Saturday, April 18, 2015

3 reasons why Marvel's Daredevil (on Netflix) is a winner

3 reasons why Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix is a winner
By Rick Olivares

Like it did for comic books in the 1960s, Marvel is showing the way in the modern film and television versions of its superheroes.

Daredevil, a web television series venture between Marvel and Netflix, the on-demand Internet streaming media site, straddles the line between a compelling drama, legal, and action thriller that is incidentally a superhero series.

The 13 one-hour episodes stays true to Daredevil’s comic book origins as a grim and gritty epic that pre-dated the supposed purveyors angst-ridden and tortured souls that populated Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns that came several years later. Furthermore, the series is a pronounced departure from the polished sheen and grandeur of the big boys who comprise the Avengers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The creative team on Daredevil is able to greatly expound on the story of Matt Murdock as he goes through a life changing experience as laid out first by the creative teams of Stan Lee and Bill Everett and later by Frank Miller and John Romita Jr.

Boy losses sight to an accident. His others senses are fired up and greatly compensate for his disability. His father is murdered for refusing to throw a fight. Murdock becomes a top-notch lawyer but dispenses vigilante justice when the law fails. Goes up against a crime cartel led by the Kingpin.

End of story?

Nah. In between there are all sorts of moral dilemmas – to kill or not to kill, to keep a secret or not, and to go all the way in pursuit of the truth. People get beaten up and are killed in the most gruesome ways.

And that has been the secret to the success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe – a screen treatment of its real life heroes where the suit doesn’t make the man. It is the other way around.

Check out Tony Stark. Even out of his Iron Man armor, he is just as if not more compelling. Ditto with Steve Rogers as Captain America. Even without the uniform, he torpedoes into action ten steps ahead of everyone.

So how different is Charlie Cox’s Matthew Murdock from Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey in the Death Wish series of films?

Revenge may be a dish best served cold but Murdock doesn’t kill (hey, Zack Snyder you understand that?).

Now here is in my opinion what makes Daredevil – to borrow words from Roger Ebert – two billy clubs up!

The Cast
The casting of British actor Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock is a pleasant surprise. He showed that viciousness as Owen Slater in Boardwalk Empire so he mixes that penchant for violence with his more honorable role of Tristan Thorn in the film Stardust while playing Murdock’s blind man very well.

Elden Henson is brilliant as Franklin “Foggy” Nelson. If my view of the all-grown up Henson is the rough and tumble Fulton Reed of The Mighty Ducks, it is good to see him add a lot of depth to Nelson who I always thought was a goofball. While Henson brings a “dude” characterization to Murdock’s partner it isn’t overboard that you won’t take him seriously. In fact, he holds his own without being the token comic relief of the cast.

The vivacious Deborah Ann Woll plays Karen Page, who in comic book lore, becomes Murdock’s star-crossed lover, is a presence and like Henson’s Nelson, has a lot more depth. If Murdock reigns in his emotions, Nelson and Page are more passionate and demonstrative. Plus, Woll cuts a statuesque figure (at 5’10”) amongst the male cast.

Perhaps outside Cox, the other member of the cast who really makes his presence felt is Vincent D’ Onofrio who plays Wilson Fisk, the kingpin of crime. D’Onofrio is a highly flexible actor adept at playing diverse roles. In fact, he steals the character of the Kingpin away from Michael Clarke Duncan’s poor portrayal of the classic DD villain in the film version starring Ben Affleck. Like Loki from Thor, he becomes interesting if not sympathetic. And now, like any other top actor with iconic roles, D’Onofrio can add Fisk to his portrayal of Gomer Pyle in Full Metal Jacket and Detective Robert Goren of Law and Order: Criminal Intent.

The producers hit a home run with the casting of Scott Glenn as Stick; Murdock’s sensei. Glenn’s gruff exterior is perfect for the bad ass Stick whose world can be broken down into black and white with nothing in between.

The alluring Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer plays a very strong Vanessa Marriana, the love the Kingpin’s life (she eventually becomes Mrs. Fisk). In Netflix’s DD, Vanessa takes a 180-degree turn from the comics version where she is frail and against her husband’s illicit activities. In the Netflix version, not only is she is strong willed but she understands, accepts, and supports Fisk’s vision for Hell’s Kitchen not to mention New York.

Personally, I am a fan of diversity but not at the expense of a classic characters who have become pegged in the mind of fandom. So I was kind of taken aback when reporter Ben Urich is played by African American actor Vondie Curtis-Hall. Like Henson’s Foggy Nelson who is now multi-dimensional, Curtis-Hall belies the frail comic book version of his character by depicting a driven man who temporarily wavers in his convictions but still rises to the occasion.

The lovely Rosario Dawson has a recurring role as Claire Temple, a nurse who first becomes Murdock’s confidant.

It doesn’t feel like a superhero story
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. still borders on the fantastic even if it is supposed to be a cloak and dagger series. Netflix’s Daredevil feels like a gritty cop/vigilante thriller with a death wish minus Charles’ Bronson’s coup de grace. Executive Producer Steven DeKnight says the series took inspiration from “The French Connection, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, and The Wire.”

Daredevil has this noir with elements of the Russian mob, Yakuza, the Chinese Triad and good old American gangsters thrown in with even the antagonists facing all sorts of problems.

Murdock does not need to put on spandex to become a hero. As the Masked Man – to borrow the words of Foggy Nelson -- he runs around like a moron beating people up.

Yet Murdock not only dishes out punishment but he too takes an inordinate amount of pain as well. Furthermore, heightened senses aside, he gets tired as well.

To wit, the hallway fight scene in Episode Two: “Cut Man,” an ode to Park Chan-Wook’s film, Oldboy (an adaption of the hit manga series by the same name), shot in a single take is stupendous. And that fight defines the series -- man without fear goes up against mollifying odds, man takes a beating but keeps on ticking, man triumphs at the very end.

As I mentioned earlier, Daredevil is like a drama, legal, and action series. It is fraught with tension and conflict and presents an interesting dichotomy of the key characters’ raison d’etre – Matt is a lawyer who seeks to uphold the laws yet takes matters into his own hands as a vigilante. Wilson presents himself to be a respectable businessman with his city’s best interests in mind yet his methods are hardly the acts of someone noble. Yet his relationship with Vanessa is just as fascinating. Are Wilson and Vanessa the superhero genre’s version of Mickey and Mallory Know (from Natural Born Killers)?

Central to Daredevil are his heightened senses where he makes use of an innate radar to detect and read things that happen around him. Here, we don’t see any pinging sound effects but rather, the clever if not simple use of what a person can hear. This reminds me of Joss Whedon’s clever use of Hawkeye in the Avengers film as someone with incredible vision and periphery akin to an eye in the sky or a sniper. The use of Cox’s Murdock and his senses pays great respect to the characters’ comic book creators.

Now there are powerful messages of rejection and the choices one makes.

When Matt gives Stick a bracelet made out of the ice cream wrapper when they first met, the Sensei ditches his pupil because he thinks he is looking for a father and not a teacher. Instead of being bitter about his difficult childhood, Matt chooses to tread the upright path.

Wilson Fisk rejects his father and beats him to death. He could have chosen to done right, but instead, he welcomes his father’s culture of violence. And speaking of the dichotomy, sometimes, Fisk borders on the sympathetic. He looks so calm and composed in his Italian suits but his emotional quotient is so poor that he readily gives in to anger.

The moody approach
I love how the production team has made excellent use of light and shadow. In the hallway fight scene, only the available light was used. There were times I wished I could see all the action but because of the darkness, it was difficult to see what was going on. Then again, the production team tried to keep it as realistic as possible.

Having lived in New York City, the old Hell’s Kitchen has been gentrified and today looks posh and chic. The set designers brought back to life an old part of New York City where Serpico (Al Pacino’s 1973 character in a film) would feel right at home. The team behind Daredevil shot on location in parts of Brooklyn and Long Island City where certain areas still look much like they came out of a 1970s time warp.

And that attention to detail along with the excellent casting, the pacing, the cinematography, and the fight choreography make for a memorable viewing.

When Netflix uploaded all 13 episodes for fans to decide if they wanted to savor watching them at a slow pace or on a one-night marathon binge, you couldn’t help but sit down and finish it all. After all, it is riveting as it leaves one hanging and thinking and rewinding back to certain scenes. A marvelous concept if might say (pun intended).

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