Monday, April 13, 2015

'Daredevil' Is Great, Thanks to Superhero Media Saturation


Well, as you may have noticed, this weekend marked the arrival of the newest superhero show on Netflix, a thirteen episode run of Daredevil. If you're not a huge comics fan you might have wondered why on Earth anyone would make a TV series about that guy from the really terrible Ben Affleck movie. And I concede your point. But I'm here to tell you that, first, Daredevil as a character is great (Affleck movie is bad exception), and, second, this TV series is seriously amazing. Genuinely, intensely, really really good. You should watch it. For real.

The series, which exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe alongside all their movies and Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter, follows the vigilante crimefighting of Matthew Murdock (Charlie Cox), a defense attorney who just so happens to be blind. Blinded as a child, Murdock's other senses ramped way the hell up to compensate, and as a result, he basically has superpowers. He can't see, no, but he can hear a conversation happening two blocks away, smell someone's cologne through three floors and a bunch of walls, and hear your heartbeat speed up when you lie.

In other words, he's really good at knowing what's up. Which, combined with his heightened spatial awareness and the fact that his boxer father clearly gave him some pointers - also apparently he learned parkour at some point? - makes Matt Murdock a vigilante to be reckoned with.

And that's a good thing, because life in Hell's Kitchen, where Murdock grew up, now lives, and practices law, has gotten kind of hard as of late. Since the area was devastated in the Battle of New York (in Avengers), it's been trying to rebuild, and in that time, a lot of organized crime has moved in. Specifically, the Kingpin has come. 

The Kingpin, aka Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio), is a brilliant strategist with his own genuinely complex motivations: he wants to clean up the city, carve it into something beautiful, and he can't do it without cutting away all the "rotten parts." So as Fisk tries to push out the low-income housing and working class folks and people just barely on this side of the law, Murdock comes in and tries to save them.

He also tries to save them at work, where he and his best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) have set up their own law firm. Their first case takes them directly up against Fisk, though they (and we) don't know it yet. Still, it's this first case that nets them their goal as attorneys and their office manager, Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). That goal is to protect the innocent. And while Foggy is openly skeptical of how they're going to keep the lights on if they wait for innocent people to fall into their open lawyer arms, he likes the sentiment. Nelson and Murdock, the firm, is committed to helping people, while Murdock the person goes out every night and does just that.

Of course, he can't do it alone. While Murdock is definitely a street-level superhero in this story, confronting muggers and organized crime rather than supervillains and epic battles, he still needs help. He's still a normal-ish human with a very normal healing factor, and when he gets hurt, he gets really hurt. 

That's where Claire (Rosario Dawson) comes in - she's a nurse in Hell's Kitchen who finds him one night and patches him up, and basically becomes Murdock's private ER. It's a great storyline because not only does it give Murdock someone who knows his secret and who he can talk to about it, but it also answers the very practical question of what you should do when you're a masked vigilante and you've been stabbed. Call your friend with medical experience! Perfect!

And, honestly, without going into too much detail, stuff like this is why Daredevil works so well. I mean, yes, it also works really well because it's fantastically written, shot beautifully, and lit by some lighting designer who was so excited she probably begged them to let her work for free (the lighting is really pretty), but fundamentally, what sets Daredevil apart as a show is its realism. And yes, I know it's weird saying "realism" when we're talking about superhero vigilantes. But there we go.

It's realistic in that this is a show that addresses the very real questions we're all asking when we watch superhero shows. Like, "Where did that costume come from?" and "How are you running around? Didn't you just break a rib?" and "Wouldn't it make more sense for the bad guys to just wait for this superhero to show up and then beat the crap out of him?" Because we all ask those questions. And, for once, we got a show that actually answers them.

For me, the real highlight of this, and the point at which I first decided to really trust the show, is at the end of the second episode when Murdock, having been stabbed and beaten, with three broken ribs and a collapsed lung, fights like ten Russian mobsters in a dimly lit hallway to save one little boy. It's a fantastic fight, not because the choreography is so good, but more because it isn't. Because Murdock is so beat to hell he can barely stand up and he's fighting but there's not enough power behind his punches to knock anyone out. So it's just a scene where Murdock punches someone, then staggers back, and then catches his breath while someone else stands up, and then he punches that guy, and then tries to breathe, and so on. 

In other words, it's a scene where even as our hero is very heroic, we are reminded that he is also a fragile, not-impervious man. Daredevil is all about the humanity in superheroes, supervillains, and the people around them, and this is the scene that really sold me on that. We don't get any epic shots of Murdock being a badass. Mostly, we see him screwing up and then trying to cover. Not because he's bad at what he does, but because he's human and fallible and breakable. Honestly, it's pretty refreshing.

It's funny to think how just five years ago, we were all facepalming over the failure of the Wonder Woman TV series (which was to have starred Adrianne Palicki, worth noting) and the downfall of Smallville and making grand declarations about how superheroes were never ever going to really work on television. It's funny because, well, look at it now. DC alone has Flash, Arrow, and Gotham and it has Supergirl coming out next year too. Meanwhile, Marvel has Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter, and whatever their new spinoff will be. Which is of course without even mentioning all the new Netflix shows, with the newly released Daredevil being top of the list.

What I'm saying is that five years ago, I couldn't have even imagined a world in which I got to compare six different established superhero universes, all of which are still currently airing episodes.* It sort of goes without saying that this is awesome, but it's also worth mentioning that this kind of competition, as it happens in pretty much every industry with competition, only serves to make a better market for us, the consumer. In other words, while Daredevil is really nothing like Arrow or Agents of SHIELD or Gotham, it couldn't have existed in a world that didn't have them. 

I'm saying all of this because as it turns out, Daredevil is fantastic. Seriously, it's great. I've only seen the first five episodes so far, so you'll be getting a more thorough review of it later, but suffice to say that this is a well-made show that is worth your time. Charlie Cox does a seriously impressive job playing Matt Murdock, Rosario Dawson is flawless as usual, and the whole cast is very diverse, compelling, and well chosen. It's a whole roster of interesting choices and really good character actors, and it's great.

But, like I said above, it's really worth noting how this show only happened, and only managed to be amazing, because now there's so much competition in the superhero TV genre that it can stand out. Like if Daredevil had come out alone and unaccompanied five years ago, it would still be good, don't get me wrong, but it wouldn't have had the same impact as it does now that we know how freaking hard it is to make to a good superhero show. 

And, for that matter, it wouldn't have been as fun five years ago or even two years ago, because shows like this build on each other, even when they're not in the same universe. Daredevil builds on the maturation and growth of the Arrow audience even while it pays off in-universe tidbits from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

And, to me at least, it's worth noting that Daredevil can only be the slightly grittier and more realistic superhero show because shows like Flash and Agents of SHIELD exist. They're the PG to its PG-13, all candy-colored cures and good lighting and plots that might be hard but pretty much always are resolved by the end of the episode. End of the season at most. The villains are always uncomplicatedly bad and while the good guys falter every once in a while, they never really fail.

Or, alternately, you've got the grimdark PG-13 world of Arrow, where no one has a good motivation, not even legitimately good people. Nothing is ever funny or happy, because how can it be when there is so much darkness in the world? Sex is always sad and unfulfilling but there's a lot of it for some reason, and female characters are fridged left and right while the hero stands in the middle, unaffected by it all. He's such a badass, after all, that his feelings are constipated into nonexistence.

Not so in Daredevil. The show manages to take a middle road between these two extremes and give us characters that are complex without being needlessly amoral, a violent cruel world that still can have genuinely funny jokes in it, and a superhero who has limitations and still kicks ass. It really is the best of both worlds. 

And it is worth noting that while both Arrow and Daredevil could be labeled PG-13, Arrow gets that rating for sex and mild violence, while Daredevil pretty much gets it for violence, violence, and some language in there. Not to say that there's no sex, but more that as befits a show about a masked vigilante, the emphasis is really on the fighting.

As for diversity, Daredevil does blow almost all of these shows out of the water. While the two leads are white guys, they live in a world full of women and people of color. For once, this is a show that recognizes the diversity of both racial representation and cultural representation available in New York City. The people who don't speak English as their first language don't speak English when they don't have to. So we get scenes of Russians speaking Russian to other Russians, and Hispanic people speaking Spanish, and Chinese people speaking Mandarin - no one speaks English just because subtitles are hard.

For that matter, sometimes the white people speak other languages as well. Most notably, this happens in Spanish, where both Karen Page and Murdock speak it and both point out the value of being an inner-city law-firm where people speak Spanish. It's helpful. Even Foggy, who mostly acts as the comic relief but gets some good scenes, can comment off hand that he speaks Punjabi. Which could be very useful, since New York has a growing Indian population.

But it's more than that. What really sets Daredevil apart in terms of diversity is also how it presents women and people of color as human beings who have their own stories. Stories that, like Murdock's, are complex and interesting and worth telling. 


Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall) is a reporter who does big exposes on bad business. He's not introduced to us just when Karen tracks him down for help, but as his own character with his own motivations. Claire is her own woman, and while her storyline intersects with Murdock's a lot, it's also clear she has her own life and story outside of that. Heck, even Foggy gets his own plotlines sometimes.

I could keep going here, but I think I've largely made my point. First, that Daredevil is a great show and totally worth watching. And second, that it can be this great show largely because, at this point, there's enough media in the medium to allow for experimentation and cool artistic interpretations. So, rather than bemoaning the saturation of superhero culture, let's take a minute and breathe deep. 

Is there a lot of superhero stuff out there? Yes. Is it all as good as Daredevil or Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Agent Carter? No. But do those things that are not very good help create and inform the very good things? Yes they do.

It's a good story told very well. What is there to complain about?


*Because Agent Carter will get renewed. Because the world is not a cruel dark waste.

5 comments:

  1. I love this show! You guys should really do an episode about the whole series ( please :) )

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    Replies
    1. Ooh, good idea! But I'll have to finish watching the season first. :D

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  2. There's a lot to be said about this show, almost all of it good; but thank you for giving a shout out to the lighting. It was beautiful filmed in general, but I think this was the best lit show I've ever watched. So much of it was at night but you could still see what was happening. There is an irony that the show about a blind man is so perfectly visible. It won't make a bad show good, but it helped make this good show great.

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    Replies
    1. Such wonderful lighting. And I love how they use the visuals of the show to make sure you don't forget the main character is blind. It's fantastic.

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