This week, we give proper funnybooks a rest to discuss (Good Lord! *choke!*) a funnybook TV show…
So, yeah… I watched Daredevil this weekend, just like every other dork in America. What can I say? For once, we got a funnybook adaptation that actually looked like it might not suck. And lord knows the source material is impeccable. I’m not sure there’s been a more consistently good corporate spandex comic in the last 35 years. I mean, sure, it’s had its down periods. But the list of creators who’ve worked on the character since the late 1970s is pretty damned impressive:
John Romita Jr
Brian Michael Bendis
That’s a lot of serious talent, turning in a lot of really excellent stories. Even the ones I didn’t personally enjoy have a certain creative integrity that I can’t help but respect. It’s a lot to live up to. So much to live up to, in fact, that I couldn’t help but maintain a healthy skepticism going into the TV show. Daredevil is the kind of heavy noir storytelling that’s far too easy to mess up. The hero is seriously flawed, and he moves in a morally complex world of a type you don’t see all that often in heroic television drama. I hoped that they’d nail it, but suspected they wouldn’t. So I braced myself, and dove in.
Initial impressions were not good.
Actually, that’s not quite fair. I didn’t think the first episode was bad. But I didn’t think it was anything special, either. The dialogue was passable, but didn’t impress. The acting was solid, but nothing to write home about. And the plot seemed to have been copied verbatim out of the crime show playbook. I think Perry Mason cracked the same case back in the Fifties. Jim Rockford might have tackled it, too. Honestly, the whole thing seemed a bit cookie cutter to me. Other than an admirable dedication to dim lighting (the blacks on this show are DEEP), there was nothing in that first episode that made Daredevil stand out from a dozen other competently-executed but generally uninteresting detective shows.
Again, I didn’t hate it. Far from it. There’s a lot to like. The fight scenes, for instance, are crisp and brutal, and Daredevil has to struggle to defeat even the nameless thugs he encounters. I mean, he still comes off like the acrobatic martial arts badass he should.
He seldom fights fewer than three people at once. But nobody goes down to just one punch in this show. Just like real people (especially real people who make their living with violence), the bad guys get knocked down, struggle back to their feet, and keep fighting. So does Our Hero, for that matter. And those are often the best parts.
I’m also quite fond of how they introduce the audience to Matt Murdock’s super powers. Rather than explaining them, they demonstrate them and let us figure it out. When he uses his super hearing, for instance, they go in for a slight close-up on his ear as the sound of someone’s heartbeat slowly fades in and comes to dominate the soundtrack. Or we hear the exaggerated sound of a gun being cocked, accompanied by a quick head turn and a reaction that makes it look like Our Hero is dodging bullets when in reality he’s just getting out of the way before they’re fired.
So they’re handling the super hero stuff really well. In that first episode, though, little else seemed to be firing on all cylinders. It was pretty good, but not much more. And pretty good ain’t gonna cut it. I’ve got better things to do with my time. So I kind of felt like I was done with it.
Then I decided to write this review.
Swiftly, I realized that one episode wasn’t going to cut it if I was going to express any kind of formal opinion. The whole first season’s available for viewing, after all. So discussing it after only watching one episode would be kind of like reviewing the first chapter of a novel. Besides, I hadn’t seen Vincent D’Onofrio yet, and he was half the reason I watched it in the first place. So I dove back in.
And it got better. The plots became more interesting, the acting improved, the characters deepened. But the good stuff kept getting undermined by narrative missteps. The second episode, for instance, does a nice job building tension as a critically-injured Daredevil has to defend an apartment building from the men who tried to kill him. But that tension is periodically deflated by a comedic B-plot with Karen Page and Foggy Nelson. It’s good character work on those two, don’t get me wrong, and both actors are good in their roles. But the other half of the episode is so much more compelling that their scenes felt like an unwanted interruption.
On the plus side, though, that episode does end with some real bravado filmmaking: an extended fight scene in a hallway, filmed as one long take. It’s a bit reminiscent of Oldboy, I suppose, but it becomes its own thing by the end. The tight quarters give the fight a brutal, claustrophobic atmosphere. You feel the impact of every punch. It’s great stuff, and it gives the show something it had been lacking up to that point: style.
The third episode starts out even stronger. The whole thing’s a huge moral quagmire, as Murdock convinces Foggy to compromise his integrity in defending a man they know is guilty of murder. Now, Matt’s pretty sure the guy’s going to get off regardless of what they do, and secretly plans to take their client down as Daredevil once they get him off the hook. But Foggy doesn’t know that, and winds up believing that he’s taken the money because sometimes you have to compromise. Ugly. The trial itself isn’t all that gripping, but it’s fascinating to watch Our Hero manipulate his best friend in the name of the greater good. I was doubly pleased to see that, because it’s an example of the moral ambiguity I was afraid the TV series wasn’t going to deal in: Matt Murdock might be a hero, but he’s not always a nice person. So I was impressed, and ready to admit that this show had more on the ball than I’d been giving it credit for.
Then they blew it. Something happens (I won’t say what), and it’s supposed to be a huge, shocking WTF moment. But the execution of it is so ludicrous that I just burst out laughing. And I’m not talking about a bad special effect or anything. I could give a rat’s ass about special effects. It’s the event itself that’s the problem. It’s ridiculous, and I laughed, and all that hard work they did setting up moral dilemmas and thematic resonances just went right out the damn window.
At this point, I was getting frustrated. Daredevil is obviously being put together with care and intelligence. They’re paying attention to color and lighting and sound. And they’re exploring all kinds of fascinating subject matter. Crime, punishment, victimization, heroism, religion, fear, anger, control… Even the moral implication of vigilantism is getting a workout, and that’s something the super hero genre usually ignores rather studiously. This thing has all the makings of an epic noir potboiler, a masterpiece of street-level super heroics that honors its excellent source material.
“It’s so close to being great,” I thought, “but they just can’t quite get their shit together.”
I plunged onward anyway, though, determined to see Vincent D’Onofrio’s turn as the Kingpin. We finally got a glimpse of him at the end of episode three, and the next installment promised the full reveal. One more, I figured, then I’d write the damn review and be done with it.
So of course he comes on screen and immediately saves the show.
Because episode four is where it all clicks, and it clicks because of D’Onofrio and Fisk. The character is written better than I ever could have expected, and D’Onofrio’s portrayal of him is nuanced and complicated. He’s both powerful and vulnerable. An evil thug and a tightly controlled man made uncomfortable by social situations. It’s everything I’d been seeing the potential for in the show as a whole, and not quite getting.
This is not to slight the rest of the cast. They’re all perfectly competent performers. Actually, Deborah Ann Woll is a damn sight more than competent as Karen Page. She’s giving an understated performance that I’m probably not enjoying as much as I should. But D’Onofrio’s Fisk is something else again. He immediately becomes Matt Murdock’s opposite number, a step away from the cartoonishly evil criminals we’ve gotten up to that point and toward something far more interesting.
And that’s all I’ve seen. So I’m still reviewing the first third of a novel here. But at this point, I feel confident in calling it a novel. It’s a slow-building story unfolding over the course of 13 hours of television, replete with depth of theme and character, a compelling conflict, and one hell of a villain. It has all the makings of an epic noir pot-boiler, and the potential to be top-notch super hero fiction as well. Just like its source material.
And yet I still won’t call it great. Its weaknesses are real, and mar the early episodes. But now it’s won me over, and I’ll definitely be going back for more.
A post-script: I guested this week on the Too Much Scrolling podcast, where we discussed Daredevil at great length. I said a lot of the same crap I said here, but my hosts (Chip and Stephen) offered far better insights, and they’re well-worth hearing. Check it out here: http://toomuchscrolling.podbean.com/e/they-just-can%e2%80%99t-put-a-finger-on-it/
But you should totally check out Too Much Scrolling, anyway. They’re good kids.