The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been on a roll lately, interlinking movies and television shows together. The key, I feel, has been to make sure each individual creative work is done in a manner that suits it the best: from the fantastic realism of Captain America to the colorful space opera of Guardians of the Galaxy. With Daredevil, they’re trying something new… grounded, realistic crimefighting. It fits into the same universe as flying robots and talking racoons, but knows how to keep an internal tone that’s pitch-perfect. Drop down into the grimy city streets to see how the man with no fear translates to the small screen…
Episode Title: Into the Ring
Original Airdate: 4/10/2015
I’ll open up by saying I don’t know a whole lot about Daredevil. Everybody knows the basics; lawyer by day, crimefighter by night. Blind, but able to see through enhanced senses. Fights the mob in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen. And… that’s about it. (I saw the Ben Affleck version, but have been trying to purge it from my mind using a complex cocktail of electroshock and mind-altering chemicals.)
And frankly, that’s okay. A good show stands on its own without any prior knowledge, and I can say firmly that Daredevil stands upright. Is it true to the canon? Well, likely no, but it’s true to itself. That matters more.
I can say that as a disabled person myself, I recognize the patterns Matt goes through socially… once someone realizes he’s blind, there’s that “Oh crap” moment of paralysis, followed by very awkward attempts to dance around the issue and avoid screwing up. Daredevil doesn’t shy away from disability issues despite Matt being perfectly able to “see” around him, but doesn’t over-emphasize them either. I’m reminded of how Toph Bei-Fong was handled in Avatar; fully capable and accepted, but with little moments that remind us and her of this thing that has to be dealt with.
The Daredevil himself, Matt Murdoc, does an excellent job portraying the subtle and quiet lawyer side along with his explosively violent vigilante side. The “devil” metaphor introduced at the start — the idea of flipping between a good-natured and stalwart defender and an unending torrent of violence — is played with well throughout the show, and a lot of that can be chalked up to the writing.
It’s precise. It’s sparse. It’s quirky when it needs to be quirky and straightforward when it needs to be straightforward. You can easily tell what’s not being said as much as what’s being said. This is dialogue writing done well, and unlike the other show I’m reviewing for Channel: Superhero, it neatly expresses its characters and story without a lot of cruft and awkwardness.
As for that explosive vigilante violence, hoo boy. It is nicely done. I’d say it’s 80% close quarters martial arts, mixed grappling and striking and brawling, and 20% comic book agility craziness. Exactly the right proportions for a show that’s trying to be realistic while presenting the occasional defining moment of awe-inspiring wonder. Every fight is brutal; you never get the feeling that Matt is either easily taking out chumps or completely in over his head. Each time the stakes are equal and even if the outcome isn’t uncertain (he’s the hero, they’re not gonna kill him off) the victories are well-earned.
Finally, let’s talk story. The plot is pretty basic; a nice young woman saw something she wasn’t supposed to, and her employers framed her for murder. But where other writers would introduce plot conveniences to steer the narrative in whatever direction they like, these writers refuse to cop out. The police aren’t charging her immediately? There’s a reason for that. The bad guys aren’t simply killing her? There’s a reason for that. Punching someone in the head won’t solve all the problems, evil generally won in the end even if the nice young woman escaped with her life, and compromises had to be made. This is a rational story that plays its setup and consequences out meticulously, never skimming over an important detail or sweeping something inconvenient under the rug.
If I have anything negative to say, it’d be over-reliance on “woman in danger” as a plot motivator. It opens with some nice white girls being conscripted into overseas slavery (a myth perpetuated by movies like Taken; usually it’s the other way around) and the core plot concerns the hapless Karen Page being pulled this way and that by evil forces. But the show does at least subvert this slightly by having Karen fight off an attacker successfully, and smartly guard a few secrets of her own. Hopefully her character will be fleshed out more in episodes yet to come, as something other than a damsel in distress. She has to stand on her own right, not just as someone defined by the men in her life.
Still… that’s a minor complaint. Everything else worked quite nicely, adding up to a well rounded and well written television show I can’t wait to watch more of. …and thanks to Netflix’s season-binge capabilities, I won’t have to. But no binging on my reviews; come back next week and you’ll get more of those.