18 Apr 2015

Screen Time: DAREDEVIL Season 1

Cast: Charlie Cox, Deborah Ann Woll, Elden Henson, Vincent D'Onofrio, Rosario Dawson, Toby Leonard Moore, Vondie Curtis-Hall
Director: Various

James R: Or: Hornhead Begins! These really are crazy times. 14 (yikes!) years ago, when those who would become the PCG first met to discuss comics in a local bookshop, I clearly recall a member of the public strolling over and asking us what we were discussing. When we said "Comics", his laugh of derision was one that many of us had gotten used to. "What, like, for kids?" being the other misguided response. I flag this event up because one of the comics we discussed during those early meetings was the start of Brian Michael Bendis' run on Daredevil. Jump forward to 2015, and that run - along with it's terrific continuation from Ed Brubaker, as well as Frank Miller's seminal work - stands as the template for this multi-million dollar series, launched with TV spots, billboards and much fanfare... and no derision from any quarter! Strange days indeed!

But how have Marvel Studios (the TV division) delivered on their first Netflix series? I won't go into an episode-by-episode breakdown, rather I'll share my thoughts as someone that's read a lot of Daredevil comics in the last decade, and someone that watches a lot of good TV. Let's cut to the chase to begin with: this series delivers. After watching the show in four chunks this past week, I got to the final episode, 'Daredevil', with the sense of a job well done. There's nothing teeth-grindingly awful here, and without a doubt, the producers, specifically Drew Goddard (of Cabin In The Woods fame) and showrunner Steven S. DeKnight (Spartacus), have made a series that's incredibly faithful to the tone of the comics from the last couple of decades. So, what do they get right?

Firstly, it's the action - by now you may have read about or seen the breathtaking fight sequence that takes place at the end of the second episode (clearly influenced by the Asian cinema action sequences of Oldboy and The Raid) and it's visceral stuff which - best of all - feels real. Nobody is knocked out cold by a single punch, not everyone is a flawless martial arts master. As a result, the fights are messy, brutal, and riveting to watch. There has always been the sense that Daredevil is a hero who suffers a lot in the fight for justice, and you definitely feel his pain over the thirteen episodes.
Secondly, there is a really pleasing level of world-building that goes on. The development of Matt Murdock's powers, and the introduction of the supporting cast is handled very well. For example, I was certainly not expecting to see Melvin Potter (who goes on become Daredevil's troubled adversary, Gladiator) make such a significant appearance, but it's done very well, with plenty of nods for hardened fanboys. It's clear that Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins is a big influence here - but why not? Daredevil has often been described as Marvel's Batman and the production takes a lot of the elements from that movie that made it such as success, using them to good effect here. I will also confess to a feeling of immense fanboy satisfaction when Foggy refers to "That hot Greek chick you were seeing" during a flashback to Matt and Foggy's college days - and therefore the promise of Elektra in the next series.

Thirdly, the casting is mostly on the money too. Fans (like myself) of HBO's Boardwalk Empire would have known that Charlie Cox was a fine choice to play the guardian of Hell's Kitchen, and he does a great job here with the aforementioned action, and with the ongoing burden that Matt Murdock carries as a result of his pursuit of justice through his double life. Vincent D'Onofrio is also as good as I'd expected as Kingpin. He plays him as a sympathetic but misguided villain, one scarred by a troubled past, and forever holding in a volcanic rage. Given that so far, I've given the Marvel Cinematic Universe a little criticism for often making their villains two-dimensional, D'Onofrio's Kingpin is anything but. Vondie Curtis-Hall as Ben Ulrich was another highlight - from the moment he steps on screen, I immediately thought "Yep, that's Ben Ulrich!" He totally inhabits the character, and gives the show another dimension.

Finally, the plot itself should be applauded - given that it runs for thirteen hours, the pace is pretty constant, and they find the right balance between origin stories and crime drama. As I was starting to think 'This is getting a little formulaic' after episode ten, there are two scenes that left me open-mouthed with shock, and so kudos to DeKnight and co for being able to surprise a seasoned fanboy!
Onto the negative side of things. If I'm being ultra-critical, it's still not quite A-grade TV. Next to say, a Breaking Bad, a Mad Men, or a Game Of Thrones, then Daredevil falls short. There's a few too many clunky moments: Matt's blinding in the first episode veers close to the 'NOOOOOOO!' school of over-acting, and there are times where the show isn't economical enough with its time. For example, when Ben Ulrich and Karen Page start to go on the trail of the Kingpin, there's an awful lot of time spent pointing out stuff which we as an audience already know, and that the show makes explicit. I know it's a minor gripe, but one that feels like a millstone around the show's neck when Matt's investigations are far more compelling.

You may notice that I said that the casting is mostly on the money - that's because there's also a few key characters that the show don't get right. Matt's father really doesn't come across as the embittered bruiser of the comics, and Karen Page has an utter lack of charisma. Given her importance to the plot - and of any adventures to come - Deborah Ann Woll definitely needs to have more chemistry with everyone around her. A lot of people have already criticised Elden Henson's portrayal of Foggy Nelson, and whereas I can see where they're coming from, he didn't enrage me, although I didn't really feel that he and Matt were an unbreakable team, and he doesn't really sell Foggy's forgiveness of Matt later in the run.

All told though, it's a definite win, and one that makes me very excited at the prospect of AKA Jessica Jones as the next TV production off the Marvel slate. It's certainly not the best show you'll ever see, but it's leagues ahead of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and is the truest representation of the Daredevil book many of us could have hoped for. 7/10

1 comment:

julia said...

totally agree with all of that james!! watched the whole series in two days and it's been a while since i binged on something quite that excessively. i thought it was extremely impressive and totally solid - but would agree it didn't quite lift itself to the greatest of heights. but nonetheless was utterly compelling stuff, well-constructed, looked great, and well-acted. massive respect to everyone involved and bodes well for the future marvel offerings!