Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Too Much TV: DAREDEVIL (2015-?)

Trailing badly behind DC Comics in the race to colonize network television with superheroes, Marvel has virtually yielded the field in order to plant its flag in the realm of streaming media. Fans responded virtually orgasmically when Netflix released the entire 13-episode first season of Daredevil back in April. The first of a sequence of interrelated series meant to climax Avengers-style in the debut of a Defenders team, Daredevil is the first superhero show designed for binge viewing, and that was a major factor in the rapturous reception it received. Inevitably the show was overrated. Some of that was partisanship; Marvel fans who despite their side's dominance at the movies resented DC's superiority on TV could now say that Marvel had outclassed the competition on its favored ground. Venue as much as format mattered in the comparison. It was just as important that Daredevil wasn't a CW superhero show as it was that it was a Netflix show. What this seemed to mean was that Daredevil wasn't saddled with the sort of soap-opera subplots that were necessary to make DC superhero shows attractive to the CW's female audience. Specifically, there was no love triangle involving Matt Murdock, his law partner Foggy Nelson and their new assistant Karen Page. But if these fans abhorred romance there was still plenty of that to overlook as attention was paid to Foggy's flirting with Karen while Matt focused obsessively if not self-destructively on crime-fighting. For some fans "love triangle" was shorthand for everything wrong with the DC/CW shows, but in some ways Daredevil was no different from them, particularly in its conviction that there's no such thing as a noble lie. Nearly an entire episode was dedicated to Foggy's anger at Matt over keeping his crimefighting and superpowers secret since their college days, and the season ended with Karen keeping a guilty secret from her bosses, while Foggy hypocritically kept her out of the loop about Matt's double life. This sort of thing is the CW's meat, but Marvel fans don't really find it distasteful. In fact, it fits perfectly with the show's sometimes oppressive self-importance.

I didn't binge-watch the series, which is why you're only reading about it now, but I imagine that binging would only exacerbate the potential oppressiveness that for fans confers serious respectability on the show. Binging may actually be the correct way to watch a show that rejects a major convention of series television. What it rejects most importantly is the necessity of having a Threat or Mystery of the Week, a particular problem that Daredevil must solve within an hour of showtime. More often these days I see people complain about the "of the week" obligations of longform series, which are necessary if each episode is to have any chance at viability as a standalone, out-of-sequence episode. The binge audience apparently isn't interested in any given hour's potential to stand alone. They're only interested in the one big story of the season, from which the threat or mystery of any given week can only be an irrelevant distraction. By an older standard not much happened in Daredevil's first season, but by a newer standard a lot did, though a lot of it was character development, often done via flashback. I'm not sure so many people would love Daredevil if they watched it one hour at a time, one week at a time, while I might have been more overwhelmed had I done it all in a weekend. Watching it at my own pace, I found it a very good show that didn't quite justify the hosannas it received over the first weekend.

For a while, Daredevil threatened to look little different from the first season of Arrow. We had an urban vigilante feeling uncertain about his resort to violence, and we had an antagonist with an ambitious project to rehabilitate a slum neighborhood. Fortunately, Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio) didn't plan to rehab Hell's Kitchen with an artificial earthquake or other scorched-earth measures. The would-be Kingpin of crime -- once an arch-enemy of Spider-Man but deemed part of the Daredevil intellectual property ever since Frank Miller used him in his seminal 1980s stories-- wants to clean up the neighborhood the old fashioned way: by buying the tenements and driving out the tenants, with extreme prejudice if necessary. Daredevil is at its most creative in its fresh imagining of Fisk's background psychology. The comic-book Kingpin was first imagined by Stan Lee as a Sydney Greenstreet who could kick your ass or fry you with his laser-cane if it came to that, while Miller further underscored the big man's prowess as a martial artist. By contrast, D'Onofrio plays an awkwardly self-conscious Fisk, clearly uncomfortable in his own skin, whose fighting style is best described as "berserk tantrum." The show dares make him an object of pathos, flashing back to a tormented past when he killed his dad, a bullying failed politico, to save his mom from another beating. It gives its villain a romantic storyline as he courts the art-dealer Vanessa (Ayalet Zurer), whose abstract paintings calm him the more they resemble the stained, crumbling wall he used to stare at as a boy. In the comics Vanessa evolved from a long-suffering spouse -- we'd eventually meet an adult son who became the Kingpin's rival -- into a ruthless stand-by-your-man type who eventually had that son killed. Here she's an eccentrically, sympathetically amoral figure who seems to love Fisk for his telling her everything about himself and not in spite of his evil. The irony of the season is that, despite other setbacks, Fisk finds the love of his life while Matt (Charlie Cox) is reduced to tears at the thought of losing the few friends he has over the secrets he'd tried to keep.

Daredevil benefits from a solid ensemble, including Elden Henson in comedy relief as Foggy and Deborah Ann Wolf as Karen -- a character with bad news in store for her in the show follows later comics. It was admirably modest in scope in its first season, and if it probably could have shown us more villains it did well to keep Daredevil's two most important antagonists after Kingpin, Bullseye and Elektra, in reserve for future seasons. The show's fight scenes were highly praised, but I might praise them more if I could see them more clearly through the sometimes-stygian cinematography. In the end I was impressed in many ways, yet still felt something was missing. It never quite popped for me the way a superhero show should, and in its commitment to a certain pretentious grittiness the show probably didn't want to pop like that. It was certainly far better than Arrow's unfocused third season, and almost infinitely superior to Gotham's cumulative ineptitude, but I don't think Daredevil is better yet than Arrow at its best, and I enjoyed it less than I did the first season of The Flash. Write that off to personal taste if you wish, but I don't think that more spectacle and more fun would hurt the show. As someone with impeccable credentials with comics and movie fans once asked: why so serious? Another show that ran while I worked my way through Daredevil did a better job of balancing seriousness and fun, as I hope to prove in the next review in this series -- and to give you a clue, I found it in a familiar place.


hobbyfan said...

Elektra is to Daredevil what Catwoman has been to Batman. Sometimes enemy, sometimes lover. Let's not lose sight of that particular dynamic, especially when season 2 begins.

Bullseye moved up in importance as a villain during the Miller eras as well. Before that, what consisted DD's rogues gallery? Owl. Stilt-Man. Gladiator, whom we saw out of costume in the latter stages of season 1. Killgrave, the Purple Man. Mandrill. Mr. Fear. Need I go on?

Let us not forget also that in the pre-Miller years, DD also had a partnership/romance with Black Widow, which begs to wonder if Scarlett Johannson can be persuaded to do at least a guest shot down the line, or do the Marbleheads want us to forget those years?

Spuddie said...

Its tough to compare Daredevil to the Flash. Daredevil gives you ninja assassins with blades on chains. Flash gives you a psychic talking gorilla. Both are enjoyable but in much different ways