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As the Marvel comics push farther into the world of television, one thing is becoming very clear: Their brand of entertainment works better as escapist movie fare.
If the movie world is being overrun by superheroes blowing stuff up and saving the world — the kind of easy box-office victories that keep complicated films about real people with real emotions on the fringes of the business — then television is the beneficiary (or at least has been). Precisely because having a gigantic opening weekend necessitates explosions and costumes, more sophisticated and nuanced storytelling has found a more welcome home and thrived on television. So this latest Marvel incursion should probably be looked at with the same kind of worrisome disdain that many writers and directors in the film world no doubt employ when the latest budget-busting superhero flick hits the multiplex.
On the other hand, television is a much, much bigger playground and it can take all types — even the oversimplified stories of brutality and revenge that populate the episodes of Daredevil, which will premiere on Netflix on April 10 and span 13 episodes.
That’s the upside — that ABC can have a couple of Marvel stories (including the likable Agent Carter) and Netflix can have four others (including Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage), while the CW has Arrow and The Flash (not Marvel, I know) and no doubt someone else will get 10 or 15 others. But unlike how these comic book stories are clogging up the film season, there are so many other offerings on television to choose from that if the would-be noir of Daredevil isn’t your thing, you can always find something else.
So it’s not like this needs to be a warning rant about the onslaught of comic culture. And I like my fair share of comic book characters/stories via film, particularly the Batman franchise. The television adaptations have been a mixed bag — Agent Carter was able to both be about something and have a great core character, whereas I never felt a connection to or interest in Agents Of SHIELD, after giving it numerous episodes to make its case. Perhaps it has something to do with intent – Arrow and The Flash are solidly representational television series in which entertainment and story blend nicely without the kind of ambition that over-promises.
And that’s the issue I had with Daredevil. Because it’s on Netflix, it has the capacity to be something greater, untethered to ratings. But ultimately it’s very purple in its prose, yearning to be film noir, but — lacking the writing or grit to achieve that — playing more like hokey blood porn.
The latter part shouldn’t be surprising since Steven S. DeKnight, who gave us Spartacus, is a major force and executive producer on Daredevil, and if there’s one thing Spartacus loves, it’s blood like water everywhere.
The series was created and written by Drew Goddard (Lost, World War Z, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), who imbues our hero with a likable good-guy vibe that works perfectly during the day, yet somehow falls flat when we’re supposed to watch him jump into harm’s way constantly and kick ass with his hands and feet.
Daredevil can be entertaining as hell in parts, but it’s almost shockingly grotesque in its depiction of violence, and yet it finds no irony or credible defense for its most glaring weakness — that Daredevil himself is just a blind man who is really good at close-quarter fighting, but who, realistically, would be shot dead within the first 30 seconds of any encounter he had with real bad guys.
Before expanding on that, let’s enter the Daredevil world for those of you who have never read the comic books (like me) and will thus be trying to figure out what’s so special about someone who appears to be a second-rate Batman without all the cool gadgets.
Charlie Cox plays Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer by day and avenging street-level “superhero” of New York by night. Let’s get one thing out there immediately — Cox (Boardwalk Empire) is perfectly cast here. He’s likable, a fine actor who can persuasively pull off the many interactions of blind-lawyer Murdock and then transform himself into a badass fighter at night, who employs martial arts and boxing, and is unafraid to be sadistic when necessary to break an opponent.
I liked Cox from the very first moment. His character, however, has some real issues.
Daredevil shows us, in the serialized elements of the episodes, that as a kid Murdock helped save a man’s life during an accident on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen — an accident that cost him his sight.
His father (John Patrick Hayden), a proud Irish boxer who took a few dives to help pay the rent and feed his kid (the mother is missing and presumed dead — it wasn’t immediately obvious in the TV version, which seems to think that the bulk of its viewers will indeed have read the comics), does the best he can with Matt, but eventually decides that taking a dive isn’t worth giving his kid the thrill of seeing the old man win for once.
At great cost.
It’s mawkish and predictable, but many comic-based backstories are. So, too, are many noir backstories. In any case, all the flashbacks are meant to tell us that the Murdock men are A) able to “let the devil out” when backed into a corner and B) get the snot beaten out of them and keep going. I guess that’s helpful to know, but hardly seems effective or the world’s coolest power.
In the first episode, we see that Murdock and best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) are going to strike out on their own as freshly minted lawyers bent on protecting the innocent. By way of their first case, they also land an office manager in Karen (Deborah Ann Woll), whose life has brought her into contact with ubervillain Wilson Fisk, aka The Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio), and the various bad people he employs and multinational corporations that he apparently wields like a puppet master. I don’t know. It got a little confusing — and silly. Anyway, Karen survives her encounter — barely — and is willing to work for free.
That’s the day side of Murdock. At night he’s Daredevil, with an outfit that seems to be made by SmartWool and also a black beanie thing that covers his eyes, which he obviously doesn’t need.
Being blind, he has a super-heightened sense of sound and smell, and the ability to tell when people’s hearts are racing and when they’re lying. Add that to his ability to take a beating and, well, it’s not that impressive as superhero toolboxes go.
Daredevil is just a mortal man. And that, too, is a thing, because to people who haven’t read the comics, he will surely come off as a low-rent Batman without all the cool gadgets and money.
This can’t be brushed aside. He really is, in this incarnation (Frank Miller apparently made him more of a badass back in the day), just a guy wearing a beanie over his eyes who can hear your punches coming and, for the most part, dodge them and kick your ass.
Pardon me for asking, “What’s so special about this guy?” After watching three of these Daredevil episodes it struck me that NBC’s Blacklist is more entertaining and that Cinemax’s Banshee is a much better investment of time (and a far better show).
Daredevil is super violent (see: blood porn, above). But conveniently, all the Russian mobsters and such decide that they don’t need their guns when confronting Daredevil —they’ll just punch it out with him.
Hmmm. It just doesn’t sit right.
Let’s be honest — pretty much anyone could shoot Daredevil in the head five times at close range and this series would be over. But he either knocks the guns away, his opponents choose to use fisticuffs instead, or, per a longstanding TV tradition, they got their gun training at the School Of Spectacularly Bad Aim. Here’s a guy who’s blind, probably wears a size 28 or 30 waist in pants, and his costume is essentially breathable wicking fabric with no bulletproof vests or anything.
And yet six guys in a room decide to attack him with their fists instead of putting him down like a dog with a 9mm.
That’s the comic book implausibility thing you have to buy into with Daredevil. It’s the elephant not only in the room but all over Hell’s Kitchen.
As a television series, Daredevil can certainly be watchable, if not believable. It has a number of guest turns that are worth noting — certainly Rosario Dawson and Vondie Curtis-Hall (although the breakout star here, after Cox, might be Toby Leonard Moore, who oozes evil as a fixer). And maybe that’s how this show should be judged — as pure pulp fun. Just because it’s on Netflix doesn’t automatically give it a high-end cable-like pedigree. At best, it’s a thrilling comic book come to life. But you still have to be willing to overlook the fact that Daredevil wants to be hyper-stylized in that Sin City-meets-300 kind of way, but even then the desensitized violence splattered across the screen doesn’t jibe with its ’60s-era Batman emphasis on fistfights over guns.
Marvel fanboys and fangirls will probably love it, but if you’ve never seen Banshee, try that first.
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