Sunday, 22 November 2015

Daredevil (Netflix)


First of all this, this series works despite being built upon a shaky concept: the preposterousness of Matt's abilities. Matt can recognise someone from the ticking of his wristwatch, detects (,using God knows which sense) that the room he's in contains a box of nails and has superhearing which varies from scene to scene. Then again, all superpowers are preposterous, as was Breaking Bad's concept of a Nobel-winnng scientist reduced to teaching in a high school and working in a car wash. It's acceptable providing the events and characters into which this outrageous concept is unleashed remaining plausible, and in Daredevil, as in Breaking Bad, they do.

There's a nasty descent into 24-esque stupidity in the second episode, when we are asked to believe that a doctor - who is clearly of normal moral character - witnessing Matt interrogate someone would start suggesting what nerves in his body Matt should attack and how he can access them. I don't think that scenes in which superheroes punch villains while demanding answers normalise torture any more than car chases normalise dangerous driving and action in general (fight scenes, shoot-outs) normalises violence - in all those cases the context is too far from reality to do so. What's offensive about this scene, as with 24, is the way it fetishes medical terminology. The most sinister apologists for torture  are not its passionate advocates, but those who style themselves as liberals but see torture as part of the Overton window, as something controversial rather than something no decent person could defend.  With this scene Daredevil has contributed to the idea that torture is something to be debated. I'm also not keen on the distinction the show draws between killing someone and throwing them off a roof into a skip and into a coma. Every time Matt draws this ridiculous line, there's little sense that the writers disagree. This is a long way from the beady eye Breaking Bad's writers keep on Walter White's justifications. I also don't like the gratuitous use of paedophilia as a justification for one brutal scene: like terrorism, this seems to be an excuse to let the mask of liberalism slip so that we can indulge in our most atavistic desires for violence. We're watching this show because we enjoy watching a masked superhero beat the shit out of no-good punks, so it's obviously not going to do as distressing and real a horror as paedophilia justice. At moments like this, you end up with something too unpleasant to be entertaining but too flippant to be anything else. The same goes for the sight of young Fisk beating his father's brains out with a hammer. I'm always reminded of Adam Mars Jones's distinction when critiquing the Watchman movie: "I get sordid. I get escapism. I don't like them mixed."

However, Daredevil has many strengths. Unlike Gotham, this is a show that raises the stakes. The end of episode 8, where Wilson decides to go public rather than let Matt and friends spend several seasons tying to expose him, shocks because it changes the entire dramatic impetus. Gotham, by contrast, had an episode where Jim and Harvey arrest Falcone, but the show backed down and pretty much reimposed the stays quo. Daredevil, on the other hand, allows five things to happen in its first season that other shows would have saved for much later (Wesley's death, Ben's death, Wilson going public, Wilson getting exposed, Foggy finding out about Matt's alter ego), preventing the characterisation from becoming repetitive, forcing the writers to address new situations with each episode. A particular triumph comes at the end of episode 11. Both Toby Leonard Moore's performance and the deft characterisation have given Wesley real staying power, so it comes as an enormous shock to see him killed off, and the situation this plunges Karen into is not the arc we were expecting for that character: along with the surprise of Foggy finding out about Matt in the first season, it breaks up what seemed to be a cozy Buffy\Xander\Willow or Harry\Ron\Hermione setup. Similarly, we can imagine Ben staying for the next season as both a useful aide to Matt and part of a "downtrodden disbelieved reporter gets vindicated" arc, but we don't even get to see him publish his expose of Fisk before his startling death. In this show death interrupts and destroys; it results in a shift of power and an escalation of tension. It seems to be a trick Daredevil picked up from Breaking Bad, as with the often terrific precredits sequences which establish something similar to that show's distinctive opening post-traumatic aesthetic. Watching this, you realise how much killing off Fish or the Penguin would improve Gotham, let alone how much more bearable Doctor Who would be if after being killed off its characters stayed dead.

The scenes involving the criminal element never become monotonous as Gotham's do: there aren't too many characters, the scenes are snappy and surprising, and the exchanges are to-the-point, rather than the kind of theatrical flourishes and monologues that Fish, the Penguin and Falcone were allowed to indulge in. Daredevil leaves you intrigued by these people. We see that Wesley and Fisk's relationship has an emotional aspect to it, but only from tantalising lines and glimpses. There's always a danger of banality in the revelation that the villain was treated cruelly as a child, but Vincent D'onofrio's performance, with its unusual inflections and odd combination of a wounded look on his face and a growling voice, is interesting and commanding enough to sell it.

In fact, this show's take on Fisk stands as one of the most credible, interesting and potent villains in years. Like Sanchez in Licence to Kill (and unlike Silva in Skyfall or Oberhauser in Spectre), he has values, motivations and thought processes, has a way of justifying his actions to himself, and exists as a person in his own right rather than to annoy the hero and drive the action scenes. Villains in recent superhero narratives disappoint because they are kept politically neutral, either belonging to an already-demonised ideological system (the Nazi-like agenda of Lord Voldemort, Star Trek Into Darkness's Khan and the Daleks; the Al Qaeida-like League of Shadows in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, the Russian bad guy in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) , strictly in it for the money (the Die Hard model), personal vengeance (Skyfall and Spectre again) or unrealistic conspiracy theories (Star Trek: Into Darkness's Admiral Marcus, The film of V for Vendetta, Mission Impossible Rogue Nation). What we get all too rarely is a villian whose terrible actions  feel like like they are  part of our own problems, including ones which have not been made illegal. This is the Edge of Darkness approach to villains (which Tomorrow Never Dies attempted but couldn't quite pull off with Elliott Carver, and which both Spectre and the "His Last Vow" episode of Sherlock flirted with via the characters of Denbeigh and Magnussen respectively), and it's something I want to see a lot more of: villains that resemble Rupert Murdoch, David Cameron and Fox News. I also want to see villains who are all the more dangerous because, as in real life, they don't realise they are villains. When Fisk says he wants to make the city a better place, he seems to genuinely believe this, which makes the battle to overthrow him all the more compelling. Satisfyingly, this is a show in which the enemy is gentrification. The show neatly builds on the destruction seen in The Avengers, with Leland even pointing out that superheroes are pretty good for their business, as every time they punch someone through a wall there's a wrecked property for them to buy up. Matt, refreshingly, is from a genuinely working class background.

The show also makes effective use of the beleaguered but unbowed reporter trope. Vonda Curtis-Hall's final scene is all the more poignant because instead of a newspaper article, he's about to embark upon a blog to expose Fisk. It's unusual to hear a comic-book villain refer to internet pictures of cats, yet that is the entirely relevant debate he and Ben have. It's something that neither the Superman nor the Spiderman movies have come to terms with, with Man of Steel portraying bloggers as untrustworthy weasels.

But let's be honest: this is still a show that speaks to the adolescent in all of us. We watch it because the fight scenes are cool (and they are remarkably well-done). Even so,  it's a pleasure to get one's visceral thrills from something containing moments of genuine drama.