It’s Time to Give “Daredevil” His Due

By: Jordan Ferguson

In a 2011 interview with Marc Maron on his WTF podcast, Conan O’Brien described what it was like for him growing up Catholic, particularly the idea, instilled during childhood, that there is perpetually something wrong with you, something that you must always be asking forgiveness for, or risk compromising the integrity of your soul and condemning it to an eternity of damnation in the fires of Hell. At the time, I was listening to the episode during a walk through Toronto’s Chinatown neighbourhood, and stopped so suddenly a woman nearly took herself out colliding with my mass. I’d never heard my own childhood churchgoing, and by extension a large swath of my formative years, described so perfectly. Maybe that’s why the character of Matt Murdock always resonated with me so strongly. The blind lawyer blessed with extrasensory gifts who uses them to protect the weak in and out of the courtroom, yet consistently struggles with his own Catholic guilt that his actions do more harm than good. He always felt he never did enough, that he was too weak to make the sacrifices necessary to do the most good.

So yeah, I admit I might have a slight bias on this one.

What's this.. a Daredevil TV show?

What’s this.. a Daredevil TV show?

I first started reading comics as a kid in the 80’s, mostly tie-ins to cartoons that were themselves tie-ins to toy lines of transforming robots or muscled barbarian types. Superheroics were never really my thing at that age, but there’s no way my Grandmother would have known that when she ordered me a bundle of 20 comics out of the Sears catalogue as a Christmas present[1]. They were quarter-bin castaways, mostly: some Micronauts, a random issue of Alpha Flight, the final issue of Marvel’s first Star Wars comic[2], and my first exposure to Daredevil.

The cover is what struck me. No balletic pose of ol’ Hornhead diving from the rooftops, just a tight shot on the dishevelled, stubbled, and terror-stricken face of Matt Murdock, streaks of red crackling through the frame and a single word in the lower right corner: PURGATORY.

Inside, a destitute Matt Murdock wakes up in some decrepit apartment before fighting his way, out of costume, to the office of Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime. The two combat viciously, wordlessly, until Fisk gains the advantage and beats Murdock unconscious. He then has his underlings bathe Murdock in whiskey, throw him in a stolen cab and dump him in the East River.

Hell of a story for a nine-year-old to be reading.

What I’d stumbled onto was the third chapter of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s character-defining “Born Again” arc[3]. I didn’t get the chance to read the whole story until much, much later, but that one issue stayed with me from that moment. When I got back into comic books seriously over a decade ago, it was due in no small part to the work being done with the character by filmmaker Kevin Smith and artists Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti. I would pick up and put down Spider-Man, the X-Men, even Batman if the storyline didn’t appeal to me. But through Smith’s run, to work by David Mack, Bob Gale and a landmark run by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev, which took seeds planted from “Born Again” and put them through a true crime filter, I always stood by The Man Without Fear. Which is why the news that the first Marvel production for Netflix would be Daredevil filled me with such fanboyish glee.

Not Ben Affleck is Daredevil.

Not Ben Affleck is Daredevil. (OK, it’s Charlie Cox.)

I’ve wasted no small amount of space in this and other forums lamenting what I find to be the tired and repetitive nature of the Marvel Movie Method’s city-smashing formula, so I didn’t go into the show without reservations, but credit must be given where earned: Daredevil ignores every part of that formula in all the best ways. By scaling everything down and rooting the story in the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, the stakes feel higher despite being smaller in scope. There’s no anonymous destruction here, doled out by some vague army of unmemorable aliens, as it was in The Avengers. Every conflict in Daredevil leaves casualties, and the show never shies away from putting the bodies on display. And don’t wait for a Nick Fury cameo or appearance of an Infinity Gem or anything else that would connect the show more strongly to the larger Marvel movieverse. The two may share a world, but Daredevil and the shows that will come after it[4] exist as their own entities.

Set in the aftermath of The Avengers’ battle with Loki (subtly referred to as “The Incident”), attorneys Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) and his longtime friend Foggy Nelson (Eldon Henson) return to the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood of New York with the noble intent of defending those who can’t defend themselves. Unbeknownst to his partner, Murdock spends his off time patrolling the streets as a masked vigilante. The city is in the process of rebuilding, and with any reconstruction comes opportunists and profiteers, including crime lord and property developer Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), a man so powerful and feared he’s not seen or even mentioned by name until the third episode. When a woman named Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) is framed for murder, her case tugs at the threads the will drag Murdock and Fisk into a head-on collision over the course of the season’s thirteen episodes.

The easy synopsis for people unfamiliar with Daredevil has always been, “He’s like Marvel’s Batman.” Both orphans, both investigators, both “depowered.” The heightened senses he obtained after being blinded by chemical waste may place him on the roster of “extrahuman” heroes, but like Batman, Matt Murdock has no super strength, speed or durability, his only skills are those acquired from a lifetime of training.

That’s pretty much where the similarities end, though. The overarching rule of Batman has always been that he’s the baddest man in the room, the master tactician, the World’s Greatest Detective. Daredevil isn’t the world’s greatest anything. He’s constantly getting his ass beaten, something the show illustrates to stomach-churning effect. This isn’t the cartoonish PG-13 violence of the Hulk whipping Loki back and forth into the floor like a rag doll. This is grimy, bloody, bone-popping violence. By the third episode I was taken aback by the goriest thing I’d ever seen in a Marvel project, only for it to be trumped an episode later. Every punch is felt in this show, and the action sequences are well shot and choreographed, including a single take brawl in a hallway that becomes the bloodiest love letter to Park Chan-wook’s classic Old Boy anyone could ask for. There’s nothing here you wouldn’t see in an average episode of The Walking Dead but it’s unfamiliar territory for Marvel, and helps to set the show apart from the rest of the studio’s offerings.

The show just does so much right. The Netflix model of 13 set episodes all dropping at once means there’s very little filler or “problem of the week” episodes you would find on something like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It avoids origin story clichés by sprinkling flashbacks throughout the season without relying on them too heavily. It grounds Murdock’s enhanced senses in more practical usages, doing away with the “radar sense” that informs so much of his skills in the comics, and offering only the briefest glimpse of how he experiences the world.

The cast is a delight. Charlie Cox nails both Murdock’s easy charm and his ever-present guilt over the toll his actions are taking on his humanity.[5] Henson’s take on Foggy took me a little longer to warm up to but his delivery of the character’s fierce (yet never naïve) dedication to his friend won me over. Woll and Rosario Dawson (as a version of minor comics character The Night Nurse) never descend into one dimensional love interests. But nothing fascinates more than Wilson Fisk, played by D’Onofrio not quite at his D’Onofriest, but close. Instead of the towering behemoth portrayed by the late Michael Clarke Duncan in the 2003 film version of the character, D’Onofrio’s plays him physically smaller but just as intimidating, and much more fun to watch. He’s like a bomb that’s perpetually exploding but contained by the thinnest of barriers, evidenced by the constant tic of his fingers twitching. Whenever his carefully maintained composure does crack, he detonates in a flurry of physical assaults, his face twisted in a pained grimace, not of regret, but disappointment that the recipient of his wrath left him no alternative. He honestly believes he can make the city a better place, he just lacks the patience for those who can’t or refuse to share his vision.

A quiet moment that suggests a lot: note the bloody knuckles and priest.

A quiet moment that suggests a lot; note the bruised face and priest.

Still, the show has problems. For a story ostensibly about lawyers, we never really see any lawyering, aside from one scene in a courtroom. The character of Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer), Fisk’s love interest, is sketched so thin she’s barely present; there’s little there to suggest why she would stay involved with the man even after she comes to fully understand who and what he is.[6] With a little more development they could have sold her as the lite beer version of Claire Underwood they seem to have been aiming for. There’s also a detour in a couple of mid-season episodes where my interest waned, but that has more to do with a facet of the character’s history I never liked to begin with, not a problem with the show.[7]  And Karen Page’s side-plot with reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall) is forced to tread water for a few episodes as the other pieces on the board prepare for endgame, but these are minor quibbles overall.

This is not a perfect show. It’s not even a great show, the sort of superhero property that transcends its source material like The Dark Knight did. But it is very good, and for those of us don’t need to watch another city get destroyed in some cataclysmic battle for the fate of…. I forgot, or have little interest gallivanting the cosmos with a snarky racoon and a sentient tree, very good is more than good enough.

—————

[1] They were a magical time, those 80’s.

[2] Which, last I checked, was actually worth a little money.

[3] Where, for reasons I won’t spoil, The Kingpin learns of Murdock’s dual identity and sets about destroying his life.

[4] A.K.A. Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist all feeding into a Defenders miniseries set to air in 2017.

[5] When he tells a Russian mobster early on that he’s hurting him not just for information, but because he likes to, it doesn’t feel like a hollow threat.

[6] It’s wholly possible I just don’t understand women in this case.

[7] Frank Miller: If he can put a ninja in it, he’ll put a ninja in it.

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