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Daredevil – Daredevil (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.

In a way, the biggest problem with origin stories is that you know where they have to end up.

It is easy enough to predict the ending of the first season of Daredevil. Matt Murdock is the costumed superhero who dresses up as a devil to fight crime in Hell’s Kitchen. He practices law with his best friend at “Nelson and Murdock.” Wilson Fisk has embraced his identity as a supercriminal in his own right. His plans to redevelop Hell’s Kitchen are soundly defeated. Evidence is put in the hands of the authorities, allowing our heroes to be exonerated and our villains to be identified.

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It is a very clear arc, because it has to end somewhere close to where every Daredevil story begins. Indeed, even the title of the episode alludes to that. This is the point at which Matt Murdock ceases to be “the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen” or “the Man in the Mask.” This is the point at which he formally adopts the name “Daredevil.” This is the point at which he puts on a live action version of his iconic costume. This is the point at which the show stops being a Daredevil origin story and becomes just a Daredevil story.

So it makes sense that Daredevil feels a little bit anticlimactic and a little bit overly familiar. The episode doesn’t fight the pull of gravity that draws it towards the inevitable status quo. Despite the shock at the end of The Ones We Leave Behind, the season finalé offers no real shock or twist or subversion. It is exactly what it claims to be. It is functional, efficient and clean. It is not a bad ending by any means. In fact, it is quite satisfying. At the same time, it does feel just a little too tidy and neat for its own good.

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Of course, the show plays perfectly fair. Hoffman’s disappearance was explicitly noted in Shadows in the Glass, setting up his status as a macguffin for the first half of Daredevil. He is a character of reasonable importance to the show, who has been demonstrated to hold a lot of vital information. Owlsley boasted to Gao that he held his own leverage in The Ones We Leave Behind, which fits quite comfortably with the idea that he was holding Hoffman as his insurance policy in case of a rainy day.

Hoffman works very well as the magic bullet to bring down Fisk, even if it does seem a little rushed that the entirety of Fisk’s evil empire is toppled in about ten minutes of screentime. Hoffman might be a perfectly legitimate (and organic) plot development, but the execution feels a little too slipshod. It feels very much like Daredevil is quickly tidying away everything that it needs to tidy away so that the only outstanding piece of business is the physical confrontation between Matt and Fisk.

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Daredevil has generally been quite clever in how it structures itself, walking a fine line between episodic and serialised storytelling. Nevertheless, there have been a few pacing issues. The Russian story thread dragged a little bit in the first stretch of the season; now it seems like there is not really enough room left to resolve everything without rushing. As effective as the death of Ben Urich is as the last cliffhanger of the season, it barely gets room to breath with everything else going on in this episode.

Perhaps it might have been better to spend a whole episode on the disintegration of Wilson Fisk’s criminal empire. After all, the show has worked hard to convince viewers that Fisk has really engrained himself in the social order of Hell’s Kitchen. In Condemned, it seemed like the entire local police department was just an organised death squad for Fisk. In Daredevil, it seems like only a couple of officers have been implicated in what is going on. As Foggy points out in Daredevil, Mahony seems to be the only honest cop in Hell’s Kitchen. Well, barring the dead one from Condemned.

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It all feels a little too simple and a little too easy. Matt discovers that Hoffman is still alive, and then promptly rescues from a squad of assassins. Once Hoffman turns himself in, he is able to testify. Apparently his information is so good that federal authorities are able to sweep across Hell’s Kitchen in a three minute montage. Daredevil is a show that could be quite cynical institutions and power structures; it is hard to believe that those same institutions and power structures can be so honest and efficient just when the plot requires them to be.

Of course, this is all just a rush to get to the centrepiece of the finalé. The first season of Daredevil was always going to end with a physical confrontation between Wilson Fisk and Matt Murdock. Fisk won the last round when he beat Matt to a bloody pulp at the end of Speak of the Devil. It is important for Matt to have a chance to redeem himself before the end of the season. Finally defeating Wilson Fisk provides a logical closure to his character arc. These two characters have been on a collision course since before each knew the other existed.

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To be fair, the logic flow here makes a bit more sense. Due to the rather rushed attack on Fisk’s corporate empire, Fisk decides to break himself out of police custody and flee the country. He manages to completely evade law enforcement officials during this escape attempt, demonstrating that law enforcement agencies in Daredevil are only as efficient as the plot requires on a case-by-case basis. Matt manages to track Fisk down, and the two engage in a rather brutal street brawl – finally venting all that anger and frustration at one another.

It is a plot beat that provides the necessary sense of closure for the season, and it is perhaps the only plotting element of Daredevil that receives the space that it truly requires. Matt and Fisk law into each other for quite a while, allowing for some nice verbal callbacks and threats. Both characters get to lay into one another, and both characters get to leave their bruises. It is a confrontation that is demanded by the season around it, and it does a pretty good job of delivering on that.

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With everything else going on around it, Fisk’s transition from homicidal real estate mogul to fully-fledged supervillain doesn’t have a lot of room to breath. Steven DeKnight’s script and direction rather cleverly decide to let Vincent D’Onofrio do the heavy lifting. His “Good Samaritan” speech provides a nice call back to Karen’s description of Matt and Foggy in Into the Ring, and resonates quite well with the religious themes of the season, but it is hardly the most elegant or nuanced character development.

D’Onofrio sells the hell out of that moment. He really goes for it, demonstrating why he is such a perfect fit for the role of Wilson Fisk. There is no question that Fisk absolutely believes everything that he is saying, even if what he is saying amounts to little more than “well, might as well commit to this evil thing, then.” D’Onofrio’s work on Daredevil has been astounding, and it would be great to see him continue to grow and develop this character in subsequent seasons or subsequent shows.

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D’Onofrio and DeKnight have done a wonderful job of making Fisk seem almost sympathetic. The audience understands that Fisk wants what he believes to be the greater good, even if he uses horrific methods and ignores the suffering that his plan will cause. As such, his anger at the rejection from the city is palpable. It fits the character. It is easy to see why the events of Daredevil might cause something to snap, why he might feel the need to shout, “This city doesn’t deserve a better tomorrow. It deserves to drown… in its filth!”

Again, it is the kind of development that the show can get away with because it has done all the hard work to get to this point. Madame Gao’s dialogue with Fisk in Nelson v. Murdock rather clearly plotted his arc, and the scripts have given D’Onofrio a lot to play with over the course of The Path of the Righteous and The Ones We Leave Behind. This is a very satisfactory place to leave Wilson Fisk. There is a nice poetry in that final image. At the same time, the execution feels a little rushed. It feels like the character arc covers too much ground too quickly in a single episode.

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Similarly, the reunion of the three lead characters feels just a tiny bit rushed. The gulf between Matt, Foggy and Karen never felt impossibly vast. It makes sense that things should get back to normal once they are all in the same room together. This is something that feels obligatory at the end of a season that has dedicated itself to the origin of Matthew Murdock. Daredevil hits all the necessary beats. At the same time, it does feel a little too tidy and convenient, particularly with everything else going on around them.

It is interesting to wonder if the reconciliation might have worked better if it were pushed back to the penultimate episode. That way, it would have removed one of the many items from the season finalé checklist, and would have helped to set up the season finalé. Ben Urich might be dead, Fisk might be winning; but as long as our three legal eagles are together, there is nothing that can stop them. It would have provided a nice springboard into the final episode of the season.

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As it is, it feels like the reunion gets a little bit drowned out with everything else happening around it. Matt learns that he has to accept and welcome people into his life; however, he almost immediately has to run off to fight crime alone. There is a sense that the script for Daredevil finds itself bouncing between plot threads and themes it has to resolve faster than Matt was bouncing between buildings in The Ones We Leave Behind. There is just too much happening in too short a time.

Still, DeKnight’s script does have some nice recurring thematic elements that do hold it together. Daredevil is an episode about partnerships and alliances. After the opening credits, Doris Urich assures Karen that her husband has always looked out for her. “Ben’s taken care of all that,” she promises Karen. “He always took care of me.” That is what a true partnership is. Together, people are infinitely stronger than they would ever have been alone. Matt seems to learn that over the course of the episode.

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Matt initially struggles with these problems because he insists upon taking responsibility on to himself. “It’s my fault, Karen… all of this with Foggy,” Matt confesses. However, it seems likely that he blames himself for more than just the dissolution of the relationships within the officer. However, Karen reaches out to him, promising him that he is not alone. No matter how much of a martyr complex he might have, Matt cannot take all that upon himself. “No, everyone shares the blame in a relationship,” Karen tells him.

The relationship between Foggy and Matt is presented in almost romantic terms, as if they are a couple trying to reconcile after a split. “There’s nothing I want more than to find a way back to where we were,” Foggy promises Matt, “but… I don’t know if we can.” Matt seems to have a similar opinion of events. “No, we can’t. But maybe we can find a way to move forward, Foggy.” There is a sense that the relationship has to evolve, that those involved have to invest it with more strength and power.

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As ever, Daredevil contrasts Matt Murdock with Wilson Fisk. While Matt strengthens his relationships heading into the climax, Fisk weakens his. He separates himself from Vanessa. He has obliterated Nobu and Vladimir. Madame Gao has disappeared. Here, Fisk finds himself separating from the one remaining member of his secret cabal. In a confrontation with Leland Owlsley, Owlsley tries to frame their difference of opinions in terms that seem more appropriate to the dissolution of a marriage.

“You’ve been distracted, emotional, erratic,” Owlsley advises Fisk. “We just wanted to nudge you back on track. But, obviously that went south, so we will be parting ways – and I’ll be taking half your assets with me.” It sounds like Fisk really should have signed that prenump. Fisk ends up brutally murdering Leland Owlsley, preventing the money launderer from ever-growing some gnarly sideburns and Wolverine-esque claws while flying very slowly. Still, at least there is his son – the conspicuously named “Lee” Owlsley.

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In an interview at the end of the season, executive producer Steven DeKnight pointed to that when asked about whether audiences had seen the character arc of “the Owl” play itself out:

If you know the mythology of the Owl, Leland Owlsley – “the Owl” – had a father who was in high finance. So will his son – “Lee” – be the Owl? You’ll have to wait and see. But I was always fascinated by the fact that the Owl had a father in high finance and we really wanted to play him out with that.

DeKnight works quite hard to make sure that all of these little threads and gaps exist so that they can filled. Whether they are filled by writers working on later seasons or just the imaginations of fans remains to seen.

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Daredevil closes out the first season with a lean efficiency. It covers a lot of ground very quickly. This means that there is never quite enough time to spend on any of the threads, but the production team do manage to resolve a lot of the threads in a way that feels satisfying. Everything ends up where it needs to. However, this does underscore just how effective the season has been at world-building. The show wraps up everything it needs to, while teasing and hinting that the best might still lie ahead.

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