Tuesday, November 24, 2015

'Daredevil' Season 1 review: Episodes 1-4

"I'm only trying to make my city a better place." — Matt Murdock

It's hard to believe it's been seven months that I've been doing my best to being as patient as possible to see the Netflix series "Marvel's Daredevil."

This is what happens when I can't afford Internet, much less such luxuries as Netflix. But thanks to my sister and brother-in-law I finally can watch this incarnation of DD this week!

After watching the first four episodes, here are my thoughts.

You veteran binge-watchers might be wondering why I only watched four episodes. Let's just say that when Episode 4  ("In the Blood") ended with Wilson Fisk (aka the Kingpin) smashing a Russian ruffian's head in — multiple times — complete with waaaay too nasty sounding sound effects — I had to take a break.

Needless to say, the "Daredevil" creative team doesn't shy away from violence. When reading comic books, I certainly enjoy a well written and even better, an expertly drawn slugfest and I've always dug the way DD fights.

In the Netflix series, Daredevil moves fast and has some pretty sweet moves. (DD's midair spin-kick combination is quite an impressive feat from the stuntman.) There's no explanation for how he learned to fight with such ferocity and speed, but maybe that will be revealed in a later episode.

Charlie Cox's Matt Murdock takes a serious ass-whoopin'. Tying into the street creed/reality of the series, he needs someone on whom he can depend to tend to his wounds. Enter Rosario Dawson as Claire in Episode 2 ("Cut Man") in which a teen finds an unconscious and severely beaten Daredevil in a Dumpster by the apartment building where he lives and Claire brings him to her place.

The emergency room nurse informs DD of the victims he's helped, but he's also sent many other people to the hospital with severe injuries. Claire would know, as she has treated patients from both sides.

In one of the rare moments of humor in the series, it's Claire who says what the audience has been thinking: "You're costume kinda sucks." Murdock dons an all black outfit — a skintight shirt with red piping, fatigues and a black mask without eyeholes and the long flaps from the knots that Murdock ties at the back of his head.

Hornheads (dedicated DD fans) will recognize that look from the one drawn by John Romita Jr. in writer Frank Miller's five-issue limited series DAREDEVIL: THE MAN WITHOUT FEAR. It's a fantastic elaboration of DD's origin and Murdock's relationship with his father and one of the comic-book inspirations for this series.

The first two episodes feature flashbacks from young Murdock and his father.

This is where it's most obvious the writers have taken inspiration from Miller's 1994-'95 limited series, especially how "Battlin' Jack" Murdock finally has enough of taking dives in the boxing ring for money and refuses to throw a boxing match so the single dad can show his son knows how to win. (I had to chuckle in the Matt Murdock-Claire scene about their comment that Murdock should have learned a lot about taking a beating from his father who came home needing to be stitched up by his son.)

Dawson's Claire shows appropriate concern for Murdock's injuries and his method of interrogating a bad guy. Torturing the thug using a knife to the eye is much too extreme for the DD I know and love — the one from Miller and Klaus Janson's early 1980s must-read run.
The "Daredevil" makeup team does a great job with making
actors' faces a realistic, bloody mess — as seen here with
John Patrick Hayden after his character, "Battlin' Jack" Murdock,
has taken another beating in the boxing ring.

I don't expect the writers to back down from the violence in "Daredevil," but I do want to see more of DD's compassionate side, such as when he comforts Claire, having rescued her from being kidnapped and beaten by the Russian ruffians.

That, by far, is my favorite fight sequence in the series so far; I especially appreciated how Daredevil uses the dark to his advantage to defeat the thugs. His use of the Batman-type method of grabbing a baddie out of nowhere from his hiding place and then busting him up off-camera is very effective. Rosario acts appropriately traumatized after her harrowing experience.

"Daredevil" is well cast.

The resemblance between John Patrick Hayden and the young actor playing Murdock as a boy is close enough they look like they could be father and son. Their acting brings home that credibility.

When I saw the first promo photo of Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, I thought he was all wrong for the role. And while I can't stand with his floppy hairstyle, Henson is thoroughly enjoyable as Murdock's law partner with the quirky sense of humor.

Just like the comics, Foggy is a great foil to Murdock; he's not quite the goofball he was in the early issues of DAREDEVIL or as somewhat air-headed as he was during Miller and Dennis O'Neil's memorable runs. In the TV series, Henson's Foggy brings up the concerns about the law firm's case, client and/or finances when Murdock jumps in impulsively and makes a "unilateral" decision — a perfect reflection of how he is in the source material.

One of the most impressive elements of "Daredevil" is spending time with the fledgling Nelson & Murdock Law Firm. When done properly in the comics, the courtroom action and the defense attorneys' interactions with their clients has made for compelling reading. Seeing Murdock and Nelson struggle with whether they're going to accept a certain client or watching them deliver their opening statements and closing arguments in murder case make for good TV and pleases this longtime DD fan.

It took me a bit to realize Vondie Curtis-Hall was playing reporter Ben Urich. Once I saw what he brings me to the role I fully was on-board. Best known for his role on "Chicago Hope," the 59-year-old actor brings the proper amount of road weariness to the principled investigative journalist, who has seen too much in his years on his beat.

This Urich isn't nearly as cynical as his comic-book counterpart, but Curtis-Hall plays off well against the appealing but slightly underused Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, schooling her in the ramifications of social awareness and doing the right thing amidst corruption.

Woll, who fittingly was born in Brooklyn, shines in two-character scenes opposite Curtis-Hall's Urich and Henson's Nelson. The chemistry among Murdock, Nelson and Page is fun, but I want to see Page get much more screen time with Cox's Murdock and certainly see more of a spark between the two characters. After all, the complicated, on-again, off-again relationship between Murdock and Page is an important part of Daredevil's comic book history, making Murdock the man he is.

Any Daredevil fan knows there is much more to Page's story. (She's a pivotal part of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's sentimental DAREDEVIL: YELLOW, a must-read and must-have for Hornheads. Kevin Smith's story of Page's heartbreaking fate is equally recommended.)

The first four episodes of "Daredevil" spend more time with Murdock than it does the titular hero (who only is called "the man in the mask"). Cox brings the right kind of calm demeanor I'm used to seeing in "my Matt Murdock." The wardrobe department nailed it with the dark rose-colored glasses he wears as an attorney and the JRJR-esque early Daredevil "costume."

I don't understand the reason Murdock needs to have a few days' worth of scruff, especially when that's the most (and only) recognizable part of Daredevil. Maybe if the writers inserted a small bit of dialogue in which Murdock says it's too challenging to shave every day, I could buy it.

And shouldn't DD have a different voice than his alter ego — or at least a slight variation? Regardless of all that, Cox is well cast in both roles.

It's not until the last minute or so of the second episode when we're introduced to Vincent D'Onofrio as Wilson Fisk. Up until then, Fisk was a presence — a man with such power that his second-in-command, Wesley, demands no one say his name aloud.

The wardrobe department and creative team made an interesting choice to put Fisk in entirely black, a contrast to the white suit and the Kingpin dons in the comics.

There is a brief shout-out to that iconic look when Fisk is on a date with Vanessa, the art gallery manager who captures his heart, who mentions a man once came into the gallery wearing that exact outfit and asked her out. Fisk scoffs at the man's fashion choice, but respects the way his comic-book doppleganger confidently approached Vanessa — the Kingpin's wife and love of his life in the comics.

When I heard D'Onofrio was cast as Fisk, I thought it was brilliant move. It was easy to imagine the "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" star being Marvel's most infamous mob boss.

But D'Onofrio so far doesn't bring that same intensity, arrogance and menace to Fisk we see in the Kingpin in the comic books; the potential is there, but the actor plays him with subdued control. Ironically, as Wesley, Toby Leonard Moore brings much more menace and a sense of danger with every line he delievers, each time his character enters a room and/or delivers his boss' messages.

So far, Fisk isn't very menacing and comes off as lonely and unhappy. A melancholy and somewhat unconfident Fisk is a unique and interesting choice — not one I'm completely happy about and aside from the brutal and extremely graphic beating he gives a Russian mobster, I have yet to see the kind of performance or Fisk I expected. I'm sure D'Onofrio and the "Daredevil" writers want the audience to empathize with Fisk, or at least not overdo his characterization, but I don't see it as the right choice.

D'Onofrio's scenes with actress Ayelet Zurer (whom Dad would have called "a handsome woman" and is best known as Kal-El's Kryptonian mother in "Man of Steel") as Vanessa have some spark and I've been surprised I haven't seen more of that same spark from D'Onofrio's take on Fisk.

So far I'd give "Daredevil" a B+.

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