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Daredevil – Stick (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.

Sitting smack bang in the middle of the season, Stick is something of an oddity.

It demonstrates just how episodic Daredevil can be in structure. Stick lets its focus move away from Matt’s conflict with Wilson Fisk, offering an episode built around a guest star and shedding some light on one of the members of Fisk’s cabal. “Ride with me tonight,” Stick urges Matt. “Help me destroy Black Sky, keep it off the streets, and I promise you this: Wilson Fisk will know the taste of fear the day he faces you ’cause he’ll know that you kicked the guy he’s afraid of right in the nuts.” Fisk is still a target here, albeit one temporarily shifted to the background.

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There are obviously ripples from Stick that reverberate through the rest of the season. Nobu’s loss here helps to mount more pressure on Fisk in Shadows in the Glass, while it leads to a very physical confrontation between Nobu and Matt in Speak of the Devil. At the same time, it remains curiously disengaged from the show around it. Despite the fact that the casting of Scott Glenn was announced with the fanfare reserved for primary cast members like Rosario Dawson or Vincent D’Onofrio, this is his only appearance in the whole thirteen-episode season.

Of course, there might very well be a reason for this. Stick is the only episode of the first season with a closing scene that hints at something far beyond the scope of this individual show – a coming “war” between mystical and magical forces. In some ways, Stick feels like it takes advantage of the episodic structure of a thirteen-episode season to relegate all the obligatory set-up and world-building for material outside the show to a single episode in the middle of the season. This is perhaps the ideal place for it, not distracting from the beginning or the end of the run.

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A lot of this feels like set-up for the Defenders project that will unite all four of the Netflix and Marvel miniseries, bringing together characters like Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Danny Rand to fight an incredible evil in much the same way that The Avengers brought together Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Hulk. Stick seems to allude to something decidedly more epic in scope than the details of this individual thirteen-episode run. It is, essentially, the second act of Iron Man 2 structured as a mid-season episode of Daredevil.

However, it all works. Stick might be divorced from the larger plot concerns of the season around it, but it never loses sight of its main characters. After a run of episodes focusing on Wilson Fisk, Stick brings the focus back to Matt Murdock. The return of Matt’s childhood mentor might be tied to some larger plot, but it also helps explain Matt’s character a bit more. Meeting Stick, we get to know a little bit more about how Matt ended up this way.

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Matthew Murdock is not a healthy man. In a way, that is the defining attribute of Matt Murdock as a comic book character, at least since Frank Miller grabbed him by the horns. Originally conceived by Stan Lee and Bill Everett as a light-hearted swashbuckler clearly modelled on Spider-Man, Daredevil has since become a character steeped in tragedy and failure. Some of those tragedies and failures are rooted in external factors; others come from a more personal place. Most of Matt’s great tragedies are rooted in some aspect of his personality.

Matt Murdock is a character who tends towards isolation and depression, traits that make his failures even more catastrophic than they might otherwise be. Brian Michael Bendis suggested that Matt’s pride made him dangerous; that the problems facing him were only exacerbated by his stubborn refusal to acknowledge them or ask for help. Both Bendis and Brubaker suggested that Matt was somewhat undermined by his arrogance; his reluctance to acknowledge the injuries he had suffered and his impatience in dealing with setbacks tended to worsen his problems.

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Frank Miller introduced this sense of tragedy into the life of Matt Murdock, revealing that the character had enjoyed a college love affair with the equally-damaged Elektra and had been trained as a weapon of war by the blind ninja Stick. Miller killed off Elektra at the height of his run, starting Murdock on a vicious downward spiral. However, Miller pushed this tendency towards darkness and failure even further when he returned to the book years later:

Daredevil himself battled a crippling depression while searching for help from a higher power, a struggle that culminated in 1986 as Miller essentially broke the character during the seminal Born Again. The story found Murdock framed for perjury by a corrupt detective, rendered homeless and left suffering with crippling paranoia and despair. And while Miller did rebuild Murdock’s life by the end of the story (hence the “Born Again” title), Murdock became one of the first major characters in comics to consistently and publicly battle his own depression in comics as his life continuously crumbled around him, and every creative team following this monumental arc viewed the book no longer as a superhero drama, but as a personal exploration of self-realization as well as a crime epic.

Later writers built on this sense of personal dysfunction and depression. Brian Michael Bendis began his run on the title by revealing Matt Murdock’s secret to the world – and dealing with the fallout from that. Matt had a nervous breakdown, declared himself the new “Kingpin of Hell’s Kitchen” and was sent to prison. Ed Brubaker began from there. Matt watched his wife go insane, before assuming leadership of the Hand, a Japanese ninja death cult.

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In many respects, Daredevil is the most broken and dysfunctional of Marvel’s major superhero characters. Even Mark Waid’s more upbeat reimagining of the character is rooted in the idea that Matt might simply be repressing all the darkness and sadness deeper inside himself – that this chipper and upbeat Matt Murdock might simple be a new form of PTSD for a long-suffering hero. Matt Murdock is a character who is almost broken by definition at this stage; it is even hard to reconcile the character’s earliest adventures with the character who exists right now.

As Steven DeKnight has acknowledged, Daredevil owes a rather heavy debt to the work of Frank Miller and Brian Bendis. As such, it is no surprise that the show has adopted their portrayal as Matt Murdock as a very flawed and damaged individual. Daredevil presents a version of Matt Murdock who stands quite apart from the reckless Tony Stark or the arrogant Thor. Charlie Cox realises a very complex and multifaceted vigilante, one whose flaws are more than merely superficial. Matt Murdock seems like a truly dysfunctional and damaged individual.

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There is an anger that drives Matt, something to which the show has repeatedly alluded. Whether is is the “devil” inside of him from Into the Ring or the visions of hellfire in World on Fire, it is quite clear that Matt Murdock is not a happy person. He may not even be a healthy person. He does, after all, spend his nights as a masked avengers beating criminals to a bloody pulp. Daredevil stresses this quite frequently, whether through his “more brutal than strictly necessary” beatdown of Turk in Into the Ring or his torture of a gangster in Cut Man.

Daredevil has repeatedly suggested that dysfunction that profound is inevitably rooted in past trauma. Horrific events tend to leave their mark. Karen serves as an effective mirror of Matt, shaped and molded by her own trauma. “Did you know she has mace on her key chain?” Foggy asks Matt about Karen. Of course she does. When Urich suggests that Karen could just let all of this go, she replies, “The only way I’ll ever feel safe again is if the people that you are talking about are put away.”

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It is worth noting that Matt carries his bruises across most of the show’s run. Punches that land in earlier episodes leave marks that are still visible later in the season. Sometimes those bruises don’t even have to be left on people. Hell’s Kitchen is still recovering from the climactic battle of The Avengers. When Matt and Stick go head-to-head at the climax of Stick, they tear apart Matt’s stylish apartment; the apartment remains trashed when Foggy visits Matt in Nelson v. Murdock. Wounds do not heal overnight. Scars do not simply go away.

Part of what is interesting about the first season of Daredevil is how it relates to the past. There are frequent flashbacks and extended memory sequences scattered across the thirteen-episode season. However, these flashbacks are neither confined to individual episodes nor woven into every episode. They are not solely a feature of the opening two episodes, nor are they a feature of every episode. They are written into the story as needed, and always at a point of intersection with a present-day narrative.

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Matt’s origin story is not simply confined to Into the Ring or Cut Man. Key moments play out in Stick and Nelson v. Murdock. We don’t get a full and comprehensive picture of where Matt is coming from until the tenth episode of a thirteen episode run. Steven DeKnight credits Drew Goddard with the idea:

I gotta tell you, hats off to Drew Goddard — that was all in there in the first two scripts. It shifted a little bit here and little bit there, a little massage, but the basic structure was decided before I came in — and again, it was one of the things that made me want to sign on to it, because I love the fact that you didn’t spend one entire episode on his origin story.

It is a very smart idea, even just from a structural perspective. Spreading the information out makes it more interesting and engaging; there’s no sense that this necessary exposition is delaying the action or excitement. We know what a superhero origin story looks like; told conventionally, it could easily be trite.

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More than that, the structure of the flashbacks means that Matt’s origin is not set entirely in stone. The first season is built around the idea that Matt’s history cannot be boiled down to a simple sequence of cause and effect. Into the Ring and Cut Man makes it seem like Matt’s anger is rooted in the death of his father; and it largely is. At the same time, Stick reveals that the death of Jack Murdock is not the only source of anger or tragedy in the life of the young Matthew Murdock. There is more to Matt’s story than what we saw in the first two episodes.

In a way, this reflects the structure of comic books. After all, comic book writers are constantly tweaking and amending history and back story concerning these iconic characters. Even writers who work relatively close together are prone to tweak details of the character’s past to suit their own story – Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker opted to work from slightly different versions of Matt’s origin during their runs, for example. Elektra and Stick were not part of Matt’s history until Frank Miller created them, at which point they were slotted into Matt’s early history.

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The structure of Daredevil‘s first season evokes this model of comic book storytelling, to the point that Stick’s absence from Matt’s history in Into the Ring or Cut Man does not feel particularly jarring. Matt must have learned his martial arts somewhere, but it didn’t have to be a blind sensei caught up in an ancient war between good and evil. It is a clever bit of storytelling that teases the audience, inviting them to wonder what other key part of Matt’s history might be missing. It makes Matt seem a bit more mysterious, making his origin seem a little more nuanced or complicated.

It also opens up all manner of storytelling opportunities for the creative team working on the show. The first season of Daredevil might be an origin story, but the structure of the season suggests that there are lacunas where certain elements might be found during a hypothetical second season. Indeed, the series gestures repeatedly towards these gaps in the history. Certain pivotal characters are rendered conspicuous by their absence, with the narrative nodding towards them – as if to suggest they might slot into Matt’s history as easily as Stick.

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Even Stick itself alludes to the question of whatever happened to Matt’s mother. Visiting the orphanage where Matt is growing up, Stick inquires about the fate of Matt’s other parent. “What about the mother?” he asks. “Is she dead?” The nun replies, “No, she’s… Well, that’s another story.” It certainly is, given the role that she plays in Born Again. Of course, this is not the first time that the show has alluded to the character, with Jack making a desperate phone call to her in Cut Man before entering the ring.

The show does something similar with the character of Elektra. An iconic part of the larger Daredevil mythos, the production team realise how eagerly certain segments of the audience will be expecting her to put in an appearance. Nobu teases the possibility of an appearance in Speak of the Devil, but it does not come to pass. However, she is explicitly acknowledged and referenced in dialogue between Matt and Foggy during one of the flashbacks in Nelson v. Murdock. It is interesting to wonder whether any possible future experience from Elektra would use this sort of flashback style.

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It is interesting that the first season tends to downplay the female influences on Matt’s life. The show references very important female characters in Matt’s life, but it works hard to keep them off-screen. While Matt’s father figures are defined by their abandonment of Matt, the women in his life seem to simply exist as absences. For all that Foggy alludes to Matt’s romantic charms, even his girlfriends are largely absent. (Meanwhile, Foggy gets a pseudo-romance with Karen and an ex-girlfriend.) Even Claire disappears for a significant stretch towards the end of the first season.

It does provide a nice contrast between Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk. Matt tends to gravitate towards male authority figures, while Fisk is drawn to stronger women. It is telling that the only member of the syndicate of evil not to be destroyed by Fisk is Madama Gao, who also receives the most respect from Fisk. Fisk is drawn to Vanessa’s strength, while Matt seems to retreat from Claire’s passion. It is an interesting contrast between the two characters, and giving Matt another absent father figure directly exploring Wilson Fisk’s childhood is a very clever choice.

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Meeting Stick tells the audience a lot about Matt. It explains why the character can seem so withdrawn and so detached, and why there is so much anger and resentment inside of him. Stick is introduced as a surrogate father figure for a boy who desperately needs a parent. While Jack Murdock cared deeply for Matt, and wanted his son to make something better of his life, Stick is more detached and cynical, hoping to fashion Matt into a weapon in some mysterious war. It is easy to see how Matt ended up so conflicted.

Stick is decidedly ambiguous about the nature of this shadow conflict. After all, this is not something that will be explored over the course of this thirteen-episode run. It is something bigger – something akin to “the Avengers Initiative” or some other larger arc designed to pay off outside the confines of this particular narrative. The obvious implication is that this will be something that Matt might confront later whether in an admittedly speculative second season or as part of the larger Defenders ensemble.

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In an interview after the release of the season, producer Steven DeKnight confessed that he and the production team had originally planned to include the final scene of the episode at the end (or in the middle) of the credits, as has become the Marvel house style. However, the Netflix model put paid to that idea:

Originally, in episode seven, the scene with Stick and his “mysterious partner” – who most people know who it is because of the comics – we wanted that tobe post-credits. But we discovered that we ran afoul of Netflix. With Netflix, with their “automatically starting the next episode” they don’t do “post-credit” stuff. So we faded to black and it came up.

It is an interesting example of how Daredevil had to be adjusted and tweaked for its unique distribution model.Of course, the entire episode could be argued to exist as one giant teaser for plans that are purely speculative and conjectural.

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Stick repeatedly acknowledges the narrative intrusion taking place here – that some foreshadowing of a future story has interrupted the unfolding of this particular narrative. When Matt asks what kind of weapon is being smuggled into New York, Stick responds, “The kind you don’t want in your world.” Training Matt as a child, Stick observes, “You’ll need skills for the war.” When Matt inquires as to what war, Stick responds, “We’ll get to that part… when you’re ready.” Matt perhaps voices some audience concerns, observing, “That’s not an answer.”

While this sort of tease could easily become frustrating or unsatisfying – particularly when it saps narrative momentum from the main plot – Stick works surprisingly well. The larger world-building all feels like it shines a light on Matt and Stick. After all, the fact that Stick served as a surrogate father to Matt is informative. No wonder the kid ended up so frustrated and confused. Although Scott Glenn is charming and fun in the role, and Stick is very much a loveable rascal to watch, the episode is fairly unambiguous in its condemnation of his parenting skills.

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Stick’s attempts to fashion Matt into a weapon are grimly mirrored in the revelation that the “black sky” is literally a weaponised child. More than that, Stick’s willingness to murder a child in cold blood underscores the idea that Matt’s wellbeing (mental or physical) might not have always been his top priority. Stick is a father figure who was primarily concerned with the idea that Matt might be a tool who could be of use in a larger scheme. He encouraged Matt to cut people out of his life, and reinforced Matt’s victim and martyr complexes.

When Matt refuses to disengage from his friends, Stick warns him, “Then they will suffer and you will die.” That attitude is hardly going to encourage the healthy development of a young boy who already blames himself for the loss of his father. It is quite similar to Alfred’s misguided attempts to get Bruce to channel his guilt into anger towards criminals at the start of Batman Begins. Of course, Alfred was legitimately trying to do what was best for the young child in his care; Stick has his own agenda.

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Once again, patterns of trauma and abuse repeated themselves. “Now, get up,” Stick informs his young pupil at one point. “Time to stop taking a beating and start giving one.” These are words that undoubtedly stayed with Matt, arguably informing his decision to become more than just another victim. It is arguably the same impulse that drives Wilson Fisk. However, things never really change. Stick cleverly suggests that Stick will always abandon Matt; it juxtaposes his abandonment of the young child against his sudden disappearance at the docks.

Still, it is interesting how firmly episodic Stick is. Much has been made of the idea that the first season of Daredevil is a single cohesive story; and it is. The first season is carefully structured and plotted, meticulously planned and crafted. Reveals are properly set up and paid off, irony is ever-present. At the same time, Stick is an episode that feels quite removed from the hustle and bustle of the main narrative arc of the season. It is perhaps the most expendable episode of the entire season; while it still ties into the arc, it is the most immediately disposable.

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There is an argument to be made that Daredevil is the first properly episodic hour-long drama produced by Netflix. Forbes argued that the formal elements of Daredevil distinguished it from other Netflix productions:

Just as the series opens up Netflix to more pulpy, less Emmy seeking programming, it also opens up the company to more “traditional” shows. In recent years, it’s felt like Netflix was only interested in forcing its creators to make programs that had to be binged. They had to be consumed in the short time-frame of 1-3 days. Unfortunately, what this format doesn’t allow for is Netflix’s take on a medical series, police procedural or court room drama – genres that are, without question, the most successful when it comes to small screen longevity. Daredevil changes that unwritten mandate, regardless of whether or not it was the intention of the series to do so.

It is an interesting structural argument to be made, with Daredevil frequently walking a fine line between serialised and episodic storytelling. Each of the individual episodes are self-contained, but build to a great whole.

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Indeed, there is an added irony that Stick might be tied into an even larger arc than the show around it  – that it might sit quite apart from Condemned or Shadows in the Glass, but will be much more relevant to the larger arc of the various other miniseries produced by Marvel and Netflix. It is an interesting demonstration of just how far televisual storytelling has evolved in the past decade, and just how much the nature of a television show is affected by its method of release.

Of course, the structure of the first season of Daredevil also harks back to its source material. Many classic comic books skirted the line between individual stories and larger arcs formed by linking them together. Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil was the culmination of various narrative threads seeded through a number of different story arcs. Each of the individual stories could be read on their own terms, but they added up to a much greater whole. The fight between Elektra and Bullseye in Last Hand was the culmination of a year’s worth of storytelling.

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As such, it often seems like Daredevil has not only managed to capture the tone of its inspiration, but has also figured out how to emulate comic book storytelling on the small screen. Stick plays almost like a standalone issue between two six-part epics (perfect size for a trade!), a “breather” episode that allows room for character work and to set up ideas and themes that will resonate beyond even the thirteen instalments of the first season. That is no small accomplishment, and credit is due to Steven DeKnight and his production team for their skill in realising that vision.

Stick is also the episode that really cements the associations between the first season of Daredevil and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. The big action centrepiece of Stick unfolds at the docks, bringing to mind both Matt’s debut in Into the Ring and Batman’s arrival in Batman Begins. More than that, an old mentor of the lead vigilante shows up related to a plot by a cult of ninjas to smuggle a deadly super-weapon into the city via the docks – exploiting the city’s corruption as part of a much larger evil plan.

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Daredevil is smart enough to lean into its influences. The show is never ashamed that it is literate television – that it is fond of television shows like The Wire or Breaking Bad or even Hannibal. Daredevil is quite candid about its affection for the larger Batman mythos in general and Batman Begins in particular, with Claire making jokes about Matt being a “billionaire playboy” in his secret identity early in World on Fire and Foggy explicitly comparing Matt to a bat in Shadows in the Glass.

After all, thanks to the defining work of Frank Miller, Daredevil and Batman are practically cousins – two properties linked by the work of one iconic comic book creator. Miller’s work has shaped and informed both characters, meaning that Matt Murdock probably has more in common with Bruce Wayne than Peter Parker. Given that Batman Begins is very much the gold standard of superhero origin films, it makes sense for Daredevil to borrow a few cues from that film. Nolan will readily acknowledge his own cinematic influences from Blade Runner to The Blues Brothers.

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Speaking of ninja cults, Stick is the first episode to really suggest that Nobu might be involved with the Hand. Although the name of “the Hand” is never explicitly mentioned, it is telling that Stick is introduced chopping off just such a limb. When Nobu goes into combat against Matt in Speak of the Devil, he is wearing a uniform that consciously evokes the distinctive look and feel of that iconic ninja cult. It is a deliciously pulpy element to inject into what has been a relatively grounded urban crime story, and Stick really opens up a whole new pulpy side to Daredevil.

After six episodes fighting mobsters and drug smugglers and human traffickers, Matt finds himself confronted with something genuinely ethereal and otherworldly. Daredevil very shrewdly avoids revealing too much about characters like Nobu and Gao. The first season hints and gestures in mystical directions without getting too bogged down in tangential continuity or mumbo jumbo. Maybe Gao is tied to the Steel Serpent from the Immortal Iron Fist mythos. Maybe Nobu is fronting for the Hand. There is enough going on that Daredevil is in no rush to confirm or deny.

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Stick is a fascinating and decidedly pulpy piece of work – one that plays to the strengths of Daredevil as a television show.

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