Marvel's Daredevil: Into the Ring

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Daredevil Into the Ring
Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson assure you, their seven hours of experience is all you need.

The premiere episode of Daredevil works because it defies expectations of what a super hero show should be. It isn’t about the violence, or the gritty, darker themes the show is structured around. It’s because this show takes its time to set up its world and its characters before it throws you in to an origin story or major set pieces, or  hand feeds you how Daredevil’s abilities work. It’s something the upfront order of an entire season allows. And it’s a benefit of being on Netflix, where the pacing doesn’t require a cliffhanger before every commercial break, or even the assumption that it will be a week, or two weeks, or a month before you see the next episode.

Daredevil has a unique distinction of being a Marvel Comics title that has had numerous, high quality, critically acclaimed runs. Few characters in the entire history of the superhero publishing have seen such highs and such constant experimentation and artistry over the span of a character’s history. Comparing the seminal runs on Daredevil versus the seminal runs on Spider-Man is nearly impossible. Spider-Man’s had a lot solid stories and creators, but it’s also had some huge disasters and stinkers. Daredevil, on the other hand, has consistently been a critical darling and the franchise has received pride of place in the Marvel catalog of recommended reading.

In the interest of full disclosure, my familiarity with Daredevil is relatively small. I’m aware of the reputation of the lauded runs by Bendis, Nocenti, and Miller, but I haven’t read a ton of it. As I work through this new Netflix show, I’ll be diving into the comics more as well. So expect more direct comparisons as we go along. But the publishing history of Daredevil is worth noting in the discussion of this new series, because that book’s penchant for experimentation and breaking new ground appears to be continuing into this new Marvel Studios production.

Marvel has been aware of Daredevil’s artistic pedigree and its potential on television and film for a long time. No character in the Marvel Universe has seen as many close-call attempts to get on air as Daredevil. From the backdoor pilot on the live action Hulk show, to the attempt to get an animated show on the air spun-off from the 90s Spider-Man cartoon, to the critical flop that was the Ben Afleck version of the character. Somehow, despite the character’s potential, Daredevil has seen plenty of stops and starts on its journey to a quality adaptation on Netflix. I’ve always been a fan of the character where I’ve seen him; in the Avengers comics, the 90s Spider-Man cartoon. His hook, the blind vigilante, is an interesting one. And as someone who was pretty sick as a kid, I liked the idea of a hero with a disability.

The announcement that Marvel would create a quintent of series for Netflix based on its street level heroes was a surprising one. Netflix was only beginning at the time to grow its original series. Whether these series would be well done or have the production value behind it to be successful was unsure.

But “Into the Ring” proves that a streaming service was the best possible home for Daredevil. Because of his lack of superpowers that necessitate big explosions, Daredevil is at home on the small screen. He doesn’t have the enhanced strength that Captain America has, so the wire work and one-hit punches that send people flying like we saw in Winter Soldier don’t eat up the show’s comparatively smaller budget. It also allows the stories to be smaller, more intimate, and drawn out over time. The biggest issue in superhero origin films is the pacing. They need time to set up a character’s life, show how it changes, how they adjust to having these powers, and then in the third act shift to facing a threat. Final battle, lots of CG, roll credits. Network television is equally restrictive. You are at the mercy of the intrusion of commercial breaks that eat into a show’s run time. There’s an expectation that a third act climax requires a similar culminating battle every week. A balance needs to be struck between action and character time. To keep people’s (or at least, advertiser’s) attention on network TV, you need quick cuts, short scenes, and plenty of places to take a break. On streaming, all of those rules are out the window.

Daredevil benefits from the ability to take its time, to build a story over the course of numerous episodes. Because rapid viewing is assumed, plot threads can weave in and out, and the creators don’t need to worry that their viewers will forget about them. The series’ major conflicts don’t even become clear until we get closer to the halfway point.

“Into the Ring” opens with a glimpse at Daredevil’s origin that only serves to set up how Matt Murdock became blind. It’s a quick glimpse into Murdock’s past. Given that we learn that Matt is blind anyway, and the rest of the episode makes no mention of his origin, the very first scene feels a little superfluous and out of place in comparison to the rest of the episode.

The show really begins with Matt’s visit to the confessional. The character’s Catholic faith is a central part of the character, and given that I’m a practicing Catholic and a theology grad student, expect to hear me talk about the show’s portrayal of that facet as we move along. Historically, Hollywood doesn’t much understand the subtleties of how religion works. In this first scene, Matt’s penance acts as a compelling peek into his character and the contradictions that make him work. He is a lawyer who believes in the justice system, who also prowls the street as a vigilante taking the law into his own hands. He is a Catholic, who uses violence to bring judgement on to others—two things that an Irish Catholic guy like Matt would feel immense guilt over, since they are explicit no-nos.  This confessional scene, followed immediately by our first glimpse of the man in action immediately tells us who Matt Murdock is at his core. It grabs you immediately.

Charlie Cox’s performance is understated and natural. His Matt Murdock is instantly affable and charismatic. Making it all the more frightening when he brutally beats people to a pulp. It’s clear a lot of work went in to the body language of how to portray someone who is blind. We don’t get a lot of flashy special effects or sonar-vision scenes like the comics or the old movie did. Instead there are just hints of Matt’s heightened senses through camera work and sound design. Hints, not explicit showcases. It’s how most of the episode operates, really.

As I said before, the premiere takes its time to set up its pieces and establish its world. And it is firmly set within the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The events of the Avengers’ battle in New York is critical to the story. The destruction caused by that battle has left Hell’s Kitchen in shambles, and New York in need of rebuilding. These pieces are central to the ongoing story. The crime and corruption that goes on is directly tied to the rebuilding process. The Avengers have changed the world. I expect to see more of how the city’s destruction provoked Matt to take matters into his own hands.

Matt may be the star, but his supporting cast is already coming together. There has been perhaps no better casting in a comic book adaptation than Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson. He perfectly captures the good natured goofiness of the character, bringing some much appreciated levity to the episode. Not only that, he looks like he stepped off the page, complete with bad haircut and bad suit.  We don’t know much about Karen Page yet, but Deborah Ann Woll puts in a solid performance that paints her immediately as more than just a damsel in distress.

I started off by saying this first episode defies expectations of what a superhero show should be. It does this not by being ashamed of its roots (like plenty of other adaptations do) but instead by not being afraid to  focus not only on the super heroics. If Guardians of the Galaxy and Winter Soldier have taught the viewing public anything, it’s that superheroes are not a genre unto itself. Superhero stories can take many forms, from thriller, to action comedy, to sci-fi and more. In the case of Daredevil, it’s equal parts a crime and procedural drama. Matt Murdock is a lawyer, and the cases he takes on provide the opportunity for B-plots and episodic mysteries that can provide additional drama in the future. We also are already seeing hints that Matt is going to soon run into street-level criminal activities involving the drug trade, political corruption, and arms dealing. The way these things plague the city are sure to play a role. And the montage sequence in the end, coupled with an ominous score put into perspective the odds that are stacked against him.

Daredevil is known for inhabiting a dark, gritty corner of the Marvel Universe that is more gray than black and white, more gritty than good versus evil. The cinematography captures this with a noir-like shadow that pervades every scene. Matt doesn’t work for the government, he’s not a millionaire playboy, he doesn’t come from golden halls. He lives in the shadows. The camera moves slowly, characters take time to have long talks, there aren’t a lot of cuts even in the fight scenes. The action is visceral, intimate. Matt doesn’t hit people once and finish them off. Every fight is a string of punches and kicks, a ballet of beautifully choreographed athletics. He knows how to fight and, like his dad, take a punch. A lot has been made about the shows violence and dark tone, but those aren’t the things that make Daredevil stand out, to me. It’s the attention to characters, and the willingness to build slowly and confidently. It stands out against Marvel’s other TV offerings in its scope and dramatic pacing. It offers us a whole new world in the Marvel U. And it has plenty of time to take us on a tour. Based off this premiere episode, the show looks poised to capture the spirit  of experimentation, drama, and action that has made Daredevil comics such a perennial critical darling for so long.

Marvel Comics made its name by introducing us characters who were underdogs, who dealt with real problems and had to overcome obstacles. With the premiere episode of their new Daredevil series, Marvel Studios have given us just such an underdog in Matt Murdock.

Stray Thoughts:

  • There has never been a more true description of Matt Murdock than this line from Foggy, “If there’s a stunning woman with questionable character, Matt Murdock is gonna find her.” I would expect that to come more into to play at some point.
  • The fight poster glimpsed at the end of the episode, Murdock v. Creel, is a reference to Carl “Crusher” Creel, who also happens to be the villain Absorbing Man, who has already been seen on Agents of SHIELD. Executive producer Jeph Loeb has already confirmed they are the same character. Although, I wouldn’t expect him in the show this season.
  • The opening credits are just beautiful. They’re a lost art on network TV with run times getting shorter to accommodate more ads, so to see them on Netflix and HBO is always a treat. The surreal imagery of the city, of justice, Catholicism and the dripping blood all inform a lot about the thematic thrust of the series and the inner turmoil Murdock is faced with.
  • The Chinese woman, Madame Gao has a factory full of blind workers…something tells me she’s going to get her butt kicked for that some time in the future.
  • I’m excited to begin my contributions to this website with recaps of Daredevil. Given that it’s a Netflix show there’s not much point in each entry being a full-on review, since you’ll probably already have watched it by now. So in general these will act as my impressions and analyses of the show going forward. I hope you’ll join me in the journey. Future entries will be shorter, I’m sure. But since is the first episode, I wanted to give some intro to the character and the series as a whole.

Marvel Facts

I’ll be using this reoccurring space to just share some comic book information.

  • Karen Page, Foggy Nelson and Matt Murdock all first appeared in Daredevil #1 by Stan Lee and Bill Everett  in 1964.
  • Karen Page was Matt Murdock’s longest ongoing love interest in the comics. Like most 60s era Marvel women, she was a golly-gee, starry eyed secretary who mostly just served to do things for the main character. She eventually became a drug addicted sex worker, like most Frank Miller written women. Hopefully this version will be a little more well rounded than either of those.
  • Matt’s black vigilante outfit is lifted directly from the miniseries “Daredevil: The Man Without Fear” by Frank Miller and John Romita Jr, which retold the character’s origin story.
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