PILOT LITE: Daredevil (2015 television series)

Posted: April 17, 2015 in Avengers, Captain America, Daredevil, Defenders, Frank Miller, Iron Man, Marvel

Daredevil is a character that I know a lot about. I find him very interesting, but apparently not enough to keep up on his monthly antics. Confession time: I’ve read very little of his adventures in print. Other than a good chunk of Frank Miller’s work on the character in the 80’s, I’ve only read “Guardian Devil”, Kevin Smith’s late-90’s re-invigorization of the titular red-clad hero. And yet, I know insane details about the character’s history, backstory and tertiary cast members simply because of how fascinating he is.

As I’ve discussed, this character is best known to modern audiences as a punchline due to the 2003 film adaptation. While I may see more good in that film than the average person, it is definitely harder to appreciate as time goes on. Because of its overall failure (weak box office receipts, weaker reviews), Fox, the studio that controlled the character, was slow to move forward with a sequel or reboot. As such, the rights eventually reverted back to Marvel, who was no longer in the business of selling off their properties. Not long after, a partnership between Marvel Studios and Netflix was announced. Along with that, came an ambitious slate of content that would ultimately culminate in a team-up style miniseries. The first of the announced shows was none-other than the titular man without fear.

Netflix has a significantly different release and distribution strategy than the average network. Namely, they don’t actually create pilots. Their shows go straight to series and are then all released at once. Because of that, this entire first season will be treated as the pilot for the purposes of this article. I will try to avoid major spoilers and be general in my descriptions, but if you want to remain completely blind going into the series, you should probably stop reading and go watch it, if you haven’t already.

Welcome to Hell’s Kitchen.

The basic story surrounding this series is really nothing new or shocking to those who are familiar with the character: blind lawyer Matt Murdock and his partner-in-law Foggy Nelson open up a firm in Hell’s Kitchen (portrayed, in an interesting twist, as a neighborhood still struggling to rebuild after the events of The Avengers). Murdock’s nocturnal life as the vigilante Daredevil displays the abilities he was given when blinded as a youngster. From there, he uncovers a conspiracy run by Wilson Fisk, who comic fans know as The Kingpin. That basic premise does nothing to explain the complexity that this series delivers on all levels.

“Just a mild-mannered lawyer. Nothing odd here.”

First, I’ll address the cast. Charlie Cox was announced as Daredevil very early into the development process of this series. It seems abundantly clear that the producers were confident in their selection and that he has had plenty of time to explore the character and understand what makes him tick. This is evident from his very first scene in episode one. Matt sits in confession and asks forgiveness for the pain he is about to cause in this story. It establishes the character’s beliefs and familial history in a wonderful way and allows Cox to show off his range in this character. Brian Baer (collaborator and fellow Moderate Fanboy) pointed out that Cox does remarkable work with Murdock’s voice. He always keeps a tempered and “peaceful” tone. Exactly the kind of voice you’d expect from someone with heightened senses. And that’s to say nothing of his physicality in the role. Unlike Iron Man (or any of the big-budget Avengers really), Daredevil doesn’t have the luxury of technology to aid in his crusade against crime. As such, the fights have an appropriate “low-tech” quality to them. There is clearly minimal cgi and it seems that Cox (as well as D’Onofrio, but we’ll get to that later) did as much as he could on his own.

“Hi, I’m Jon Favreau.
And this is my friend,

the bald guy from The Matrix.”

The other actors involved are as well cast as Cox. I could probably write entire paragraphs about each of these actors and the roles they inhabit, so I’ll try to be as brief as possible. Elden Henson plays Foggy, Murdock’s sidekick/fellow lawyer. In the first episode, Henson seems a little unsure of the role and how broad to go with it. Luckily, he gets much more comfortable as the series progresses. The female lead is Karen Page (sorry fanboys, no Elektra…yet), a character with a dramatic and tragic history in the comic. Here, her backstory is only hinted at, but it’s sure to come out as the series progresses. Debra Ann Woll plays Karen with an undeniable strength that is clearly the result of some serious trauma. It’s amazing how much is gleaned from this character (and the show as a whole) without it being overtly stated. The heroes are rounded out with Ben Urich (played by Vondie Curtis-Hall) and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). Temple has larger ties within the Marvel Comics universe (that will hopefully get fleshed out in other films or tv series) and Urich is a very relatable and tragic figure within the narrative.

One interesting aspect of the character interactions is how little Matt Murdock is tied to side-stories. Even though he’s the lead, the secondary characters largely have adventures independent of his own. Obviously, they all connect on some level, but it was refreshing to see a cast that wasn’t subservient to the show’s main character. They are all competent and don’t need a hero to direct their stories.

No white suit?

On the villainous side of things, Wilson Fisk isn’t an easy character to tackle. And Vincent D’Onofrio is just the man to take on the role. He exudes the type of confidence that a good villain needs. And yet, the story pulls that back a bit and we get a chance to see the wounded child that built himself up into a monster like Fisk in order to survive this harsh world. I find it very fascinating that the showrunners had the confidence in their villain and their story to make him the romantic lead of the series. His budding relationship with Vanessa grounds him in a level of reality not seen with most villains. Also, with his speech patterns and self-isolation (he claims he feels uncomfortable in crowds), I wonder if Fisk falls somewhere on the autism spectrum. That may not have been the series’ intention, but just the fact that it can be perceived that way is steps ahead of most popular media. With that sense of romanticism also comes Fisk’s savagery. I have not seen an enemy with so visceral a fighting style and so fierce a demeanor when in combat in a Marvel adaptation. His moments of violence are shocking and intensely well done. This is a truly well-crafted role that has seemingly opposing sides which actually serve to inform one another.

Other than Fisk, my favorite villain is Leland Owlsley. Played by Bob Gunton, he is the eternal lackey. Constantly whining or jockeying for position in the complex world of a criminal empire, you can’t help but appreciate what a little stooly he is.

A first-rate cast will only get you so far. To fully capture the spirit and tone of the comic requires commitment from all of the components that come together to create a fictional universe. Luckily, that is achieved here in a way that makes it look effortless. Marvel is known for its larger-than-life adventures and bright, almost joyous, tone. To be honest, when it was announced that Daredevil was being made, I was a little worried that the character would be softened to better fit him into the MCU. But those who’ve seen the show can attest that absolutely nothing has been softened in this story. And yet it works. Despite its darkness, it still fits easily within the previously-established universe.

The lead up to one of the best televised fight scenes ever.

Reveling in the darkness of this show may sound odd coming from me, since I have been very vocal about my distaste towards DC’s “darkening” of their film franchise. But I think it has to do with the character. You’ll never hear me complain about Batman being too dark and Daredevil, as a character, fits into that same category. He is a street-level hero who inhabits a seedy, ugly city. As such, his stories shouldn’t be as bright and colorful as Captain America’s. This shows a fundamental and important aspect of Marvel’s dominance in the adaptation game: they understand their characters. They know who needs to be dark, who needs to be light, and everything in between. That said, there is still plenty of cross-over appeal. If Batman can have a spot in the JLA, Daredevil should assuredly show up in future Marvel endeavors.

Just a shockingly good scene…

My personal favorite episode is number seven (titled “Stick”). It introduces Matt’s former mentor and features a quiet scene in a park that I found to contain some amazing and touching dialogue. It’s all about Matt coming to terms with his new reality and using his blindness as an advantage. Scott Glenn’s take on Stick is equal parts Yoda and Pai Mei. He transitions from Matt’s fatherly savior to an angry old soldier quite expertly. I hope we get to see more of him in the future.

In the end, I cannot recommend this show highly enough. I’m sure this series has some flaws, but I have a hard time being nit-picky enough to notice them. Every aspect from the characters and actors to the tone and execution seemed totally pitch-perfect. This bodes pretty well for the remaining Netflix series (the currently-filming Jessica Jones and future shows Luke Cage and Iron Fist) because each of those characters also have a carefully cultivated tone that Marvel would do well to preserve. Daredevil may not have the same level of recognition or appeal as Agengers: Age of Ultron but I can say, with all honesty, that the Marvel brand hasn’t felt this fresh since Robert Downey Jr. donned that infamous suit of armor for the first time.

I could see him shoulder to shoulder with Cap and Iron Man.

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