A “Strong and Sawft” review of DareDevil: Episode One

how long have you been lawyers?

…what time is it?

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Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, made it clear a few years ago that the streaming video service was not content only to offer easy access to old media. “our goal is to become HBO before HBO becomes us” was his quote to summarize, not only Netflix’s content strategy but also what the streaming giant sees as its biggest potential competitor. Right now HBO is tethered to cable/satellite providers, but they have stated their goal is to one day become a stand-alone entity.

Right now HBO basically IS what Netflix wants to be, but Netflix has the advantage in one critical area: the future is in cord-cutting. Until HBO follows through with its stand-alone plans, Netflix will have the leg up on providing content to those who don’t want to pay through the roof for cable’s bad customer service, or satellite company’s bundled packages. The numbers say that HBO and Showtime are seeing diminishing audience (6% from 2013-2014), while Netflix increased 4% over the same period.

If that trend continues HBO might be a stand-alone, Netflix-style entity by the end of the decade, if not sooner. When that happens the war between satellite companies will be over and the war between internet streaming services will begin. In the meantime, Netflix is stocking up their library with premium original content. House of Cards received great acclaim from critics, the revived Arrested Development was welcomed warmly by fans of the cult favorite, and now Marvel is bringing one of their properties to life on the streaming service.

Shows like these are a gamble because they are produced in their entirety and then released all at once, to allow for binge-watching (which has started to become the norm over the past few years). That’s great for fans who want to shut the blinds, turn off their phone and devote one whole Saturday to a show, but it’s a stressful thing for the creators of that show. They have no way of fixing problems fans are having with a certain character or subplot. There’s no way to course-correct mid-season if fans are rejecting a part of the story.

Heavily serialized shows like Lost, Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were famous for conjuring up series-shattering plot devices and storylines simply from thin air (despite their reputation for seemingly having one big story mapped out from the beginning), simply because they could see the way the story was progressing as it was being filmed and aired and could make those changes largely on the fly. Most TV shows film only a couple weeks ahead of what is airing on TV.

With a show on Netflix, the creator and writers have to have a real confidence in their material, and a trust that the story they want to tell will be accepted from beginning to end. It’s a new world for TV show makers and not every show will be a success, but those that are will demonstrate the possibilities that this new media can bring to the TV-watching landscape.

DareDevil looks set to do just that.

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What’s great about DareDevil (admittedly, I’m only two episodes in) is that it is SO serialized, the first season is basically a live-action interpretation of a graphic novel. As much as I am loving it so far, it makes me excited to see DC follow suit, and bring Batman onto Netflix. The Dark Knight has always been better suited to long-form storytelling more than movies. How cool would it be to see The Long Halloween adapted into a 13-episode mini-series? DareDevil has shown that it not only can be done, but it can be done right.

So let’s talk about this show. First of all, Stan Lee is the Michael Scott of Marvel Superheroes. Remember on The Office (USA), when Michael quit Dunder-Mifflin and formed the “Michael Scott Paper Company”? When faced with the possibility of being bought out, he declared that he had no limit to the amount of paper companies he could start, since, to him, a company begins and ends with the name.

I imagine Stan Lee spent the 60’s sitting in an office chair, smoking a pipe and randomly throwing out superhero ideas. Some of them are brilliant ideas, but some only became brilliant in spite of their concept. DareDevil is not a brilliant concept. It is as formulaic as they come:

“He’s a guy who is blind, so he has super-powered hearing to make up for it. Call him a “dare devil” because he leaps around and does all these crazy acrobatic things without being able to see. And since he’s blind, we’ll make him a Lawyer by day, cause Justice is blind, ya see!”

And of course, one of DareDevil’s arch-enemies is “Bullseye,” a criminal with super-heightened visual powers.

If you don’t treat this stuff with the right amount of care, it can be easy to laugh at.

Fortunately, Netflix and the show’s creators are giving DareDevil the right amount of care. First of all, this show is DARK. Not just in terms of writing and tone, but also in terms of atmosphere and lighting. Characters live in the shadows here. Alley ways, candle-lit apartments, pre-sunrise morning meetings, rain-soaked fist fights in the dead of night. It’s very dark, but never too brooding or depressing.

Second, the show wastes no time showing us our hero. There are usually two kinds of comic book origin stories. Either you start with the hero as a child, and then follow his journey out of childhood and into superherodom, or you jump right in with him as an adult, just starting out as a hero. In the latter cases, relevant backstory is usually left to flashbacks or through expository dialogue. The former can be done well (the first Superman movie, Batman Begins, Captain America), and the latter as well (the first X-Men movie, Man of Steel, Tim Burton’s Batman film).

DareDevil combines the two methods. It opens and closes the first episode with a flashback, but leaves the middle to the early struggles of the hero. A lot that a flashback would usually show us if we were following the hero from childhood is left to our imagination to figure out. A lot that expository dialogue would tell us about the hero is left unsaid as well, and the audience is trusting to pick up on the clues here and there to understand the hero and how he works.

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The opening shows us only what we need to know: young Matt Murdock was injured in a car accident and exposed to some dangerous chemicals. He was stricken blind by his exposure but as a result his hearing became heightened to a super-human degree. We don’t know about the super-hero side effects yet when we’re watching the opening flashback, but the pertinent information to reach that conclusion is provided for us, as are two other important elements which define Murdock’s character: His close relationship to his father and his selflessness (he was injured as a result of pushing a helpless old man out of the way).

The third core characteristic is given to us as soon as the opening credits finish: Matt is a Catholic. Is he devout? No; he says so himself. But there’s a kind of inherited religiosity to him; it is a part of him because it was a part of his dad. Holding on to it, even in a small way, keeps him close to his father.

How he spends his nights, however, is not in prayer with a rosary in his hand. Instead he frequents all the hangouts of lowlifes and criminals, bringing them to justice the hard way. The first fight of the show happens within ten minutes of pushing play on Netflix: The show is not afraid to jump right into the action and leave the questions we may have (why does he fight, how does he fight, WHO is he fighting) on the back-burner.

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It’s too early for me to say how this show is going to approach the flashbacks that opened and closed the first episode, but hopefully we get a little bit of Matt’s training, as his martial arts skills (and their origin) became a big part of the character in the 80’s.

As for the plot of the first episode, it’s a bit convoluted. At one point I thought to myself “Why didn’t the bad guys just do this instead…” and then right after thinking that I was relieved that Matt asked the same question. The problem was his question was never given a satisfactory answer. You were left with a scheme that ended up taking ten steps to do what could have more easily (and more successfully) been accomplished in one.

We’re also treated to a cliched “bad guys meet to discuss the plan” scene that is saved by some subtlety great work by Bob Gunton. The variety of villains shows us the reach that the big bad behind the scenes as, but that big bad (who comic fans know to be Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. “the Kingpin”) is not revealed in the opening episode. He’s spoken of only in hushed tones, never named, and only has a short phone conversation where we can hear his voice. His reveal is being slow-played for maximum effect.

As is DareDevil’s traditional red suit. But instead of the red and yellow variety he donned in his early days, the show thankfully opted for a more real-world look: A kind of skimask (with no eye holes) that covers the top 3/4 of his face, and a solid black jumpsuit.

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Not to nitpick, because if we go down this role then we call almost all superheroes into question, but why would Murdock–a blind lawyer–go to the trouble to putting on a mask that has no eye holes? Wouldn’t any criminal or witness that lives to tell the tale of running into him find it odd that a guy was running around with his eyes covered? Wouldn’t that eventually lead to them connecting the dots that maybe DareDevil doesn’t NEED to see? And why not pull the mask (or whatever it is) all the way down? Why leave half your face exposed? Forget it, if we go down that road then we have to wonder why no one can see past Clark Kent’s glasses.

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Strong and Sawft:

Strong –

The fight scenes; already they are better than anything Chris Nolan did, apart from that one dizzying Tokyo fight in The Dark Knight. Despite (1) happening in the dark, (2) happening in the rain, and (3) happening with both guys wearing black, I never lost track of who was who and what was happening in the fight. Good work.

Sawft –

Foggy…Maybe I’m just partial to Jon Favreau’s work with the character in the maligned Ben Affleck movie. Current actor Elden Henson might just grow on me: Based on the first episode he’s certainly being given a good screenplays to work with, but right now he comes off as too one-dimensional. He’s comic relief (which is needed in such a dark setting), but it’s almost too on the nose right now.

Strong –

The screenplay and direction are both superb. There’s a real cinematic quality to the way it is shot, though the first episode moves, not like a mini-movie, but like the first act in a 13-part saga.

Sawft –

There was that cliched “evil-doers meeting of the minds, minus the big bad who calls the shots” scene. I get it, it’s part of the process and not going away, but the dialogue, the accents, the whole production is so cliched and done to death in “crime stories” like this that it’s hard to take it seriously anymore. Hopefully these mini-bosses are given depth as the show goes on.

Strong –

Good use of super hearing, not overdone. Remember how silly it was in the DareDevil movie? Here we just get some closeups of an ear and some amplified dialogue. Very 1970’s Superman. Subtle and effective.

Sawft:

As stated, the crime mystery of the episode a bit too convoluted; I still don’t know why they didn’t just kill her. Framing her for murder isn’t going to change anything if the information she discovered gets out. Killing her makes much more sense but maybe I missed something in my initial viewing. I don’t know if the show is going to become a procedural, where Murdock takes on a new case every week or two and lawyers it up by day and dispenses justice at night, or if this was just a way to introduce things in the show. If they do have another “case of the week” then I hope it’s a little more tightly focused.

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Overall: 8/10

A strong first outing, not only for the DareDevil show, but also for Marvel, who has a few more shows like this in the pipeline.

Here’s to episode 2…

 

 

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  • Henry Higgins III

    His costume has no eye-holes to instil a sense of fear in his foes. When you can’t see someone’s eyes, it can be unnerving and it won’t give away that he can’t see (in much the same way certain Luchadore masks – Sin Cara, for example – are completely covered).

    • Matthew Martin

      Sure but at least Sin Cara looks like he has eyes. His mask has eye-shaped designs. No one thinks “Gee I wonder how Sin Cara sees?”

      DareDevil’s final costume has eye holes, but this one doesn’t. It just seems weird to me, since only a blind guy would lack the need for them.

      It’s not a big deal though.

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