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Daredevil – Bang (Review)

This month, we’re doing daily reviews of the second season of Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Marvel Universe has a strong attachment to New York City.

There are any number of examples that might be cited, from the lighting of the Empire State Building in blue and red to celebrate the release of The Amazing Spider-Man to J. Michael Straczynski’s cringe-inducing issue of The Amazing Spider-Man where megalomaniac (and occasionally mass murdering) supervillain Doctor Doom cries in the rubble of the World Trade Centre. The company and its characters have a long and rich history that is intertwined with the city itself.

Church Devil.

Church Devil.

At the same time, certain titles and characters have stronger attachments to particular areas and eras of the city. Spider-Man will always be rooted in Manhattan. The X-Men are symbolically tied to Westchester. Daredevil might be connected with Hell’s Kitchen, but he is anchored in a very particular version of Hell’s Kitchen; the gritty version of Daredevil pioneered by Frank Miller is tied to the dangerous neighbourhood as it existed against the backdrop of the seventies and eighties. (The Punisher is similarly rooted in seventies and eighties New York.)

Of course, Hell’s Kitchen has changed in the intervening years. It is no long as run down as it once was, subject to the forces of gentrification and modernisation. The first season of Daredevil touched on this idea, using the Chitauri attack from The Avengers to explain why the neighbourhood had been set back a few decades and turned into an urban hellhole. Wilson Fisk was suggested to be plotting a gentrification that had already taken place in the real world, casting out working-class inhabitants in order to remodel the area.

In with a shot...

In with a shot…

The second season of Daredevil adopts something of a different approach, which makes sense given the transition from producer Steven DeKnight to Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez. Although there are fleeting references to “the Incident” later in the season, the invasion is no longer used to explain the urban nightmare of Hell’s Kitchen. Instead, the season adopts an approach akin to a stylistic period piece. Although Daredevil is still unfolding in the present day, the series is populated with markers that place it in an earlier context.

Bang seems to suggest that Daredevil is unfolding a version of New York anchored in the summer of 1977.

Don't leave us hanging...

Don’t leave us hanging…

Of course, this is not literally the case. Daredevil has not transformed into a gritty flashback adventure between seasons. The demands of a shared universe mean that Marvel and Disney would be unlikely to tolerate the idea of a Daredevil film or television show set in the late seventies or early eighties. So characters still use mobile phones and the internet. Karen still makes reference to the “trial” on her “accounting software.” At the same time, there are any number of markers that suggest the season is somewhat unstuck in time.

Most notable is the emphasis that Bang places upon the heatwave sweeping New York City. It is one of the first things that the new season establishes, following a dynamic “Daredevil in action!” teaser. The audience is treated to media commentary about how there is “no end in sight” to the heatwave sweeping the city, as Foggy cracks wise about air conditioning and Matt warns against drinking the water in Josie’s no matter how hot it might get. Clearly, the heatwave is an important point for writers (and showrunners) Petrie and Ramirez.

It should be noted that this emphasis on the heatwave is dropped quite quickly after Bang. It is not so much a thread that runs through the season as it is a piece of table-setting. It is background detail, but one which receives considerable emphasis within the season premiere. The heatwave is important as a thematic rather than a plot-driving concern. The high temperature certainly helps establish tension and plays into the idea of Hell’s Kitchen as a literal kitchen with a rising temperature. “Hell’s Kitchen is about the explode,” Brett warns Matt and Foggy.

However, the focus on the heatwave also serves to create a historical connection. The bulk of Bang unfolds over the course of what is described as “a one-hundred degree night.” Although that might be an exaggeration, it conjures up memories of what was (until 2011) New York’s hottest summer in living memory. Over the course of the summer of 1977, temperatures in the city soared to one-hundred-and-four degrees. New York, a social and ethnic melting pot, reached boiling point.

The summer of 1977 is memorable for reasons that extend beyond the heatwave. As Sam Roberts notes, it was a turbulent time for the city:

In the summer of 1977, New York lost its mind.

A mountain climber named George Willig scaled the World Trade Center. Terrorist bombs linked to Puerto Rican nationalists exploded at Manhattan office buildings and department stores. The temperature hit 104 degrees, nearly breaking the record high. A Consolidated Edison blackout triggered looting that resulted in more than 3,000 arrests. Elvis Presley died. Studio 54 opened. The Bronx’s most dysfunctional family, the Yankees, revived their legendary World Series rivalry against the Dodgers. Abe Beame was struggling to avoid being the first elected mayor in more than half a century to be defeated for a second term. And, oh yes, a psychopathic serial killer armed with a .44-caliber revolver and dubbed Son of Sam held New York hostage as no crime figure had done in the decades since a disgruntled former Con Ed worker, George Metesky, periodically vented his rage as the folkloric Mad Bomber.

It is no wonder that Jonathan Mahler’s history of the summer was titled Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning.

Mahler himself points to the summer of 1977 as a turning point in the social history of New York City, one that had a substantial impact on how the city was governed:

Few events from this mean season inspire nostalgia, but it is now possible to appreciate that summer for what it was: the pits, yes, but also a transformative moment in which New York broke with the grand visions of its past.

The city that once dared to fly in the face of capitalism with its public hospitals, powerful municipal unions and free university system had crashed and burned. Call it realism, call it a dream deflated, but the result was the same. New York would no longer aspire to be all things to all of its people.

‘Nineteen seventy-seven was the break-point year,” says Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant who was then a city police officer. ”The romantic vision of what the city once was died. Social democracy went into the toilet. People were less interested in free college than they were in safe streets.”

The legacy of that summer, with its blackouts and riots and widespread arson, bleeds through into the present day. It defined New York City for the final quarter of the twentieth century, and its legacy is still felt today.

Of course, the summer of 1977 was not the only reason for New York’s troubled reputation in the seventies and eighties. There were earlier indications of trouble within the city. Frank Serpico had testified publicly about corruption in the New York City police department in the late sixties and early seventies. The middle of the decade found the city on the cusp of bankruptcy. Films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Taking of Pelham 123 and The Panic in Needle Park painted a picture of a city on the edge of collapse.

Even more trouble for the city lay ahead. Crack would arrive in New York in the early eighties, its spread (and the impact on crime rates) described as an “epidemic.” The city’s crime rate soared; there were 1,733 homicides in 1979, climbing to 1,824 in 1981. As J.C. Chandor recently reminded audiences with A Most Violent Year, 1981 was actually the city’s most violent year on record: there were 14,000 underground felonies, inciting vigilante groups like “the Guardian Angels”.

However, the summer of 1977 was a year that galvanised the portrayal of New York City in popular culture. The sense of lawlessness and disorder in the city, of cruelty and violence, would inform portrayals of the city for decades. This was the version of New York that fed into apocalyptic portrayals in movies like The Warriors or Escape from New York, an urban wasteland that was largely ungovernable. There was a sense that the city was tearing itself apart. This anxiety echoed over into the comics published by Marvel at the time.

Daredevil had been launched by writer Stan Lee and Bill Everett in April 1964. The book’s origin was somewhat undistinguished; perhaps the most notable aspect of the book’s early years is the rumour that the first issue of the book was so delayed that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby reported created The Avengers to plug a gap in the schedule. The early years of the character were somewhat undistinguished, often feeling like a misbegotten clone of the more popular The Amazing Spider-Man. The character would not find a distinct voice for over a decade.

Frank Miller would take over as artist on the title in May 1979. He would take over as both writer and artist in January 1981, at the start of New York’s most violent year on record. Although the murder rate actually decreased year on year, there were over 188,178 violent crimes reported, along with 206,000 burglaries and. A garbage collection strike meant that the streets were literally overflowing with trash as the year came to an end, a potent metaphor for the city’s health. This is the context of Frank Miller’s Daredevil run.

Miller’s run would come to define Daredevil, offering him a voice that was distinct from the swashbuckling Spider-Man knock-off of those earlier stories. Daredevil patrolled a gritty version of Hell’s Kitchen, struggling with organised crime and institutional corruption as often as colourful supervillains. Miller tied the social fabric of the city together, from the investigative reporting of Ben Ulrich to the organised crime empire of the Kingpin. Once a novelty Spider-Man villain, under Miller’s pen the Kingpin traded in drugs and flesh.

Miller’s writing was a huge influence on the first season of Daredevil, and it remains a major influence on the second. In fact, Miller’s run remains a touchstone for the character, shaping and defining later runs by creators like Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker. It could legitimately be argued that the character never escaped the seventies and the eighties, and is somewhat out of place in a contemporary and gentrified Hell’s Kitchen. The first season worked around this by using “the Incident” as a justification. Bang just borrows a host of seventies iconography.

The Punisher also lends himself to this gritty retro aesthetic. The character was introduced in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man in February 1974. However, his popularity only increased as the crime rates escalated. He resurfaced for two two-part stories in Amazing Spider-Man in October/November 1976 and November/December 1977. After that, his appearances became more frequent; he would launch his first self-titled miniseries in January 1986. A gun-toting avenging vigilante, the Punisher spoke to the urban anxieties of the seventies and eighties.

Gerry Conway created Frank Castle with artist John Romita, Senior. Conway was the writer on The Amazing Spider-Man at the time, scripting the Punisher’s debut appearance in the same year as the cinematic adaption of Death Wish was released. According to Conway, the Punisher was a character conjured out of the seventies zeitgeist:

At that time there was a fairly popular movement towards vigilantes in fiction. You had Dirty Harry. Death Wish had come out as a book I think. There was a series of novels called The Executioner. The notion of the lone vigilante doing things that society couldn’t do was kind of in the air. So I wanted to use that as a kind of framework for this character who I honestly thought was going to be a one-shot.

Indeed, the character’s aesthetic is very much rooted in the seventies. In Superheroes!, Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor quote Conway describing the Punisher as rooted in “a social breakdown of all the rules and regulations” during the “complexity and craziness of the Nixonian period.” Actor Thomas Jane framed the ideal Punisher movie in terms of seventies cinema, as “more Death Wish or Taxi Driver than Spider-Man.”

Although the heatwave is downplayed in later episodes of the season, the seventies and eighties frame of reference remains. In Semper Fidelis, prospective jurors describe Castles by reference to characters tied to urban crime in seventies and eighties New York; a detractor compares Frank Castle to “Son of Sam”, while a proponent likens him to subway vigilante Bernie Goetz. Nobody dares to ask how valid those comparisons are within the framework of post-Guiliani New York.

Indeed, evidence of the contrast between the gritty old New York and the safer contemporary New York is apparent within the show itself. Perhaps the most striking contrast comes in Dogs to a Gunfight, during Frank’s visit to the kind of sleazy pawn shop that is all but expected in a story like this. While the pawn shop and its owner are suitably grotty, the effect is somewhat undercut by the very clean franchised Potbelly sandwich shop that is open just across the road. (The Potbelly is visible when Frank goes to lock the door before beating the owner to death.)

This is the thematic tension that exists within the second season Daredevil; the grimy tropes of old New York with the more gentrified contemporary New York. It is fascinating to watch, suggesting that the characters inhabit something of a pocket universe where the seventies version of the city threatens to spill over into its more modern iteration, that pulpy crime-fueled vision of the city bleeding in around the edges. This is a world where stolen police radios and child pornography are traded in dingy pawn shops opposite bright family-themed restaurants.

Even the show’s visual palette is decidedly retro. Shot digitally, the show has been colour-corrected to evoke a seventies or eighties aesthetic. It is quite similar to the styling employed on J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, intended to bring out “the beautiful color palette of the seventies—that gauze and velour.” The first season of Daredevil was saturated with deep dark colours, but the second pushes it even further. There is a strong fluorescent aesthetic to the show, lots of yellows and greens – bright reds the hew close to pink.

To be fair, this is not the first time that Daredevil has been muted as a project best suited to a seventies or eighties aesthetic. In 2012, Joe Carnahan pitched an idea to Fox for what he described as “a certain retro, red-suited, Serpico-styled superhero.” The idea was scuppered when the rights transferred back from Fox to Disney, although Carnahan has spoken fondly of his plans for the character:

“What people don’t realize about the DD project is that the producers of the film got to me very late,” he said. “They had a script that I read and I thought that while the action was wonderful, the story didn’t really have any additional bite. There was nothing I suggested a trilogy as follows. Daredevil ’73, Daredevil ’79 and Daredevil ’85 where I was going to do a kind of ‘cultural libretto’ and make the music of those eras a kind of thematic arc . So the first one would be Classic Rock, the second one would be Punk Rock and the third film would be ‘New Wave.’ The problem was, the option was almost set to lapse so we made an eleventh hour bid to Marvel to retain the rights for a bit longer so I could rework the script. Unfortunately, it just didn’t happen. Marvel wanted the rights back. I don’t blame them.”

As a character, Daredevil and the Punisher fit quite comfortably within the context of seventies cinema. With its themes of violence and retribution, anchored in religious iconography and Catholic guilt, it is fun to imagine a period piece Daredevil playing a pulpy and heightened alternative to Martin Scorsese’s early cinematic output. (Carnahan’s impressive sizzle reel even cast Robert DeNiro as Kingpin.)

Veteran comic book writer Mark Millar has spoken fondly about the pitch, explaining that Carnahan saw the character as rooted in the New York of the seventies and eighties:

“The thing that Joe pointed out that was so smart – he spoke to me before he started working on it – he said, ‘I’ve got an idea for Daredevil’, and I said ‘What is it?’ and had an act in mind and he said, ‘We can’t set it in the present day’ and I said ‘How come?’ and he said, ‘Well, Hell’s Kitchen is like a beautiful neighbourhood.’ I’d never actually thought of it that way – that’d true, you know, [former New York mayor] Rudy Guilliani, unfortunately, had cleaned everything up. It’s nice for the people who live there, but it’s not very good cinematically.

“So he said it has to be a period piece,” Millar continued, “and he said the perfect time to set it would be the Seventies then you have all the kung-fu exploitation, you’ve got the race riots, the blackout – all that kind of stuff would be so cool in superhero movie – and the blackout with a guy that’s blind would be incredible.”

It is interesting how Millar and Carnahan point specifically to events – the riots and the blackout – that are firmly tied to the heatwave of the summer of 1977, a connection which Bang pushes very much to the fore.

However, it seems unlikely that any such vision for the character would be allowed to materialise. Within the heavily curated shared Marvel Cinematic Universe, individual properties are rarely afforded that degree of freedom. While Captain America: The First Avenger and Peggy Carter are both superhero period pieces, it seems quite unlikely that Marvel would sign-off on something as bold as a seventies exploitation Daredevil series. After all, even Luke Cage and Iron Fist will unfold in the present day, despite their roots as seventies exploitation heroes.

And so Bang is forced to awkwardly position itself as something of a spiritual period piece, a story which evokes the look and feel of the past while still unfolding in the present day. If Jessica Jones was more deeply rooted in contemporary New York than any other live-action Marvel production, then the second season of Daredevil is just as firmly rooted in a particular (extended) moment of New York history while still ensuring that its lead character can take part in The Defenders.

This compromise is a very strange aspect of the production, but it helps to give the series a unique look and feel. One of the stronger aspects of the Marvel brand, particularly in its second wave, has been a willingness to attempt experiments in tone and setting, if not necessarily in content and plotting. Then again, this speaks to the second season as a whole. The second season of Daredevil is a stylish production, like the first season before it. However, there is a strange lack of substance beneath it all.

Both the first and second seasons of Daredevil have a strong sense of structure. Both adhere to what might be described as a three-act structure across thirteen episodes. In fact, the second season of Daredevil rather neatly delineates these acts, with an obvious break coming at the end of Penny and Dime. In contrast, the plotting and breaking of Jessica Jones was somewhat clumsier, with the first stretch of the season wasted on an insignificant plot point and the emotional climax hitting about two-thirds of the way through the year.

However, the second season of Daredevil lacks the same sort of substance that anchored the first season of Jessica Jones and even the same storytelling engine that drove the first season of Daredevil. This is particularly obvious with Bang, which does a great job of setting the tone for the season ahead, but struggles to ground its central dynamics. The first third of the second season is dedicated to the Punisher, but Bang struggles to present the Punisher as a credible threat to the social fabric of the city.

There is some suggestion that the presence of the Punisher threatens to tear Hell’s Kitchen apart, to the point that local law enforcement would be willing to shoot to kill and to set up an incredibly risky (and borderline illegal) snare operation using one of his targets as bait. However, Bang fails to establish the Punisher as a threat on that level. Early in the episode, the character shoots up a bar full of Irish people. Later, he goes on a rampage through a crowded hospital. This should be enough to establish him as a player.

Instead, it feels like the show spends a lot of time telling rather than showing with Frank. His attack upon the Irish gang is pretty much a textbook way to introduce an ominous and ambiguous bad guy, but with little to deviation or innovation. His attack upon the hospital makes him seem like little more than a lunatic with a gun. It certainly doesn’t make him look like a tactical mastermind. Given that AKA Smile featured a more impressive hospital siege as its first action beat, the use of a more generic hospital action scene at the climax of Bang is disappointing.

As such, something about the portrayal of Castle rings hollow, even in this early episode. The character feels fairly bland, particularly compared to previous live action iterations like Dolph Lundgren or Thomas Jane or Ray Stevenson. While that might certainly have been the intention, it jars with show as it exists around the character. Daredevil exists in a world of ninja assassins and mystical heroin dealers. A guy dressed in black with an assault rifle feels relatively bland. Certainly, he doesn’t fill the void created by the absence of Wilson Fisk.

To be fair, the second season doesn’t try to fill the void left by Wilson Fisk. For a season that adopts a clear three-act structure, it lacks a clear structural element. There is no clear antagonist against which Matt might define himself. The first season put Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk on a collision course, mirroring their arcs. In contrast, the second season puts Matt Murdock on parallel journeys with both Elektra Natchios and Frank Castle. This leads to some interesting beats, but saps the story of much-needed momentum.

This would not be an issue if Daredevil were less tied to its rigid structure. After all, it could be argued that the insistence of positioning Kilgrave as the “big bad” of the first season of Jessica Jones ultimately hurt the show, imposing a structure to which the series was not suited and turning a story about recovery into one about retribution. However, the second season of Daredevil is very clearly a heightened superhero story. The fairly limp introduction of Frank Castle in Bang just emphasises that the second season misses one key ingredient for an archetypal superhero story.

Bang is a solidly constructed hour with a very clear sense of purpose and style, but one that lacks the substance necessary to support all that flare. As such, it sets the tone for the season ahead.

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

4 Responses

  1. I gotta see this movie.

  2. Yay glad you’re reviewing Daredevil again

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