dingy, dirty city that nonetheless has a certain visceral beauty. Excellent cinematography by Matt Lloyd elevates the surroundings to a theatrical arena, the bold use of colour enhancing environments. Most impressive are the fight scenes, of which there are many. Although they are of course choreographed, they never feel like they are. The fights in Daredevil are tired, dirty and bloody. There's been a trend for screen fights in recent years to be more physical and believable than the dances of previous years, but Daredevil takes it to another level. There's one fight, at the end of the second episode, that simply blows all competition out of the water. Filmed in a single long take, imperceptibly switching between Cox and his stuntman, it's utterly, brutally, astonishing. No Hulk vs. Iron Man smash is going to top that for sheer impact.

The tying in of Daredevil into the MCU is handled especially well. While there's the occasional jokey reference which feels a little out of place, for the most part it is done with restraint and skill. The ruinous setting of Hell's Kitchen is an intrinsic part of the Daredevil story, but in reality, Hell's Kitchen no longer truly exists, having been greatly cleaned up and gentrified to become a fairly desirable neighbourhood they'd rather be known as Clinton. The writers of this series have used the so-called Battle of New York, the invasion and destruction that occurred in The Avengers, to reduce the area back to its decrepit roots. Beyond that, links are few and far between, with most comicbook characters included unique, thus far, to this series, and realistically portrayed. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the long run. There are still unanswered questions, most notably regarding Stick and the Japanese criminal organisation he turned up to fight (which I presume to be the Hand). Murdock will, at some point, fight as part of The Defenders against an unknown foe, and it would not be a surprise if he had some role in the great battle that will come at the end of the next phase of Marvel movies. Until then, there's the hope of another season of Daredevil itself. Matt, Foggy and Karen may have triumphed against injustice for now, but they've painted a very big Bullseye on their heads.

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