Triumph in the Shadows
The ideal superhero for our dark and troubled times is, apparently, dark and troubled. In the tradition of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Netflix’s Daredevil makes a compelling case for an entire superhero universe defined by such cynical (or, depending on your worldview, realistic) logic. Set in the same Manhattan that housed the showdown between the Avengers and Loki, Daredevil doesn’t just create a gritty superhero-verse – it lets darkness encroach on an existing one, pointedly de-romanticizing the comic-book utopia of gallant knights in super suits who seemingly cause little to no collateral damage in their always-successful attempts to save the world. Viewers who were baffled by the careless havoc wreaked by the “heroes” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will feel at home in the Hell’s Kitchen conjured up by Daredevil creator Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods). As the show begins, crime is prospering precisely because the Avengers leveled half of Manhattan. The explanation of how this prosperity came about is muddled (the manipulation of the real estate market is involved) and ultimately irrelevant; what’s important is that Daredevil makes real and consequential the tenth car the Hulk lobs and the fiftieth window Thor shatters with his levitating hammer. The Avengers was about saving the world; Daredevil is, at least in part, about cleaning up the mess they made.
I’m not here to make a grand statement on the pros and cons of introducing “realism” into the superhero genre, but I did find Daredevil to be a striking alternative vision of a cinematic world we took for granted. Whereas it is easy to forget Captain America’s flaws in light of his valor, there remains throughout Daredevil an inherent dissonance between the quixotic ethos of the titular hero and his penchant for violence. And yet it is precisely this disjunction that is fascinating. On the one hand, we have a mythic warrior flying across rooftops; on the other hand, he is only human, a member of a weak and often pathetic race. Yes, the character who lives this contradiction is the stuff of cliché, but he is also the stuff of truth – such a characterization provides a window into the human condition that nonetheless keeps in view the noble values conventional superheroes are meant to represent. Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), lawyer by day and masked crusader by night, is a liar and prone to outbursts of rage, but he is also a large-souled savior who operates “illegally” because the law itself is corrupt and bureaucratic. Human failing and a superhuman heart are the winning combination for this darker avenger, and he helps make the show an absorbing ride fraught with moral tension and no easy solutions.
Next to Matt, the most intriguing human element in Daredevil is the villain Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), who is awarded the same nuance and complexity that his nemesis is given. Known informally as the “kingpin” (if not in the show, then at least in the comics), he is granted one of the greatest character introductions in recent memory. We enter the show expecting a brute, a gangster, a killer – we get all these things eventually, but what we see first is a nervous man who, in spite of the power he holds over the city, is rendered helpless in the face of a beautiful woman. The lady in question is Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer), an art gallery owner who is as taken by this most unusual of patrons as he is by her – completely bald and a head taller than the average New Yorker, he is a sight and an even more powerful presence. They hit it off well until an ill-timed interruption sets off Fisk’s sinister side. His subsequent tantrum reveals a man-child whose emotional insecurity gives rise to disproportionately severe levels of violence; the hairless scalp now takes on the suggestion of infancy rather than simply of idiosyncrasy. Rarely does a supervillain transcend mere megalomania to become as rich a character as the hero he opposes; Daredevil is the unique narrative that grants an extended flashback to “good guy” and “bad guy” alike, setting them up as equals. In the process, it does away with “good” and “bad” entirely, creating a more interesting dynamic of ambiguity calibrated to give both our hearts and minds a workout.
Around these two power players mills a motley crew of supporting characters that vary in their appeal. For every James Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore), Fiske’s treasurer/secretary/friend whose cool exterior belies a surprisingly touching loyalty to his boss, there is a Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), a one-note character and potential love interest who only gets less compelling as the show progresses. Franklin “Foggy” Nelson (Elden Henson) is probably the next best thing after Matt and Fiske, not only because he provides the show’s few moments of comic relief but because his friendship with Matt is poignantly explored in the show’s later episodes, once again through the expert use of flashbacks. A subplot involving an investigative reporter (Vondie Curtis-Hall) becomes entwined with the various agendas of the Hell’s Kitchen crime syndicate, which is amusingly divided into five, ethnically exclusive sectors: the Russians, the Chinese, the Japanese, and two American groups, one of which is headed by Fisk. Throw in a masked vigilante, his romantic involvement with a nurse (Rosario Dawson), and a martial arts figure from his past (Scott Glenn), and you have a fairly packed itinerary. At times, things feel overstuffed and rushed for a 13-episode season, but the overall mood is gripping, the storytelling energetic.
Characterization and plot are essential to Daredevil‘s success, but all this is skirting around the main draw of the show and the superhero genre in general: the action. Unlike the FX-heavy, overly edited sequences in The Avengers, the fight scenes in Daredevil emphasize choreography over wizardry, flesh-and-blood combatants over digital creations. It is here that one of the best fight scenes of recent years is found: a three-minute melee that evokes the legendary hallway brawl in Oldboy down to the single-take aesthetic and the physical exhaustion of the hero. This virtuoso moment is absolutely thrilling on all levels; too bad it occurs so early in the show, because everything else in Daredevil, drama and action alike, pales in comparison. Still, the remainder of the season exhibits consistently above-average set pieces marked by an impressive sense of style – rain and darkness prove the perfect cover for a devil on the loose, clad in black and silent as a ninja. He is like the show he occupies, which, emerging from the shadow cast by The Avengers franchise, sneaks up on us with its dexterity and daring.