Monday, April 13, 2015

Marvel's Daredevil is Brutally Brilliant Art

This isn’t the Daredevil I grew up with. This show doesn’t have any of the signifiers for which many know the character. There aren’t a lot of high flying acrobatics. We don’t constantly see the world through the beautiful and haunted perception of the Man Without Fear. And we most certainly don’t get the colorful cast of characters like Elektra, Bullseye, or (most importantly) Stilt Man. This is something else entirely.

And thank gods for that, because a show that had adhered so closely to the source material might have denied itself the excellence we’re seeing here today.

The Man Without Fear wears his limits on his sleeves quite literally in the Netflix series.

Marvel’s Daredevil is good. Really good. It’s so good that it’s a wonder that the company hasn’t invested more time into fleshing out their big timers on the small screen rather than letting DC eat the lion’s share, while Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. barely represents. But I digress.

What makes it so good, first and foremost, is the appropriately fearless attitude it takes to being different and not giving the audience what they expect. The show departs from many of the facts of the comic, opting instead to honor its spirit. And honor it, it does.

First and foremost, this is a story about the bad medicine of reality, as juxtaposed with the fantastical whimsy of super hero worlds. This particular pain has always been a central theme of Daredevil: The fact that heroism would be taxing, bad people would win and good people would lose. Wickedness can often seem insurmountable because it simply has more options at its disposal. Daredevil explores all of these themes and more in what is, without question, Marvel’s most brutal and upsetting story told in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The story takes place moments in-between when most superhero stories take place. It happens after Matt Murdock’s origin story but before he becomes Daredevil. After Wilson Fisk rises to power but before he’s the Kingpin. After Ben Urich is a famous writer but before he’s the most trusted name in superhero news. Getting to the story we all know and love takes all 13 episodes. It’s an interesting choice that, at times, feels a little slow but the restraint overall pays off. When the big moments of DD’s lore click into place, they feel triumphant and earned.

Every character, including Wilson Fisk and his allies, are given fully fleshed out stories that compel and fight for center stage.

When they work, that is. The show, for all of its glory and triumph, has some definite stumbling blocks. The greatest of these is when its creative and ambitious ideas are blurt out without much consideration. More than once, a plot twist or idea appears that is absolutely brilliant at first watch that fades rapidly upon consideration. A strong example of this is the rewriting of Wilson Fisk from “Evil capitalist” to the terrifying anti-hero who constantly believes he is the savior of Hell’s Kitchen. You know this, because it’s reiterated almost every episode: Wilson Fisk is trying to manipulate and divert the tidal waves of inevitable crime in order to strengthen the city he loves. It’s exciting and fascinating to see this character reimagined as a fallen anti-hero, until the question eventually hits you of “... wait, what’s he planning now?”. Because for everything Wilson Fisk has intricately planned, his end result is being the ruler of all crime in a city he loves. No further end game is ever stated. Is he planning to eventually disband his criminal force? Use them to rule the city in a pseudo-fascist state? Or does he plan to consolidate all crime into a small and forgivable amount? While all of these are valid interpretations, it’s frustrating to be left interpreting at all. This goes double when the show puts such incredible thought and depth into almost every other aspect of its characters. And yet, unfortunately, we are stuck with moments like this that don’t add up.

These are, however, small potatoes in the incredible characters we’re given. The Daredevil comic is famous for one of the most complex and brooding characters in Marvels’ pantheon, but that love, depth, and tragedy is extended to the rest of the cast in fantastic ways. Each character is far expounded upon beyond their capacity to serve Matt’s character. Foggy is no longer just a metaphor for Daredevil’s joy. Karen Page is no longer memorialized as one of the many (many… many) girlfriends that died for Daredevil’s angst. Instead, they are given full, compelling character arcs. This level of writing strengthens the show substantially and is a great example of one of the positive departures from the franchise I already love.

Coloring, lighting, and framework are all masterfully executed.

Another great choice is the removal of Daredevil’s immortal high-flying acrobatics. In the comics, much attention is given to the glory of his circus antics, backflips, and slow motion gymnastics. In the show, these antics stay, but they are given minimal attention in any given fight scene. Instead, the focus is on the human element here. Daredevil isn’t a Super Soldier. Nor is he a man made of iron. Instead, he is just a man that is angry about the injustice in his city. He bleeds, groans, and breaks as easily as any mortal in his fights. He can be thrown off by a strong punch or an unexpected weapon. He’s a man that can be beaten as easily as any other man. He bears permanent scars from each mistake; scars that can be opened if he overexerts himself. This all serves not to make him seem weak, but incredible. Here is a man that has relatively few advantages above his constant ability to get up. To keep fighting. It is a thrill to watch this juxtaposition of weakness of body and strength of character.

Though that’s hardly the only thing worth viewing here. This series has, without a doubt, the best artistic direction of any Marvel series. In color and framing, every single shot looks straight out of a classic comic book. Lighting and set choices augment each set beautifully. The decision to film the entire series on location in New York was a brilliant one that only escalates this beauty. The beautiful bustle of the city, and the desperation and broken nature of its back alleys. Everything is presented in a modern and urban work of art. Every moment is beautiful.

Ben Urich finally appears in the MCU, and he is brilliantly portrayed.

The entire series is a compilation of such beautiful decisions. From the decision to an ensemble cast over a solo series to the emphasis on the humanity and weakness of each character, nearly every choice the show runners made is a spot on effort to differentiate this from the MCU movies while still planting this firmly as a crown jewel in the franchise. While some parts may have been slow and some decisions ill-considered, my final moments on the series were nothing but unbridled joy and satisfaction; a desire to see more of The Defenders story blossoming on Netflix. This show is a success.

Brace yourself for the most grim and brutal chapter in Marvel’s domination of screens both big and small. The Devil is loose in Hell’s Kitchen, and he is well worthy of your attention.

Ben Worley is a Daredevil fanatic and frustratingly rare writer for Ace of Geeks. His next work will likely include a series of elaborate, interlocking puzzles.

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