Friday, April 24, 2015

TV Review: Daredevil Season 1

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: This show transcends its comic book source material and delivers a first-rate genre entry fueled by challenging, hard-hitting drama

Note that I typically do much shorter reviews, but as I am reviewing the entire first season of Daredevil and as I was quite entrhalled by the series, I decided not to hold back and instead unleash a full-on analysis of the show.

Not Just Another Superhero Series

Over the past few years, we have seen more and more superhero television shows hitting the airwaves such as original entries like Heroes and The Cape along with comic book based shows like Arrow, Agents of SHIELD, and Gotham.  Netflix--which has been ramping up its original programming--is now getting into that game with several Marvel superheroes starting with Daredevil which was made available for streaming two weeks ago on April 10th.  This one will be followed by AKA Jessica Jones later this year, then next year a Luke Cage series will bow followed by Iron Fist and finally The Defenders which will bring all four of those characters into one series.

And if Daredevil is any indication, this multi-hero package of shows is off to a helluva start and has already taken a lead quality-wise over what the broadcast networks and cable channels are offering.  While shows like The CW's Arrow and The Flash as well as FOX's Gotham have done justice to their comic book source material, all of those have their shortcomings as well.  The CW entries have fantastic casting on their side and have demonstrated a willingness to bring in many familiar faces from the comics, but they suffer from their tendency to slip into soap opera sub-plots as well a propensity for copy and paste dialog and situations.  Gotham has delivered basically a crime story with frequent nods to the Batman mythos as it sets the stage for the Caped Crusader to eventually don his cowl.  But that one has a tendency toward melodrama and veers close to camp at times, and it has also felt padded out as its first season has progressed.  And while ABC did deliver a first-rate comic book entry with Agent Carter, Agents of SHIELD has just devolved into a mess after a promising start last year.

Daredevil is far more grounded than any of those shows as it takes a page from Gotham and delivers a crime story with superhero trappings, but it maneuvers past the over-the-top antics that have all too often crept into the shows mentioned above.  Daredevil has little in the way of sci fi elements (though it is linked to the Avengers movie universe and we hear a quick reference to the attack on New York early in the show) and also gives us a very human villain in Kingpin (though he is never actually referred to by that moniker in the series).  And while it focuses less on the fantastical, it still delivers the epic tale that you expect from a genre/superhero story while side-stepping the melodrama pitfalls of its source material and fully delving into the dramatic potential at its core.

An Extended Origin Story

I will admit that I have never followed Daredevil closely in comics, though I have read a sampling of his early adventures as well as his later stories, particularly those by Frank Miller.  I always liked Daredevil as a character, but typically it has been the more cosmic and sci fi superheroes in the Marvel stable that I followed.  Still, I have a passing familiarity with his origin story and some of his more infamous exploits over the years.

The series definitely hearkens back to the comics, but just like the other recent superhero shows on television, it takes plenty of liberties with the character's history as well.  The pilot does not belabor us with the expected expository origin story as we get about a two minute flashback sequence that recaps the accident that takes Matt Murdock's sight but also instills him with enhanced senses.  Those not familiar with the Daredevil backstory may actually miss the full implication of this, but it is revisited throughout the series as Season 1 essentially gives us an extended origin for Daredevil.  This allows us as the viewers to live through his early days as a vigilante and better understand how he evolved into the more iconic hero he will become.  He starts out without his familiar red suit as he simply dons a black mask when he begins his crusade against the criminal element in his city.  And it's actually not until the last episode that we get to see him in full action in the show's (quite excellent) version of his suit as that caps off the point at which Murdock transitions from a simple masked vigilante to an actual superhero (it's also when he finally gets name).

And while Murdock/Daredevil demonstrates his prowess with martial arts (which he learned from the mysterious character Stick), he comes from the Indiana Jones class of hard-knocks heroes.  Daredevil fights with skill and demonstrates amazing acrobatics, but when he takes a fall, he falls hard.  He doesn't walk away from his battles unscathed and several times you wonder if he will walk away at all, and that helps to ground the more fantastic elements of the superhero story.  We've seen similar from other recent superhero shows as well, but it is used well here to emphasize how Murdock is learning just how far he can stretch his limits and just how prepared he is for his campaign to become a super crime fighter.

Deconstruction and Reconstruction of the Superhero Story

The basic superhero story is a pretty simple one of hero vs villain, good vs. evil, right vs. wrong.  But we have seen that deconstructed over the past thirty years with revisionist superhero stories like The Watchmen, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight, and more which have gone dark and presented us with plenty of morally ambiguous characters and genre-stretching themes.  To an extent, the Daredevil series follows that same path, but it doesn't embrace the nihilism that has become all too common in comic book revisionism of late.  It does veer away from the simple tale of good vs. evil, and it does deliver the moral quandaries expected in superhero stories these days.  But as it deconstructs the genre, it also reconstructs it as it shows our main characters trying to keep a grip on those higher principles of good instead of allowing themselves to be dragged down by the despair which accosts them.  And thus, the basic elements of the traditional superhero story are still core to Daredevil even is it proceeds with its revisionist take on the genre.

Ultimately, it boils down to a tale of two towering figures (Daredevil and Kingpin) driven to change the world that is crumbling around them, yet they approach it from different perspectives.  Fisk/Kingpin comes from the position of power and is willing to make the hard sacrifices and allow the ends to justify the means in order to bring about the change he wants.  But whether he is truly evil is presented as a matter of debate in the story.  He shows a preference not to resort to violence, but if the situation calls for it he will not hesitate.  He approaches his campaign for change like the general on the battlefield; lives will be lost and the Scorched Earth policy may be required, but if his army is still standing at the end then they are the victors.  Daredevil comes at it from the perspective of the oppressed fighting against this ravaged world that has been allowed to descend into its current state by the cruel and uncaring people in power.  But he also fights the noble fight (with some shades of gray), trying to minimize the casualties on the battlefield.  He hasn't crossed the line yet like Fisk, but he struggles with it each day knowing that might be the easier path.  Both Fisk and Daredevil appear to ultimately have the same goal of saving their city and may just be different sides of the same coin, And Daredevil's journey will lead him to the point that he must decide if he is willing to cross the same line as Fisk to save his city.

The Actors and Their Characters Help the Show Soar

As with any series, the actors and the characters that they portray are crucial to the show's success and that is by far a strong point for Daredevil.  Charlie Cox--with his leaner, handsomer Quentin Tarantino looks--proves himself up to the task of playing the series lead.  He brings elements of uncertainty to the character as he shows Matt Murdock/Daredevil struggling to make the right decisions in his crusade against the forces that threaten his city.  He also reveals his inner turmoil as he has learned that the system he was brought up to trust does not always bring justice, and that leads him to the decision that he must step outside of the law.  In the pivotal scene were we see him pound the father that has abused his daughter (which Murdock could hear each night due to his ultra-sensitive hearing) we feel an allegiance with him despite his extreme, vigilante measures.  We have all had those moments where some instance of injustice has lead us to fantasize about striking out with impunity, and in that scene we see that played out.

Some might question Vincent D'Onofrio's muted portrayal of Wilson Fisk, but I personally consider it crucial to the success of the show.  We see Fisk as anything but the maniacal, conniving villain or megalomaniac so common to the superhero story. Often he appears halting and tentative with a sense of inner turmoil that links back to the beat upon boy we see from the flashbacks.  He also shows a need to find love that in his line of work ultimately turns into a vulnerability that works against him (though to the show's credit, all of that is handled without slipping into soap opera asides).  The Fisk we see is far from the powerful character you would expect, especially for readers of the comic book.  But to a larger extent that is just a guise as Fisk allows himself to appear vulnerable while all the time circling in for the kill.  We ultimately learn that he is actually a master strategist and manipulator and he proves that he should not be underestimated.

And not only do we get very strong characters for the show's two lead roles, the supporting cast/characters are top notch as well.  Elden Hensen is perfect as Foggy Nelson; he might be underestimated as the baby-faced lawyer, but he has the intelligence and strength of character to stand up against the dominating figures he must contend with.  His verbal sparring with Murdock is priceless and he acts as the heart and conscience of that lawyer duo.  Deborah Ann Woll steps away from the vampy character she played in True Blood and asserts herself next to the towering male characters in the series and stands out as more than just the damsel in distress.  While she does get put into that situation several times, she doesn't always have to rely on others to save her and she shows that her drive for the pursuit of justice is equal to that of Foggy and Matt.  Toby Leonard-Moore gives us this series' HRG and--just as Jack Coleman played the character in Heroes--while he may not truly be evil, he has no qualms about taking care of the messy things when necessary.  He also shows a genuine sense of friendship with Fisk which adds to the depth of both characters.  Scott Glenn (who has many roles to his credit but I personally best remember his as the biker Reeger in 1972's Gargoyles) stops by for one episode as Murdock's mentor Stick, asserting a strong presence and plenty of the moral ambiguity we expect from revisionist superhero stories these day, and he's definitely one we want to see more of.  Pretty much all of the characters in the series show sufficient development and the actors deliver that next level of performance to help the rise above the cardboard caricatures so often seen in shows like this.

The Limited Run and Arc-Driven Series Done Right

Word broke this week that Daredevil will be getting a second season on Netflix, and there were already plans in place for the character in the over-arching Defenders series mentioned above.  But despite that, the creative team took the right approach with the first season so as not to leave fans hanging as it wrapped up.

These days, we are all too often seeing the "event" series thrown at us by the broadcast networks and cable channels that allegedly will tell a complete story over its "limited run" (usually ten to thirteen episodes) and not leave and not leave a bunch of loose ends when it wraps ups.  But in truth this has become a bait-and-switch tactic to lure viewers into an arc-heavy series upon the assumption that it will deliver some sort of resolution, while it instead strings us along for more (hello cliffhanger).  Daredevil actually approaches its arc-heavy format the right way because it gives us an ongoing, thirteen-chapter story that wraps up with its final installment.  And while there is still plenty of story left to tell, it doesn't leave us on some wild cliffhanger that will not be resolved for a year or more (or not at all if a show gets cancelled).  At this point, I am eagerly awaiting the second season of the show, but that's because I want more of its well-crafted and engaging stories, not because it left a mountain of questions unresolved.  Most importantly (minor spoilers ahead), the final episode addresses the moral quandaries the heroes wrestled with over whether to work within the law or step outside of it, and takes a best-of-both-worlds approach as it delivers a satisfying resolution to the final confrontation the show has been building to.

Daredevil also succeeds at doing what the genre can do when at its best.  The series uses the world it creates to mirror our own and present challenging ideas that engage us and make us think more deeply about our own world.  And it doesn't offer simple answers as we are led to question the validity of the choices made by the heroes just as much as those made by the villains.  It transcends it comic book source material, leaving behind camp and melodrama, as it delivers a hard-hitting, dramatic tale.  And Daredevil likely managed to do this because its creative team had less network interference from Netflix (which has allowed its original entries plenty of creative freedom) than shows on the broadcast and cable channels typically experience.  But when you consider the mega-corp that is Marvel/Disney, I have to give the brass of those companies props for not simply playing it safe with the show and allowing it to explore some challenging territory.

Sci fi and fantasy stories have plenty of dramatic potential as well as the ability to delve into some deep moral and philosophical issues.  We have seen television shows over the last decade or so such as Battlestar: Galactica, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones rise to the challenge and prove that the genre can deliver first-rate story-telling.  After the first season of Daredevil, I would put it into the same class as those shows and far above the copy-and-paste corporate genre product that is all too often cranked out by the television networks these days in the hopes of finding the next Lost or TWD.  Daredevil delivers an excellent superhero series, and excellent genre series, and damn good television in general.  It would be nice to see more of this on TV and less of the corporate clones chasing the latest trends.  But for now I'm just happy knowing that we have another season of Daredevil headed our way next year (and the new showrunners better make sure that they took plenty of good notes from the person they are replacing).

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