Charlie Cox Daredevil

Daredevil Review: Uneven, Ungraceful, Yet Often Riveting

Friday, April 17, 2015 Rob Samuelson


TV Series Creator: Drew Goddard
Showrunner: Steven S. DeKnight
Starring: Charlie Cox, Deborah Ann Woll, Elden Henson, Vincent D'Onofrio, Vondie Curtis-Hall
Rating: Three and a Half Stars Out of Five
All 13 episodes of season one are available to stream on Netflix.

Matt Murdock's father, Battlin' Jack Murdock, was a boxer. He wasn't a very good one. He won a fair share of his bouts, lost more. But, as Matt puts it, he was good at taking a beating. It was his secret weapon. It's called the rope-a-dope. It allowed Battlin' Jack, when successful, to trick his opponents into a false sense of security in their superiority, only to pull the rug out from under them and knock them out after they give him an opening.

Daredevil would like to think it pulls off a rope-a-dope on its viewers, but like Battlin' Jack, it is not entirely able to succeed. It manages to evoke several themes, from the guilt of Catholicism to the hidden maliciousness of savior complexes the inherent tension between the swift justice of passion and the careful jurisprudence and fact gathering. It sets up scenarios to make the viewer think it's leaning the wrong direction, the less heroic direction, only to slide over to the other side by the time it's done. But it doesn't entirely do that, and when it does, it does it in a clunky manner.

Take Matt Murdock's (Charlie Cox) Catholicism. The show begins with the blind, super-powered protagonist giving a confession of sorts to the priest at his local church. But he has nothing to confess. He only has exposition about his father to give, and parts with a request to receive forgiveness for what he is “about to do,” namely, put on a ninja costume and beat up a bunch of thugs and criminal developers that are ruining his neighborhood, New York's Hell's Kitchen. It's a longing for permission, not actual forgiveness. Putting aside that's not how confessions work, it displays a deeper misunderstanding of the character's faith. It is ingrained in the furthest corners of Matt's being, a struggle between what he wants – to hurt people for their transgressions – and what should be done – build a case against these powerful people and bring them down through a rational, civilized system.

That is what makes his unique background so riveting in the Marvel Comics stories that share the Netflix show's name. He's a lawyer by day, masked vigilante by night. More specifically, he's a bleeding heart ACLU-style attorney and a hyper violent avenger going much further than even the most fascist, don't-break-the-rules power fantasies would. He can't choose between the warring sides of himself, so he does both, often with disastrous results. But for the first half of the show, he is absolutely the angel of punishment, utilizing tactics that would make Death Wish's Paul Kersey squirm. He tosses small time crooks off buildings, collapses tracheas with lengths of chain, and generally shows no mercy. It is only later that the show (rather unconvincingly) explains he didn't kill these people – they're badly wounded but not dead. These belated explanations don't hold much water because in the moment these acts are committed, the staging and performances are meant to imbue a sense of shock and malicious intent. It's supposed to be a break from the rest of Marvel's wildly popular Cinematic Universe – you'll recognize Iron Man and the rest of the Avengers crew from your cinema screens throughout the last several years. Daredevil ain't your daddy's Avenger, no sir. He's full of rage, an unbalanced, vengeful orphan, and he's going to make the bad guys pay as harshly as he can.

But oh, they're okay in the end. It feels like a market correction, a decision made halfway through development to soften the character's image, make him more palatable to an audience accustomed to more heroic heroes. When he explains that he was fully aware of a dumpster to break a fall or that he knew just when to stop before killing other men, it rings false because we don't get the internal struggle until much later.

In the early going, the moments that could be used to make us feel Matt's reluctance to go over the top are instead spent with character building on henchmen who don't end up mattering much to the story beyond some expository stepping stones to the main villain, Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio). There are a pair of Russian gangster brothers we learn a ton about, like their time in a gulag and a subtextual icky relationship between them that might go beyond regular brotherly love. They look like major players, but nope. A quick double cross and some fist fighting lead to Daredevil getting a piece of information on Fisk and we forget all about the Russian dudes.

These are some of the stops of the early part of Daredevil. The starts are fewer, but they're more spectacular. The action, for one, is the right kind of departure from the universe the show shares. Leaving out the “PG-16” rating producers hinted at with copious amounts of blood and swearing, the act of fighting is different in this show than in, say, Thor. People don't look like they're connected to wires, with the unnatural physics that creates, to say nothing of the reliance on CGI in the movie side of the Marvel enterprise. Daredevil, when in action, whips around like a precision-minded rag doll. He has a Judo style, with lots of flipping and momentum shifting to create a large amount of torque. This is helpful as Cox is slight of frame in comparison to the battle-tested thugs he slugs it out with. With the loosened restrictions on blood offered by the non-broadcast Netflix television model, we get to see the literal impacts of Daredevil's fighting prowess, measured in the nearly caved in heads of his adversaries. These guys don't look like they'll ever fully recover, if they wake up at all.

The various directors behind Daredevil's look utilize a much different cinematic toolbox than their moviemaking brethren. They understand the power of the presentational style, and restrain themselves from injecting the camera into these sequences like an unwanted extra character. In the much ballyhooed hallway fight that ends episode two, Daredevil invades a human trafficking ring's lair and the camera merely turns around as a fight ensues, with no obvious cuts – CGI is used to piece this intricate choreography into a cohesive, “unbroken” moment. Similarly, but more impressively, is a sequence a little down the line, which showcases deep focused background moments from the vantage point of a car. The camera slowly swivels from the car's interior as we witness the vigilante destroying a small army of men outside, all while a different blind man sits in the back seat, blissfully unaware of the carnage around him – sightlessness is a bit of a theme with this “justice is blind” character, in case you can't tell. All of this takes place in a deep green, yellow, and brown world. It's harsh, it's dark. It is not inviting. At first (unpleasant) glance, you wouldn't want to spend any time there, but if you squint, or in Matt's case, don't see it at all, you can understand how this place can feel oddly homey.

Matt's supporting cast isn't so bad, either. We have Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), Matt's best friend and law partner, the more well adjusted of the duo. He's a wiseacre, a bit of a doofus, a grounding force, and fiercely dedicated to the letter of the law and its ability to even the playing field for society's less powerful. We have Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), the fledgling law office's secretary-clerk-investigator (she's the only employee and a major plot driver, so she has to wear a lot of hats), whose tenacity gets her in as much trouble as it helps the firm – her can-do spirit helps her overcome the initial damsel-in-distress role she's tasked with. And there's Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall), a hard-nosed reporter at a local paper with a lovable gruffness if not, unfortunately, an overly useful role – he's more of a reiteration device, investigating things that are not mysteries for the audience or Daredevil. But again, likeable presences all around.

The powerhouse performance, however, is reserved for D'Onofrio's Fisk. As the up-and-coming Kingpin of Crime, one might not expect Fisk to be so reserved. But he's painfully shy. Everything he says requires extreme exertion. It looks like it hurts him to make eye contact. Simply going out in public, as his role later requires of him, would be enough to make his therapist applaud his progress. He's a filthy rich man looking to gentrify the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, cleaning up the slumlike area for the good of the people. He sees no problem with utilizing illegal methods and strong arm tactics to push out the sullied poor who make the area their home. But his utilitarian end goal is what makes him so compelling. The neighborhood, as depicted, is a piece of trash. Buildings are falling down, low level mafia members run the streets, and the local bar looks like something out of The Road Warrior. It's a depressed location that could use some sprucing up. And Fisk sees himself as the man to fix the problem.

Once Fisk comes front and center during the middle portion of Daredevil season one, things start to improve rapidly. This is when Matt's character, and conflicting motivations, begin to click. We get some stakes in the form of the enormity of Fisk's criminal enterprise and the low, low levels he will go to in order to achieve his goals. And the tension between these two extremely violent men and their contradicting notions of being the only man able to fix everyone's problems – something that is obviously impossible for either – is rich.

Daredevil almost makes it. It comes very close to overcoming its clumsy opening chapters. It could stand to lose an episode or three, or at least a couple red herring backstories in order to focus on the people who matter in this story. Like its protagonist, though, Daredevil is a show that is better at knocking 'em down than setting 'em up. Maybe, in that process, though, the knockdown will provide the setup for season two. 

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