Daredevil (Episodes 1-4)
Less of a binge watch, more of an IV drip approach to entertainment, but there’s plenty of room on the bandwagon …
Netflix’s Daredevil series is an interesting exercise in TV storytelling. A show meant to be binge-watched unfolds more like chapters of a novel, rather than interconnected but self-contained short stories, the way most shows would.
Created by Drew Goddard
Starring: Charlie Cox, Rosario Dawson, Vincent D’Onofrio, Deborah Ann Woll, Elden Henson, Vondie Curtis-Hall
Review (Eps 1-4, collectively): 3 stars (of five)
While a standard TV pilot tries to cram in everything the show hopes to be, this one leaves a LOT out of its first episode, probably because the next one is buffering even as the first’s credits roll.
The show is exceptionally dark and violent, not surprising since it’s taking its cues from the Frank Miller and Brian Bendis eras of the comic rather than, say, the current, sunnier (and highly recommended) Mark Waid interpretation. The first episode feels a bit rough around the edges (and toward the center). The second episode finds better footing, particularly with the addition of Rosario Dawson. It takes until the fourth to feel like things are finally gelling.
We start with a world dominated by organized crime, juxtaposed with two young lawyers setting up shop (mostly in ways that ignore how things like the law and real estate work). The series is big on either not explaining things or taking ludicrous short cuts around real-world mechanics. The second episode focuses more on character and is more successful—yet doesn’t advance the story noticeably. By four, our extended cast is in place, including Dawson, Vondie Curtis Hall as reporter Ben Urich, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk—the crime boss often called The Kingpin.
The wider supporting characters are key, because the core cast just doesn’t feel right. Charlie Cox (Stardust) is the best of the lot, but he’s still not the Matt Murdock I wanted. As the show progresses, he grows on me until I realize he’s exactly the right actor for this iteration of Murdock. His sidekicks, Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson and Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, are just not there. Henson, especially, is stagey in every moment of his loud performance. (And kinda sex-harrassmenty with Karen in ep 2.) But the core trio is better, across the board, than the assembled and unnamed crime lords plotting against them, who deliver wooden readings of cardboard dialogue.
I’m taking the show in short bursts. Here’s a look at the first quarter of the season.
* * *
Episode 1: Into the Ring
Underwhelming. Dark, Violent, flavored by the Miller and Bendis eras of the comic. The cast feels off, though Charlie Cox could grow on me. Not enough about his origin or the nature of his powers/blindness—but maybe in a binge-watching world, you don’t have to set so much up in the first Ep. Great that the schemes of organized crime revolve around a massive redevelopment project in New York, which is the result of the events in the first Avengers movie, but never directly discussed.
It’s weird that so little of Matt’s childhood is explored. Specifically, the accident that blinds him and gives him his powers is not portrayed. We see the aftermath—ambulances and toxic burns, but we don’t see the moment when a brave little boy pushes an old man out of the way of an out-of-control truck. We also don’t get a clear explanation of Matt’s powers (if they are “powers,” here, and not merely a phenomenal attention to sensory detail). But again, the Netflix binge-watch model may change the style of storytelling,
Episode 2: Cut Man
The second episode opens in the dark, with blood on the concrete and Matt Murdock bleeding to death in a dumpster. He’s saved by Rosario Dawson but refuses to let her get him medical attention—his enemies are out there. But he manages to pass out, and go to an extended childhood flashback in which his father, a low-rent boxer, comes home from the fights with open wounds that his ten-year-old kid needs to sew up for him. (Really? Is there a fight circuit that low-rent?) The flashbacks are interwoven a bit awkwardly, not quite succeeding at giving us a two-track story of adult Matt, learning to be a superhero, and kid Matt, learning to be blind.
Rosario Dawson is a strong addition to the cast. It’s weird to find a woman so often cast in things like Sin City or Grindhouse as the most real and grounded cast member, but there you go. Her main role in her first experience is to extract exposition, largely about Matt’s peculiar abilities. I loved the hallway fight scene at the end–the apparently done-in-one sequence that’s drawn a great deal of deserved attention online. But while my wife watched the first ep with interest, she missed watching the second with me, and I realized that she hadn’t missed anything of significance, nothing that I couldn’t have summed up in two sentences, one about Dawson, and one about the flashback demise of Matt Murdock’s father.
Episode 3: Rabbit in a Snowstorm
First shot, road of a bowling ball out of the return gizmo, a powerful audio that made a great opening. Extra attention has been paid to sound design, fittingly. Also, extra attention to the violence—the fight scene that erupts on the bowling alley is savage and brutal. I don’t need that. I still don’t enjoy Matt’s coworkers, but the introduction of reporter Ben Urich (inventive casting of Vonnie Curtis Hall). The slow-boiling mystery regarding the unseen mob Kingpin is taking too long to come to fruition. (He shows up at the end, but isn’t identified for viewers not familiar with his comic book background. Instead we get an abstract monologue about abstract art.) There’s a limit to how much obliqueness we should be expected to take.
This ep’s courtroom drama, on the other hand, seems flat and rote. It confirms that the powerful bad guys are bad and powerful. The show feels like it’s taking 13 episodes to tell a four-ep tale. And by the end of ep 3, Matt is no closer to becoming Daredevil, red leather and all, rather than just an anonymous thug in black.
pisode 4: In the Blood
Rosario Dawson! When she ends up in jeopardy, it’s the first time I feel invested in the story. Also, the Kingpin goes on a date, and Karen Page, secretary to Murdock & Nelson, begins investigating a crime that will also connect to the Kingpin—the mystery is moving. Her crusade gives her a passion she was lacking, and makes me want to root for her, too. She’s well-paired with Ben Urich. And this episode gives us the bare minimum of Foggy Nelson, so it’s easily the best so far.
Vincent D’Onofrio puts in his second appearance as Wilson Fisk, and combines a strange, awkward shyness with an absolutely savage violence that makes him a fascinating, standout character even in such a brutal world as this.
* * *
I stopped here. Having watched episodes three and four back-to-back, it was late, and I didn’t have the stomach for another 50 minutes of bone-break sound effects. At this point, I feel like the show has given us too much bloodsport spectacle and too little character. We’re supposed to like Matt Murdock because he’s the crime-fighting good guy, but the show has made no effort at all to actually earn our goodwill. He’s not charming, he’s rarely funny, he doesn’t confide in anyone (and thus, does not confide in us), and there’s no explanation for his vigilante career, which is, y’know, a rather extreme reaction to society’s ills.
At this point, I will continue watching because of my affection for the source material. I imagine that if I were not already a fan of the comics, I’d watch to see whether Charlie Cox and Rosario Dawson fall in love. I like their chemistry, and the bond being forged by what they’ve gone through in these first episodes. Beyond that, I kinda want to see where D’Onofrio’s performance goes, but given that he just decapitated a man using a car door, I’m afraid it’ll mostly go in the direction of unredeemable mayhem.
Redemption. It’s amazing to me that a show so packed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer veterans is so lacking in charm, heart, or any attempt to connect emotionally with the viewer. But then, creator Drew Goddard was also the director of Cabin in the Woods, a film that entertained the living hell out of me, but that was much more concerned with plot, genre and taking the audience’s assumptions for granted than in making any human connection.
Still, Cox’s Murdock is only just coming out of his shell. With a little luck, and Dawson as his night nurse, this show will find its soul, and it’ll be as crucial as its fight coordinator.