Devil DOES Care: Netflix’s Daredevil Review (B)

This post contains spoilers for all 13 episode’s of Netflix’s Daredevil

Daredevil is the only superhero with his own poet laureate.

In his half-century, Daredevil has had more iconic, era-defining arcs than really seems plausible. This is doubly true considering that, relative to contemporaries like Spidey or Doctor Strange, the Man Without Fear was a late bloomer. He didn’t really become the character that inspired such transcendent greatness from the likes of Bendis, Mack, Maleev, Waid, Brubaker, Nocenti, and many more until more than a decade into his existence. That is when pretty much everything about the character (besides the whole “blind justice” angle) that makes a serial television series such an exciting prospect – Bullseye, Elektra, Stick, the Hand, the Kingpin as Daredevil antagonist – coalesced in just a few short years, finally becoming the melange of pulpy, noirish wonder we know today under the watchful eye of a certain yakuza-obsessed young gun named Frank Miller in the early 80s.

To truly contextualize this vigilantism in an articulate manner – to ruminate on what it means that Daredevil is a lawyer who feels he must go outside the law to get real work done – Daredevil stories needed a wizened ally, a powerful last-honest-man figure who could serve as Matt Murdock’s faithful Jim Gordon. The main difference between Gordon and Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich? Urich can write like a boss, and pretty much every time Daredevil transcends “consistently good” and becomes “the leading edge of the superhero craft,” you can bet that Urich is involved, playing a major role, acting as the vigilante’s personal Homer.

That Urich is constantly stymied in this quest by the world’s worst boss (you can hear Peter Parker shouting “Amen!”), J. Jonah Jameson, makes Urich’s quest to tell the truth, serving as the voice of an informed New York (while hiding the one truth that matters, DD’s identity) almost as Olympian as Matt’s.

Phil Sheldon, the everyman photographer from Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels, gets a lot of praise for showing us, in his four issues (and a short follow-up series), what it must be like to be a mere man among gods. Urich (who actually appears in Marvels as Sheldon’s fellow reporter) fills that same role, but he’s done it – enviably – for hundreds of issues. He even essentially got his own in-continuity Marvels, a series that followed newspaper reporters embedded in rival factions during Marvel’s Civil War crossover. This would probably be the biggest thing to happen for the Ben Urich character except for the fact that maybe the most important Marvel story of all-time, Miller/Mazzucchelli’s “Born Again” arc, is, for two or three issues, essentially the story of Ben Urich summoning up the bravery to do what needs to be done in spite of intimidation from Wilson Fisk’s thugs.

This is a long-winded and rather impassioned way of saying that it’s difficult to tell, without knowing where Marvel plans to go with its street-level Defenders lineup (Matt plus Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Danny Rand a.k.a the Iron Fist), whether killing Ben Urich in the penultimate episode of Season 1 of Netflix’s Daredevil was brave – because it firmly sets a new course for the MCU – or boneheaded – because it dispensed with Marvel’s greatest journalist while only ever teasing us with the idea that he might get around to some journalism sometime soon.

Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain: his death is final. Unlike Leland Owlsley, another longtime Daredevil stalwart you kind of hope isn’t gone and (considering we only glimpse a shattered but not necessarily deceased body) maybe just maybe isn’t… Ben is for sure 100% coffin dead. There will be no Coulson resurrection for Ben, no “we just stopped Nick Fury’s heart to fool Hydra” moment where we walk into a room and see Vondie Curtis-Hall again and laugh relievedly because we fell for it, ha ha. The MCU only has so many of those “comic book deaths” to spend before their audience turns on them, and Ben Urich does not have the stature to merit one, which is sad because that lack of stature misunderstands the ways in which a supporting cast adds texture to a hero’s journey, but oh so true.

Ben is a glue guy. He’s the type of character who takes a place like Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen, a playground for kooky mobsters and ruffians, and allows it to become multi-dimensional. Literally, in the comics, he affords us the chance to see the problems Daredevil is seeing from a different perspective, adding another dimension or layer to the goings-on. It’s not really fair to tell you how important he is in the comics as a way of belittling the show – I am a crusader for allowing interpretations to stand on their own, apart from the need to be faithful to source material – but what is the Ben Urich of Netflix’s Daredevil if he doesn’t become this confidante/hype man. He barely interacted with Matt, so is he Karen Page’s Stick-like mentor? Does he symbolize the futility of a past generation? Does his death even carry much weight for those who just know Netflix Ben? Instead of becoming the guy who soliloquizes about Daredevil’s deeds, instead of becoming a practical outlet who uses Matt as a source to get real work done through the power of the press, Ben’s death is just one final way for Netflix’s Daredevil to show us how costly a vendetta can become. Or a way to let Karen move on and grow up a little, giving Ben one last beyond-the-grave chance to be novice snoop Karen’s enabler with an assist from his grieving wife. Or one final statement on one of the show’s pet themes: print media as an objective American institution capable of showing people the way is a far-off memory.

I’ll give it this: for a series as bold as Daredevil has been, it’s a very audacious move, and for a moment it pays off – with Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” ringing in your ears and resonating mournfully in your soul while Wilson Fisk makes his mad dash to freedom and to his Vanessa, Daredevil seems to be calling forth the soul of the pragmatic realist, Ben Urich. It’s the perfect capstone to the kind of story Urich would write. It’s harsh but oh so soulful.

But what’s the point of making audacious moves if, in the end, you’re just going to turn it all on a dime into exactly the kind of conventional Marvel-prescribed one-man-can-save-a-city superhero fantasy the other 12 and ¾ episodes argued so persuasively was utter bullshit?

The last fifteen minutes of Daredevil’s first season are unremittingly awful.

It’s not even that that new costume looks bad. It does, but that’s beside the point. The camera knows it looks awful, and the editing is dancing around the idea of this costume without ever truly committing to it as a physical reality.

You can tell when the editing gets skittish, because this is a show that knows from good editing. It gave us the single-take hallway fight scene in episode 2, obviously, but also countless other fight scenes that seemed completely comfortable showing off Matt’s practical black duds. Everyone went into this show ready to hate that DIY ninja look, but it is, in execution, perhaps the most iconic onscreen superhero look since we first saw Tony Stark’s painted armor. What’s most incredible is this: like we Netflix viewers befuddled by promotional images, no one onscreen knows how to discuss this look or label it. This isn’t what superheroes wear. This is just a bruiser in a black mask. And so Matt can only be identified by his adversaries and his public as “the black mask” or “the masked man,” as fitting a tribute to pulp forebears like the Shadow and Zorro as I think there could possibly be.

And then Matt meets a man he should consider his true nemesis, poor Melvin Potter. For his final showdown with Wilson, Matt debuts that Kevlar body armor that’s all the rage these days, and the show becomes a bit of a joke.

Not just in its production design, which is lacking, or its editing and direction, which are scared to death of the way that motorcycle-helmet-esque headpiece and that high-collared jacket scrunch the handsome, angular features of star Charlie Cox into oblivion. This goes right down to the script level. Because now, the series’ overriding obsession with Matt needing to find a solution that both keeps Fisk off the streets and squares with his Catholic upbringing, a serious quandary that would seemingly have no real solution, is easily tied up when this new suit allows Matt to apparently level up in the ninja department. Now Matt can just neutralize Fisk with his fists while knowing exactly where to draw the line! Well if we were always going to go that route, we could have probably skipped just about every nuanced conversation Matt had with Father Lantom, and Claire Bishop, and Foggy, and just about everyone about his tenuous moral position… How convenient.

Even worse, now, with a ribbon nicely wrapped around everything just so, the characters have a shorthand with which to discuss this masked vigilante (“Oh look at that, the papers are calling him Daredevil now!”). It’s strange to bitch that a show that waited 13 hours to intone that name in the opening credits rushes the establishment of the Daredevil persona, but with this new shorthand for a once hard-to-define entity comes the kind of winking bonhomie among the leads that one would expect from “get it?” Stan Lee cameos or subpar non-Marvel Studios adaptations of Marvel characters.

None of this would be that aggravating if Daredevil did not wave about its raw, seething potential so flagrantly. As if struck by its own radioactive isotope, this show is coursing with the good stuff, the awe-inspiring power and finesse, that promises something special. And, bless it, with Charlie Cox and Vincent D’Onofrio inhabiting their lead roles so convincingly, it frequently delivers.

Also, there’s just so much of it! To put it in perspective: in one evening’s upload, there was suddenly just as much, if not much more, of Charlie Cox’s low-key, laconic, bruised Matt Murdock as there is, after years of franchise-building, of Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner and Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster and Cobie Smulder’s Maria Hill. A Netflix series is, by its very nature, not intrinsically one whole; it is many parts that eventually coalesce into something bigger. Some people (with superheroic constitutions) may combine all those parts into a whole in one 13 hour sitting, but for many, assembling the puzzle will be a slower, episode-by-episode process. And so writing off all of Daredevil based on the last quarter of one of its thirteen episodes would be like writing off the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe because Iron Man 3 squanders all of its quirky promise once it turns into an orange-glow action spectacle.

Instead, the barometer for reading and understanding something as episodic and sporadic as Netflix’s Daredevil is far from the air-conditioned largesse of an IMAX screen, where you take in one continuous two-hour shot of spectacle and then go through two years of withdrawl waiting for a sequel; instead let’s look to where Daredevil has thrived for decades – the comic shop.

Walk into a comic shop and you will be overwhelmed by volume – stacks and stacks of back issues, current issues, preview issues. Comics, with this glut of product, have a luxury that Kevin Feige, who gets two opportunities to wow us a year, does not. They are allowed to vary in quality. Wildly. Comics people sort of accept this as a reality; in decades of continuity, you can’t win ‘em all. You treasure what’s great. The most seasoned, most contented comics fans will tell you that there is little point in following a single character’s every exploit – only aggravation lies down that completist’s road. Here there be Clone Sagas…

Instead, the recommendation you’ll get is to find the writers and artists you think do good work, and follow them where they go. Track down their arcs and you’ll delight in the ways that they’ve fused their idiosyncrasies and sensibilities onto characters that have been soaring through skylines since long before they picked up a pen. And so, you’ll rarely get an argument against Daredevil being one of the most splendid examples of the mainstream comic book form, largely thanks to those creators who have defined his adventures; you’ll also be unable to find a person who loves every Daredevil comic. There have been too many of them, and not every one of them is a “Born Again” or “The Murdock Papers.” Daredevil has been a jovial yellow-clad jokester who fights Stilt-Man while spouting off Peter Parker-like witticisms. He’s been possessed by bad juju and driven away all his friends. He’s done that again. And again. Like every superhero created before 1990, he went through the 90s… Protect a Manhattan neighborhood for five decades, there are bound to be one or two “lost decades” in there.

13 episodes is nothing compared to appearing in 562 issues of your own solo comic, but yeah, in these 13 hours, there are some high points and, lamentably, there are some “lost hours.” None is more lost than Episode 7, which suffers from Marvel’s persistent mythology-building problem (see: Thanos in Avengers, Thanos in Guardians of the Galaxy, Thanos until he actually does any darn thing). At exactly the moment when the show has picked up a full-head of steam after a slow build, right when Matt has the next name (Leland Owlsley) that will get him closer to the impossibly grand Wilson Fisk, and is ready to jump into his next arc, a man from Daredevil’s past comes along and says “Hey audience, look over here at this other thing!”

The thing about a slow build – and this series handles its build masterfully, slowly introducing us to Wilson Fisk and his criminal associates and only letting Matt and Wilson confront each other at the end of episode 6 – is that a slow build is only worth it if you actually open the building once its finished being built. Instead, episode 7 wants to inform us that there are bigger things – magic things… – afoot outside the world about which Matt (reminder, the guy who is our protagonist) knows or cares. And, sad fact is, he cares as much about these things after he is schooled on them in a vague and unsatisfying manner as he did before he was even aware they existed. To which I can only respond: Marvel, come back to me when you actually have something substantial and can artfully work up to it in a way that doesn’t involve sporadic, painful, shoehorned-in mentions across untenable periods of time (see: the Infinity Stones, also Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Centipede, which was that shows blockaded [and dumb] way of hinting at Hydra before that was allowed).

This undernourished mythology (almost certainly the mysticism of Doctor Strange or Iron Fist) is on loan here to the Hand, the faceless, shadowy army of ninjas that’s always dogging Matt in the comics. And so, even once the show has moved past its detour into something mystical-ish, the Hand and their figurehead Nobu (now in red-clad ninja mode) continue to carry the stain until they are summarily dismissed from the proceedings in episode 9, sure to return to prominence oh some two or three years down the line. So that makes episodes 7-9 an arc. It is the show’s low-point. But Daredevil recovers. And even if it hadn’t recovered, it would still be great based on its first half.

Daredevil’s first episode begins with a young boy in dire straits pleading for his father’s help. It ends with an echo of that same scenario; once again, the father can do nothing to help his son, but a far-off stranger with especially sensitive hearing can. And will.

On its own, this first episode, with that thematic backbone, is promising – it tracks Matt and Foggy’s attempts to defend an innocent person, the frightened Karen Page, surprisingly the only time the lawyers do any actual defending of the innocent – but it’s when the next episode picks up on that same night, with Matt left for dead in a dumpster, that the show really shows what it can do. This is not a show, like first season Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, that leaves the concerns of its previous episode’s behind, twiddling its thumbs until something big and explosive happens.

Netflix’s Daredevil is a tightly wound crime thriller, and it’s a satisfying payoff when that child abduction is not just some mostly-off-screen affirmation of Matt’s willingness to step into action, but actually forms the backbone of the entire next episode. This is probably an unpopular opinion, but that second episode is probably my favorite, and it’s not even because of the now-famed hallway fight. The episode artfully cuts between Matt’s past – his relationship with his father – and present – an evening of healing and bonding with a good Samaritan who tends to his gnarly wounds – showing a deft, Lost-like touch with flashing back at the most opportune thematic moments. It also gives Matt someone interesting – Rosario Dawson! – with whom he can discuss his mission, and it makes sure to complicate her black-and-white view of things by presenting her with the extreme ickiness Matt must face on the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen. When she informs Matt from behind her own ad hoc mask how to most effectively torture a man, it is both a fist-pumping victory and a melancholy corruption of the innocent. Daredevil is at its best when it picks at this triumphant weariness. That is the hallway fight’s true masterstroke: the camera trickery is fine, but it’s the choreography, emphasizing just how weak and sapped of energy Matt is, that makes the scene so memorable. It’s especially evocative because – in the episode in which we see our final flashback to Battlin’ Jack – it shows just how much Matt has become the spittin’ image of his dad.

This is tight, effective, craftsman-like scripting. It’s important to note at this point that these two episode’s were the only two written by original showrunner Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield) before he decamped for seemingly greener pastures (Son’y Spiderman… oops…). You can see this in the end product. Both episode’s tie together beautifully, taking place chronologically in an extremely compact window, and both lean heavily on something future writers seem to care not one lick about – Matt’s relationship with his father. Episode 3, just about the only episode I would consider a standalone issue rather than a piece of an arc, looks lost in the woods in comparison, brilliant introduction of Fisk aside. It abandons what seemed to be Goddard’s unifying flashback conceit and leans heavily on Matt’s maneuverings in the courtroom, which, as we see through the rest of the season, are a completely expendable facet of this show’s idea of Matt Murdock. We never really enter see Matt giving an impassioned speech to a jury or dealing with objections again; based on how confusing his motives are in this episode (in which he defends a man who he knows is guilty), this might actually be a blessing.

About that Fisk reveal though: saving that for episode 3, and keeping him seperate form Matt until episode 6… those were some big risks. The show ramps up to the idea of this unknowable figure who runs a vast criminal syndicate while never allowing anyone to speak his name. This could be a chore, having three whole episodes of waiting for someone to speak a name we all know will be spoken (a la “come on Benedict Cumberbatch, we all know you’re Khan…”).

But the show has an ace up its sleeve, a stand-in who ably carries the ship until Fisk appears – the persnickety lieutenant Wesley. In what turns out to be a stellar cast across the board (Cox, with that sleepy croak in his voice, is a true discovery as Murdock and D’Onofrio brings unexpected pathos in every single one of his barked whispers), Toby Leonard Moore may very well be the first season’s MVP. In a role that could have been a sniveling appetizer to D’Onofrio’s beefy main course, Leonard Moore owns a room full of baddies and lends a certain mystique to his boss, even once Fisk does finally appear and ask sweetly for wine recommendations.

The only other time I’ve seen Moore, it was in a bit part in John Wick, a film that serves as a fine template for what Daredevil pulls off in its transcendent second arc. In John Wick, a group of Russian gangsters unintentionally draw the ire of an unstoppable foe who takes apart their burgeoning empire. The fascinating trick Daredevil pulls off is turning these Russians, who start as stereotypes (and never truly transcend stereotype) into sympathetic, even tragic figures – evoking Icarus in the way they fly to close to the sun – without ever letting us lose sight of how awful they are. This is where Joe Posanski, co-executive producer of the series and writer of episode’s 4 and 6, completely changes the direction of Daredevil. This is the show’s longform masterpiece.

Episode 4 returns unexpectedly to flashback storytelling, just for one little prologue; but this time, our POV characters are the Ranskahov brothers, who escape a Siberian gulag and vow to make a new start in New York. As we know by now, they’ve done a bang up job, getting a place at the table in Fisk’s Legion of Doom Ethnically Delineated Mob Stereotypes. Keep in mind, as your heart sinks when one of them is decapitated even as he went out of his way to swallow his pride and reaffirm his dedication to Fisk (chalk it up to bad timing), that we’ve seen these directly or indirectly traffic young woman, kidnap a child, and brutalize Claire Temple. These are two despicable brothers, but Posanski finds the soulfulness in their attempt to keep their own identity in tact while kowtowing to the subordinate of a man whose name they can not speak. Everything about this series is clicking at this point (with one notable exception), and its fascinating to see how plotlines feed into each other – how Fisk’s courtship of Vanessa escalates Fisk’s existing plans to consolidate power and eliminate the Ranskahovs, how Matt’s activities lead to him being an easy target for a frame job, how the firm’s involvement with Elena and the tenement building puts him in the right place to find out about the extent of police corruption in the NYPD. Here is where we see most of the show’s “Oh wow” moments: Fisk unleashing his id for the first time, Detective Blake and Hoffman’s heel turn, the unexpected bombing of Hell’s Kitchen, every single delicious moment of Episode 6…

Episode 6 is perfect. It is a master class in how to follow up a big twist (the bombings) with fallout that feels emotionally relevant for our characters. We spend most of the episode locked in a dreary building with Matt and a dying goon we should abhor. Yet, with everything boiled down to its essence, the show finds its soul, unlocking the kinds of depths that the 13th episode’s climax so clearly lacks. It is in this arc, and specifically in this episode, that Vladamir Ranskahov, separated from his brother, in his death throes, becomes a legitimately great character. As he tells Matt the name of his next target (and we prepare ourselves for an arc in which Matt takes down Lelend) and goes out in a blaze of glory, the potential for this series seems pretty much limitless halfway through!

But as we’ve already mentioned, Stick comes along and puts the kibbosh on all of that so we can think about magic children for a hot minute.

It’s not like Stick is the only problem with Daredevil. His storyline (not his flashbacks, which are fine, but the predicament he introduces) is indicative of a universe that always feels the need to hint at something bigger rather than reveling in the now. But the loop that Ben, Karen, and Foggy get caught in for much of the front half of the season introduces a new problem to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it brings Netflix into the fold – bloated Netflix runtimes mean that sometimes the show can live a little too much in the now.

Pretty much every episode asks “What we can we do with the 10 minutes we need to dedicate to those characters this episode?”

Pretty much every episode fails to answer that question satisfactorily.

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Let me be clear. I love each of these performances. I disagree with the consensus that Eldon Henson’s long-haired jester is a drastic departure from comics’ Foggy; I actually think its a truly great interpretation. I also had no qualms shipping Foggy and Karen when the show asked me to (especially during that one hospital scene), and still see little reason to ship Karen and Matt outside of their history in the comics.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? These characters all work in the same office (Ben excepted), but Matt and Karen may as well live in different cities from, like, Episode 1 until Episode 10 or so. The Continuing Adventures of Ben and Karen, Crack Investigators. The Continuing Adventurers of Foggy and Karen, Moony-Eyed Do-Gooders… these are both shows that operate in the Daredevil universe, and would be fine shows on their own I suppose, but where they are placed in context of Matt and Fisk’s ongoing battle always means they’re echoing back information that we already know. Union Allied is bad. Fisk wants the tenements. Fisk killed his father.

Their quest puts them in perpetual peril (and leads to the show’s most notable deaths) but it never contributes any momentum to a show that thrives on it. So while it’s nice to see Karen and Foggy get drunk together, again, it begs the question: are these characters we needed to keep up with every episode? In an ideal world, they would be; but Daredevil intentionally inverts the traditional hero-focus dynamic. It gives all the innovative inspiration to the various characters in the criminal syndicate, and explores their humanity as they turn on each other; it leaves Karen and Foggy out to dry.

The last few episodes of the season attempt to address this by introducing conflict between the Nelson & Murdock team. Foggy discovers that Matt is a vigilante, and his anger causes him to lash out at Karen, ending their flirtation. Ben and Matt come this close to forming something like their comic book relationship until Ben, under immense financial strain, tells Karen he’s backing down. The Scooby Gang is splitting up! This, of course, leads Karen to do the very silly thing she does that ends up getting Ben killed and leading Wesley to her. It would all feel tightly plotted if revealing Fisk’s past misdeeds actually led to his demise, but this proves to be another dead end. The show’s bloat actually presents a unique problem: we are presented with about fifteen ways to bring Fisk down (Union Allied, the murder of his father, dissension in the ranks), but the one that does it (Detective Hoffman, whose survival feels like a footnote when it comes back up) feels a bit like Al Capone being brought down for taxes. There is undoubtedly a measure of satisfaction in watching D’Onofrio counter every move, but he does it so many times that he eliminates some of the show’s more interesting avenues.

Still, there is a measure of poetry to what ends up doing Fisk in: a temper tantrum, just like the one that led to the downfall of the Ranskahovs. D’Onofrio’s take on Wilson Fisk is consistently fascinating. It has little precedence in the comics, where Fisk is always the picture of dapper confidence and unerring menace. D’Onofrio instead seems to be playing on Fisk’s uncanny resemblance to a grown-up newborn. He plays Daredevil’s nemesis as immature to the point of an almost sweet naivete. He loves Vanessa completely – tenderly even – and believes completely that bombing Hell’s Kitchen is an act of similarly tender love for his city. It’s incredible the amount of symbolism and poetry they pull out of Fisk’s attempts to use routine and culture to counteract his innate brutishness, his childlike temperament. His obsession with white canvas, the way the show uses his preferred classical music as signpost for his misdeeds, and especially the contrast in his routine pre- and post-Vanessa are all artful explorations of the soul of this man. There’s a part of you that hates him for evading capture and making his grand dash for Vanessa and freedom, but also a part of you that hopes he’ll get away.

Had the show ended right there, with Fisk on his way to Vanessa (or even with Matt standing in the truck’s path) this may very well have been the triumph of the MCU, the most evocative encapsulation of the Marvel ethos. As it stands in that moment climactic moment, everything feels so complex, so gray. It feels far from some tidy punch-kick solution.

And it is preordained that the solution that has been presented, with Matt jump-punching Fisk so hard it knocked him straight into a prison cell, will be complicated by Season 2. Just about the only moment that shows promise in the season’s final scenes is the one in which Fisk, now fully cognizant of the beast he is, stares at the prison wall, a blank white canvas just as daunting as the one he bought for millions from Vanessa.

Daredevil has more arcs in store for us, and Fisk will be a big part of them. Some will soar. Some will suck. Still, I have to admit that a little part of me will never be able to cope with the fact that none of them will include Ben Urich breaking down the dichotomy of Daredevil the way only he can.