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Daredevil – World on Fire (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.

Having paused to catch its breath – and properly introduce the character of Wilson Fisk – World on Fire and Condemned restore the season’s sense of forward moment. The clutter of the Russian mob is tidied away, allowing the series to throw Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk into proper conflict with one another. It is no coincidence that Matt and Fisk first talk to one another in Condemned, the episode that brushes aside the last remnants of the Russian mob. World on Fire is largely about setting up all that, serving as a bridge from In the Blood into Condemned.

It is a testament to all involved that it works as well as it does. Charlie Cox is fantastic as a conflicted Matthew Murdock, Rosario Dawson does great work as Claire Temple. Once again, Deborah Ann Woll and Elden Henson are trapped in a somewhat generic subplot that exists to explain why Hell’s Kitchen might be worth saving in its current state. Vincent D’Onofrio and Ayelet Zurer continue to have an endearing chemistry, portraying a fairly convincing love story about power and justification – the show never seems confused about what Wilson Fisk and Vanessa Marianna see in one another.

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All the formal elements continue to work very well. The writing staff do an excellent job mirroring Matt and Claire with Vanessa and Fisk; one couple separated by the anger and drive of the protagonist, another intoxicated by those same qualities in the antagonist. Although it is easy to take the show’s camera and stunt work for granted after the climax of Cut Man, there is an impressive long shot in the middle of the episode that is executed beautifully as Matt intercepts a drug delivery to the Russians.

At the same time, there is something a little bit forced about the plotting and structure of World on Fire, which is largely a result of its transitional state. The first season often felt like it was spinning its wheels as it set Matt against the Russians – neither Anatoly nor Vladimir felt like fully-formed or fleshed out characters, in spite of the teaser to In the Blood. As a result, a lot of World on Fire feels like necessary housekeeping before the show can really get down to business.

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Nevertheless, there is a lot of interesting material in World on Fire. It is, interestingly enough, the first time that the show actually delves into how Matt “sees” the world around him. Daredevil deserves a lot of credit for managing to convey a lot of information with a minimal amount of exposition, with the show skilfully conveying how Matt knows Karen is telling the truth (by listening to her pulse) in Into the Ring and how Matt follows Wesley (by listening for his expensive and distinctive watch) in Rabbit in a Snowstorm.

For all that Daredevil has been effective in conveying how Matt engages with the world around him, the show is also relatively conservative. The series tends to focus on Matt’s ear and amp up the ambient sound (while applying a visual blur) so as to convey what Matt is seeing. However, World on Fire is the first time that Matt has really gone into depth about how his senses actually work. He can smell blood in the air; he can hear a hairline fracture. We are even invited to enjoy a brief glimpse of how Matt actually sees Claire.

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It is interesting to wonder why the season was not more adventurous when it came to conveying Matt’s hyper-active senses. It seems quite likely that the budgetary constraints of television prevented the show from offering overly elaborate visualisations of Matt Murdock’s “radar” and other gifts. It may also have been an attempt to distance the show from the 2003 adaptation starring Ben Affleck. Whatever the reason, Matt’s “vision” remains relatively under-developed over the course of the show.

In a way, this feels like something of a shame. Matt Murdock’s radar senses offer all manner of interesting visual storytelling opportunities; some of the various interpretations of Matt’s understanding of the world would make for striking television imagery – imagine the challenge (and fun) of attempting to realise the artwork of Paolo Rivera or Bill Sienkiewicz in something approximating live action. That said, it would understandable detract (or even distract) from the grounded feel of the show around it.

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Still, the visual is striking – all the more effective for pushing it back to the fifth episode of the series. The idea that Matt sees the world as constantly aflame is a nice touch, one which captures a lot of the mood of the show and which foreshadows the climax of the episode. While the fire imagery could easily seem a little heavy-handed for character with “devil” in his codename, and who was introduced explaining that he has the devil inside him, Cox sells the moment very well. It offers a nice insight into Matt Murdock as a character – a Catholic trapped in perpetual hell.

It is interesting how Daredevil turns Matt’s blindness into a recurring thematic element. The show teases the idea that Vanessa allows herself to be blind to her husband’s more aggressive tendencies – she might condone his murder of the Russian mob from a distance at the end of World on Fire, but it seems unlikely she would responded the same way to the hands-on murder of Anatoly at the end of In the Blood. Gao’s followers are literally blindly devoted to her mysterious cause, as she boasts to Matt later in the season.

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The show repeatedly suggests that it is possible to understand complex realities without literally seeing them. In Rabbit in a Snowstorm, Ben Urich boasts that he is shrewd enough to recognise a pattern, even without material proof. In Stick, Leland Owlsley explains that he can read reality from numbers inside a balance sheet. Arguably, this extends as much to the audience as well. Over the course of the show, the viewer is invited to “read” a lot into characters like Nobu or Gao, to intuit a mystical connection with a minimal amount of actual proof to identify the Hand without use of the name.

One of the more interesting aspects of the first season of Daredevil is the tight internal continuity. While the show is quite firmly divorced from the world of The Avengers, barring the use of the Chitauri invasion as a springboard for Wilson Fisk’s evil plans, Daredevil fits together quite neatly. There are all manner of shout-outs and callbacks positioned throughout the series, setting up and paying off lines of dialogue or even distinctive images across the thirteen-episode run. It is constructed meticulously and carefully.

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To be fair, each of the thirteen episodes stands on its own. Each episode has a clear plot and function, building to its own climax and populated with its own themes and motifs. It might fit together to form one gigantic thirteen-hour origin story, but Daredevil is much more episodic than other Netflix series like House of Cards or Bloodlines. World on Fire and Condemned may feed and flow into one another, as In the Blood feeds and flows into World on Fire, but each is a distinct unit of narrative. At the same time, there are lots of wonderful little threads pulling backwards and forwards.

Just to pick some random examples from within World on Fire itself: Foggy’s reference to “Punjabi” will be explored and explained in Nelson v. Murdock, Wilson Fisk’s distinctive cufflinks are given an origin in Shadows in the Glass, Fisk’s promise to Vanessa becomes bitterly ironic in light of their later arc, the electrician from In the Blood is referenced here. Even Leland Owlsley’s stun gun becomes a recurring element – seeing use in both Stick and Daredevil. There is a lot of care and attention here; it is clear that production staff have put a lot of thought into this world and its inhabitants.

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Still, some of the plotting in World on Fire feels just a little bit clumsy and cliché. One of the more interesting parts of Daredevil is the show’s heightened and exaggerated reality, but there are moments when everything feels just a little bit too contrived or convenient. Here, Foggy and Karen find themselves relegated to a subplot designed to put a human face to Wilson Fisk’s ambitions to demolish Hell’s Kitchen. Their small home-cooked meal is presented in sharp contrast to the opulence in which Fisk and Vanessa dine.

However, Elena Cardenas never gets to feel like anything approaching a real person. She is the embodiment of just about every “authentic” heartwarming urban living cliché imaginable. She lives in a busted-up apartment, but remains hopeful and optimistic about her surroundings. She refuses to give up on her neighbourhood, embodying the stereotype of “the real New York”, decent hard-working people making the most of dirty and rough environments. She actually says the line, “Aquí, we take care for another.”

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Cardenas is a very transparent storytelling tool. She is the personification of hardworking decency in Hell’s Kitchen, the literal embodiment of the virtues that Karen and Foggy explored in Cut Man. She is more of a symbol than a character – something that becomes clearer in Speak of the Devil. Cardenas serves a clear and necessary purpose in the larger arc of the show, but the execution feels clumsy and ham-fisted. There is something so cloy and manipulative in the way that the show uses the character.

The somewhat convoluted nature of Fisk’s plot against the Russians also feels a little stilted and awkward. Fisk initially frames Matt Murdock for the murder of Anatoly at the end of In the Blood, which makes the feud between Murdock and the Russian mob even more personal. It also leads to Charlie Cox’s hilarious confused-Christian-Bale-esque line delivery of “what are you talking about?” after a thug begs Matt not to take his head off. So far, the plan makes a great deal of sense, with Fisk playing two potential rivals against one another.

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However, things get quite complicated quite quickly. Around the half-way point, Turk reveals to Vladimir that Fisk murdered Anatoly; the waiter at the restaurant with Fisk and Vanessa is seen making a phone call giving the location away. Coupled with Fisk’s admission that it would be very unfortunate if the Russians discovered the truth, it is an effective way of catching the audience off-balance. Vladimir is no longer focused on “the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen”, but is now coming right at Wilson Fisk.

Of course, it is revealed that this all played perfectly into the hands of Wilson Fisk. With the assistance of Madame Gao, Fisk manages to ambush Vladimir’s forces – devastating the Russian mob with a series of suicide bombings. It turned out to be a very well-timed move, the perfect killing stroke. From a dramatic perspective, this works very well. It adds a lot of tension and anxiety, and it comes with a few sharp plot twists. More than that, allowing Fisk (rather than Matt) to dismantle the Russian mob reinforces the character’s sense of power.

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However, it makes a bit less sense internally. Revealing the location of Fisk (and Vanessa) seems a particularly risky gambit. It seems almost careless. It relies on an almost perfect understanding of the psychology (and the logistics) of the Russian mob, with very little room for error. Perhaps leaking an alleged location of the vigilante would not have forced Vladimir to concentrate all of his mob in four central locations, but it would likely have drawn enough of his top circle together to make it worthwhile – and without any risk of blow back on Fisk.

To be fair, it is very much “comic book” plotting – it fits quite comfortably with the aesthetic of the show. Indeed, World on Fire even offers a scene where Wesley carefully and articulately explains the details and motivations of this grand evil plan… to Turk, the guy you can’t trust to sell you a reliable handgun. It is a scene which looks like it might have come from a Bond film; after working so hard to remain mysterious and secretive, the villain’s primary henchman dumps a lot of exposition on an unreliable street thug because the information needs to get to the audience somehow.

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There is something almost operatic about this convoluted plotting. In a way, it demonstrates why the Russians were such an awkward fit for the show. Vladimir and Anatoly seem to have escaped from some gritty Liam Neeson action film. The tone of the show is shifting away from that, embracing its more heightened sensibilities. The Russians are too mundane and generic to really thrive in this new environment. Anatoly and Vladimir simply clutter up the board, distracting from all that lies ahead: the big morality plays, the convoluted evil schemes, and the ninja death cults.

After all, Fisk seems to stage this whole exercise as theatre for the benefit of Vanessa. He could have organised something like this for a time when they were not together, and it seems unlikely to a coincidence that he picked the ideal restaurant to watch the city burn. Vanessa accuses him of making a “grand gesture” when he books out the restaurant, but that is not the only such gesture featured. For all that Vanessa accuses him of pretending that she doesn’t know what he is, it seems quite likely that revealing himself (and his influence) to Vanessa was a big part of the plan.

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The casting on the show remains impressive, with even the supporting roles cast very well. Bob Gunton provides a rather wonderful comedic foil as white-collar criminal Leland Owlsley, the deadpan cynic of Fisk’s “Avengers of Evil.” (Or… I don’t know… “Masters of Evil.” That sounds better.) Gunton channels just the right amount of wry self-awareness into his delivery, portraying a character who complains about things like child kidnappings or decapitations as if somebody rescheduled his favourite television show.

Owlsley is perhaps the most unlikely breakout character on a show about street-level vigilantism. He is not a mobster; he is not particularly violent. Indeed, Owlsley proves to be something of a joke over the course of the season, relying on his low-powered stun gun to get him out of trouble. When he incapacitates Matt in Stick, he doesn’t bother to try to kill the masked vigilante or stuff him in the trunk; he responds like just about any sane person, climbing into his car and quickly driving away.

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The show might not turn Owlsley into an out-and-out supervillain like his comic book counterpart, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, the series makes a point to have Owlsley repeatedly mention his son – named Lee – as if to suggest that there is still time for that. However, it is also worth pointing out that the Owl is hardly a top-tier comic book villain anyway. Both Bendis and Brubaker reduced the character to something of a joke in their run, the trigger-happy failure of “the man who would be Kingpin.”

In a way, the presentation of Owlsley over the first season of Daredevil rings true to that contemporary characterisation. He is fairly pathetic villain in an expensive green suit, who seems like he’s not entirely cut out for this whole “supervillain” thing. It is a portrayal of the character that works very well without making him seem like a knock-off of the countless other “Marvel universe crime boss” characters who populate the comic book universe, exemplified by Wilson Fisk.

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Still, World on Fire does feel like something of a board-clearing exercise. Over dinner, Fisk explains to Vanessa how he thinks the city is meant to work. It is not a butterfly in a cocoon; it is something that needs to be destroyed so it can be rebuilt – knocked down so that it can climb back. Not only does it play on Jack and Matt Murdock’s refusal to accept being knocked down as a defeat, it also provides a clear mission statement for the episode. Sometimes you have to bring everything down before you can truly step everything up.

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

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