May 19, 2018
BINGE OR NO? Daredevil, Season 1
When I picture The Avengers, I see a dude in a bowler and a fierce lady who looks like a much younger Olena Tyrell. I’ve never sat through an Iron Man movie, except on a plane, which doesn’t count because my eyes were closed. Never made it past the first episode of Marvel’s Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. To be fair, has anyone? Nevertheless, with little prior knowledge, I watched the entire first season of Marvel’s Daredevil (streaming on NetFlix) and it wasn’t bad.
The premise: Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) is a lawyer by day and crime-fighting superhero by night. Not the immortal from another planet kind and/or a Norse god. He’s more like Spider-man, an ordinary Joe what got into an accident and emerged changed. As a child, Matt pushed a stranger out of the path of an oncoming truck, saving the man’s life, but leading to strange chemicals getting into his eyes and blinding him. That’s right, sure, why not? He’s a blind superhero crime-fighter. The mysterious substance that took away his sight also left him with enhanced senses of hearing, smell, taste and touch, also echolocation like a bat, so why didn’t he call himself…? Oh. Never mind. That’s a DC franchise.
Matt grew up on the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen, which is a real New York neighborhood west of the Times Square tourist zone. In the world we live in, it was redubbed Clinton at least twenty years ago by real estate agents (and not in homage to either the former president or former carpet-bagging junior senator). It’s a name that native New Yorkers still resist, and to the show’s credit it’s never referenced on Daredevil, where Hell’s Kitchen is still tough, low-rent, mostly Irish, and inhabited by colorful characters who have trouble making the “th” sound. In contrast, present day Clinton, like the rest of Manhattan, has been taken over by and made safe for well-to-do young people from the ‘burbs. Daredevil‘s Hell Kitchen is a place we know from classic cinema, specifically West Side Story and especially On the Waterfront. While events that took place in the Marvelverse could explain why the neighborhood needs to be rebuilt, they don’t explain the demographic time warp.
Matt’s dad was “Battling” Jack Murdoch, a boxer, who like another bum from the hood, coulda been a contender, but never was, and got killed by the mob for not throwing a fight, which he did to make his son proud. (We learn all this in a very special flashback.) This led to Matt’s being placed in a local orphanarium with the nuns, but later he was taken in by a mysterious blind man named Stick, who recognized his potential and taught him to fight. Because, sure, it’s not like there are social workers who might have had concerns about a creepy blind dude with no permanent address taking an interest in a vulnerable child.
Then, like somebody else’s son, there were lost years when he was off learning how to hone his powers, but he returned to Hell’s Kitchen to open up a neighborhood law practice with his friend Foggy Nelson, who, despite rooming with him in college, has no idea that Matt has extraordinary abilities beyond his power to attract the hottest ladies—because blind dude attracting pretty women isn’t a trope we’ve seen enough of.
Because the whole season is a stretched-out origin story, Matt isn’t seen in his iconic red costume with the devil horns until the last episode. Prior to that, he goes for a more traditional ninja look, with a ski cap pulled down to his nostrils. You’d think one or more people might ask how the hell he can see since it’s opaque and has no eyeholes, but no one does.
At some point, you either have to say it’s Marvel’s universe and we’re just watching, or you have to watch something more realistic like the story of a privileged white girl for whom prison operates like Outward Bound, a place where she will be tested and learn valuable life lessons. (Review for that one is coming.)
What kind of evildoers is Matt going after? Not villains with weird deformities in funny costumes. New York’s being a melting pot, there is a conglomerate of Asian, Russian and other international crime lord types, but Matt’s true nemesis, the head of the snake, the mastermind, the kingpin (as he’s known in the comics), is another kid from the hood who made good. By day he’s Wilson Fisk, a big time developer and therefore by definition a bad guy. By night he’s referred to as the man whose name you can’t say or terrible things will immediately happen to you and/or your loved ones. He’s played by Vincent D’Onfrio with a shiny shaved head and Nixonian inflections.
D’Onfrio’s Fisk is the biggest reason to watch the show, not only because the actor’s clearly having a great time, but because the parallels set up between Fisk and Matt add gravitas to the whole exercise—possibly too much at times. Like Matt, Fisk sees himself as the protector of his community. Although he does a great many awful things, he truly believes (as Nixon did regarding Vietnam) that it’s his mission to save the city, especially Hell’s Kitchen, even if it means destroying it first. His master plan is to unite and control all the crime syndicates, clear the slums, and build classy buildings for rich people. He’s like a self-made Donald Trump only eviler, and with enough brains to shave his head.
Lest we think the On the Waterfront similarities are coincidental, they’ve even thrown in a tough priest, Matt’s confessor, Father Lantom, who can be relied upon to throw in a word of wisdom here and there and help keep Matt on the right path.
Unlike some other outposts of the Marvelverse, Planet Daredevil is a place where men are men and women are generally helpless. Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll, a.k.a. Jessica on True Blood) is plucky and, like Lois Lane, always getting herself into trouble. While she starts out as a brilliant accountant, she goes to work for Foggy and Matt as a secretary. Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) is a nurse, a very acceptable job for a girl. She patches Matt up and sometimes serves as the voice of reason, reminding him that he’ll get himself killed. There’s also Fisk’s girlfriend, of whom he’s very protective. The only really powerful woman is (God help us) an inscrutable Chinese crime boss. And that’s another thing: ethnic stereotypes abound, though this being 2015, mobsters are more likely to be Russian than Italian.
In contrast to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and other Marvel franchises, the show has a dark vibe. Visually, most action sequences are filmed at night. Matt, after all, has a day job. Fights are bloody and realistic, not interrupted by comic book “bams” and “booms.” But beyond that, it’s a morality tale, as we are reminded over and over. Matt goes to confession a lot, and struggles with whether he beats up bad guys because he wants to save Hell’s Kitchen or whether he just likes it. The main difference between Matt and his nemesis is Fisk’s ruthlessness, his willingness to kill to get what he wants. For Matt, murder is taboo, a line he won’t cross, but it’s just a matter of time ‘til someone he throws against a wall or pounds with his fists dies.
Matt’s sidekick, Foggy, is there to provide comic relief, but his jokes are either meant to be funny because they are so lame or they are just lame. It wouldn’t hurt to have a little mo betta humor. Surely, it wouldn’t be in horrible taste to have Matt comically overlook something because of his blindness? Maybe Matt could have a really hard time trying to convince a judge to delay a case so he can go out and prevent some imminent criminal takeover? Still, despite its flaws, Daredevil is intriguing, fun to watch, and you don’t need a lot of prior knowledge to enjoy it.