Wednesday, April 22, 2015

TV or Not TV?

Again, spoilers will go with this item. I'm not 100% sure of what makes either Daredevil or Bosch (to be reviewed later) an actual "TV series," since neither of them never really aired on television and would only have been seen on a TV set if you had the proper web-based hookup (I watched them on an iPad while on the treadmill). But since everyone else uses the TV-related words "series" and "seasons," so will I.

Marvel Comics' big-screen events have been mostly pretty bright. Yes, there was violence and yes, people died, but it was in a very distinct good guys/bad guys context, and the good guys did not have too many questions about either who they opposed or what they needed to do to oppose them. Daredevil, the Netflix-based series of 13 episodes showing the origin and first battles of Matt Murdock as the blind hero fighting crime in the Hell's Kitchen area of New York City, is different. It's far bloodier and far more morally murky. While still waging his war in a makeshift mask and fighting clothes, Murdock questions a thug by means of sticking a knife behind his eyeball. He instructs criminals to "leave my city" even though the likelihood is that they will have to do so on crutches. And we spend a good deal of time watching the villain, "Kingpin" Wilson Fisk, fall in love with an art dealer and deal with some of his own internal demons as the shows tries to show us the man behind the bad guy.

Daredevil is the story of Murdock, who was blinded as a young boy when he was hit by a truck hauling hazardous chemicals (in the comic book origin from 1964, it was nuclear material). The same chemicals enhanced his other senses and gave him such sensitivity to his surroundings that he can function almost as though he were sighted. Murdock combines his abilities with training from the blind martial artist Stick to become a skilled fighter who eventually cannot stand by when wrongdoers escape the law's punishment. He takes to the streets and eventually finds himself up against a conspiracy of corruption, headed by Fisk. The irony is that his "day job" is lawyering, with his longtime friend Frankin "Foggy" Nelson. In the first episode they meet Karen Page, a young secretary in a big firm who uncovers secrets she is not meant to know and who finds herself targeted by Fisk's minions. They prevent Karen from being framed for murder and she goes to work for them, eventually becoming an ally in the fight against Fisk's plans to obliterate Hell's Kitchen and replace it with pricey upscale developments. But Fisk is ruthless and will use legal and illegal means to win the game, meaning all of them could be in danger and Murdock could have to cross lines that would make him little different from his adversary.

A neighborhood priest hears his semi-confessions and ruminates with him about the existence of evil and the devil, and what human beings should do when confronting it. Do we stand on our principles and refuse to take up the devil's weapons, possibly guaranteeing our defeat? Or do we do whatever works and take whatever steps we have to, even if those steps leave us more the devil's mirror-image than his enemy? Where is the line between them, and is it always in the same place or does it shift? Veteran character actor Peter McRobbie's Father Lanton offers Matt someone who can try to point him towards answers to those questions. It's a rare thoughtful and positive portrayal of religion in mass media and it definitely works for a character who grew up Roman Catholic but who now wears a mask with the devil's horns.

Charlie Cox plays Murdock and creates a great character, using parts of George Clooney's Danny Ocean, Robert Downey's Tony Stark and Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne and melding them into his own performance. Murdock fights against injustice, but he also battles the idea that he is somehow a victim because of his blindness. He shows a genuine tension between allowing his crusade to swallow him up in its own violence and remembering that he's supposed to represent something more than just a bigger bully with a bigger stick. Deborah Ann Woll makes Karen Page a driving force in her own right. Her determination to beat the people who tried to frame her for murder and killed an innocent man starts Matt and Foggy on their path towards a legal operation against Fisk and her commitment to doing so according to the law, as Matt initially insisted on, keeps them going. Elden Henson's Foggy Nelson offers much of the comic relief of the show but also continues to drive the fight against Fisk and keeping it in the legal arena. His disillusionment with Matt when he learns his idealistic friend has spent his nights subverting the laws he swore to uphold shows plainly and it's ultimately the fence that keeps Matt from simply killing his enemies.

The show isn't perfect. The "Nelson v. Murdock" episode is talkier and flash-backier than it needs to be, and the roles of some of the other crime outfits allied with Fisk aren't completely clear. They exist mainly to give Murdock a layer of villains to fight through before tackling the next one and the next one to get to Fisk.

And Vincent D'Onofrio's Fisk has several problems. Part of those come from D'Onofrio's performance. Pitched somewhere between his interstellar cockroach in a human suit from Men in Black and his quirky detective in Law and Order: Criminal Intent, it's probably supposed to come off as restrained, but more often than not it just seems mannered, stilted and artificial. The first time Fisk trades in his refined persona for a paroxysm of violent rage shocks us, but the third and fourth and fifth time he starts to sound like a child initiating a tantrum. The script doesn't help much with this. We watch Fisk woo and fall in love with Vanessa Mariana (Ayelet Zurer) and deal with his own sufferings, as a way for the story to build a human being instead of one-dimensional baddie, but this is after we've seen him decapitate a man by slamming a car door on his head until it comes off (the head, that is). That's the kind of memory that sticks with you and storyline-wise, seeing it happen before we see Fisk the Grown-Up Lonely Hurt Little Boy Looking for Approval and Love really doesn't work.

But overall, Daredevil is a good addition to Marvel's growing list of quality stories featuring their costumed characters, and the news of a second season is welcome. It is indeed much darker in tone than the big-screen stories we've seen so far, but it is also good. It seems like a lot of people equate darker stories with higher quality stories, but that's not true very often and certainly not here. Daredevil is dark because that's the story being told. It's good because it's good.

ETA: For some reason this post disappeared for a few hours this afternoon. Sorry about the inconvenience.

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