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Daredevil – In the Blood (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.

There is something very functional and formulaic about stretch of the season running from Rabbit in a Snowstorm through to Condemned.

After a great opening set of episodes, it feels like the show stalls a little. It pulls back, taking the time run through some stock superhero origin plot elements before pressing ahead. This might just be a result of the thirteen-episodes-in-one-go format of the series, or it could be a result of the transition from original showrunner Drew Goddard to new showrunner Steven DeKnight. Whatever the reason, it feels like the first season slows down its plotting for Matt Murdock so that it can catch up on developing Wilson Fisk – a character who spent the first two episodes of the season as a phantom.

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As a result, it is rather unsurprising that Fisk’s plot should be the most interesting part of In the Blood. This is the audience’s first extended encounter with the new crime boss of Hell’s Kitchen, as we join him on an awkward first date right before we are reminded of just how violence he can be. As ever, Daredevil provides a nice sense of contrast with its characters, offering a striking juxtaposition between the well-meaning and innocent version of Wilson Fisk presented to Vanessa Marianna and the brutal and violent version of Wilson Fisk who decapitates Anatoly Ranskahov with a car door.

The problem, then, is the plotting as it relates to Matt Murdock. While the show is making up for lost time by developing Wilson Fisk, it seems like Matt is relegated to level-grinding against the Russian mob. These are villains so generic that it seems like everybody in Hell’s Kitchen just refers to them as “the Russians.” To be fair, the teaser to In the Blood does give us some sense of back story for Vladimir and Anatoly Ranskahov, but they feel rather transparently like a stalling tactic designed to eat up time before the show can get to the interesting stuff.

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The situation is not aided by the decision to play out the cliché “attack the hero by targeting a female acquaintance” plot as the centrepiece of Matt’s arc in the episode. In the Blood cleverly underscores the parallels between Wilson Fisk and Matt Murdock by juxtaposing their relationships with Vanessa and Claire respectively, but this structural cleverness is undercut by the decision to reduce Claire to emotional leverage. Victimising a female character to drive a male character to action is also a risky plotting decision, but particularly so when it feels like the show is just marking time.

In the Blood is a perfectly functional episode, albeit one that works much better when it focuses on its villain than when it focuses on its hero.

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In June and July 1973, writer Gerry Conway and artist Gil Kane took the comic book world by surprise. In The Night Gwen Stacy Died, Peter Parker failed spectacularly to protect the love of his life from the fiendish schemes of Norman Osborn. Gwen Stacy was sent plummeting off the Brooklyn Bridge; Peter tried desperately to catch her. There is some controversy as to the particulars of how she actually died – had Norman Osborn snapped her neck beforehand, or did Spider-Man miscalculate while attempting his rescue and accidentally break her neck while trying to catch her?

Either way, the storyline was certainly striking; comic book fans were completely unaccustomed to that sort of brutality. Major characters were (generally speaking) relatively safe at that point in time – particularly love interests. The Death of Gwen Stacy arguably heralded in a new era, an era where no superhero love interest was safe. The Comic Book Buyers’ Guide even cheekily referenced the tendency to kill off these love interests as “The Gwen Stacy Syndrome.” Of course, that is not the only name for it.

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A lot happened in the years following. Victimising female characters in order to motivate male characters became a stock comic book trope. In 1994, an issue of Green Lantern had Kyle Rayner discover that an enemy had murdered his girlfriend and stuffed her in a fridge. This incident would inspire Gail Simone to found the website “women in refrigerators” five years later. Simone explained the context of the site:

It’s important to note, as you have here, that the question was never about putting female characters in peril, or allowing bad things to happen to them. It’s adventure fiction, those things need to happen. What the site was about was that at the time, long-running female characters were being killed, raped, depowered and mutilated for cheap shock value, and then discarded. There was an industry canard that women didn’t read comics, so who cared, anyway? Those days are gone. Some of the biggest cons out there now boast parity in male/female attendance (estimated, obviously gender is more complicated than that). And a great many of the comics that are surprise hits are selling to female readers. The smarter publishers see that and are responding. The rest will always be playing catch-up. It’s a lot better. There’s a long way to go.

The term “fridging” entered the popular lexicon to refer to such plotting. It is, understandably, a controversial and divisive topic. Popular and acclaimed works like Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight have been accused of “fridging” major female characters; indeed, these claims are hard to deny.

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However, it is debatable whether “fridging” is an individual act or part of a wider aesthetic – whether there is a point where the storytelling device is acceptable and functional (rather than lazy); whether the problem is not any singular instance of the trope, but its pervasiveness. In the Blood has the Russians target Claire Temple as a way to strike out at Matt Murdock, reducing her to emotional leverage to give Matt something to do while the show’s other plots play out. Claire is not killed off, but she is brutally beaten.

To be fair to the production team, they are drawing from a long historical precedent of villains attacking Matt Murdock through the women in his life. Kevin Smith’s treatment of Karen Page and Ed Brubaker’s treatment of Milla Donovan have both been controversial and polarising. More than that, one of the big recurring themes of Daredevil is coping with (and working through) trauma. Karen Page was almost murdered in Into the Ring, after all; her subplot running through the season is largely about her response to that.

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However, Daredevil never seems particularly interested in Claire after this point. The character appears in a few more episodes in the season, but she retreats from the larger narrative quite quickly. She becomes involved with Matt, but then pulls back away from the darkness inside of him. However, this never feels like an arc about Claire; it really just contrasts Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk, with Claire recoiling from the darkness as Vanessa is drawn to it. While Vanessa herself is victimised later in the series, the show allows her a more dynamic agency than Claire receives.

Barring a quick shot of Claire considering her bruising in the mirror during World on Fire, there is no real arc to her character stemming from what happens to her in In the Blood. Claire wades into and out of the various plots over the course of the season (whether as a potential love interest for Matt or a nurse at the hospital), but feels very much like a tertiary character to the larger narrative. She is ultimately less important than characters like Wesley or Urich, feeling more like a piece of the world rather than a character in her own right.

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To be fair, there may be a reason for this. The comic book character of Claire Temple is more closely associated with Luke Cage than with Matt Murdock, and it has been suggested that Rosario Dawson could become the glue that holds the four Defenders miniseries together. Dawson admitted being interested in the idea:

That was actually one of the things that totally drew me to it. I just loved the fact that when you’re playing with Marvel you’re playing with the Marvel Universe and that means anything could happen. That’s very exciting. And just the fact that I’m playing Claire Temple/Night Nurse, you’re already know knowing something’s happening, something’s being tweaked, something’s being played with and so that’s good. I like the question mark that comes with that.

It is a very non-committal answer, but the possibility that Claire Temple might evolve into something of a street-level Phil Coulson is quite interesting. It would explain why she feels so passive in the larger context of the first season, serving as more of a witness to all these events rather than an active participant in them.

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Still, all of this doesn’t change the fact that it feels like Claire is brutalised and victimised as a cheap way to give Matt some additional angst. On discovering that she has been taken, Matt consoles the young boy who led the Russians to her. “It’s not your fault, Santino. It’s mine.” It feels like clumsy plotting from a show that has been so careful about dealing with these themes and ideas. Even In the Blood itself repeatedly draws attention to the lasting impressions left by these kinds of acts.

Karen investigates Union Allied by simply following the physical evidence; the legacy that can’t disappear like numbers in a sheet. On paper, the company can disappear; in reality, its physical constituents have to go somewhere. The episode opens with a flashback explaining the history of Vladimir and Anatoly, who vowed never to let themselves return to the squalor of a Russian prison. “From princes of Moscow to sh!tting in a bucket.” It is a line with extra irony following on from the opening of Into the Ring, where Turk revealed that now their operation is the one handing out the buckets.

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During the climactic fight sequence at the taxi garage, Matt makes this point himself. He pins down a Russian mobster and demands, “It hurts, doesn’t it? Being in pain, being afraid?” Well, of course being in pain hurts; that is kinda the definition those words. However, it does reinforce the association between trauma and fear that runs through the first season of the show. It seems like most of the characters in Daredevil are driven by that hurt and that fear, picking at scabs that have never quite healed.

Wesley’s monologue to Anatoly makes the point quite succinctly, observing that the past is perhaps inescapable. “They say the past is etched in stone, but it isn’t,” Wesley assures Anatoly. “It’s smoke trapped in a closed room, swirling… changing. Buffeted by the passing of years and wishful thinking. But even though our perception of it changes, one thing remains constant. The past can never be completely erased. It lingers. Like the scent of burning wood.” This is reflected in Fisk’s own history; Fisk confesses that he might have left Hell’s Kitchen, but he never escaped it.

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In a way, even the backdrop of the struggle between Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk reinforces the sense that the past cannot be escaped. In one of the shrewder uses of the Marvel shared universe, it is revealed that Fisk is exploiting the devastation wrought by the Chitauri invasion at the climax of The Avengers as an excuse to rebuild Hell’s Kitchen in his own image. He might have been better waiting to exploit property prices after The Avengers: Age of Ultron. It is a little detail, but one that adds a lot of context and weight to the story.

There is a sense that this is the stuff that Iron Man and Thor and Captain America leave in their wake. Massive alien invasions work well at the climax of a big summer blockbuster, but it interesting to think about all the little things that happen in the wake of that story. This is arguably one of the more interesting aspects of a shared universe: the fun of looking at big story events from different perspectives, to imagine what impact The Avengers might have had on property prices in Hell’s Kitchen.

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The relationship between Daredevil and the larger universe is interesting. The show is not quite as tied into the Avengers franchise as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Peggy Carter. There are a few nods: Urich’s office has a couple of framed front pages that cover the events of The Incredible Hulk and The Avengers; Owlsley acknowledges how great superheroes are for business; Wesley rebukes Vladimir and Anatoly for being unable to handle a simple vigilante who doesn’t even have “an iron suit or magic hammer.” However, the series remains its own thing.

There is no involvement from S.H.I.E.L.D. and no cameo from Samuel L. Jackson. There is no awkward foreshadowing of upcoming blockbusters like Ant-Man. There are no conspicuous shots of Tony Stark’s “Avengers Tower” to assure viewers that this is in fact the same universe. There are no forced references to super soldier serum and the show’s more fantastical elements feel more overtly mystical than the whole “aliens who just think they are gods” schtick from the Thor films. The New York skyline even includes the “Metlife” building.

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However, this feels appropriate. Daredevil is allowed to be its own thing; it is allowed to have its own identity, without wave after wave of sly references and in-jokes. Even Stan Lee’s cameo is relegated to a headshot in the police station. As such, the show can concentrate on its central characters and their world without feeling like a slave to something else. After all, the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spent most of its first run spinning its wheels while waiting for Captain America: The Winter Soldier to unfold. Daredevil is allowed its own look, its own style, its own space.

Of course, one of the benefits of that use of continuity is the way that it allows Daredevil to present Hell’s Kitchen as a gritty urban nightmare, ignoring the decades of gentrification that turned it into one of the most prestigious parts of New York. Gail Simone affectionately spoofed the stock portrayal of Hell’s Kitchen in Daredevil stories, imagining Daredevil and Bullseye going head-to-head in contemporary Hell’s Kitchen. “You know, DD, this neighborhood is picking up. You see that big Costco they got a couple blocks over now? NICE. I mean, parking’s a b!tch, but the SAVINGS…!”

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So Fisk’s evil plot to gentrify Hell’s Kitchen and destroy its local character seems a little bit late. As Fisk talks about his rough experiences growing up in the area, it feels like he should be sipping fair trade coffee and enjoying an organic bagel. “When I was a kid, I used to dream about what it would be like… to live somewhere far away from Hell’s Kitchen,” he tells Vanessa, glossing over the fact that there are kids now who dream about being able to afford the opportunity to live somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen.

In the Blood offers viewers their first extended glimpse of Wilson Fisk, and sets up the themes that will drive his arc over the rest of the season. From this point onwards, Daredevil keeps Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk on parallel trajectories. This is most pronounced with the parallels between their romantic relationships in In the Blood and World on Fire, but also in the disintegration of their personal relationships over the course of Nelson v. Murdock. For all that Fisk is obviously a villain, Daredevil does a convincing case suggesting he is “not so different” from our hero.

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As with Matt, there is a sense that Fisk has been preparing for his current activities for a long time. When Vanessa points out that he does not have a lot of experience with romance, he replies, “I’ve been preoccupied a long time.” Explaining his plans for Hell’s Kitchen, Fisk offers a boast that could just as easily apply to Matt. “I realised that the city was a part of me, that it was in my blood… that I would do anything to make it a better place, for people like you.” Indeed, Matt assures Claire that he has a similar goal. “I’m just trying to make my city a better place.”

It helps that Vincent D’Onofrio and Ayelet Zurer have a great chemistry together. It is a little stilted, without being awkward – it feels like two interested people trying to get to know each other in a rather clumsy fashion. “That was a joke,” she explains at one point. Fisk awkwardly replies, “Yes, of course.” It is a very weird dynamic, but one that is quite cute in its own way. Both D’Onofrio and Zurer are able to add layers to their characters and to the romance that really help to sell it. It makes Fisk much more human than he might otherwise be.

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This attention to Wilson Fisk is undoubtedly a good thing. One of the bigger problems with the Marvel films is that the villains tend to be rather one-note. The more complex and nuanced characters like Magneto and Doom have been sold off to other studios, leaving the company with a fairly middling assortment of adversaries. It is perhaps telling that both Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier had to dig fairly deeply into the history of their characters to find foes that could be used.

So far, the most successful Marvel movie villain has been Loki – the troublesome half-brother of Thor who was memorably brought to life as Tom Hiddleston. Hiddleston is great in the role, and the character’s dramatic arc makes a reasonable amount of sense; it is no surprise that he has played a major role in three of the big budget franchise films. At the same time, Loki’s characterisation feels a bit all over the map; it is hard to reconcile the manipulative schemer of Thor with the front-line general from The Avengers or the reluctant side-kick of Thor: The Dark World.

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Fisk has the luxury of a clear character arc across ten episodes of television, a superb actor, and some tight plotting. While the climax of Daredevil might strain a little bit to force Matt and Fisk into physical confrontation with one another, Fisk remains a consistent and well-formed character. He is perhaps the best-realised villain of the shared Marvel cinematic universe, and rivaled only by Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto if the category is broadened to include all Marvel film and television properties.

In the Blood continues a lot of set-up and arc-building, stalling Matt’s plot so that Fisk has an opportunity to catch up. Unfortunately, In the Blood chooses the clumsiest possible way to do this, relegating Claire to a “damsel in distress” plot so Matt has something to do during Fisk’s dinner date. A couple of the earlier episodes of Daredevil struggle with this fine balance; it feels like watching horses line up a little bit before the race actually starts. Nevertheless, it is an interesting episode that does a lot of things that the show does well, although it showcases some of the things it does not-so-well.

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

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