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Daredevil – Into the Ring (Review)

To celebrate the launch of Marvel’s Daredevil and the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, we are reviewing all thirteen episodes of the first season of Marvel and Netflix’s Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.

Daredevil is an ambitious piece of work.

It represents an astonishing commitment from both Marvel and Netflix to realise a thirteen-episode run on a superhero character that will be produced and released in one big chunk. One of the unsung features of Netflix’s “full season” model is the fact that there is minimal room for course correction or reevaluation; there is no time for audience feedback or retooling. The model is all or nothing. Before the first episode has been released to the public, the last episode has already been cut and gone through post-production.

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That is an impressive gamble, even in this day and age when Marvel has demonstrated that it can pull off almost anything that it wants to accomplish. Daredevil is part of the tapestry of interconnected continuity that forms the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a single unfolding narrative space that dates back to Jon Favreau’s Iron Man back in 2008. In the seven years once, one of the resounding (and effective) criticisms of Marvel’s creative model has been the sense that their projects are drowned in a “house style”, as if the individual works feel obligated to fit together.

These criticisms date back to the sense that Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2 was smothered by its obligations to a shared universe, and was only fuelled by the high-profile departure of respected film-makers like Edgar Wright and Patty Jenkins from Marvel projects, citing a irreconcilable differences. To be fair, recent efforts like Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy have helped to add a great deal of diversity to the tapestry of the shared Marvel universe.

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Into the Ring works hard to establish a clear and distinct mood for its own hero. Released on Netflix, it is not bound by the same set of constraints that hem in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Peggy Carter. The brutality on display in the teaser and at the climax is utterly unlike anything else produced under the banner of this shared universe; the montage at the end of the episode makes it clear that Matt Murdock exists in very different corner of the same universe. Child abductions and drug rings and white collar crime aren’t quite covered by Tony Stark or Steve Rogers.

Although there are a few bumps along the way, Into the Ring does a good job at setting the tone for what is to come.

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The opening scene of Into the Ring is very skilfully constructed; it is designed to showcase pretty much everything that we need to know about Matthew Murdock before the opening credits on the first episode even begin. The opening shot isn’t even Matt himself; the opening shot is of Jack Murdock discovering that his son has been scarred in a horrific accident. Jack Murdock is the first thing that we see; he is also the very last thing that Matt sees. As the young boy’s sight fades, he is staring up at his father.

This is perhaps the most important facet of who Matt Murdock is and why he does what he does. The first season of Daredevil repeatedly and thoroughly suggests that Matt is a very lost and traumatised young man. Although he is prompted to action by specific crimes, and acts to punish those guilty of specific acts, his violence is an expression of a more deep-seated emotional volatility. There are a lot of possible reasons for Matt’s misdirected and externalised anger, but the first season of Daredevil repeatedly suggests that Matt is dealing with the absence of his father.

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It is an absence that is quite literal; Jack Murdock is the last face that his son sees. However, Cut Men reveals that Jack is soon to completely disappear from his son’s life. Stick suggests that Matt tried to find his own surrogate father figure in an abusive and manipulative old man, who also abandoned him. In a way, this anger at the missing father is also reflected in Matt Murdock’s Catholicism. If God is – to quote Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate“an absentee landlord”, then he is also something of an absent father to his faithful children. What has God done for Hell’s Kitchen?

Into the Ring handles this transition smoothly. We cut from young Matthew Murdock losing sight of his father, to an older version of Matthew Murdock seeking absolution for sins that he is planning to commit. Murdock doesn’t trust God to dispense justice; he doesn’t even trust the court system to handle it. At the same time, Murdock cannot let go of his faith. He cannot abandon it. It is part of who he is and cannot be denied; it makes sense that opening credits should suggest Matt’s view of the world by creating a vision of New York shaped from blood red candle wax.

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Matt Murdock’s Catholicism was heavily emphasised by Frank Miller, the writer and artist who redefined the character of Daredevil in a series of work spanning fifteen years. In the documentary The Men Without Fear, Miller explained that the inherent contradictions of Matt Murdock appealed to him:

Daredevil, he’s blind. He can’t see. That’s his distinguishing feature. I fell in love. He was perfect. This guy could be the perfect hard-boiled superhero. Along the way, I decided that he had to be a Catholic because only a Catholic could be a vigilante and an attorney at the same time.

Matt’s blindness is not just literal; it is symbolic. He is wilfully blind to the inherent contradictions of what he does. He is both a masked vigilante and practising defence attorney. He is a both a saviour and a man of violence. He promised his father never to raise his fists in anger, but uses his father’s training and experience to brutalise criminals.

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In a way, this reflects a lot of the inherent internal contradictions that define Catholicism; part of the struggles with that belief system is reconciling two fundamentally opposed principles, accepting both to be true. The bread of the Eucharist is not merely the symbolic body of Christ; it is literally the body of Christ. Christ himself was both a man in his own right and a facet of God. Man is made in the image of God, but is capable of horrific things. God loves each and every one of us, but stands back and allows horrific things to happen.

Indeed, a lot of Catholic teaching is denial of basic human instincts, trying to subsume them into something spiritually greater. This is most obvious (and most polarising) in issues of sexuality. “Abstinence” remains the core of the Catholic Church’s doctrine on the matter, ignoring the fact that sexuality is a fundamental part of human evolutionary psychology and identity. To deny that is to deny ourselves. Matt faces something similar over the course of the first season of Daredevil; he faces the fact that although he is doing something good, he is also perhaps a violent man.

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Matt has spent his whole life repressing and suppressing his violent urges, knowing that his father wanted him to be a better man. This denial of his own basic self arguably finds expression in his decision to externalise these impulses into a literal “devil” persona. It clearly mirrors certain theories about Catholic moral philosophies. As Shaji George Kochuthara argues in The Concept of Sexual Pleasure in the Catholic Moral Tradition:

An understanding of virtue as the victory of the will over sinful desires of the body leads to a repressive kind of self-control. This view leads to seeing desires of our body as enemies of our real self, and thus to dualistic thinking.

Of course, Matt is expressing his own anger rather than desire, but the theory is the same. Matt cannot fully reconcile all the different parts of himself and so creates an externalised expression of his anger and his violent impulses. Eventually, Matt manages to convince himself that he can still be the man that his father wanted him to be, if he simply channels all of that rage into his devil persona.

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Drew Goddard’s dialogue is not always subtle. Matt has a monologue about how his father could take his hits. “He could take a punch,” Matt recalls, with no small affection and admiration. “Jesus, he could take a punch.” Later, he explains, “Never got knocked out, my dad. He got knocked down, but he always got back up.” His father might have lost more than he won, but he always lost on his feet. Murdock suggests that there is anger in his blood. He remembers his grandmother warning him, “Be careful of the Murdock boys, they got the devil in them.”

Daredevil‘s portrayal of Matt’s Catholicism is interesting in a number of ways. Most obviously, it acknowledges that Matt’s Catholicism is a big part of who he is and what he does; that it contributes to his anger and self-destruction. Matt is perfectly capable of doing violent things, but his Catholicism creates an internal conflict that eats away at him; perhaps preventing him from working through his anger. In Nelson v. Murdock, Foggy observes that even if Matt could bring himself to murder Wilson Fisk, he would in turn be destroyed by his own Catholicism.

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At the same time, the show is sympathetic to Matt’s religious beliefs. While accepting that Matt is not entirely healthy and that his attitude towards his faith is part of that, the show stressed that one of the biggest differences between Matthew Murdock and Wilson Fisk is the fact that Wilson Fisk has no religious faith to guide or control his anger. In The Path of the Righteous, Fisk admits that he doesn’t even know how to pray; the best that he can offer is an “imitation of faith” in marked contrast to Matt Murdock’s genuine faith.

That faith serves to keep Matt’s violence in check. The third dramatic beat of the opening teaser is an attack on the docks which serves to illustrate just how brutal Matt can be. The stunt work is impressive, and there is even a wry sense of humour to the whole thing; one goon sits down eating his sandwich for the entire fight. However, the scene ends with Matt yelling angrily at a bunch of victims and then brutally laying into an already incapacitated Turk Barrett. There is a barrage of blows to a goon who has already been defeated.

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Of course, the fact that the scene quickly establishes Turk as even more of a scumbag than his usual comic book counterpart (who is generally a weasel rather than a goon) helps to keep the audience sympathetic to Matt. Nevertheless, the effect is striking, as executive producer Steven DeKnight noted:

“It was very much in the script,” DeKnight said of Daredevil’s violent first appearance. “Distinguishing the Matt Murdock character, that there is a devil inside him, literally. It’s something we explore later in the series. Is he doing this because he wants to help the city, or is there also another reason that he’s doing it? Is there something else inside him that he has to let out? The question of: Does he enjoy doing this? And he does lose control — that we see in that first opening sequence. That was absolutely part of the character, [part] of the tone. 

“And no, I don’t think you could do it on network television,” DeKnight continued. “You can do it on basic cable or premium cable, but network television is a different animal. When you get to that kind of thing in network television, where you have to appeal to a broad audience, you usually don’t want your hero to be sullied like that.”

It sets up what becomes a recurring theme of the first season, one that is reasonably well-developed. Certain parts of the world of Daredevil can feel a little too easy or convenient at times, but the show works very hard to build a sense of ambiguity around Matt’s motivations for the obvious good that he does.

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Charlie Cox gives an astounding performance as Matt Murdock. He perfect sells all the rage and anger inside Matt; the temper that occasionally surfaces even as he plays the role of blind attorney dealing with police officers. Cox plays a man who seems wound impossibly tight; one who might snap at any given moment. At the same time, Cox beautifully conveys the vulnerability of Matt. When Matt explains his disability to Karen, there is incredibly humanity to his confession. “Doesn’t change the fact that I’d give anything to see the sky one more time.”

All of these core ideas and themes are established before the opening credits of the episode. That is some very efficient writing from Goddard. This is not a surprise; Goddard is a veteran of Joss Whedon’s school of television. He understands who writing for genre works. Into the Ring has to be a succinct and effective statement of theme and character for the next twelve episodes. It is not a pilot in the conventional sense – as the season was ordered as a single chunk – but it does have to do a lot of the same heavy-lifting; Into the Ring does this admirably.

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However, there are complications. Drew Goddard had been hired to run the show, and wrote the first two scripts of the season. However, he was poached to work on Sony’s planned Sinister Six movie very shortly before production began. As a result, Steven DeKnight was drafted in at the last minute to take over the running of the series. Although the first season does hang together very well, Into the Ring and Cut Man do feel quite distinct from what follows. In particular, Wilson Fisk feels particularly absent from the first two episodes.

Over the course of the first season, the show works hard to compare and contrast the characters of Matthew Murdock and Wilson Fisk. DeKnight does this with incredible attention to detail, right down to symmetrical anecdotes and metaphors – in Into the Ring, Karen compares Matt to the Good Samaritan; whereas Wilson Fisk independently evaluates his own position in that fable in Daredevil. There is a sense that Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk serve as mirrors to one another; a classic superhero storytelling trope, but with good cause.

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However, Fisk all but completely absent from Into the Ring and Cut Man. The two opening episodes of the season present Fisk as a force of nature. The fear that he inspires suggests that he already controls Hell’s Kitchen. Matt’s ascent and origin are presented against the backdrop of Fisk tightening an already concrete grip on power in Hell’s Kitchen. As Matt begins his journey, it seems almost like Fisk is finishing his own. Into the Ring and Cut Man suggest the two are moving sequentially rather than in parallel.

For example, Into the Ring and Cut Man suggest that Wilson Fisk’s history with Rigoletto is tidied away before the series began. “Mister Rigoletto his retired,” James Wesley explains. “His books have been acquired by my client.” However, Rigoletto is a pretty important figure in the origin of Wilson Fisk, no matter what the version. Frank Miller made him important in The Man Without Fear, Jason Aaron incorporated him into PunisherMAX and he is even given history with Fisk in Shadows in the Glass. Fisk replacing Rigoletto is a big part of his arc, but it’s already wrapped up.

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To be fair, DeKnight arguably counters this issue by ignoring the fates of characters like Sweeney and Slade in Matt’s own origin story. Despite their appearances in Cut Man, the episode Nelson v. Murdock suggests that Matt’s first act of vigilantism was not revenge for the death of his father, a major departure from the character’s comic book origin story. Still, it does feel like Into the Ring and Cut Man have a very distinct vision of Wilson Fisk that is quite different from the iteration who develops over the course of the show.

At the same time, Daredevil does capitalise on its thirteen-episode format to do things like this. Into the Ring runs somewhere between a half and a third of the length of a cinematic superhero film; it is impossible to imagine Avengers: Age of Ultron keeping James Spader reduced to a single one-sided conversation over the first half of the film. Accepting that there are almost thirteen hours of screentime available, Daredevil is able to build up to the introduction of Wilson Fisk. It can gloss over him here, and flesh him out in Shadows in the Glass.

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The comic book influences on Daredevil are not too surprising. Frank Miller is very much the definitive Daredevil writer, so it makes sense that the show should build on his version of the character. The first season of Daredevil owes a lot to The Man Without Fear, the origin written by Frank Miller and illustrated by John Romita Jr. in the mid-nineties. The character’s costume derives from that comic book, as does the fixation on human trafficking and child abduction in Into the Ring and Cut Man.

At the same time, it is interesting the elements of The Man Without Fear that are omitted from the first season of Daredevil. The show avoids the character of Elektra completely, making one overt reference and another red herring tease towards her. In contrast, Miller made Elektra a vital part of Matt Murdock’s origin and a part of his identity and history that was impossible to ignore. It is interesting to wonder whether future seasons will flash back to Matt’s past in the same way as this first season; it is hard to imagine Elektra without the context of her relationship to Matt.

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Nevertheless, the decision to use The Man Without Fear as a major basis of this first season makes it quite clear that the show is pushing towards Frank Miller’s vision of the character. This makes sense, given that Miller created the definitive version of Matt Murdock. There is an expedience to this approach; after all, the show cannot tell Born Again in its first season. The only real opportunity that the show has to incorporate these iconic aspects of the character into the first season is to look at something like The Man Without Fear.

Although Jeph Loeb’s and Tim Sale’s Yellow might make for a more satisfying comic book origin story, that bright and optimistic origin only works in contrast to Miller’s grim and gritty take on the masked vigilante. Similarly, Mark Waid has done a lot to brighten up the mood and tone of the current Daredevil comics, but even that lightness exists as commentary on and consequence of Frank Miller’s iconic work on the character. There was no way that the first season of Daredevil could escape the shadow of Miller’s body of work.

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Into the Ring makes for an effective start to the season, and one that set the right tone for what is to follow.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Daredevil:

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