[Review] Daredevil (Marvel/Netflix TV series)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has proven to be an unstoppable force, regularly producing films and television programs that mine the depths of their catalog. These productions feature properties that bring larger-than-life characters from the four-color pages of comic books, thus introducing these characters to a whole new audience that would never otherwise sweet foot in a comic shop. 

Since re-acquiring the Daredevil property from 20th Century Fox in 2012, Marvel has displayed a consistent ability to "get it right" when it comes to putting their properties on either the large or small screens.  A year after the rights reverted to Marvel, it was announced that they had entered into a deal with Netflix to produce a number of serious based on Marvel paperless, including Daredevil.

Two weeks ago, the thirteen episode series Daredevil premiered on Netflix, marking a major departure from other Marvel productions. The series is dark and gritty in tone, seeking to emulate a crime drama, which is a radical departure from all the other Marvel offerings, to date.

There is a lot to really like in this series. Starting with the title sequence beginning with the slow reveal of blind Justice (a nod, perhaps, to Matt Murdock's own blindness as he strives for justice for the disenfranchised?), the music really sets the stage for what it's too follow. In fact, there are some very interesting musical choices that while being unexpected at times, serve to perfectly set the stage for what we are seeing on screen. At times the lighting also works in unexpected ways. Often, the heroes are shot in dim, diffused lighting, highlighting the low-rent office space area while the corporate villains that are working against Daredevil and his allies are for in bright, high key lighting that also provide a visual counterpoint to the deeds of darkness that are done in the daylight.

One of the real surprised to me is the fight choreography. It is epically good, probably the best I've ever seen. I used to think the best was on Arrow, but I've seen Daredevil and now I know better.  TV.com recently posted an interview with the fight coordinator explaining how a three-minute, single-shot sequence where Daredevil takes on a gang Russian mobsters in a hallway was pulled off.

The writing is excellent, the acting is top-notch, and especially Vincent D'Onofrio is perfectly cast as Wilson Fisk, aka, the Kingpin, the series' major villain. The only thing about the acting that have need pause was that it seemed as if D'Onofrio was using vocal inflections from his character in Men in Black.

One of the major themes that finds through out the first session is "What keeps a good man from becoming like that which he fights against?" Daredevil & Fisk state repeatedly that their purposes for doing what they do are in fact, the same: "To make their city a better place to live." In fact, this is spoken almost word-for-word by each of them at various times. But how they go about it is a fascinating display of opposites. When he first bursts onto the scene, Matt is dubbed "Devil of Hell's Kitchen," which seems to play up an almost anarchic sense of justice: the police and those who we have been taught to trust to protect us are failing, and someone must intervene. On the other hand, Fisk is determined to live in the shadows, refusing to allow even those closest to him to "speak his name." Even when we does venture out into public, he is immaculately groomed: everything has its place and everything in its place. On the surface, the Kingpin (a name that sadly does not appear in the series thus far), represents order, but as the series develops, it is a Mephistophelian order, one that brooks no dissension, nor deviation from the visualized destiny.

The struggle to maintain one's sense of righteousness, and not be sucked in to the temptation to use your enemy's methods against him is palpable. I especially appreciate the fact that Matt is motivated to seek out guidance from outside of himself. As a Catholic, he understands that the seal of the confessional is inviolate, and so his secrets are safe with the priest, Father Lantom. Every interaction between Matt and Father Lantom is powerful.  It is as if the priest gets Matt and is gently guiding him along a moral pathway that is fraught with "dangers, toils and snares."  Two scenes from the series, I believe, brilliantly illustrate both just how good the writing is and this moral dilemma Matt faces.  In episode 9, "Speak of the Devil," Matt's best friend Foggy Nelson, their secretary Karen Page and reporter Ben Urich are discussing the motivations of the "Devil of Hell's Kitchen:"

Foggy Nelson: "Why did he come to Ben? Why not just take Fisk down himself?"
Ben Urich "Maybe he knows there's some roads you can't come back from."

Likewise, in the very next episode, Madame Gao, the leader of a Chinese heroin smuggling ring lectures Fisk on the conflict within himself:

Madame Gao: "Man cannot be both savior and oppressor"

While I was watching this series, I was also reading Greg Garrett's excellent resource Holy Superheroes!: Exploring the Sacred in Comics, Graphic Novels, and Film (revised and expanded, from 2008) In a chapter on vigilante justice, Garrett references a couple of issues of the Daredevil comic from 2003 that seem to have an influence on the overall tone of the series:

"Seeing how superheroes deal with the kind of human problems we might face can be instructive. In the issues of Daredevil, written by Brian Michael Bendis, the character of Matt Murdock/Daredevil has faced many problems that couldn't simply be solved by a well-placed fist, and his response to them has been morally ambiguous. Matt tells his friend and law partner Foggy Nelson that he misses going toe-to-toe with one of his most dangerous foes, Wilson Fisk/the Kingpin, because he says, 'I knew where I stood with Wilson, I knew the rules.' (Daredevil, vol. 2, #45 [2003], p. 8)

"Matt has returned to pragmatism, instead of relying on a rock-solid moral code to do what's right. And as a result, one of Matt's friends, fellow superhero Luke Cage, tells him he's turned into a 'low-life piece of garbage.' Luke goes on to explain: 'Our entire existence, we put on the outfit -- all the crap we been through -- what puts us apart from the lowlifes is how we behaved with the crap we didn't ask for...Be a man! Stand for something more than just a pair of tights.'" (Daredevil, vol. 2, #44 [2003], pp. 20, 22, quoted in Holy Superheroes! by Greg Garrett)

Greg Garrett mentions a notion prevalent in many comics, that of "pop fascism" (p. 65), which is where the superhero imposes his or her own interpretation of justice in a situation where it is apparent that the appropriate authorities are either incapable or unwilling to do so. The problem with this, as Garrett sees it, is that that it can lead to moral pragmatism, or the determination that only what "works" is all that is important, without being anchored to a moral code that applies across the board. This small-screen iteration of Daredevil could very easily head down this road and end up in a place where he is uncertain of where he stands with the so-called "bad guys." Instead, he is guided by Father Lantom, Foggy Nelson, Karen Page, and another character that challenges his motivations Claire Temple (played by Rosario Dawson).

Overall, Daredevil is excellently produced. I would caution viewers that the series deserves its TV-MA rating. In fact, that is probably my only criticism. I think I would prefer less language and less gore. That said, neither the language or the for feels that out of place, just an observation in the interest of full disclosure.

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