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Daredevil – Speak of the Devil (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 an interesting inherent contradiction baked in Daredevil, perhaps mirroring the conflicts within the show’s title character.

In many respects, Daredevil is utterly unlike anything else produced by Marvel Studios. It stands quite firmly apart from the studio’s style in projects like The Avengers or Thor or Guardians of the Galaxy or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The show is a lot more cynical and grounded. It is a lot more violent and gritty than anything else that the company has produced as part of their shared on-screen universe. It looks and feels quite distinct from the rest of the company’s output. It has a style and mood all of its own.

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However, for all that darkness and brooding, Daredevil is arguably the most familiar and traditional of superhero narratives produced by Marvel Studios. Matt Murdock might be more violent and brutal than any other major character in this shared universe, but he is also the most typical superhero. He is the only hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to have a proper secret identity. He is also the only hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to have a firm “no kill” rule.

This creates an absolutely fascinating conflict within the structure of the show, as Daredevil manages the wonderful task of being both the most typical and the most atypical of the Marvel Studio productions.

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Speak of the Devil brings Matt’s conscience to the fore. The series has been teasing the question of how Matt Murdock will deal with Wilson Fisk for quite some time. The series has broached the topic of murdering Wilson Fisk at least once-per-episode since Vladimir insisted on the necessity in Condemned. Stick accused Matt of “half-measures” when he refused to compromise in Stick. Ben Urich wondered whether Matt’s threats had an “air of finality” about them in Shadows in the Glass.

It is not a subtle approach, but it works. The “no-kill rule” is an interesting part of the superhero mythos. It exists almost as Schrödinger’s morality. If the rule is ever mentioned or discussed, it seems inevitable that it will be validated and approved. No comic book hero has discussed and dismissed the rule. On the other hand, if the rule is not broached or articulated, it does not seem to apply at all. Heroes can kill as much as they want, as long as they do not allow themselves to meditate on the morality of their actions.

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Many fans consider the “no-kill rule” to be an essential feature of modern iterations of Batman. However, Tim Burton never really bothered with that particular part of the character. In both Batman and Batman Returns, the lead character seemed quite indifferent to the characters who were brutally killed in his quest fo justice. At one point, Batman straps a bomb to a henchman and throws him down a hole so that he can explode. After all, audiences are not meant to feel particularly sorry for that goon; he made his choices.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe can be just as trigger-happy. Tony Stark kills with impunity; Justin Hammer is the only villain who escapes those films with his life. Thor is downright brutal at points, wielding lightning and thunder against entire armies of foes; it seems like Loki endures because he is too interesting (and popular) a character to kill off. Black Widow is explicitly an assassin. Hawkeye uses arrows. Captain America is a soldier who fought in the Second World War; of course he has killed. The films tend to gloss over the human costs of Bruce Banner’s rampages.

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There is a sense that this is all perfectly acceptable because the actual issue is never brought up or discussed. Avengers: Age of Ultron includes a throwaway line about how Banner might have to face legal consequences for his actions as the Hulk, but it is quickly brushed aside. Drawing the audience’s attention to this sort of thing does nobody any favours. It is very hard to invest in the sad romantic story of Bruce Banner if the script repeatedly calls attention to the damage he has wrought.

Then again, perhaps this makes a certain amount of sense. After all, viewers don’t seem to mind when other action heroes get trigger-happy. James Bond mows down dozens of henchmen while making witty puns; John McClane could pile bodies from floor-to-ceiling. These are action movies; what is the point in having armies of anonymous extras if they can’t be mowed down during a climactic action sequence? After all, why should superheroes be constrained by rules that don’t seem to apply to other protagonists?

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The answers are largely historical in nature. The idea that superheroes do not kill is something that developed over time. Early Golden Age Batman and Superman stories would feature those characters killing dozens of crooks and monsters. However, things changed when it was discovered that children were the target market for comic books. As Marco Arnaudo and Jamie Richards explain in The Myth of the Superhero:

The no-kill rule seems to become established in the fifties, in part a consequence of the Comics Code, instituted in 1954, which limited the representation of violence in comics. Thereafter, superhero stories such as those of Batman and Superman were obliged to take on a more fantastic-comic tone, as pure entertainment, with the consequent disappearance of macabre themes. Starting in the late sixties, the no-kill policy became an even more serious issue, going from a restriction to an openly represented and debated topic, as it is today for the vast majority of Marvel and DC heroes (with the relatively rare exception of psychopathic characters like the Punisher, who freely kills his enemies and who is therefore disdained by true superheroes, or of characters whose moral compass has been damaged by various types of influence, such as brainwashing, indoctrination, mental control, demonic possession, genetic manipulation, and other such events). At most, in the array of possible battle situations, for superheroes only the killing of wild animals or nonhuman monsters (for example, Wonder Woman decapitating Medusa) is acceptable, and even then only if absolutely necessary. There is even a story in which Captain America finds himself in mortal combat with Blood Baron, a Nazi vampire (!), and although the enemy is twisted and technically already dead, the decision to kill him weighs on Captain America and leaves the superhero profoundly bitter. His only comment: “it is a victory, to be sure… but it is not a clean victory.”

To be fair, mainstream comic books have been pulling back from that hard-and-fast position since the eighties. Characters like the Punisher and Wolverine have become increasingly popular since those days. While it seems unlikely that characters like Batman or Spider-Man will renounce their “no-kill” rules, writers seem to be more accepting of characters like Captain America or Thor taking the lives of their enemies.

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Still, Daredevil works very hard to explore this facet of superhero conduct and philosophy. The sheer brutality on display over the thirteen-episode run makes it clear that Matt Murdock’s reluctance to kill is not rooted in any corporate aversion to violence. Indeed, the fact that Daredevil is so very blood and so very violent makes its decision to have its protagonist adhere to the “no-kill” rule all the more fascinating. If Thor and Captain America can kill in sanitised PG-13 surroundings, Matt Murdock’s reluctance to do the same in this grittier world carries a lot of weight.

Daredevil manages to find something interesting in what is a fairly stock superhero conflict. After all, it seems highly unlikely that Matt Murdock will ever murder Wilson Fisk in a cold and calculated fashion, and the show is smart enough to realise that the big conflict is not whether Matt will actually follow through on his plan. It would be a very short show if Matt decided that he was willing to murder Wilson Fisk with his own hands, and would mean that a lot of the plotting going on around Matt would come to nothing.

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Speak of the Devil suggests that the big conflict is not over whether Matt will murder his opponent; instead, the episode suggests that the big conflict is over whether Matt wants to murder his opponent. As Father Lantom muses at one point, “So the question you have to ask yourself is… are you struggling with the fact that you don’t wanna kill this man… but have to? Or that you don’t have to kill him… but want to?” It is perhaps a little heavy-handed, like a lot of the dialogue in Speak of the Devil and Daredevil in general, but it works.

The series has made a point to suggest that Matt is not entirely stable. He is not a healthy individual. Like many superhero characters, Matt is haunted by his own unique strain of “daddy issues.” In becoming the man who his father wanted him to be, Matt buried all his anger and violence deep inside. Over the years, that internal tension came to a boil. It seems ready to explode. The teaser of Into the Ring closed with Matt brutally laying into Turk on the docks, violently beating a suspect who was already down and out. In Cut Man, he put a goon in a coma.

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There is a reason that Matt associates his own violent impulses with a “devil.” The beauty of Catholicism is that it lends itself to all sorts of wonderful symbolism. Again, this is a legacy of writer and artist Frank Miller. In The Men Without Fear, Miller very simply explained his vision of Matt:

I got this character who… even the most generous people would call him a “grade B character.” He was the poor man’s Spider-Man, and everybody knew that. But I kinda saw this guy as being something much cooler.  Matt’s been the guy I punish for all my… mistakes and sins. Because he really is… he is a flawed hero. He is a man who intends to do good, and causes much damage. Matt should have been a villain. He had a horrible childhood, his romantic life is the worst. Sure, the girls look great – but they ended up dead or killing him or something. But somehow this guy redeems himself and moves ahead.

This has become a defining attribute of Matt Murdock as a character, to the point where most modern readers would balk at the idea of Daredevil as “the poor man’s Spider-Man.” Writers like Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker and Mark Waid have all built on this vision of the character.

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Charlie Cox does really great work at bringing Matt Murdock to life. There is a sense of this incredible internal life to everything that he does. Cox really sells the idea of a character who is constantly angry at the world around him, but who has simply learned to mask that anger with a smile and a pleasant chuckle. In particular, the sequence with Matt at the gallery with Vanessa works very well – in spite of some more heavy-handed dialogue. It is easy to take the skills of the cast for granted on the show, with Cox almost effortlessly slipping into the skin of Matt Murdock.

It is the performances that really anchor Speak of the Devil. The scripting for Daredevil is decidedly pulpy. This is not a bad thing of itself; both Stick and Shadows in the Glass work so well precisely because they are unapologetically pulpy. If you are telling a superhero story, it makes sense to work on a level of heightened drama and reality. At its best, Daredevil embraces this sense of opera and theatre, amplifying the drama so that everything seems larger than life.

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Still, Speak of the Devil is an episode that is driven largely by philosophy and dialogue. It is telling that the show divides the brawl between Matt and Nobu across the run of the episode; it helps to keep things pacy as characters ruminate and reflect on the human condition. It is a credit to the cast assembled that all this naval-gazing works as well as it does; that Speak of the Devil doesn’t collapse into series of increasingly abstract monologues about the human condition. At the same time, there are points when the script seems to go a little too far.

When Matt tours the gallery with Vanessa, they pause in front of a red painting. “Imagine a sea of tonal reds,” she explains. “The color of anger… of rage… but also the color of the heart… of love… hope. This strikes the perfect balance between the two.” It is a particularly heavy bit of foreshadowing, an attempt to explain how red is really the perfect colour for Matt to wear. Of course, the fact that Matt has externalised his violent impulses into a “devil” would suggest that red is probably the right colour for his final outfit, so Speak of the Devil feels like it over-explains.

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Then again, all is forgiven with the casual and easy banter between Charlie Cox and Ayelet Zurer. His school boy giggle and their playful flirtation is incredibly endearing. “I’m not trying to impress the pizza boy,” Matt confesses to Vanessa at one point. It is a line that sounds corny on paper, but which Cox delivers with the perfect amount of wry self-awareness. The whole sequence could easily become clunky or awkward, but Cox and Zurer carry it off with a great deal of skill and class.

Speak of the Devil finally has Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk come into physical contact with one another. They meet in person at the art gallery, both pretending to be simple and ordinary men. Fisk’s patter is so well rehearsed that Vanessa has to remind him that he is talking to another human being. “Wilson, Mister Murdock is a customer, not a donor.” At the end of the episode, the two characters confront each other in their more iconic roles, as the mob boss finally confronts the masked vigilante.

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This interaction is all the more effective because Daredevil has kept the two characters largely separate to this point. Their only direct interaction was over a radio in Condemned, three episodes earlier. It is a nice advantage of this sort of storytelling structure, allowing the anticipation to build and build in a way that simply is not possible on film. The confrontation feels all the more dramatic because it has been inevitable; this has been coming since Into the Ring. Delaying that encounter makes it more and more exciting.

It also works because it allows Fisk to beat his adversary. It reinforces the idea that Matt might not be able to win this fight in a clean or honourable fashion. It escalates the stakes in a very dramatic fashion. It allows Matt to rationalise any plot to kill Wilson Fisk. One of the cleverer aspects of the first season of Daredevil is the way that the show very carefully and methodically closes off all the avenues open to Matt in his fight. It limits his options, constantly whittling them down – it is a nice way of making the murder of Wilson Fisk seem more palatable.

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That said, Speak of the Devil is a little clumsy in how it gets to that closing fight sequence. Elena Cardenas was introduced in World on Fire as a very one-dimensional character – the nice old lady trying desperately to keep her home as rich men try to force her out. Speak of the Devil doubles down on that portrayal, casting Elena Cardenas as the nice old woman who is killed by Fisk in order to prompt Matt to action. It is surprising that Speak of the Devil doesn’t reveal that Cardenas had a puppy, so Fisk can revel in bunting it off the roof.

It is very much stock superhero plotting – the idea that the hero’s empathy makes him weak, and that he can be targetted through his loved ones. Speak of the Devil does at least try to put an interesting twist on this, contrasting Matt’s encounter with Vanessa to Fisk’s murder of Cardenas. Matt’s visit with Vanessa seems to remind him of their humanity and to temper his desire to kill Fisk. In contrast, Fisk uses Cardenas as emotional leverage on Matt, bait to lure Matt into a trap.

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A trap with ninjas. It is really great to see Daredevil embracing its comic book roots. The show strains rather hard to avoid the name “Daredevil” and the iconic red costume until the closing minutes of the season finalé. As such, the implication that Nobu works for what just might be a secret cult of undead ninja assassins provides a nice segue into the more goofy and pulpy second half of the season. Matt’s fight with Nobu sets the stage for later sequences like Melvin Potter throwing buzz saw blades at Matt or the heavily implied mysticism around Madame Gao.

The red costume all but confirms that Nobu is a member of “the Hand”, the group of Japanese ninja created by Frank Miller during his run on Daredevil. The Hand has become a pretty big part of the Marvel Universe, with Chris Clarement and Frank Miller writing them into the back story of Wolverine. Brian Michael Bendis coopted them into his New Avengers run. When Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird created “the Foot Clan” for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it was an homage to the Hand. (It was not the only homage to Daredevil in the Turtle canon.)

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Speak of the Devil never explicit identifies Nobu as a member (or associate) of “the Hand.” However, it does make the references quite clear for any fan of the source material. After all, Miller introduced “the Hand” as trapped in an extended conflict with Stick; suggesting that Daredevil and Elektra were part of some unseen and unspoken war similar to that alluded to in Stick. In fact, the script for Speak of the Devil is quite cheeky. The episode teases viewers with the possibility that Elektra might show up.

When Fisk observes that the vigilante has proven quite difficult to handle, he proposed that Nobu help him to deal with this troublemaker. “We must match him in kind,” Fisk suggests. “A specialist, perhaps, from your organization.” Nobu responds, with a wry smile on his face, “I know of one with such skills.” It seems like obvious set-up for the arrival of the assassin Elektra – the love of Matt’s live and perhaps the most iconic creation (rather than reinvention) of Miller’s entire run on Daredevil.

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Naturally, it is just a tease – like Foggy’s reference to the “Greek girl” in Nelson v. Murdock. It is a very sly and self-aware piece of writing, one designed to play off viewers expectations. Thanks to the Ben Affleck movie and the Jennifer Garner spin-off, Elektra is perhaps the only part of the extended Daredevil mythos with which the average viewer will be familiar. Given her importance to the canon, it seems highly likely that any viewer even casually familiar with the source material was expecting a cameo.

Still, even without explicitly referencing the Hand and even without featuring Elektra, Speak of the Devil includes quite a few well-placed and subtle nods towards Frank Miller’s Daredevil run. Most notably, the sequence where Fisk lays into Matt is shot in a way that evokes Fisk’s murder of Lynch at the end of Gangwar – the story in which Frank Miller introduced readers to his new-and-improved version of the Kingpin. The idea of Matt dumping himself into the bay and Fisk’s subsequent failed attempts to find a body recall a particularly memorable Miller cliffhanger.

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Of course, Matt’s reluctance to kill is not the only detail of Daredevil that helps to identify it as a more traditional superhero narrative than its style and mood might suggest. Matt Murdock is really the only superhero in the shared Marvel Cinematic Universe to have a secret identity. Tony Stark proudly declared “I am Iron Man” at the end of Iron Man. Everybody knows that Steve Rogers is Captain America and that Bruce Banner is the Hulk. Thor’s alias as Donald Blake is treated as a sly in-joke in Thor. Black Widow and Hawkeye are government agents.

As such, Matt is the only major character in this shared world with the traditional divide between a personal life and a superhero alter ego. Indeed, the first season of Daredevil has had a bit of fun with this idea. Matt is reluctant to trust Claire with his real name in Cut Man, adopting the persona of Mike – a nice reference to the douchy hipster persona that Matt would adopt in the Silver Age, claiming to be his own identical twin brother. As Claire and Karen have discovered, it is not a good idea to let bad people know your real name.

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At the same time, the first season of Daredevil suggests that Matt is really terrible at protecting his secret identity. Later, Matt reveals his true identity to Claire as a gesture of trust. Speak of the Devil suggests that Matt cannot keep his nocturnal activities a secret forever. At the end of the episode, Foggy finds Matt collapsed in his vigilante outfit inside the apartment, peeling back the mask on a wanted fugitive to reveal the face of his business partner and college friend. Foggy is not the only one to uncover Matt’s secret.

Over the course of Speak of the Devil, it becomes increasingly obvious that Father Lantom knows who Matt is and what he is doing. Matt seems surprised that Father Lantom knows his name. “Wasn’t that hard to find out,” Lantom explains. “People still remember “Battlin’ Jack” Murdock around these parts… and what happened to his son.” This is explicitly confirmed in dialogue between the pair in The Path of the Righteous. Although Father Lantom repeatedly stresses the protection of the seal of the confessional, Matt is undeniably sloppy with his identity.

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It is interesting to wonder where Daredevil might take the issue of Matt’s secret identity, given that so many stories have been built on the idea that it would be impossible to maintain that sort of separation in the twenty-first century. It seems like Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli‘s Born Again looms large over the show, just as it casts a long shadow over ever Daredevil comic published since. As such, it is interesting that Karen Page ends the first season as one of the relatively few major characters unaware of Matt Murdock’s secret identity.

Speak of the Devil sees the show gearing up for its final act, getting ready for what is to come. It also suggests that Daredevil might have managed the rare task of being both the most unique and the most traditional of Marvel Studios’ comic book adaptations.

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2 Responses

  1. I was surprised that the series glossed over the fact that Matt apparently broke his no-kill rule with Nobu. True, he set out determined to kill Fisk, and Nobu isn’t actually killed dead. As well, Matt’s injuries and Foggy’s discovery of his identity show us the heavy consequences of his choice to kill. All the same, I felt there should have been some acknowledgement of the fact. In Matt’s mind, he broke the rule. Does that haunt him? Maybe, but we’re never implicitly shown. Is he now free to kill others? (In for a penny . . .) Must he now do penance, find some way to be forgiven? renounce violence?

    Does he not actually care that much?

    For all the focus the series puts on his no-kill rule, it feels very strange that they gloss over his seemingly careless drop-to-a-coma (could easily have killed) and the apparent killing of Nobu. You mentioned the coma incident, but not Nobu. Any thoughts?

    (I still thoroughly enjoyed the series!)

    I was linked to your Star Trek: DS9 Way of the Warrior review, and have been working my way through the previous reviews since. And now your Daredevil reviews, and Batman vs. Superman, and I’ll likely keep reading your reviews of anything I’ve seen! I appreciate that you discuss the real-world context of production/writing and social/political situations at the time of creation. The detail you put in your reviews is excellent! I’m glad you review things based on what they are, rather than what they aren’t, and identify references/homages and similarities to other media. You consistently help me pay attention to aspects of media that I didn’t think about before – that’s really helpful, as an aspiring writer.

    In short: Thanks for writing great reviews! I’ve only just run into something to comment about, but this one comment represents a whole bunch of appreciation for dozens of other read reviews.

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