Monday, April 13, 2015

The Man Without Fear, The Show Without Peer

Absolutely devoured Marvel's Daredevil series on Netflix over the weekend, and I cannot recommend it enough as a complete redemption of the Ben Affleck/Jon Favreau 2003 film that all but wrecked the character and put Marvel in the dumpster in early 2003 (before X2 2 months later and Spider-Man 2 the next summer started the company's revival).  Is it any good?

Short answer: it's the best super hero show on TV right now, DC or Marvel (Sorry Agents of SHIELD, Arrow, and The Flash...) and it's worth a month of Netflix just to watch this.

Long answer, after the jump (mild spoilers ahead.)

Charlie Cox (Boardwalk Empire's Owen Slater) does a great job of playing both blind attorney Matt Murdock and super hero Daredevil in a series with as much character and grit as the Hell's Kitchen streets we see in the series.

Two years after The Avengers assembled on the big screen and saved New York from the alien Chitauri (while causing billions in collateral damage) the Big Apple needs rebuilding, and a lot of the construction contracts in Manhattan have gone to one particularly well-connected company.  A lowly secretary for the company, Karen Page, (True Blood's "Baby Vamp" Jessica, Deborah Ann Woll) finds a pension file she shouldn't have and ends up a murder suspect with a dead co-worker in her living room.

Enter two rookie defense attorneys living out of cardboard boxes and Chinese take-out containers, Matt Murdock and his partner Foggy Nelson (Mockingjay's Pollux, Elden Henson), who take Karen's case and in the process discover a trail of crime, slime, and grime leading to a mysterious organized crime "kingpin" (Vincent D'Onofrio, the real star of the series) who is pulling the strings on a massive operation in Hell's Kitchen involving Chinese triad heroin, Japanese yakuza muscle, Russian mafia weapons, entire precincts full of corrupt cops, and Wall Street money laundering to top it all off.

Karen, Matt, and Foggy are in way over their heads, but Matt's nocturnal alter-ego is the key to seeing justice meted out to those that the law can't otherwise touch.  Along the way he'll cross paths with an ER nurse (Rosario Dawson) who finds him bleeding and battered in her dumpster, a cold-hearted majordomo (Toby Leonard Moore, who for all the world looks like MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes's evil older brother) working for the mysterious man in charge, and a grizzled reporter (Vondie Curtis-Hall) for the local paper who is also on the trail of the criminal mastermind in the shadows.

Villain Wilson Fisk is, as I said, the real star of the show.  Unlike Daredevil, he has no powers, just his massive size and strength, his equally strong mind, and his even stronger will to shape Hell's Kitchen into his own criminal empire. D'Onofrio does an amazing job here both physically and emotionally and the series is as much Fisk's origin story and development into the mighty Kingpin as it is Murdock becoming Daredevil.  In fact, we don't even see Murdock in his red Daredevil outfit until the final episode, and frankly the show is far better for it.

And not to take anything away from Charlie Cox, either.  He plays Matt Murdock with his permanent five o'clock shadow and shared secret smirk well, as he subtly lets the audience know that he lets on far more than a normal blind attorney should, and that he too is torn between the man and the monster as Daredevil, finding out that like Fisk he has a real talent for crippling violence and a taste for it as well. Devout Catholic Murdock also confides in a local priest, Father Lantom (the understated Peter McRobbie) who tries to keep Matt's devil inside and on the path to the light.  Matt is definitely flawed and very human, and it seems like his boxer father "Battlin' Jack" Murdock (John Patrick Hayden) that Murdock's real power is finding a way to get back up after hitting the mat.

Two things I like about the series compared to the movies: like the Frank Miller and later-era comics, we're not beaten over the head with Daredevil's non-visual senses as a gimmick (remember the movie's constant "sonar vision" scenes?)  Rather, the show's excellent sound editing puts us in Murdock's shoes as a detective, following things and reacting to aural cues that make sense. You could watch the show with your eyes closed and still get nearly all of it because Murdock's   Yes, television is a visual medium, and there are some beautiful instances of cinematography in the show, from the rooftops of Hell's Kitchen to Kingpin's corner penthouse view to an outstanding kinetic basement fight scene in Episode 2 that takes heavy cues from the legendary movie Oldboy and shows what Murdock can do taking on bad guys (Hint: he can take on a dozen mooks but he gets hurt a lot. I mean, a LOT.)  But if you close your eyes and listen, you still know what's going on in the show.

The other is the inclusion of Fisk's love interest, Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer) who really adds a lot to the series.  Fisk is a mess around her, he's literally reduced to a sheepish, stuttering and very vulnerable man in her presence as he tries to woo the art gallery curator.  She develops too as a woman who goes from the object of attention of powerful men to the rock that keeps Fisk centered, the Carmella to his Tony Soprano, who is capable of loving both the man and the monster.

All told this is really an excellent show, right up there with Netflix's other series offerings like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, and more recently Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  If the rest of the planned Marvel/Netflix Defenders series (A,K,A, Jessica Jones coming later this year and , Luke Cage and Iron Fist next year) are as good as Daredevil, Marvel will have another monster franchise on its hands.

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