Sunday, December 20, 2015
Show without fear
Anyone who's read Frank Miller's and David Mazzuchelli's Batman: Year One from the late 80s would have instantly recognized the setting and atmosphere of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. It's inescapable. The aura of angst, shadow, and determination- the grit -is all there. It's a hallmark of Miller's storytelling. He once said that he wanted to be a crime writer who just happened to have a superhero or two hanging around. His Batman stories are essentially that, as they deal with genuine people trying to respond to unusual circumstances. The fact that they dress oddly in order to make that response begins to seem almost natural. Miller's Daredevil was where he developed that singular style that, along with Alan Moore's Watchmen and Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, became the defining oeuvre of comics in the 80s and early 90s. Appropriately, "grim and gritty" was the tag for that period and Netflix series creator, Drew Goddard, mined that same approach for Daredevil.
The obvious intent was to dial it back from the rapid explosions of the Marvel films like The Avengers to show how "regular people" get by in a world of thunder gods and narcissistic genius inventors. The fact that one of them gets by with an accidentally- and radioactively-induced radar sense that compensates for his blindness is just one of the things that seems "normal" when half of Manhattan has been laid waste by alien invaders from another dimension (and, no, Trump supporters, they weren't Mexicans or Syrians and you aren't "normal", either.) This is Miller to a tee. Daredevil's history up to the late 70s had been as a half-assed Spider-Man who regularly encountered other denizens of the Marvel Universe like Electro, Mr. Hyde, and Death-Stalker. A consequence by the late 70s was bimonthly publication and being on the verge of cancellation when Miller started drawing it and quickly convinced then editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter, to let him take over the writing duties, as well. Why would anyone read about some human guy when you could have a spider-human in the same city and fighting the same threats? Thus are the eternal woes of DC Comics laid plain for all to see...
The difference, of course, is in the humanity. Marvel's trick was always to show costumed superhumans dealing with real problems: jobs, relationships, car problems, etc. Miller took a step back even farther from that and began to focus not just on Matt Murdock, crusading attorney of downtrodden Hell's Kitchen, but on the downtrodden themselves and much of what took place in the "real world" beneath the view of Asgard and the Baxter Building. Goddard's show has done the same thing, keeping the light touch of reference to things happening in the world so that the magic of the Marvel Universe is maintained, but refusing to step past that street level so that every inch of shadow can be explored by the one man whose vision can't be affected by any of it.
What helps Goddard in this respect is the excellent cast he managed to cobble together for the show; most prominently the supremely engaging Charlie Cox, as Murdock. As a comic character, Murdock was usually distinctly second-class to his alter ego. It's as if writing a character with a significant disability kind of put Marvel's writers off their game, such that Murdock didn't stand out as a personality in the same way that, say, Peter Parker or Ben Grimm did. But Miller changed that, giving him very distinctive drives and mannerisms, based in part on the extensive background detail Miller introduced to what had been a stock origin story. It's clear that Cox has studied all of this material, as he embodies the Murdock character as well as Robert Downey, Jr. does Tony Stark. You can understand the urge to act outside the law, given the rules and failings that so constrained his father. You can see the determination in the face of someone who has overcome blindness but has also overcome the barrage of sensory input that, in some ways, inhibits normal function even more than the lack of the primary sense that most of us have access to. There's depth here and Cox uses all of that depth to create a whole image.
Likewise, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page and Vondie Curtis-Hall as Ben Urich are whole people. They react as real people do to ostensibly real situations; with all the hesitation, uncertainty, and outright fear that most would in those circumstances. As I've mentioned before, Sansa Stark may be the most well-rounded character in Game of Thrones because she's reacted like humans would to terrible events. Page and Urich are in that mold and, even moreso, have often overcome that reluctance to perform heroic acts which is all we should normally ask of dramatic characters. Curtis-Hall, in particular, was excellent as he played my image of Urich almost note for note; the cynical, embittered, and yet quietly outraged reporter.
Adding Vincent D'Onofrio as Wilson Fisk was kind of a coup. If you want to present a character who is enormously dangerous but still kind of a child inside, who better than Private Pyle? While still hewing to the Miller version of Fisk (and completely avoiding the character's original public title: The Kingpin), D'Onofrio presented a more sympathetic figure than the comics; one struggling with his own past and inner demons in a way that makes for a genuine "villain". Unlike Sauron, he's not acting out of pure malice or spite or ambition, but instead is performing his own drama that attempts to satisfy the circumstances that made and make up his existence. Upgrading Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer) from the somehow-innocent waif of the comics to a starkly ambitious woman was another good step forward for the series.
Having said all of that, the one down note in casting and the screenplays, in general, is Foggy (Elden Henson.) Foggy was never that crucial of a character in Daredevil, even under more lighthearted writers than Miller. The idea of the goofy sidekick is one firmly embedded in comics lore, albeit one that has thankfully been dwindling away in more recent decades. Henson isn't a bad actor. In fact, I think he plays the part well. The problem is that the part sucks. Cox doesn't need more humanizing as Murdock. He does that well enough by himself. Trying to add in Foggy to give the more human angle to some of the ongoing events just ends up laying it on too thick. What's even worse is that most of Foggy's antics aren't even that funny, since they tend to contrast most of what happens in a rather jarring fashion.
That, of course, may simply be an aftereffect of the series' presentation as a whole. Daredevil is a story on the streets. It's dark and shadowy and, most importantly, almost always dark and shadowy when the good guys are present. Daredevil operates in the shadows, obviously, but it's interesting to see that even when Matt and Karen and Foggy and Ben talk strategy or simply about life, it's always in the darkened office or a dimly lit bar or Matt's apartment that lacks lighting other than the neon display. Most of the time, our heroes are in those shadows that the primary hero depends on and has had thrust upon him since he was 10. In contrast (literally), Fisk and Vanessa are frequently depicted in the well-lit gallery or Fisk's warmly lit apartment. The good guys inhabit the darkness in this tale, while the bad guys are usually in the bright light of day. It's a smart method to demonstrate how Daredevil's extra-legal methods may be the right thing to do, if not always the right thing to do.
But the show abounds with other little touches in similar fashion:
- Elaborating upon Stick and his crucial role in Murdock's development. The character is played by Scott Glenn, who resembles David Carradine of Kung Fu fame, who was the original visual inspiration for the character in the comics.
- Namedropping Elektra, Matt's old girlfriend and antagonist in the comics, and giving other vague references to The Hand (the opposite numbers of Stick's organization) which should excite old DD fans for season 2.
- Including Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple, but who also is effectively Night Nurse from the early 70s and who makes an appearance in the Netflix series, Jessica Jones.
Again, this is all typical for the Marvel approach. Their universe is a living, breathing organism and events that take place in one part of the world will impact or at least be heard of in another.
But one of the key elements that was pointed out to me before I saw the series and which I also really appreciate is, again, that commitment to "realism". This is a man with a radar sense, sure, but this is also just a man. When they move to the action sequences, it's quite evident that it's two (or more) humans beating the crap out of each other and they're both feeling it. That's what action is like in the "real world" and that commitment colors this series moreso than most other Marvel productions because, again, the scale is reduced down to the level (or close to it) of you and me. I really hope that in season 2, even with the emergence of the devil costume, they continue to restrain the excesses of the Marvel Universe. Iron Man and Thor can have all the galaxy-spanning explosions they want, but Daredevil is not on that scale and the story will flow better if we can see that we're still simply dealing with a man without fear.