Netflix's Daredevil and the Evolution of Marvel Studios
We are now seven years removed from the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe through the release of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. At the time, the hubris of this company, still based out of the comic book/entertainment company and reliant on bigger movie studios (namely Paramount) for distribution, seemed off the charts, especially as they announced their intentions for the shared cinematic universe that has made them famous with the Nick Fury stinger after the credits of Iron Man. Since then so much has happened, from The Avengers’ mind boggling $207 million domestic opening weekend to the audacity of Guardians of Galaxy's incredibly successful mainstream August release, and Marvel Studios, now under the wing of mega-studio Disney, has become the talk of the town by virtue of their runaway box office success and aggressive (and extensive) planned release schedule stretching through the end of the decade. Guardians proved anything with the Marvel logo (and Disney’s marketing machine behind it, of course) could become a hit, even a science fiction action comedy featuring talking raccoons and trees directed by a guy who got his start at Troma.
With the MCU humming along in the multiplexes, Marvel/Disney looked to TV to expand their empire with Agents of SHIELD. It struggled out of the gate, with the first half of its first season stumbling and bumbling over a monster of the week format, deserving of its lagging ratings and interest, and even as it rounded into form in its second half, the audience hasn’t entirely come back in droves. A similar tale can be told for Agent Carter, an eight episode mini series that replaced SHIELD while it was on break. These two series are deeply ensconced in the lore and mythology of the MCU, constantly intertwining themselves with the events of corresponding movies as they are released in theaters. One can understand why the audience at large could become dissatisfied with such an approach; it certainly feels at times like following the MCU as a whole is not unlike homework, and when that homework includes watching Thor: The Dark World or Iron Man 2 or the dull first eight to ten episodes of Agents of SHIELD, it is not difficult to see how burnout can set in. It is like attempting to follow a big time Marvel comic book event with multiple crossovers and spin-offs; often gems can be found through the association, but just as often you’re left wondering why you just bought and read that random issue of She-Hulk.
Understandably, Marvel looked to branch out further. And one can see why a distribution model like Netflix would appeal to them. However fairly or unfairly, prime time network shows will always be beholden to ratings and a 22 or so episode season schedule, and while it’s not particularly likely that Disney-owned ABC would yank the flagship television presence of the MCU because of sluggish ratings, operating as a sort of loss leader is not the best long term foot forward for the brand in a non-movie medium. Agents of SHIELD has the weight of ties to the movies, which have a grand scale and a grand budget (and with its recent focus on the first introduction of Inhumans, it is also taking the lead in establishing new canon that will pay off on the movie side down the line), so it makes sense that Marvel’s next project would reduce the stakes, and by extension the budget. Thus, they took it to the streets with the (still certainly ambitious) announcement of four Netflix series to take place in and around Hell’s Kitchen, New York, culminating in a crossover mini-series, The Defenders. It’s essentially the Avengers model converted to TV, with the halls of Asgard replaced by the alleys of New York.
This past Friday, Daredevil, the first of the four base series, debuted, with all of its thirteen episodes dropped into the service at once. Originally created, developed and at least partially showrun by Drew Goddard (a colleague of Avengers mastermind Joss Whedon who worked with him on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, as well as co-writing and directing Cabin in the Woods) only to be replaced as showrunner by Steven S. DeKnight (another Whedon colleague who worked on same season of Angel) when some Spider-Man related opportunities arose, this new take on Daredevil stars Charlie Cox as the eponymous hero and his blind lawyer alter ego Matthew Murdock, who runs an upstart law firm with his college buddy Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) and secretary Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). By night he dons a mask and prowls the city fighting against the tide of corruption swallowing Hell’s Kitchen whole, with the mysterious and thoroughly dangerous Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) pulling the strings from the shadows.
What is most refreshing about Daredevil is how unencumbered it feels compared to every other MCU property. Essentially since The Avengers, everything that has come out of Marvel Studios has felt the pressure of this massive specter of continuity looming over it (even Guardians of the Galaxy, taking place in a different solar system from the rest of the movies, was forced to shoehorn in some baldly awkward scenes with Thanos and the Collector designed to pay off multiple movies from now), and as the films have gotten more successful, their foreshadowing for each new project have become more pointed. Daredevil makes a few references to events of the greater MCU from time to time, asides about gods with hammers or certain events of Agents of SHIELD, but these are little more than color, a bit of spice to establish that these events are occurring in the same world, even if they otherwise do not touch each other in any substantial way. Agents of SHIELD was supposed to promise such an approach, but it did not take long for the superpowers to take their hold. Murdock has super senses brought on by the chemicals that took his sight as a child, but beyond that this is a powers-free show with understandably smaller stakes, but also more satisfying ones.
The trappings of Daredevil are nothing particularly innovative, with its Russian mobsters and its muggings and its downtrodden souls on the fringes of society. But for a story told within the scope of the superhero world, it feels almost novel. You can only watch the fate of the entire world/galaxy/universe/multiverse endangered so many times before it starts to lose meaning. A show like Daredevil serves to reset that sort of calamity fatigue, reminding us that even if the people on the street living their everyday lives don’t have to contend with cosmic threats bent on world domination, it doesn’t mean their troubles don’t have their own import. And those troubles are crystalized by Vincent D'Onofrio's massive, hulking take on The Kingpin, Wilson Fisk. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been begging, pleading for a decent villain not named Loki, and Daredevil has finally capitalized on that void. The writing and D’Onofrio’s performance paint a vivid and alluring picture of ambition gone to seed, twisted intentions and the corruption of power and influence. Fisk is set up as an analogue to Murdock, another man shaped by tragic events in his childhood that he cannot shake, heavily influenced by a prominent father figure. Matt’s father was an honorable man and Fisk’s a cad, so we have the understandable avenue to the present day, with Matt running and flipping and punching his way across the night protecting those who cannot protect themselves, and Fisk putting a hand in every illicit dealing that could extend his wealth and dominance over Hell’s Kitchen, with an eye for bigger and bigger prizes. It is a simple, easily understood tension that drives the entire series, one that creates natural avenues for the introduction of a rich supporting cast on either side of the conflict.
It has been said that a superhero story is only as good as its villain, and the approach to Fisk, from his delayed introduction, his name only heard in whispers by the doomed, a specter hanging unseen over the city’s dark dealings, is something special indeed. The creators could have painted Fisk as a cartoon supervillain, chomping a cigar and stealing the food out of the mouths of the impoverished, but such an approach would have the opposite effect of stripping away all menace from such a character. But when one of the first major Wilson Fisk scenes finds him awkwardly flirting with an art gallery curator named Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer), it injects a healthy humanity into him that throws his atrocities into even sharper relief, and the way his relationship with Vanessa is characterized and changes from episode three to episode thirteen is masterful. There is a shot of Fisk right at the first season’s end, one that reinforces a repeated visual motif that manages to skillfully set the stage for everything that will come next. It should have been the last shot of the episode, but no superhero show in its right mind would end their first season with anything but a hero shot. This is not a The Dark Knight situation, where Heath Ledger’s Joker outshone everyone and everything around him. Fisk may be a wonderfully drawn character, and D’Onofrio may be preternaturally magnetic, but he is not so magnetic at the expense of a milquetoast hero. Cox’s character has depth and warmth, and his performance is strong, and the trio of Matt, Foggy and Karen are impossible not to cheer for. The additional support from veterans like Rosario Dawson and Vondie Curtis-Hall flesh out the area into something organic. Goddard and DeKnight hit the perfect push-pull between hero and villain, and that power elevates the entire enterprise.
A good show would leave it at that, knowing that the story would carry them through, but Daredevil knows that superhero fans have a certain expectation of action and special effects, and is equal to the task. There is no superhero more dependent on sound than Daredevil, and Goddard and DeKnight have put together an incredibly talented sound department to paint the world as Murdock hears it, a cacophony of heartbeats and whispers and crunching bones and far-away sirens bouncing around the surround mix. It is crisp and clean, matching the simple straightforward fight scenes filmed with a notably tripod-assisted camera, alternating between purpose and chaos as the audience tries to imagine how a man can perceive the world in the way Matt Murdock does. We do see a glimpse of what Murdock “sees,” a swirling vortex of sensation he refers to as “a world on fire,” but the showrunners intelligently do not use it as a crutch every time there is a fight scene (especially a fight early on in the series that hearkens back to the infamous hallway sequence from Oldboy), which would not only get old, but put it right back in the worrying trend of disorienting action. The world of Daredevil has weight and charm and feels like the dangerous setting it needs to be in order for the stakes to feel earned. It seems organic in the way a show like Agents of SHIELD (even when it is good) does not.
The timing of Daredevil could not have been better. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe spins further and further out into the cosmos, it constantly inches toward resembling plastic toys fighting each other. The fighting in Daredevil feels real, it feels heavy and painful and consequential. When Matt Murdock makes a mistake and gets tagged with a punch, you can see the results of that mistake. When he is involved in a wild fight with mobsters in a cramped hallway, the show takes the time to have him slump against a wall, frantically attempting to catch his breath before the next onslaught comes. His technique is messy and inexact, the work of a man who has had training, and quite a bit of it, but also not quite enough of it. Super hearing does not do much for a punch to the face. It doesn’t make your broken ribs heal faster. That moment, the care that goes into making the time to show that heavy breathing speaks volumes. It is not about weakness, but humanity. Humanity is not something of which the Marvel Cinematic Universe has an abundance. The other films and television shows’ human characters are lost in the shuffle, mass casualties for ineffective villains or uninspiring love interests. But in Daredevil, humanity pours over Hell’s Kitchen like the waxy blood-like substance that forms the city in its haunting credit sequence. The Marvel Universe is all the better for a project like this existing, but more importantly, we are all the better for it as well. This is top flight television, a show that deserves your time even amongst the Game of Throneses and the Mad Mens and the True Detectives of the world. It’s that good.