A Man Without Hope
Netflix’s newest original series, Daredevil, is also the latest attempt by Marvel Comics’ multimedia engine to dominate the world of serialized television the way it has dominated the world of blockbuster movies. It is also the most recent attempt to bring the story of Matt Murdock, the blind attorney who defends the underprivileged of Hell’s Kitchen through vigilante action, to the screen — and like the others, it is an unfortunate failure.
Daredevil was released all at once, in the typical Netflix binge-watching style, on April 10. I’ve actually written before about how binge-watching can be damaging to a television show, but in this case, it was unquestionably the right decision; the show is already so haphazardly paced that if it were to be spaced out over a week at a time, like most network shows, it would have created hazardous levels of when-are-they-going-to-get-to-the-fireworks-factory frustration at the way it doles out its developments and revelations, such as they are. This isn’t the show’s only problem, as we will discover, but it’s the major one, and it creeps into the entire series and poisons the few promising aspects of what is otherwise another failed adaptation of a character that has plenty of great stories just lying around ready to be ported to live action.
For one thing, the show is largely a slow, plodding mess. Its much-vaunted fight scenes are well-executed when they can be seen through the Snyderesque grime and murk, and it may be a bit unseemly to complain about the amount of action in an action-adventure show, but there’s so much brutal hand-to-hand combat that it becomes rather numbing. Huge stretches of Daredevil go by with no dialogue and the only sound being that of grunting and fists colliding with ribcages; when a pair of personality-free Russian gangsters show up a few episodes in, their foreign-language conversations are the most lengthy bits of dialogue in the show up to that point. What dialogue there is doesn’t do the writers much credit, for that matter.
The cast is, well, not particularly well-stocked. Charlie Cox, both as Daredevil and his civilian alter ego Matt Murdock, is an odd-looking enigma — not that he’s enigmatic, merely that there doesn’t seem like much to know about him; his casting reveals nothing other than the current mania for filling big television roles with British actors who can burp out a convincing American accent. Ayelet Zurer as the Kingpin’s beloved Vanessa is competent but could be exchanged with any other actress, while Toby Leonard Moore as his right-hand man Wesley is bland and forgettable, which is exactly what he should be, but that doesn’t do much for the viewer. Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson does a decent job, but the decision to turn him from a well-meaning, loyal naïf to a sleazy, loyal dickhead is a bad one, and robs his interaction with others of a great deal of potential. It’s always fun to see Vondie Curtis-Hall, here playing the wise but timid reporter Ben Urich, but he doesn’t get enough screen time to make a particularly strong impression, and while it’s a fun inside-baseball treat for comics fans to see Rosario Dawson playing what is basically Night Nurse, she doesn’t have a lot to do outside of patching up Cox every time he emerges on the wrong end of an ass-whipping. The best of the lot is Deborah Ann Woll, lately of True Blood, as Karen Page; she barely manages to break out of the damsel-in-distress mode, but she gives an interesting, engaging, and vivacious performance just the same amongst so much hamminess and indifference.
And then there’s Vincent D’Onofrio.
Cast in the critical role of Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime, D’Onofrio — unquestionably a tremendously talented actor — absolutely runs away with the series in terms of both character and performance. Although this isn’t the best possible Kingpin (there’s too much of the legitimate businessman and too little of the calculating crimelord in his story, his wild violent tendencies are overstated (in the comics, Daredevil is the only one who drives him beyond his own terrifying self-control) thus diminishing their impact, and his relationship with Vanessa is a bit abbreviated), it’s still a fine portrayal, and D’Onofrio, who has aged into the role to the degree that he can fill it with a real bitterness and heaviness — both emotional and physical — that he might not have been able to carry off before, knocks it out of the park.
The problem with the Kingpin is one of execution instead of intention. The idea of making Fisk a sort of organized-crime Voldemort, whose identity cannot even be hinted at, let alone spoken of, is an appealing one, but in practical terms, it only contributes to the show’s overall pacing problem, making its action altogether too sprawling and drawn-out. A sense of mystery is fine, but after five or six episodes of drawing things out and having Daredevil go after slumlords, drug dealers, and low-rent hoodlums, things start to get a little, well, dull. (It also doesn’t do much for Fisk’s reputation that he puts together a super-team of high-powered criminals and forgets to employ a translator so he knows what the hell they are saying.) Any show dedicated to the contest between Daredevil and the Kingpin that waits halfway through the first season to show you the Kingpin and the last episode to show you Daredevil is vastly overestimating audience patience, particularly when there’s so little else going on.
No Daredevil series will ever match the stellar work of Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli on the legendary “Born Again” arc (and if the 2003 Ben Affleck movie is any indication, they shouldn’t even try). But there’s a rich vein of good stories with solid character work to draw from, and instead, the show’s creator and show-runner — both Joss Whedon acolytes in terms of flip characterization and Zach Snyder fans in terms of washed-out, high-blood-cell visuals — have chosen to throw together a confused, erratic piece of work that manages to advance by inches over a matter of many hours. All this won’t make any difference; the Marvel Entertainment juggernaut rumbles on like, well, like Juggernaut, and the show has received enough attention and (inexplicable) critical praise to have already gotten a second-season re-order. But Daredevil doesn’t have any more surprise reveals to string viewers along with, so they’d better start learning to tell a good basic story, or the show without fear will be a show without hope.