Tweetable Takeaway: As a gritty crime drama, Daredevil is superb. As a sci-fi/superhero piece? Not so much. Tweet
Airtime: 13 episodes on Netflix
By: Dana Leigh Brand, Contributor
If you like organized crime dramas and superhero things, Daredevil will probably blow your mind. It’s gorgeous, thoughtfully composed, and introspective in a way that most Marvel productions rarely have time for. But overall, for me it fell flat.
I’m about to rip into this a little bit, and I feel like I’m betraying my people. Drew Goddard, Steven S. DeKnight, and Doug Petrie are all Daredevil executive producers and all Mutant Enemy alumni. Each one of them is responsible for some of my actual favorite episodes of television. On top of that, Daredevil is an entry in the MCU, my current drug of choice. These things combined mean I feel like I can’t be objective because I have both expectations and loyalties that are skewing my judgment. I’ll just say: not everything is for everyone. Daredevil isn’t exactly my cup of tea.
The overall plot is a grittier, more realistic rehash of the first season of Arrow but without any metaphorical sci-fi phlebotinum. Some rich guy has a beef with a bad neighborhood and tries to wipe it out and rebuild it “cleaner” while some other native son takes issue with that. It’s just Marvel-flavored instead of DC-flavored. Artistically, however, the two series are worlds apart. Watching Daredevil feels much more like watching Breaking Bad than another comic book TV series. Daredevil is, in a technical sense, a stunning visual treat. The cold open of the third episode, with ironic flashbacks and thoughtfully framed crime, screamed Tarantino. The continuous-shot fight scene in episode 2 was a masterpiece, even letting our hero get tired and sloppy.
Because it’s a Netflix production, Daredevil is allowed to indulge in the sort of AMC-shots that are awkward, arty, or just plain unconventional. It can amp up the gore, and say “shit,” and get away with a lot more darkness than even Marvel blockbusters because there’s no presumption that children might happen to be watching. In that respect, I loved it. However, this show is not a sci-fi series or even a superhero story: it’s a straight-up crime drama with the MCU as a distant context. And I really, really don’t like crime dramas. Crime dramas exhaust me. To top it off, the season as a whole has a tantalizing, slow-burn structure because they know you’re just going to sit there and binge-watch the entire thing. In that way, they build no mystery and the plot wanders around teasingly without any real payoff. Narratively, it did best when it used flashbacks to explain itself, but even those never came close to giving enough backstory to justify the characters’ current situations. If this had aired once a week, I’d have gotten bored and given up long before the end.
There was enough to tie it into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe without being in-your-face. Hell’s Kitchen (currently an affluent neighborhood) was destroyed in the Chitauri invasion of The Avengers which neatly explains why it’s a shithole again. Karen Page works for a construction company that’s laundering money related to the reconstruction. After that we don’t really hear much about Avengers except as throwaway references (which were very well done and natural—honestly surprising in something twenty steps away from the rest of the MCU in tone.) Murdock’s father is killed for not throwing a match against Creel, who we met to begin the second season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I spent far too much time trying to figure out if this is set before or after Winter Soldier (I still can’t tell.) If Avengers & co. is the widest angle, big picture of the MCU, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is supposed to be “about the little guy,” then Daredevil is as micro as you can go. These characters are directly affected by events but have no way of affecting them in turn. They aren’t members of an international spy organization; they just have to exist with normal lives in a world where aliens fall from the sky and people turn into giant green rage monsters. That level of granularity is reflected in the intense close-ups and lingering arty compositions, like Fisk’s long breakfast montages. I liked that the framing of the story was the fallout and recovery from marquee Marvel events, but at some points it was so far removed I would forget this was set in a different universe from our own at all. It was Marvel, but it wasn’t Marvel enough for me.
I am a sci-fi junky. This I’ve established to the point of annoying repetitiveness. There are good ways and bad ways to do sci-fi. The way that bothers me the most is to hand-wave away the bizarre scenarios as simply a given. Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive/genetically engineered/weird spider. I buy this because every version of Spider-Man takes pains to explain in what way these spiders are jacked up. The science—even if it’s sketchy science—is laid out and adhered to throughout. My favorite characters in sci-fi and fantasy are always the scientists, the researchers, and the ones that are exposition personified. These characters are the glue that makes the pretense cohere. Daredevil doesn’t have anyone or anything like that.
Matt Murdock is doused in some sort of hazardous crap. He develops intense sensory perception. End of story. Even while the rest of the story might have been kicking ass, the niggle in my brain just wanted to understand why the hell this was a thing. Why chemicals and kung-fu? There are hints at something bigger (and sci-fi-y) going on: Stick’s discussions with some guy inhaling incense; whatever the hell Black Sky is; obviously the strange chemicals. I’m not a comic book person, so I bet these hints make sense to people who are. Since they don’t to me, I declare this a failure. Overall, not even the chemical super powers or insanely advanced martial arts skills are explained. “This dude taught me when I was a kid” is straining credulity when in the flashbacks, Murdock is instantly spinning around like one of those Sky Dancer toys from the ‘90s. I spent a lot of my time frustrated with the mafia plots and wanting to understand the weirder aspects of Murdock’s “powers.” I was disappointed.
In a universe where superheroes are actually a thing, and where the fallout from superhero battles is a major presence in the lives of characters, to dress up in a mask and beat the shit out of people is an active choice. It’s clear that Murdock wants to help the people of Hell’s Kitchen and that latent kung-fu skillzzz are simply at his disposal. And yet, there are never discussions of how this decision is affected by the Battle of New York, how Murdock would be contextualized in the same universe as Captain America, or what kind of social or political function he is serving in this community. Foggy even calls him a vigilante, which just hammers home how Arrow-like the entire situation is. And let’s be clear: I think Arrow is trite garbage. It plays standard scenarios for high-drama and every character except Felicity Smoak veers into irrational idiocy on a regular basis. Treading the same thematic lines as Arrow reads to me as lazy because Arrow‘s themes are lazy.
Whether Daredevil does the same story successfully is hard for me to gauge. At this point I can’t separate the approaches in my mind. But this lack of superhero philosophizing when they’ve got the whole MCU to theorize with is a waste. Why Murdock suddenly decides that he needs an outfit that’s “a symbol” and goes for the all-out flashy red thing with horns (except because he must, because comic canon) is never quite laid out. Aside from the (brilliant) discussions of having no recourse against fatcat one percents, and the constant denial of the label “hero,” there is no exploration of what it would mean to be a superhero, why one would choose that path, or any other larger picture issue. Daredevil is so granular and focused on its crime plots that it forgets it’s a superhero thing until the very end when the music swells and shit turns heroic. I also feel like Murdock’s idealism and dedication to the law never quite jive with his nocturnal activities. I could see someone frustrated with a corrupt system going outside of that system to seek justice. But Murdock hasn’t had the time to become frustrated in his profession. He just sort of snapped one day. So the fact that he’s a lawyer becomes, not part of his (shaky) origin story, but a quirk of his alter ego.
Moving on: if a plot point in a Marvel anything revolves around me believing two characters are in love, I’m just gonna stop them right there. There are three romantic(?) relationships in the entire MCU that I have ever bought: Tony and Pepper, Steve and Peggy, and Fitz and Simmons. In every case, their weird little love affairs are secondary to whatever larger plot is going on, and so they get to develop organically in the background. Fisk and Vanessa start off earnest enough, but it quickly becomes Vanessa’s blind and wholehearted devotion to Fisk. Fisk, for his part, is like an adolescent rage-bear when it comes to her safety. But since all of the drama on the mafia side is supposed to come from his incompetence-due-to-love, it’s all very sudden and a little nutso.
As for our heroes: I saw a headline somewhere with Rosario Dawson saying she “wasn’t a love interest she was a super hero.” The semantics and rhetoric of the term “love interest” aside, if your character exists in the narrative solely contextualized by their (romantic) relationship with a main character, that character is a love interest in the most reductionist way possible. Claire is a nurse, true. She has useful skills and a life outside of her relevance to Murdock. But she exists here in our story with no other purpose than to add a little romance. And that makes me a little resentful. I’m spoiled by the other offerings from Marvel TV. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. makes no fuss over a character’s gender ever; they’re all simply kickass at their respective specialties. And Agent Carter is a feminist battle cry. In regard to the ladies, Daredevil is like the hyper-masculine, ‘00s, bad Marvel movies and that’s disappointing. Karen Page, who deftly avoids romantic entanglements, and has her own plotlines separate from the boys, is the lone standout. Even Marcy, Foggy’s hyper-sexualized ex, is given her moments of awesome when she helps take down Fisk. Claire/Murdock is obviously supposed to be our main warm-fuzzy generator and it falls flat. Just stop, Marvel. I’m tired of these pre-packaged romances. If two characters must be in love, don’t try to force it so much. I don’t need the hard sell for smoochies, I need the slow-burn.
Now, again, I couldn’t tell you if Daredevil was any good at what it’s trying to do because I am not into this kind of thing. Should I apologize for not liking it or was it not that great? It was exhausting for me to watch and I kept waiting for it to fall into my areas of genre favoritism. I feel like it’s unfair for me to judge whether this was a successful crime series, when I was willing it to be a sci-fi series. There were parts of it that I enjoyed, and it was a stylistic treat. Beyond the AMC/Tarantino/Premium Cable aesthetics, the soundscapes and soft focus used to represent Murdock’s enhanced senses are phenomenally evocative. There are hints at weirder things to come. Even so, this series had the most black-and-white morality I’ve seen in a Marvel Studios production, where they usually opt more for gray. Overall, I feel like this was an experiment with genre-bending, alternate distribution, and deep universe focus. It’s a series for people hardy enough to not have nightmares over watching someone get decapitated with a car door (I am loathe to say “grown-ups” because, come on, who amongst us is a grown-up?) It’s not aimed at me, but at those people who would be too prideful to admit they watched Iron Man and liked it, or at the angry, disenfranchised young men desperate for vicarious empowerment.
There’s plenty more I could say, given that this was an entire season at once, but I’ll leave it at this for now. If you like stories about organized crime that also feature some truly kickass martial arts scenes, I definitely recommend Daredevil to you. Let me know how it stands up. As for me, I’ll stick to my Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.