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Daredevil – Nelson v. Murdock (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.

Franklin P. “Foggy” Nelson is perhaps the most constant fixture of Matt Murdock’s personal life.

The lawyer was created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett for the first issue of the comic, published in April 1964. It seems like Foggy has always been there for Matt in one form or another. “Nelson and Murdock” is the heart of Matt Murdock’s life as a lawyer, and so Foggy is generally around to deal with the fallout from whatever crisis has engulfed Matt’s life from one moment to the next. However, Foggy is notable because he is really the only member of the Daredevil cast who can be described as a “regular” character since the book’s inception.

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Despite the fact that Stan Lee and Bill Everett were clearly inspired by The Amazing Spider-Man, Daredevil never developed an ensemble with quite the same depth and breadth. While casual comic book fans can list off dozens of Peter Parker’s friends and colleagues from the earliest years, Matt Murdock has always had a rougher time building up a steady and reliable supporting cast. Part of this is undoubtedly down to the book’s difficulty finding its own identity. Characters came and went as the creative team tried new directions.

Through all of that, Foggy stuck around.

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Of course, Foggy’s characterisation changed dramatically over the years. Even in the early days of the comics, it took a while to figure out how to characterise Foggy. This is most notable in the early issues of the comic, where artists like Joe Orlando and Wally Wood made an effort to present Foggy as a very disciplined and tidy individual – in contrast to the free-spirited and swashbuckling characterisation of Matt Murdock in those early issues. in those early adventures, Matt was the charming and witty member of the partnership.

It wasn’t until Gene Colan took over the art twenty issues into the run of the book that Marvel settled on a consistent look and feel for Foggy. Since that point, Foggy has generally conformed to a basic outline. He is clumsy and well-meaning. As the comic wandered into darker territory, Matt became more introverted and isolated. In contrast, Foggy was treated as the comic relief. Foggy was the character who could provide the cheap laughs and silly gags while Matt was dealing with the death of his love and an age-old war with a cult of undead ninjas.

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More recently, Foggy’s characterisation has tended towards the more grounded and reasonable. Foggy is frequently presented by writers like Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker as Matt’s connection to the ordinary world. As Matt’s life tends to fall apart around him, it seems to be Foggy who keeps things ticking over and tries to give Matt some perspective on just how crazy everything has become. The current incarnation of Foggy tends to portray the character as the one of the few sane men in an insane world. (Much like Ben Urich.)

Daredevil has tended to mix and match these various portrayals of Foggy over the course of its thirteen episodes. There are faint traces of the Stan Lee and Bill Everett version to be found in the very faint teases of a romantic triangle between Matt, Foggy and Karen in episodes like World on Fire. Indeed, when Karen made a romantic move on Foggy by asking Foggy to touch her in the way that Matt would touch her, it perfectly encapsulates the insane creepiness of every Marvel Silver Age romantic triangle ever.

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However, the show has tended to draw quite frequently from the idea of Foggy as the show’s comic relief. Foggy is the character who always has a punchline to drop into the conversation, who always has an insane idea, who sings Gilbert and Sullivan to himself in his office. This leads to perhaps the biggest issue with casting on Daredevil. Elden Henson is not great at comic relief. He tends to over-play his dialogue, working too hard to sell lines that just aren’t funny. It is hard to take Foggy seriously as a character when Henson plays him as a cartoon.

To be fair, this is as much a problem with the material as it is with the performance. As with Karen, the show seems to struggle with Foggy’s larger narrative arc. It is no wonder that Karen and Foggy are frequently relegated to wheel-spinning subplots that tend to just distract from the more engaging elements of a given episode. Stories like World on Fire or Stick would be a lot stronger if the series didn’t feel obligated to cut back to whatever Foggy and Karen are doing at any given moment.

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This is more of a problem for Foggy than it is for Karen. Karen has an arc with a very clear trajectory. Karen was introduced as a victim in Into the Ring, and spends most of the rest of the run refusing attempts to deny or downplay her victimhood. In contrast, Foggy spends most of the run as a bumbling happy-go-lucky lawyer who gets involved with shenanigans with an ex-girlfriend who Karen describes as “the meat-grinder in the pencil skirt.” There is a sense that Daredevil would be stronger if it were willing to settle for a bit less Foggy.

In his defense, Henson actually does quite a good job when the show engages with the idea of Foggy as a character rather than a source of amusement. His quiet disappointment with Matt in Rabbit in a Snowstorm is palpable. There are hints and indications that Foggy’s relaxed and happy-go-lucky attitude mask a more sensitive and introspective individual than he would readily admit. After all, he followed Matt to their own very small firm, sacrificing incredibly job security and material wealth so that they might have a chance to do some material good.

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Nelson v. Murdock builds on that idea, transitioning Foggy out of the role of comic relief and into the role of straight man. All of a sudden, Foggy is deadly serious. The bulk of Nelson v. Murdock is given over to an extended conversation between Matt and Foggy after the events of Speak of the Devil. Foggy is never treated as an idiot; the show never plays for cheap drama by suggesting that he is blinded by the sense of betrayal that he feels. Instead, Nelson v. Murdock allows Foggy to be right about a great many things.

For all that Foggy might joke about the lure of big cash settlements, Nelson v. Murdock reiterates the suggestion from Rabbit in a Snowstorm that Foggy might actually be the better lawyer of the pair. Not “better” in the sense that he has great technical skill, but “better” in the sense that he actually respects and acknowledges the institutions that he swore to uphold. He does feel betrayed by Matt, but a large part of that betrayal is rooted in the fact that he had always assumed Matt to be the more principled and honest of the duo. Foggy trusted Matt to be his conscience.

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After all, Foggy point out just how creepy and invasive Matt can be. The show has focused on Matt’s gifts so frequently that it is easy to take them for granted, but Foggy seems genuinely horrified by how Matt does what he claims to do. “You listened to her heartbeat without her permission? We’re lawyers! You can’t do that! There’s a system in place, and it’s weird and invasive and…” Foggy is entirely correct here. After all, look at the outrage generated by agencies of the United States government listening in on citizens (and non-citizens) without consent.

This is a very clever use of Foggy, perhaps the best use of Foggy all season. It builds upon more contemporary portrayals of the character, as Matt Murdock’s best friend who finds himself put in an impossible situation as a result of his partner’s secrets. It makes Foggy more compelling and intriguing than he has been all season, allowing the character to engage directly with the heart of the narrative. After spending so much of the season on the sidelines, Foggy finds himself close to the heart of the matter.

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Nelson v. Murdock allows Foggy to point out just how much of a hypocrite Matt has allowed himself to become. “What happened to all that talk about going after him through the system?” Foggy demands. “Making the law work for us?” Later, Foggy points out just how selfish all of this was. “You ever stop to think what would happen if you went to jail? Or worse? You really think that anyone would believe that I didn’t know what you were doing? That Karen didn’t know?” It is like he has actually read the comics that inspired the series.

As a character particularly close to Matt, Foggy gets to land some pretty stinging criticisms. It is easy enough to dismiss Fisk’s stock “we’re not so different” rhetoric from Condemned, but Foggy is a character who has known and trusted Matt for years. While he might question that insight after discovering Matt’s recreational activities, it does put him in a unique position to review and evaluate the behaviour of the man who claimed to be his best friend. Foggy gets to draw attention to Matt’s flaws in a way that feels substantial and meaningful.

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In fact, when Matt tells the story about his first night as a vigilante, Foggy is shrewd enough to spot the holes in the logic. “You say all this, like one day you’d just had it with how things are,” Foggy reiterates. “But to do what you do, you had to keep training – all those years since that Stick guy – knowing you would do something like this. Maybe it isn’t only about justice, Matt. Maybe it’s about you having an excuse to hit someone. Maybe you just can’t stop yourself.” Matt admits, “I don’t want to stop.”

One of the more interesting conflicts across the first season of Daredevil concerns the forces driving Matt. The show never questions the idea that Matt does good work. Cut Man made it quite clear that Matt is making Hell’s Kitchen safer in ways that have a meaningful impact on the lives of the inhabitants. However, the show also suggests that Matt’s motivations might not be entirely altruistic. The series repeatedly implies that Matt is channelling his own anger and frustration into his adventures, using them as an excuse to release the pent-up violence inside himself.

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It is a very nice touch, one that avoids a lot the melodrama associated with the standard anti-hero narrative. While Matt does grapple with the idea of murdering Wilson Fisk, the show shrewdly realises that this particular superhero trope is somewhat played out. In contrast, the series nods towards a more introspective and character-driven question. As Father Lantom pondered in Speak of the Devil, the question is whether or not Matt is really just looking for an excuse to commit a violent act – whether he is just feeding a monster inside himself.

This is a much more compelling and interesting question than most superhero narratives, one that recalls the best character work of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. If a character is doing the right thing for the wrong reason, does that make a difference? Can goodness ever spring from violence and rage? It is a very clever bit of characterisation, allowing for meaningful comparisons between Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk that don’t have to ignore the huge difference in their methods. Daredevil asks how different to two are at their very core.

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As with the rest of the first season, the themes echo and resonate out of the primary story. The dissolution of the partnership between Foggy and Matt mirrors the separation of Fisk and Vanessa. More than that, Matt’s manipulation of the people around him reverberates throughout the script. Karen lies to and manipulates Ben Urich in order to get her to visit the mother of Wilson Fisk, a decision that will have catastrophic consequences. Madame Gao and Leland Owlsley begin to lie to and manipulate Wilson Fisk in pursuit of their own end games.

Matt is not the only character to have his own secrets. When Urich apologises for never introducing Karen to his wife, she insists that there is no need for an apology. “You know, we all have things we hold onto for ourselves… that we don’t want anyone to know.” However, Urich is a reporter at heart. He knows better. “But there’s always someone who does… sooner or later.” Secrets come with a cost. Matt might have his own set of secrets to keep, but he is reckless to presume that he that he can keep those secrets forever.

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It is interesting that Wilson Fisk is the most dynamic part of Nelson v. Murdock. While Matt and Foggy spend most of the episode trapped in a single extended conversation, Fisk finds himself dealing with all manner of threats to his organisation. Madame Gao is increasingly uncertain, while Leland Owlsley is petulant as ever. The episode climaxes with an attack upon Fisk; poisoned champagne at a fundraiser strikes Vanessa down as Fisk is powerless to help the woman he loves. It is a powerful image.

It is interesting how much space Daredevil affords to Wilson Fisk. If the first half of the season is driven by Matt Murdock, the second half is driven by Wilson Fisk. After all, the final six episodes of the season begin with Shadows in the Glass, a Fisk-centric flashback episode. The big romance of the season is not the romance between Matt and Claire, it is between Fisk and Vanessa. According to Steven DeKnight, this was a very conscious subversion of the expectations the come with the genre.

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Downplaying the importance of romance to the show, DeKnight explained, “We also wanted to flip the conceit on its head and have really the main romantic through line of the season be on the ‘villain’s side’. Fisk’s relationship with Vanessa is a real love story.” In fact, while Claire is almost entirely absent from the second half of the season, the big emotional stakes in the season finalé are about whether Fisk will make it to Vanessa and whether they will get to leave the country together.

The second half of the season could be seen as something akin to a supervillain origin story, with Fisk coming to terms with who he is and what he does. Much as the superhero origin features the hero accepting his destiny and his morality, the supervillain origin tale inverts that arc. The second half of the first season of Daredevil essentially forces Fisk to confront the idea that he is not an anti-hero or an idealist at all. That is the journey that he explicitly articulated to the two guards in Daredevil.

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Madame Gao explicitly sets up that arc in her conversations with Fisk during Nelson v. Murdock. She warns Fisk, “Man cannot be both savior and oppressor… light and shadow. One has to be sacrificed for the other.” In a superhero origin, the character learns to embrace the light. Fisk’s narrative arc is about learning to embrace the darkness. Even ten episodes into the thirteen-episode season, Daredevil stresses that this still an origin story. This is still a story about characters on the journey to who they really are.

This is reflected in Ben Urich’s conversation with his wife. She assures him that his journey is still on-going; that it has not reached an end point yet. Remembering the young and reckless reporter with whom she fell in love, Doris Urich reflects, “But that’s not who you were always supposed to be. Experience made you more careful… wise. I don’t know, Ben Urich… I think your best work is still ahead.” Indeed, the conversations suggests that worst thing in life is to reject the journey; to stop moving forwards.

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Ben Urich finds himself tortured by the fact that Doris is caught reliving and re-experiencing the same conversations over and over. She bookends the scene with a happy “hello gorgeous”, quickly forgetting the meaningful and intimate conversation that they just shared. Doris Urich is denied any forward momentum; she has no journey that she can make, because she always finds herself right back where she started. In a way, it feels like Nelson v. Murdock is defending the idea of comic book origin stories, like the thirteen-episode one featured here.

After all, it is easy to be cynical about superhero origin stories. After a while, they all start to look the same; the plot beats merge into one another. Everybody and their uncle knows the secret origin of Batman and Superman, inviting fans to wonder why Batman vs. Superman felt the need to cast Thomas and Martha Wayne. There was no need for Sony to produce two Spider-Man origin stories within the space of a single decade, making it a relief when Marvel insisted that audiences will not be getting a third in the next few years. It is possible to feel origin fatigue.

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At the same time, the origin story is exciting because it has clear forward momentum. Mainstream superhero comic books tend to exist in a perpetual “now”, a moment that seems to stretch back further than anybody can remember and push ahead further than anybody can see. These iconic properties cannot really change, because they are just so popular and marketable. Stories cannot be allowed to end. Read a mainstream comic book long enough, and it will circle back around to somewhere close to where it started or was most successful.

As a rule, these character arcs don’t end. They continue towards infinity. Frank Miller might have finished his work on Daredevil with Born Again, but the story lives on and endures because it informs almost every story since. Superhero origin stories have the luxury of at least starting in a unique place and reaching that status quo. Along of the occasional “final” story (like Daredevil: End of Days or Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?), they provide a sense of movement. Even those final stories are not absolute. The Dark Knight Returns spawned a sequel.

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In fact, the first season of Daredevil makes a point to close on a note of finality. The season might relentlessly tease future developments around characters like Nobu or Gao, but it does wrap up the arcs of a lot of characters involved in the drama. Indeed, it even offers a bit of a sharp twist to comic book fans – closing off the story belonging to a certain character who is still a vibrant and vital part of the comic book mythos. The first season of Daredevil is a satisfying story for its major characters on their own terms.

The first season of Daredevil is an origin story stretched out to thirteen episodes. The might seem a little long, but it largely works. Even as the show enters its final four episodes, it draws attention to how everything is really just beginning.

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