The fight scene that closes out the second episode of Netflix’s Daredevil series is the defining moment of the show. To rescue a kidnapped child from the clutches of a Russian gang, blind New York lawyer Matt Murdock dons “the mask” and becomes his alter ego, a vigilante who will soon come to be called “Daredevil”. Sneaking into the gangs lair, Murdock uses his super powered senses to locate the child, determine the number of his enemies and where they are, and then pummel the baddies into submission.
The fight scene itself is marvelous: ostensibly a version of the Old Boy hallway fight, a single take (or perhaps multiple takes cleverly edited together to hide any seams, a la True Detective) captures Murdock punching and kicking and blocking his way to become the last man standing. While heavily dramatized, the scene is also realistically stylized. Murdock grows weary during the brawl, sometimes leaning against the wall to catch his breath. He lets his opponents come to him, baiting them with his exhaustion. The vision-impaired hero manages to dodge dozens of bullets and spinning heel kicks, while still becoming injured from the blows that his enemies land on him. It’s the old and the new mixing together, the abilities and powers of the comic’s pulp pages smashing directly into the gritty, realistic world that now seems a prerequisite to host these modern retellings. The grit and drama is heavy over the entire production, masking the silly fantasy of the Marvel Universe.
It’s also the reason that Daredevil sometimes doesn’t work.
To be fair, much of Daredevil does work. The fight scenes are outstanding, even if they have the fleeting feeling of being amazing for the first few seconds and then slowly becoming normal and laborious or tedious to watch. Despite the fact that it is distracting to have almost every combatant be a master martial artist, the choreography of the fights scenes is excellent and the lighting and set pieces frequently add a level of creative polish to the entire production.
The acting is quite good, with Vincent D’Onofrio’s portrayal of antagonist Wilson Fisk being a particular stand out. Fisk’s scenes stand out strongly against everyone else, sometimes unfortunately so. D’Onofrio plays the pleasantly plump “Kingpin” as a meticulous planner and strategist, but also as a nervous child, one prone to throwing tantrums when he’s upset. As Fisk attempts to rebuild Hells Kitchen in his own vision, he cannot understand why his allies attempt to take advantage of him. As Daredevil tries to come up with a means of outing Fisk as the center of a web of corruption, he cannot come to terms with where his actions may lead.
The inner turmoil of the Murdock/Daredevil character is a good example of the overall issue the series has to get around. As it has one foot firmly entrenched in source material, the show sometimes makes odd choices in terms of how much back story is brought to the plot. In the comics, Murdock is a devout Catholic and the nature of his faith creates a level of drama when he’s forced to balance it against his desire to combat the criminal underbelly of the city. In the show, Murdock’s faith feels like a tacked on bit of trivia that is too central to the character to leave out, but isn’t a driving force behind any of the series narrative. The Murdock of the television show seems to only be Catholic when he’s in scenes with his local priest. It doesn’t carry over into the narrative of the rest of the show, and it ends up feeling like something that the creators had to insert into the proceedings because the source material demanded it. They started out with a unique creation and then felt obligated to temper it with a fan expectation.
In a similar vein, the tone of the series is difficult to establish. The show is going for a gritty, dark mood. Fight scenes involving knives always end with someone cut and bleeding, and Daredevil is no exception, frequently taking beatings and spending the rest of the episode healing. Unfortunately, since the source material is a comic book, this realistic perspective on fighting is undone by the final battle between Daredevil and Fisk, where the comic book roots start to sneak in. The fight turns into a traditional, hyper violent comic book fight scene. Fisk, in particular, takes multiple blows to the head with a night stick and shakes it off like it’s a minor nuisance. The stylized realism that the show developed early on smashes head first into the expectations of its source material. A show that has tried to make the implications of violence stand in the forefront is undone by a surreal alleyway fight where two super human characters repeatedly smash each other with billy clubs and dumpsters.
The series is probably three or four episodes too long, as it only has enough plot for nine or ten episodes. When Fisk isn’t on screen, the action grinds to a halt. Murdock and his associates are serviceable, but ultimately a bit generic as we’ve seen it before. Daredevil has a vaguely Batman-ish reaction towards what he’s doing and his reluctance to kill. Murdock’s lawyer buddy Foggy and their secretary Karen are a semi-funny comic relief and plot device, respectively. Ultimately, the show starts to develop something with Fisk, who is unique as a villain in that he’s one of the first villains to make me wonder if what he’s doing is even wrong. Daredevil’s response to Fisk, in fact, is so furious and oppositional that at some points it makes the story and characters feel disconnected. Fisk cleans up a Russian drug gang and Daredevil seems to find this to be more problematic than it was to continue having the gang around. Fisk’s ultimate plans are fairly unclear, and it does seem like he is sometimes at the mercy of the Asian gangsters he associates with, but his ultimate goal of improving the neighborhood seems to match Murdock’s. Fisk is more prone to bouts of violence to achieve his aims, but he seems fairly harmless to citizens. He’s essentially a bad landlord, and that gets Murdock and company all riled up.
In the end, Daredevil felt like something I was simply trying to get through. I enjoyed the novelty of the first two episodes, but the slow middle derailed my enjoyment too much to even recover in the final episode or two. A few unearned deaths later (possibly to the chagrin of the creators who were then given a second season), and Daredevil ended with a new, slightly over the top costume and a new office plaque. Fisk ended up staring at the walls of his prison, a call back to something his abusive father used to make him do as a child. As usual, even the Fisk scenes in the ending montage were the best the show had to offer.