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Friday, 10 April 2015

Marvel's Daredevil: Episodes 1-5

"I feel like I'm on a date with Vincent D'Onofrio and he's about to murder me and drown my family in the Hudson River." -- an email from myself to a friend, while watching Daredevil. This was a compliment to Vincent D'Onofrio, by the way.

This review only covers the first 5 episodes and is relatively spoiler-free, so don't worry if you're one of those sensible people who hasn't binge-watched the entire season yet. For my ~professional (and even less spoilery) review over at the Daily Dot, click here.


As a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, my feelings on Daredevil are decidedly mixed. On the one hand:

  • This show is just really damn good. The dialogue and characterization are strong, and it's way ahead of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in terms of things like fight choreography and sound design.
  • The plot is complex but neatly organized, and the Netflix format allows things to unspool gradually rather than leaping between episodic subplots. I hate exposition and am sick of formulaic TV writing, so this was great for me.
  • Matt, Foggy and Karen are charming and adorable, and Wilson Fisk is an unusually compelling villain. Congratulations to whoever cast this show, because they knocked it out of the park.
  • I'm enraptured by the romance between Wilson Fisk and Vanessa the art dealer!! (More on that later.)
  • It's satisfying to see an "adult" comicbook adaptation that isn't gratuitous or exploitative. Daredevil doesn't sanitize the visceral impact of violence, but it doesn't revel in it either. To me this is an ideal balance, because usually there's a strict divide between movies like Sin City or Watchmen, which strive to be ~gritty and ~dark, and PG-rated movies like Spider-Man, where people have constructive relationships and friendly banter. Daredevil has both. I had to cover my eyes during a few of the more violent scenes, but in some ways I prefer that to when Thor or Captain America dispatches an enemy bloodlessly and with no obvious moral impact.
HOWEVER...
  • Like most superhero adaptations, this show has a woman problem. The two most significant female characters are a nurse and secretary, both of whom get kidnapped/beaten up and subsequently rescued by the hero within the first few episodes. Plus there are way more men on the cast than women, for no good reason. 
  • It's unoriginal. I know Daredevil relies on a lot of familiar old superhero tropes, and that's fine. The problem is that it feels too much like a crime drama from the '70s or '80s, and not in the Taxi Driver homage sense the creators intended. Matt Murdock's childhood flashbacks are the worst example: His father training in a boxing gym that might as well be in the 1940s. Why not update this to make it feel more contemporary? Why not rewrite some of the male characters as women? Why not make Karen Page a lawyer or an accountant or an IT specialist instead of Matt and Foggy's secretary? Why not include more details that feel specific to 2015 New York? Some of these are just a matter of taste, but others feel more like an attempt to retell a story that belongs in the past.


Daredevil is getting very positive reviews, already being praised for outstripping Gotham, The Flash, etc. For the most part I agree, but lately these comparisons have begun to feel like splitting hairs. Daredevil, Spider-Man, Batman... they all have different personalities and tones, but they're variations on an extremely narrow theme. Daredevil even moreso, given its many similarities with Batman. We already have a lot of movies about white male vigilantes with daddy issues, and if we absolutely have to keep exploring this subgenre, there are surely more original ways to do so.

Basically: Is it enough that Daredevil is "good"? A huge amount of effort went into making sure the script was smart, the execution was slick, and each character was perfectly cast. But at the same time, they failed to tackle one of the most consistent problems with superhero dramas: crappy roles for women.

Karen Page and Claire Temple are both likable and well-drawn characters, and the Netflix format allows more time for development later on. But they're still rooted in gender-specific roles, and massively outnumbered by dudes.


Obviously I don't think it's sexist to cast a woman as a secretary or a nurse; that would be idiotic. But in the case of Daredevil, these roles feel very gendered alongside the plethora of male cops, journalists and criminals we meet throughout the show. Even when you include Madame Gao (who speaks only in untranslated Chinese for the first few episodes) and the Kingpin's love interest, there's still a blatant gender imbalance in the cast.

It's not all bad, of course. Karen's investigative subplot is great, and Madame Gao clearly has a larger role to play in later episodes. But on the whole, Daredevil's men fight each other and plan the future of the city, while women provide emotional support and dress the hero's wounds.

If this all seems overly negative, I'm sorry. I loved many aspects of the first few episodes, especially in the way the show balances adult-rated content with charming, idealistic characters. (Matt, Foggy and Karen are so cute! VERY! CUTE!) It's great to see a superhero adaptation that includes people cursing and having complex emotional lives but doesn't fall into the trap of mistaking cynicism for maturity. I'm sure I'll have more to say once I've watched the rest of the series, but for now I really have to talk about my absolute favourite part of the show: Vanessa and Wilson Fisk.


I SHIP THIS SO GODDAMN MUCH.

First of all: Vincent D'Onofrio is so fucking good in this role. Wilson Fisk's characterization is fascinating in itself, but D'Onofrio's performance has been killing me since the moment he appeared onscreen.

In my review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier I discussed the way superhero/villain pairings tend to mirror one another. Daredevil does this to the point where Wilson Fisk and Matt Murdock's goals actually overlap. Both want to transform and rejuvenate Hell's Kitchen, and both are doing so with a combination of legal and criminal means. The difference between them is a matter of degrees, with Fisk having more resources and less moral compunction about killing people to get his way.

Superhero movies are packed with villains who are, for want of a better phrase, emotionally unstable. These depictions range from two-dimensional nonsense (the Red Skull) to legitimately compelling (Loki), but Fisk falls into an unusual class: realistically human. His emotional problems and social anxiety aren't presented as madness or some bizarre quirk, but as normal aspects of his personality.

Is Fisk a brutal, terrifying despot? Yes, but he's also insecure and lonely and self-aware. One of my favourite aspects of D'Onofrio's performance is the way he forces words out like he's grinding them through his teeth, which usually gives the appearance of carefully controlled rage. In Vanessa's presence it feels more like he's making a physical effort just to talk to her, fighting his way through his own nerves. His interest is painfully obvious, but he's also respectful of her boundaries and cautious the power he could potentially hold over her. An unusual dynamic for TV romance.


Fisk is ruthless and calculating in his professional life, but his interactions with Vanessa prove that he's desperate to earn love on its own terms, free of exploitation or control. What a wonderful contrast to the sadism or blatant unpleasantness of most supervillains, which makes them far too easy to kill. As for Vanessa, the show manages in just a few scant scenes to create a character who dovetails perfectly with Fisk: self-possessed, pragmatic, discreet and mature.

This relationship is far more interesting to me than Matt's tedious Batman situation with Claire. I don't give a shit about another dude heroically screwing up his love life because he's obsessed with running around in a mask all night. Fisk may be a monster, but he's infinitely more compelling as a romantic lead: murderous and ambitious, yet restrained, considerate, and desirous of love.


25 comments:

  1. This is pretty much exactly what I thought. It's the first superhero TV-show with a slick visual style, a visceral edge, and a cinematic feel, but at the end of the day, it is still weighted down by the same old tropes you find in comics. Doesn't stop me from enjoying what they get right, though.

    I like Wilson/Vanessa in the comics a LOT because of Bendis's run, and the TV version still isn't quite at the same level of affection I have for their comics counterparts, but I'm loving watching it play out all the same. I agree that the Matt/Claire thing is boring and predictable in comparison. I hope they drop it quickly.

    Like you said the casting is great. I have to give props to Vondie Curtis-Hall, Deborah Ann Woll, and Rosario Dawson in particular. They absolutely nailed their characters. They're the best part of the show so far in my eyes.

    The thing about the women and race situation is that you definitely know they're going to take a stab at each of those things in their own way in AKA Jessica Jones and Luke Cage (and maybe Iron Fist if they don't cast white), but it's annoying that Daredevil's picture of New York doesn't have more to offer beyond "some of the side-players are women and some others don't speak English." New York is really not that white and only about as male as the rest of the world, so I'm hoping this show can step its game up in later episodes or seasons. I really do hope this gets more seasons since there are so many great Daredevil stories to bring to the screen. Echo! Elektra! Typhoid Mary! I want to see all of it.

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    1. I've never read Daredevil (maybe like one comic or something??) so I really have no idea what the Vanessa/Fisk relationship is like in the original, but I'm glad it's portrayed in a similarly positive/interesting way in the comics!

      I agree re: the future Netflix shows, because Marvel is clearly making an effort to make them more diverse AND to hire appropriate showrunners. But that doesn't really excuse the fact that Daredevil feels so old-fashioned in its treatment of women, and has only woman woman on the creative team (co-writing an episode with her husband).

      I know some people will already have been put off by Daredevil's white male dominated tone, which sucks because it was easily avoidable AND Daredevil is meant to be the introduction to the latter three Netflix shows. If we start pre-emptively complimenting Jessica Jones and Luke Cage it's kind of like, "Well, they tested the waters with this extremely traditional white male vigilante story made entirely by men... but later on we'll get something for everyone else!" They could so easily have just hired a more diverse team of writers/directors (like Agents of SHIELD!), but didn't.

      (Not that I think you're arguing with this point, haha. I'm just venting.)

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    2. Agreed about Wilson/Vanessa in comics -- I actually reread "Underboss" (the first main arc of the Bendis/Maleev Daredevil run), which takes place MUCH later in time, after years and years of Kingpin & Daredevil interactions, but it 100% set me up to have capslock Feelings about Fisk and Vanessa. Of all the things they took/were inspired by from comics, this is by far my favorite.

      As for roles for women and people of color, I completely agree. I get the sense that making Urich black (he's an old white dude in comics for those who don't know, and a pretty major character in Born Again, one of the storylines this show takes most from) was sort of them testing the waters in terms of changing things? Like, maybe they thought that would be a bigger deal than it was, and they didn't want to change too much at once? Personally, I think they easily could have made Claire a doctor and Karen a lawyer or, like you said, at least accountant or IT or something while still maintaining the essential aspects of their characters. That said, Karen is MILES above her characterization in comics, which sadly is not saying a lot at all, but is something I hugely appreciated. Especially in the later episodes, I was pretty blown away with all she got to do.

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    3. (same anon as above) oh, but yeah, GET A GODDAMN WOMAN WRITER ON YOUR STAFF for god's sake, this wouldn't fix everything but I have the feeling it would help, especially with some of the more cliched dialogue.

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  2. I think the beauty of the series format like this is that we get time to have those scenes played out (so introducing an antagonist purely through reputation and a first date, which was inspired).

    Matt/Claire has grown on me though, and it does become more interesting if you view how they've been set up in direct opposition to Fisk/Vanessa - contrast the emotional formality and physical distance (and that clean white canvas) with Claire literally dragging him out of a dumpster and getting covered in blood as an introduction. It's simplistic but one serves to underline the other. I will say Claire is a whole lot more enthusiastic about vigilanteism than the usual love interest at points (the trigeminal nerve torture pointer? Ick.) and occupies an unusual position in that she has no knowledge of Matt at first in any other capacity than as the vigilante.... which is why it's not quite Batman etc. It's becoming more like it as time goes on but the initial set up isn't about a dual identity. And Matt is a whole lot less annoying about being a noble hero so far. Having said that, I'm only up to episode 6....

    What is unexpected though is that I'm definitely getting a Hannibal vibe from the later episodes - the title sequence is practically a homage, and the moment Fisk appeared it got a whole lot more obvious (and gory. Hannibal levels of gory, minus the cannibalism..!). We've had whole scenes step outside the narrative to focus on art and wine choices, and it is quite amusing that Fisk is only moved to direct violence by someone being rude? it does feel like someone's making a point of referencing it but I haven't seen anyone else mention it so far?

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    1. Yeah I DEFINITELY got a Hannibal vibe from the credits, and from the Kingpin-centric episode later on. A lot of similarities to the point where I assume it must be a conscious influence.

      I agree re: Matt/Claire. I like the way Claire is kind of bloodthirsty/vengeful, which is her motivation for saving him in the first place: she supports his mission as a vigilante. But her lack of screentime coupled with the fact that she spends most of her time looking sad, being scared or patching him up... is not great. I definitely picked up on the parallels between Claire/Matt and Vanessa/Fisk, though, especially in later episodes.

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    2. Heh, I only just saw the Kingpin episode now and wow, that was... creepy as hell and strangely adorable. And also hilariously hitting every single Hannibal note they could think of (although would Hannibal be caught dead making anything as unambitious as an omelette I wonder?) and yet still not quite veering into pastiche somehow. "Fetch the saw" might be my favourite line of dialogue so far (that and "...with my car door.")

      What was even more amusing were the parallels with Fisk's press conference and Tony's "I'm Iron Man" equivalent (and I think Vanessa was wearing a white dress very similar to one Pepper wears in IM3?). This show has never quite gone in the direction I expect so far.

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  3. I haven't yet stumped up for Netflix (though I do pay more a month for the WWE network) but Daredevil (and Vincent D'Onofrio, who is NAILS) is definitely tempting me. Great review, it's helped make my mind up.

    And on a side note, I don't think this could possibly be as bad as Gotham is. I truly have no idea why I'm still watching that mess.

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    1. Oh no it's MILES ahead of Gotham. I only watched the first ep of Gotham (which was basically bog-standard mainstream crime drama plus batman stuff), which wasn't great in itself, but I've heard from friends/colleagues that it's just overtly ridiculous now. The plot has gone off the rails and half the characters make no sense.

      Overall Daredevil is very well-written and even LOOKS different from a typical crime drama show. Like, they make an effort in certain episodes to make it aesthetically interesting, and some elements feel more like film than TV. And the various plot strands fit together very well, in a way that I'm sure will be even more satisfying once I've finished the series. It's just frustrating that they're so good at all this, but so thoughtless about gender roles.

      Anyway, thanks! Glad you enjoyed the review. :)

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  4. "Why not make Karen Page a lawyer or an accountant or an IT specialist instead of Matt and Foggy's secretary? Why not include more details that feel specific to 2015 New York? Some of these are just a matter of taste, but others feel more like an attempt to retell a story that belongs in the past."

    Because they would be stealing Laurel and Felicity's roles as those professions and you would then have to say that they were stealing from Arrow?

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    1. OK, well if you're worried about ~overlap then how about another similarly relevant job like journalist or cop? Those were just examples. And anyway, it's possible to have two female characters in two different shows have similar jobs, and not have them be "stealing" each other's roles. I mean, Arrow and Daredevil and the Flash are all masked superhero vigilantes, right?

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    2. I feel like you were just hunting for something to make the show be bad. I understand that women need to be represented well in media, but just because this show isn't representing them they way you want doesn't mean that it is portraying women in a poor light. Both of the female characters are bad ass and contribute a lot to the show.

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    3. Why on earth would I be ~hunting for something to make the show look bad~ lol. I enjoy superhero movies and I'm a Marvel fan, I WANT the show to be good, and in many ways it is -- especially in the later episodes I've seen. But my critique of the female characters isn't simply a matter of taste. I don't think women have to fight in order to be "strong" (the MCU has plenty of female characters whose strength is emotional, intellectual, etc, such as Pepper Potts or Jane Foster), but characters like Karen Page can simultaneously be well written AND part of an overall trend about violence against women.

      Claire and Karen are both attacked/kidnapped and then rescued by Daredevil. The show opens with Daredevil rescuing women from human traffickers. The ONLY woman in the show who isn't physically vulnerable/a victim of violence is Madame Gao, who we don't get to hear speak in english until episode 7 or 8. Individually most of the (few) female characters are well-written, but the overall trend is that women are vulnerable and often exist to provide motivation or support for the male characters. And of the four lead women, three are attractive love interests. Male characters get a far wider range of roles and more influence on the story as a whole.

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    4. also there's something telling about the phrase "both of the female characters are badass and contribute a lot to the show," when there are about 10 male characters with approximately the same influence and quantity of screentime as Claire.

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    5. DAREDEVIL's pretty good for what it's trying to do, but what it's trying to do is an old-school, noirish, masculine take on a superhero show. So, at least through the eight eps I've watched, the gender roles are fairly old school as well, probably the most old school of the entire MCU. This seems like an uncontroversial opinion to me; I don't know why it's getting pushback.

      It's perfectly fine to like DAREDEVIL and certainly the performances make the characters more rounded than they probably were on paper, but let's not pretend the problems aren't there.

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    6. Sorry, I was in a rush and wasn't able to completely articulate my point. I was going to use more examples from the post to make a clear and concise argument but it looks like it was edited.

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  5. I agree with a lot of things you've said in you review. I'm liking Daredevil. Like you, I'm glad that it isn't reveling in violence, which is one of the problems that I have with Gotham.

    As far as the gender balance. I felt that Claire would have been a stronger character has she been a surgeon rather than a nurse. Her medical know-how seemed a little too specific for the average nurse. If she had been a surgeon that got blacklisted because she refused to bend to the mob, that would have been a better character over all.

    Karen is a character I'm liking. I like that she has her own story-line that is mostly independent of Daredevil's. It might have been a stronger story had she been a junior accountant at the start of the show rather than a secretary, and she is agreeing to be a secretary for Matt and Foggy until she can get back on her feet. I keep wondering how Karen can afford... anything. If she had been an accountant, that would make more sense.

    As far as other gender things. I don't know. As of 2010, in the United States 90% of crimes were committed by men (according to the US Dept. of Justice). That vast majority of the cast are criminals. Have women really bridged the crime gap that much in five years? Is that something we want women to bridge? I can see some disadvantages to portraying a large number of women as being criminals.

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  6. I understand the need for gender equality. I want that too. I understand the desire to gender bend a character or even give the women different jobs. But so far it looks as if Daredevil has decidedly kept to the comics. Karen Page is a secretary in the comic and a mutual love interest for Matt and Foggy (although it doesn't happen in the comics, I am rooting for a story change of Karen preferring Foggy). And from what I've done research on, Claire is some form of the character Night Nurse... She is a character literally known for being a nurse to superheroes. All we can hope is that they've set it up like the comics and they will eventually get confident and creative and take a path we haven't read about in the comics.

    I don't think Daredevil set out to be gender exclusive. They set out to tell a very well-written but accurate story.

    I would love to see females have some strong roles in the Marvel universe, but I don't think it's going to be pulled from old school comics that have storylines written in the 60's. We need the newer female comic characters being told on the big (or small) screen.

    And even though you seemingly disapprove of SHIELD, and shushed them to the side for their lack of choreography and sound design... That's a show that has strong female characters (Friendly reminder that they have WOC) that lead and carry a show (May, Skye, Jemma, Bobbi).

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  8. are u gonna review the rest of the episodes? hopefully you will, I find what u have to say very interesting and smart !

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  9. Good review, thanks! Overall, I do think Dardevil is a step up from things like AoS, and I've enjoyed it for many of the reasons you outline - but god, I am so bored of having to critique these shows about their treatment of women and PoCs. It just seems like it's got to a point where these stories could be altered so easily to make them not suck at these things, that the writers are either completely oblivious to everything (seems really unlikely that people who can write a show like this fit that bill) or they're writing the same rubbish roles for 'special interest groups' on purpose. Honestly. Step up, already.

    But on the up-side, I particularly like:

    a) the fact that they put so much screentime into developing real, believable interpersonal relationships between characters (including scenes that serve no other 'significant' narrative function - like Foggy and Karen bar-hopping) and to the whole vigilante narrative. It's both lovely to watch, and integral to making the show feel like it's about people rather than chess pieces.

    b) I, too, find Vanessa/Fisk compelling - and a lot of it is because, unlike, say, Matt (and basically every other 'good' superhero, ever), Fisk doesn't infantalise her. Maybe she doesn't know the particulars of everything he does, but you really get the impression that that's because she's decided not to ask - the evidence suggests he'd tell her if she wanted to know, regardless of any cliche'd 'ignorance for her own good' rubbish. She has a lot more power over her situation because, unlike so many female characters in shows of this kind, Vanessa actually knows what her situation is. Fisk treats her like an adult: he provides her with all the information (or at least access to it) she needs to make informed choices about her life, which means the decisions she makes really are her own/not coerced by lack of information. Matt, on the other hand, lies to absolutely everybody (and thus puts them in a lot of unnecessary danger), and only fesses up when he's out of more obfuscatory options.

    Also, I realise that this still appears to be a radical notion to some of your readers, but the thing about fiction is you make it up. The world does not have to be feminist to write an amazing show that, concurrently to having a good story, upholds feminist values (like women not being victims, having diverse interests, roles and emotions, etc., etc.), because fiction, by its nature, does not exactly mirror reality. The truth is that, for most people in the world, certain aspects of reality (like sexism, racism, etc.) suck a lot; there is no good reason to replicate these things in fiction unless a) you're highlighting a real-world problem you would like to change (despite the number of female victims, I'm pretty sure Daredevil is not trying to deliver a political message about how often women are subjected to violence in real life, and how godawful this is), or b) you actually like the way things are, and would like to see sexism/racism/etc. continue. So, you know, I suspect the point of this review is that 'that's how they wrote it in the 50s'/'it's canon' is not a good argument for lack of inclusivity now.

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  11. Definitely curious to see if you'll cover Jessica Jones, I'd love to see your analysis!

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