Saturday, May 16, 2015

Let's Finally Talk Marvel's "Daredevil"

I'm not a rabid fan of The Man Without Fear, but on and off over the years, I've enjoyed reading comics about Marvel's foremost punching bag, Daredevil.  Of all of Marvel's staple characters, since the 1980's at least, Daredevil has been like a weird superhero/ noir/ gangland epic soap opera that mostly lost it's way when it veered too far into the rest of Marvel's superheroing and was at it's best when it kept even the costumed heroes and villains a bit more grounded and spent a lot of time with Murdock out of costume.*

If I were to recommend runs, I'd really recommend the Frank Miller era (the man's work just keeps bearing fruit) and the unbelievable Brian Michael Bendis era that had tremendous impact not just on Daredevil - forever changing the character while making him, somehow, even more Dardevil - but on the concept of dual identities in comics.  

So when I saw the initial previews of the Netflix-direct Daredevil show, I was a little shocked to see how much it looked exactly like a mix of Miller, Romita Jr., Mazzucchelli and Klaus Janson's work on the book and the Bendis-era Maleev tones and compositions.  And while Miller's story took place with Daredevil well established in the Marvel U, it certainly harkens back to his work.

But, of course, it was also vastly different.  Karen Page...  poor, catastrophic Karen Page is a mix of what she first appeared as in the early Daredevil books - the third wheel in the Nelson & Murdock bromance - and the trouble magnet she'd become.  

Ben Urich is shockingly Ben Urich.  His casting and character was one of the worst aspects of the last Daredevil adaptation, but in the comics he's one of the best characters in the Marvel U, and the show did him justice to a surprising degree, creating the sort of three dimensional eyes-on-the-street that's so often missing from superhero comics.  He's the reminder not just that there are mortals living their lives and not having sexy superhero fun, but that there are people without laser fingers fighting the good fight in far more mundane capacities.

Foggy Nelson, a character cursed with one of those wacky sidekick names that has been carried on for decades well after such things went out of style (no Doiby Dickles in Green Lantern, no Woozy Winks wanders the DCU in 2015), but I very much appreciated the direct translation of Foggy from latter-era Daredevil comics to the show.  Heart of gold, probably would never be where he got without his pal, but not just there to be the wisecracking goof.  He's invested, and when things go badly, he feels it.

It's worth noting that Wilson Fisk did not begin his fictional life as Daredevil's main problem.  He was a high-rolling gangster and mountain of a man in Spider-Man comics.  But that was always Daredevil's problem in the Marvel U until the 1980's - he was always a sort of also-ran to Spider-Man's more colorful A-list adventures.  Just another rooftop hero fighting goofy badguys and basically the "who is that guy?" character when you got your pack of Marvel character stickers (back when Hawkeye also fell into that category).  

Miller really brought Fisk in as the villain he's become for Daredevil, and it's become the defining hero/ villain dynamic of the title for a long time now.  And, much like Doctor Doom, it's always been easy to fall back on a pretty ridiculous version of The Kingpin - right down to the Michael Clarke Duncan performance in the earlier adaptation.**  

Here, though, we get a Wilson Fisk with a backstory, with human longing that results in what was always (to me) the most interesting part of his character - his complicated relationship with Vanessa.  And, most importantly, the show takes the character development perhaps a shade further setting up the theme of the season - both Fisk and Murdock are men set about realizing their vision and expressing their love for the place they call home via deeply illegal methods.  

By setting up Daredevil and Kingpin in a "Year One" sort of motif, the two characters say so much about each other, reflecting off one another - both having close friends sticking by them (and then losing them for varying reasons), gaining the necessary third leg of the stool with the inclusion of a new lady friend, of trying to protect the people who live in the neighborhood versus wanting to raze the neighborhood to see the area reach its potential (something any of us living in rapidly gentrifying cities can maybe see a little too up close).  

Hell, Fisk can see - but all he sees is the scarred wall of white.  But Murdock can't see, but sees a world on fire.  

Superheroes fighting their opposite number or evil mirror version is nothing new.  It's how we wind up with Tony Stark fighting Jeff Bridges in a tank with legs.  Or Hulk fighting The Abomination or Superman fighting Zod.  It's a trope.  But with the longer running time of a 13 episode TV series to let this play out, the concept felt organic, driven by story and even a smidge literary, if we can afford those pretentions.

Vincent D'Onofrio was some inspired casting.  One of those super talented actors who has never been afraid to go the extra mile in his choices, and he seemed to really disappear into the part in a way that was leaving everyone else to keep up.  

Murdock's own origin remains exceedingly true to the comics, as is the treatment of the "power" as near secondary as his blindness is as a convenient way to hide his identity.  Sure, they play with the sonar sense and heightened everything in the comics a bit more, but it's what Daredevil does - not just the gee whiz of his powers that's the interesting bit.  

I appreciated that the origins got treated in-story rather than getting handed to us chronologically, and that if we were to get Stick, it made sense in the Marvel Cinematic U.  Even if I'd have been okay with a bit more of the ninja mysticism bit.  But the strayed Catholic bit is important to Murdock, the weakness for a pretty face, the tendency to not play it straight with his very best friend...  all of those things wound up in the show without feeling watered down or campy.  

Charlie Cox was also a great bit of casting, and he certainly nailed Murdock as I've tended to think of him in a way that Affleck's cool-bro flip attitude didn't carry off.  Matt Murdock is cool without trying, he doesn't need an audience to laugh for him when he makes a joke, and he is a deeply messed up guy, constantly treading water - sometimes thrashing beneath the surface - to remain cool and aloof and give off the illusion this is all going well for the blind lawyer.  And, of course, he's the Marvel hero who makes mistakes.  All of which the writing of the show and Cox seemed to take in stride.  No need to fix this - this is what Daredevil is.

The violence.

A LOT has been said about the violence on this show, and of the Marvel properties, this is probably the most broken bones and broken faces since Punisher: War Zone.  But, again, that's kind of what Daredevil is - it's not the sunny skies superhero story.  It's the one about the guy made of flesh and bone who had to go into the office with a bandage on his face in the morning because some armored villain took a 2x4 to his cheek the evening prior.  

We all have varying relationships with violence on television or at the movies, and I know I have points on the spectrum where I check out, but Daredevil wasn't it.  While it IS most certainly a superhero show, it's also the one where you don't get laser beams or faceless guys getting conked by Cap's flying shield.  It really is up close fighting, and when that happens, people tend to get broken in places.  

It may be an artifact from the part of comics' big push to not be seen as kiddie stuff back in the 1980's, but once the question of "how would this really work?" or "how does this look if it's real?" begins to occur in comics as they sought to tell more complex stories with characters intended for an audience that was at least old enough to care, but it's not an illegitimate angle or kind of storytelling for comics or fantasy superhero stories.  It's just one with a narrower audience.  

It's been a long, long time since I did any martial arts, but I haven't forgotten the sheer exhaustion of sparring nights, or the bumps and bruises that showed up a couple of hours afterward.  Or what happens when you don't have the pads on.  

I appreciate the spectrum for portrayals of violence, but I think Daredevil came by what they did honestly, and I never felt it was out of bounds.  It was street-level 80's comics action stuff, and those sound effects in the comics always meant something.

Anyway, did I love Dardevil?  Maybe not like I enjoy Mad Men or The Americans.  Certainly in a different way from The Flash, which doesn't require a TV-MA rating.  But I appreciated a more grounded storytelling as part of the widening spectrum of superhero media making it to screens big and small.

*all that said, I've enjoyed a good bit of Waid's Daredevil run, but that's to be expected.

**not something I'm blaming on Duncan, but on how superheroes hadn't quite evolved yet on screen at the time


J.S. said...

I really liked the show. There's a lot to say about it. I REALLY liked the fight scenes. I felt like you could actually see Daredevil getting better at fighting as the show progressed. He sort of started with a certain amount of skill that he gained by training, but then it seemed like he was figuring out how to turn himself into an actual superhero as he went along (determined to get better, but taking a lot of serious lumps along the learning curve). The hallway fight scene one of the best superhero fights I'd seen in years.

I think it was sort of derived from the fight scene from 2003's Oldboy, but the scene in that movie is badass and well worth borrowing from. Very convincing.

The League said...

The hallway fight scene was amazing. Back when I did martial arts, we'd have something called "Fight Night" for all the belts that were high enough for contact sparring. It was an hour or more of straight sparring, and it was insane. Fighting one person for a minute or two is taxing. Fighting continuously against multiple people is flat out exhausting. And when I watched that scene and saw him struggling, saw how heavy his limbs looked and how he was leaning - it was strikingly visceral (and the camera work didn't hurt).

picky said...

Man, I appreciate this post even more a week or so out from finishing the series. I kept telling the boyfriend, "This is the WORST/best show because BEN! And violence! But Foggy and Matt!"

It was, for me, incredibly violent - the only reason I can't say I loved it, but I guess that's sort of the point. Sometimes it takes that, and you have to have someone willing to take those punches.

As J.S. said, I really enjoyed, too, watching him figure it out, in terms of fighting. I mean, he was good to begin with, but figuring out that others out there are good fighters and cheap fighters takes a different level of skill, and he adapts. Boy, does he adapt.

I have no basis for Daredevil, but Ben was by far my favorite character, for just the reason you mention.

The other thing I really liked, though, was that yes, we have these two main men, but it's never just about them. They have teams, and their teams genuinely do advance the story instead of just being there for comic relief. He cares about them (a sticking point for...Stick), and they care about him.

All in all, I can't wait for next season.

The League said...

The good news is that it's not just a new season of Daredevil to wait for. Marvel is introducing it's "street level" characters via Netflix series. So, "Jessica Jones" is coming, as well as "Luke Cage" and "Iron Fist". I assume there will be crossover mayhem as these folks are all very intertwined in the comics.

The League said...

I just looked it up, and there will be a team-up show called "The Defenders", which is funny, because the comic of The Defenders was anything but street level and had none of these characters.